Apocalyptic – Matthew in Advent day 1

In the book “Why democracies die” by Harvard University political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, coup-d’etat is not the most likely way. That, they say, is when the views of the opposition are no longer tolerated,. This tolerance involves accepting the results of a free and fair election where the opposition has won, in contrast with advocacy for overthrow or spurious complaints about the election mechanism.

That is beginning to like prophesy.

“Léonard Gaultier, The Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven will be Humble like a Child, probably c. 1576/1580, engraving, Rosenwald Collection, 1964.8.962”

The Gospel of Matthew is written as a series of six narrative sections, telling the story of Jesus’ life, interspersed with five sections of teaching. The beginning of the Gospel links back into the past of the Old Testament. This, the last of the teaching sections, links forward to the future. Advent is a time when we look forward to the return of Christ.

I know it is not quite Advent yet, but in preparing these blog posts I found I could not fit them all in before Christmas if I were to continue to report on Sunday services. Advent, for me, starts here.

The Pharisees

Matthew has it in for the Pharisees. In the Acts of the Apostles by Luke, it is told how Pharisees became followers of Jesus, Paul in his writings although critical of some of the teaching, is proud of his background as a Pharisee, and John’s Gospel mentions the Pharisees Nicodemas and Joseph of Arimathea, who became Jesus’ followers. Only in Matthew’s Gospel is sympathy to the Pharisees missing.

Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honour at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

Matthew 23:1-12 NIV

This is written in an apocalyptic style, where numbers are important. Straight after this passage are seven woes to the Pharisees. The book of Isaiah, chapters 28 to 35 has seven woes, and Revelation has a number of things in sevens, including seven bowls of God’s wrath. We are in the area of apocalyptic language here a place where not only do numbers have significance, but things are binary, a battle between darkness and light, between good and evil. Good will triumph, evil will be totally swept away. We need to take the binary nature of apocalyptic writings into account when looking at their teachings.

An aside: The book of Daniel, an apocalyptic book, is interesting in its position in the Bible. In the Christian order of the books it is grouped in the prophets, but the scroll in the Jewish Written Torah it is not in the Prophets but in the writings, in with the poetic books. Prophesy is about God speaking to the people about what is happening now and its consequences, say Rabbis. Daniel is not in the Prophets because it is not Gods word to people at the time of writing, but about the future. The passage in Matthew I am looking at is also about the future. Verse 12, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted,” is yet to happen.

The Pharisees were not only religious leaders, but also politicians. They sat in the Sanhedrin, and while the other main political party, the Sadducees, had the capital city and the ear of the ruling Romans, the Pharisees had the synagogues in the rest of the country and the ear of the people.

That is why I started this blog post with reference to Levitsky and Ziblatt. Not only does it sound like the situation in the USA at time of writing, November 10, but history shows us that the political system of Sadducees and Pharisees did not have long to go. We need to heed what Jesus said. Our current situation may have shades of grey missing from Matthew 23, but ask yourself, what are our leaders doing?


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