This week is a pivot point in the year. Not in the calendar year—where attention is focussed on the drive towards the Great Commercial Festival of Christmas—but in the church year. This is the last week of the year, in the calendar which the church follows in its liturgical life. It is the week when the old year ends, leaving behind the Festival of the Reign of Christ, and the new year begins, moving into the Season of Advent, and then on into Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and beyond. And so, the cycle begins once more.
It is also the time of the year when the Gospel which is in focus in the writings heard each Sunday, shifts from one Gospel to another. The year past (identified as Year C in the Revised Common Lectionary) has maintained a steadfast focus on the book which describes itself as “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us”—a work which know as the Gospel according to Luke.
The year now commencing (identified as Year A) provides us with a tour through another work, which introduces itself as “the book of the origins of Jesus the chosen one”—the work which we know as the Gospel according to Matthew. And so, this week, we are leaving Luke, and meeting Matthew.
Of course, both works tell the story of the man from Galilee, called to a prophetic role of inviting his people to renew their covenant relationship with their God and live faithfully within that renewed relationship; a man who gathered a group of committed followers whom he taught and told stories that offered a vision of God’s realm.
Both accounts relate how those followers travelled with their leader, from Galilee in to Jerusalem, where they witnessed the arrest, trials, crucifixion, and burial of their leader—who, they subsequently attested, had been raised from the dead and had appeared to them to commission them for their ongoing task. This much is found in both the “orderly account” and the “book of origins”.
So how do these stories differ? Each book came into being in a different context. The “orderly account”, it would seem, originated in a place where the vision of a renewed people, as proclaimed by Jesus, offered a sense of a broad, inclusive community—and people were being challenged to live as that community. The “book of origins”, it appears, came into being in a place where tensions and antagonisms between different groups within that one people had led each group to intensify their sense of who they were—and people were being instructed on the details of the way of righteousness that they were to follow.
What shades of interpretation and differences of perspective are there, when we move from “the orderly account of the things being fulfilled”, to “the book of origins of Jesus the chosen one”? How do these two stories, focussed on the same central person and reporting a largely quite similar set of events, differ from one another?
Luke’s “orderly account” offers a story in which Jesus functions as an eschatological prophet of hope, offering an attractive vision of the coming kingdom, pointing to the ways that God is calling the people of God on earth to work towards the realisation of that vision in the realities of the here and now: good news for the poor, sight for the blind, mobility for the lame, acceptance for shunned outsiders, as a sign of the Jubilee Year being enacted.
We leave that story and move towards a story, in the “book of origins”, that portrays Jesus as a frightening apocalyptic messenger, booming forth a shrill warning about the perils of what is to come, if people do not change their ways and live in accord with the strict demands of the kingdom of heaven: walk the second mile, turn the other cheek, give your coat to the needy, obey each element of every law and commandment, strive to be perfect as God is perfection itself.
We leave behind a story that affirms that salvation is offered to “all flesh”, that salvation has come “this very day”, that soldiers acting unjustly under forced orders will be forgiven, that even condemned political rebels will be welcomed into the realm of paradise in the company of the Saviour. It is a story in which Jesus offers a gracious invitation to the lost and forsaken, a promise that they will be found and restored, a vision of the restoration of the people of Israel, a glimpse of the heavenly realm breaking into the time of the here and now.
We move towards a story that insists that the hope of the future is withheld from those within the chosen people, in Israel, who fail to live in accordance with the strictest interpretations of the laws and commandments that Jesus teaches them, who do not put his stringent teachings into practice in their daily life. The focus of Jesus through much of this story is on the lost sheep within Israel; their response, however, means that only a few enter through the narrow door.
Jesus this insists that those amongst his people who fail to follow his way will be judged for their failure to produce good fruit; they will be cast into a fiery furnace, and condemned for eternity. He persistently calls for a deeper righteousness, a more perfect faithfulness.
Towards the end of this story, however, Jesus looks beyond the people of Israel, and envisages an offer of hope and an acceptance into God’s realm, of those who live with an openness to others at their point of need. He envisages, then, a judgement amongst the nations that does not require the same stringent response as is required within the chosen people.
We leave behind a story that indicates, time after time, that Jesus was the friend of all, that he entered the houses of tax collectors and shared at table with them, that he went to the homes of Pharisees and ate with them, such that they became his friends and followers. In this story, Jesus was able to gather committed followers of people from right across society, who were willing to follow him well into the future. This “orderly account” particularly emphasises the active presence of women alongside men in that inner group of followers.
We move towards a story that specifies the many ways by which Jesus engaged in robust and vigorous disputations about how the laws and commandments were to be understood, and recounts those occasions, both in public and in household gatherings, when the debating style of Jesus moved from debate into polemic, from disagreement into diatribe, from accusation into invective and condemnation of the scribes and the Pharisees, who are sternly portrayed as the enemies of Jesus.
We leave behind a story that values inclusive community, that takes pains to show how Jesus sat at table with the outcasts of the time: utterly impoverished beggars, morally destitute sinners, totally marginalised lepers, and patriarchally oppressed women. The story provides regular accounts of the practice of open table fellowship in the time of Jesus, and points to the fact that this practice came to lay a foundation for a richly inclusive community of insiders and outsiders, women and men, rich and poor, Gentiles as well as Jews.
We move towards a story that emphasises the clarity of identity and passionate commitment that comes from knowing that the one who is followed is The Teacher supreme, arguing out the finer details of beliefs and practices, laying down the foundations for a community which exhibits certainty and confidence in their identity, differentiated from the dominant group of teachers (the scribes and Pharisees), utterly committed to a pathway of righteous living, firmly convinced of the validity of their understandings and interpretations.
We leave behind a story that has sought to prepare the way for a larger, more encompassing story, in which the small movement of immediate followers of Jesus blossoms out into a growing and impressive movement of committed people who become fervent and effective in their mission, welcoming newcomers in an inclusive manner and broadening the movement in waves of growth, such that it ultimately reaches “to the ends of the earth”.
We move into a story that mostly gives no indication of this wider impact of the message of Jesus (save only for a short final command to “go into all nations”), and which demonstrates far more concern for establishing a deeply committed community of practice of a small number of people within the heart of Israel, as people are renewed and rededicated to upholding the laws and commandments to the ultimate degree.
That’s the turn that we take, at this time, as we leave a year focussed on Luke’s “orderly account”, with a Jesus who proclaims and enacts a gracious invitation into a realm of inclusion and hope. We are moving into a year tracing the story provided in Matthew’s “book of the origins”, where Jesus is intent on teaching the essence of righteousness and demanding intense adherence to this way of life.
The challenge for us, then, is to be honest about the nature of the story in this “book of origins”, and to declare, faithfully and clearly, what this story tells us about what it means to follow Jesus, the chosen one, in our own time.