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August 2016

Who Is Jesus According to Matthew?

Carissa Herold, Presbyterian Women marketing associate, on Lesson Two.

Read the Gospel of Matthew (especially Matthew 5–7; 13)


I am a peaceable person by nature but say the words “Marvin Gardens” and I feel the heat of a longstanding (decades-long!) feud deep in my bones. Let’s say that it’s a good thing that I wasn’t called to real estate development based on some very (justified! Ha!) hurt feelings when a brother-in-law took zero pity on this poor Thimble, making her way around the Monopoly board. So close to “Go!” and a desperately needed payday, but the landlord/brother-in-law wouldn’t let me advance further. A tipped board later and the feud galloped freely for a very long time. Yes, yes, all in fun.

Family feud. It’s not just a game show; a family feud is real. And sometimes the consequences of a feud can reverberate for years. That twist of a phrase, mistimed raised eyebrow, or the seemingly greedy snatching of the last of the snickerdoodles in March can, with a bit of creative reinterpreting during the intervening months, result in a very uncomfortable Thanksgiving meal in November—or can, perhaps in extreme cases of hurt and misunderstanding mixed with a very bad day and a big dose of embellishment, mean unoccupied chairs at the table.

Even so, a family feud is about family. Who knows your hot buttons better than a sibling? Sometimes family feuds grow up to be the stuff of legend but the everyday “feuds” are often the result of family members who interpret things differently from one another, choose to go a different way than is per usual, or have to grapple with what life throws at them and all the messiness that entails. I think that family feuds are worth thinking about as we take a look through the lens of the Gospel of Matthew.

In Who Is Jesus?, Judy Siker writes, “From Matthew’s opening lines to his closing lines, we can see that this is a Jewish Gospel for a Jewish audience. In many ways, this Gospel is our most Jewish one” (page 22, page 36 in the large print). But the writer of this Gospel shares difficult words about others in the Jewish community who are at odds with Matthew’s community over key issues. Siker writes, “Matthew’s Jewish-Christian audience was in the throes of separating from the Jewish synagogue over rival interpretations of scripture and the identity of Jesus” (page 23, page 38 in the large print). Key issues, indeed! No wonder this Gospel includes angry language about family members who were tugging in another direction.

The Gospels were written during a time of great upheaval and difficulty and smashed understandings of the nature of the world. Consider our own time with our own difficulties—see how much we struggle and spar with one another. Struggling and sparring are natural responses to discernment, particularly when everything one knows or understands is at stake.

I recently purchased a copy of the Jewish Annotated New Testament (The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version Bible Translation, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, editors, Oxford University Press, 2011). On page 41, in Matthew’s Gospel, the following sidebar essay, entitled “Pharisees and Judas,” speaks to this family disagreement:

“Jesus’ enemies are more persistent in Matthew’s Gospel than in Mark’s, as the expanded role of Judas indicates (27.3–5). Judas’s acceptance of the thirty pieces of silver in exchange for his betrayal of Jesus (a Matthean addition) contributes to the stereotype of the venal and disloyal Jew. Jesus’ other opponents, such as the Pharisees, appear more devious than in Mark’s Gospel. Matthew alone contains the famous ‘woe to you scribes and Pharisees’ in ch 23. The Pharisees (sometimes accompanied by other adversaries) constantly question and harass Jesus, especially regarding observance of Torah (9.10–13; 12.1–8, 24–28; 15.1–9; 16:1–4; 19.3–9; 15–22; 34–40) Even the word ‘rabbi’ has a negative connotation in Matthew: Judas refers to Jesus by that title while betraying him (26.49). Matthew’s Pharisees may represent rival Jewish scribes competing for community loyalty following the Roman war, and thus Matthew’s Gospel may provide a look into the tensions existing between Jesus’ followers and other Jews in the late first century. . . . Adherents of a particular group or set of beliefs often polemicize most strongly against those who share similar, but not identical, beliefs; this may be responsible for some of the strong anti-Pharisaic rhetoric in Matthew.”

I especially want to lift up the first part of the last sentence: “Adherents of a particular group or set of beliefs often polemicize most strongly against those who share similar, but not identical, beliefs . . .”

That, to me, describes a family disagreement. Judy Siker writes, “It is important to keep this context in mind as we read this Gospel. Matthew’s Gospel is the story of Jesus told through the lens of Jews seeking to understand how to survive as Jews in this post-70 CE destruction. . . . This was a time of self-discovery and grappling with Jewish identity, and this ‘sibling rivalry’ at its most heated is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew” (page 22, page 34 in the large print).

The way I see it from centuries beyond, the tensions between the groups were very real and very understandable. Siblings, indeed! But there was no way for the parties involved to ever have fathomed that their dispute would continue to be of interest centuries later to outsiders. Or, more darkly, would have ever resulted in evil rationalization for oppressing or even murdering generations in the future.

A few years ago, I visited the Great Synagogue in Dohány Street in Budapest. The Jewish community who worshipped in this synagogue was mostly decimated in the Holocaust (and even before these darkest days, experienced discrimination and violence). Our volunteer tour guide, now, an older woman, was a young girl during those terrible days; she chooses to show up to tell the story, day after day, group after group. I can only imagine that she tells what she knows and experienced so what happened there is not forgotten.

As I continue to think about the Gospel of Matthew, I am heartened by the last sentence, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28-20b). I believe that God is with us, Emmanuel, with all of us, even as we disagree and struggle to discern our way toward what God asks of us.

Who Is Jesus According to Mark?

Carissa Herold, Presbyterian Women marketing associate, on Lesson One.
Read the Gospel of Mark (especially Mark 1--8)

Have you ever considered just how deeply the church year guides your life? Advent and Lent, of course, World Communion Sunday, yes, but what about those special seasons of your local church that cannot be found on the Presbyterian Planning Calendar? These special days still carry us through the seasons of our lives, as people and as a community. Consider, for example, such days in my home church, rummage sale Saturday (always in May), the blessing of the animals (October), Thank Offering breakfast (September), and book club Thursday (which always falls on the second week of each month). One of the special seasons in my church occurs each year as summer begins to fade. On a Sunday morning in August, instead of congregating in our church building, we convene in a nearby park. We arrive in capris and flip flops, t-shirts and golf shorts, jeans and sneakers. Despite our relaxed attire, this is holy time. We are outdoors of and with God’s creation, we are in community, we are worshipful, and we are together again in this time and place as we are every year, rain or shine. A few of the musically gifted among us sing or strum a guitar (or both). Potluck goodies are packed in coolers and baskets. But the focus of our time is when our pastor steps forward for his yearly recitation of the Sermon on the Mount. Reading the Sermon on the Mount is moving; hearing the Sermon on the Mount adds yet another level of immediacy and consideration. We, as a community, based on body language and yearly attendance, find much to ponder in these spoken words.

The human voice draws attention (who could ignore even a whisper?) and the act of listening is forcibly linear: no skimming pages to quickly move through a story, no easy check of the last pages to find tidy resolution for a whodunit. The human voice also connects us one to another and affirms our shared humanity. Lynn Miller, the Suggestions for Leaders author, illustrated just how potent listening to a history of people can be when she presented the lead up to the first lesson on Mark, during the 2016 Alabama/Mississippi Women’s Conference.


Let me set the stage. We gather just before dusk in the glorious sanctuary of the historic South Highland Presbyterian Church in Birmingham. The rays from the setting sun softly bathe the sanctuary, filtering through the lenses (I couldn’t resist the lens metaphor!) of tall stained glass windows. Candles gently flicker. Lynn Miller comes before us and begins to speak gently about . . . atrocities and migrations, fears and tumult, war crimes and deep defeats, cruelty and darkness. No skimming these pages! Her words are unhurried as she gives testimony to the destruction of Jerusalem, genocidal campaigns and public humiliations. Her words hang in the air with a rightful solemnity and continue for many, many, many minutes. We are stunned, we are silent. Finally, a pause. We will hear no more stories tonight and yet heaviness permeates this sacred space. That’s when we see Greek words appear on the large screen. We sit with these written words as we remain in silent reflection from the spoken words and all the heartache they conveyed. Our hearts break for first-century humanity. After a few moments of heavy silence, Lynn clicks the button so that the slide advances for the English words:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Mark 1:1

What a balm. Good news, indeed. The sun has just set and the candles warmly illuminate the sanctuary. The large wooden cross reminds us of the terrors of this world as well as the good news of Jesus, who chooses to be with us through the valley of sorrow, peril, and death.


In the study, Judy Siker writes, “So, who is Jesus according to Mark? He is the suffering Son of God, and he will meet you in your suffering. For an audience undergoing persecution, for a group of Jesus’ followers in the late first century, this must have been good news indeed.” (page 17, page 27--large print)

When Lynn gave voice to those who suffered in the decades leading up to Mark’s gospel, none of us in the assembled community would have dreamed that a madman would willfully drive a multi-ton truck through a crowd just a day or two later with the intention of killing and maiming as many people as he could, sparing not even children. Injustice and atrocities and heart-break are not just the stuff of the ancient near east. The truth is, none of us live a life free of suffering, even those of us who are blessed to enjoy conveniences and opportunities and freedoms that our modern, wi-fi-enabled, high-tech world enables. A quick glance at my local newspaper this morning confirms that suffering is just around the corner:

  • City’s shooting spike a ‘public health crisis’
  • Indiana could have avoided HIV outbreak, study shows

And suffering is just an airplane trip away as a glance at CNN yields these headlines:

  • People scared and hungry as troops circle Aleppo
  • At least 12 killed in twin suicide bombings near Mogadishu airport

And one need not bother clicking through newspaper headlines because suffering is right here, in our lives and in the lives of family members, friends, circle members, coworkers, neighbors: broken promises, cancer, job loss, depression, unrealized dreams, financial strife, dangerous work, addictions.

Judy Siker’s third question under questions for further thought and discussion asks us to consider our need for Mark’s Jesus, even centuries after Rome’s persecutions ended. “What good news does Mark’s portrait of Jesus bring to you today?”

For me, Jesus choosing to live the fully human life is a gift of unbelievable grace for humanity—and his gift of being with each of us through these valleys is beyond fathomable. Mark’s Jesus has trod this path of suffering and is beside each of us as we make our way in this world. I see Mark’s Jesus as a light, a beacon. I am reminded of an Anne Lamott quote I once read, “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” Mark's Jesus is a guiding light, a beacon, providing each of us with a point to which to navigate through tranquil seas and perfect storms. All that is required is for us to decide to look up and chart our course toward this Light.