Thursday, April 17, 2014

Matthew's Passion

“And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;”
Matthew 27:51

Once, when I was younger and more foolish, I read the book of Matthew and found it stiff. It seemed cold. 
I thought that the factual, logical progression of events was the work of someone so focused on accuracy and the fulfillment of the commands of the Law and prophecies of the Messiah that he had forgotten to put any life, any emotion, any of the God he was writing about, into his book. It was better than the book of Leviticus, but much less interesting than the book of Job, with its descriptions of dragons and dinosaurs, its tale of a man’s great agony and God’s awesome power. It was a better story than the confusing philosophies of Ecclesiastes, but less compelling than the epic beginnings related in Genesis. 

In short, I didn’t care very much for the book of Matthew.

I was wrong.

There is great power and surprising passion in the book of Matthew. 
Last night as I read the final chapters, it came alive to me like it never had before. The words were practical and the style was reserved, but through the terse and spare account I could feel the sorrow and the shame, the wonder and the glory. Every word he wrote held impact and emotion. Matthew never uses a decorative adjective, never wallows in feelings, but it is not because he was stoic and austere. The writing is understated, not because Matthew did not feel, but because he felt so much.
As I read I could feel how Matthew felt when the events he recorded happened. I could feel the sting when the chief priests mocked Jesus and the thieves crucified with him “cast the same in his teeth.” I could feel the shudder of uncanny fear when the veil hiding the Holy of Holies was torn from the top down and the graves of dead saints opened. I could feel the heartbreak and desperation of the women who would not leave the body of their dead Lord. And I could feel the clear, ringing triumph as the angel said, “He is not here: for he is risen, as he said.”
There was passion in every little vivid detail Matthew recorded. The kiss that spelled betrayal, the girl in the palace porch, the crowing rooster. The field bought with the blood money, forever stained by the coins it was purchased with. The vinegar mixed with gall that Jesus refused to drink. The soldiers sitting down and watching as Jesus suffered on the cross. The specific hours of darkness when the sun refused to shine. The exact words of the cry from the cross, as God was forsaken by God. The circumstances of Jesus’s burial in a rich man’s tomb. The precautions taken by the Pharisees. The angel who rolled the stone away from the tomb and sat on it. Jesus, alive, speaking to the faithful women, setting a meeting-place for the disciples. The cover-up story spread by the religious leaders. The mission that Jesus gave the disciples on a mountain in Galilee.

Matthew’s writing is specific, precise, organized. It tells a story of certain power and undeniable truth. And it gives us a glimpse of the character of the publican from Israel who was called by Jesus with the simple words, “Follow me.”
This is how I see him: Accuracy was important to him. So were the traditions and laws of his ancestors. He was good with figures, responsible, trustworthy. He was not given to dramatic displays of emotion, he did not cry in public or dance in the street. He didn’t stand out. He is listed among the other disciples as just another name. He never put his foot in his mouth like Peter or earn nicknames like Thomas, James, and John. Matthew was steady and reliable. I can imagine him being one of the men sent to find the colt for Jesus to ride, one of the men who went into the city to find the man with the upper room for the Last Supper. But underneath that reserved and levelheaded exterior, Matthew was a man of deep feelings and strong convictions. He had reasons for his every belief, yet he did not hesitate to follow the command of God. He did not like to show his feelings to the world, but they are pulsing through every succinct statement and eloquent detail.

The book of Matthew is not stiff. It’s not cold. It’s full of life, emotion, and Emmanuel. God with us.