Last week I wrote about how the Chapel staff meets weekly to discuss all aspects of worship, and the process that we undertake to create a sacred space for worship each week. Amidst the prayer, thoughtful discussion, and opening ourselves up to the voice of God speaking to us about preaching, music and themes, we get down and dirty with some good old-fashioned biblical exegesis. Which is just a fancy way of saying we try to figure out what the heck is really being communicated.
Remember the old TV show, “Diff’rent Strokes”? Gary Coleman’s adorable character made himself famous by saying, “Whatchou talkin’ ‘bout, Willis?” When trying to understand scripture, sometimes it works best if we cock our heads just so, scrunch up our faces, and say in our best Gary Coleman voice, “Whatchou talkin’ ‘bout, Jesus?”
Historical Criticism is one method that informs the way we read the Bible, and it helps us to better understand what was happening given the cultural, political, and societal climate in a particular time and place. (Historians are going to have a heyday looking back at the 21st century, don’t you think?! But I digress….) Literary Criticism is another method. It takes into account the written and oral traditions which show up in unexpected places throughout the Bible. For example, in Matthew 22:41-46 Jesus asked the Pharisees a question about the Messiah (“Who’s son is he?”), and then he quotes from Psalm 110 to basically answer his own question. By quoting the ancient Hebrew Bible, Jesus helps modern day scholars (and Snowmass Chapel staff members!) tease out more meaning by taking us back into the world of the ancient texts to which he refers. That Jesus — he doesn’t miss a beat, does he? He knew the Psalms were an important part of the Jewish faith and he used them to help the Pharisees make sense of the long-awaited Messiah standing before their very eyes!
And here’s where literary criticism gets rather fun. What if we omitted this passage completely from the Gospel of Matthew? Would it make a difference? Of what significance is it? This is a technique that literary scholars employ to get more information. In the case of Matthew 22:41-46 a quick analysis demonstrates that the final verse of the passage (“from that day forward, no one dared to ask him any more questions”) relates us right back to the beginning of Chapter 21 when the Pharisees were scrutinizing Jesus’ authority (Matt. 21:23). They began to question him on many of his teachings, trying to entrap him (22:34). But Jesus was having none of it. This passage IS significant because it’s critical that you and I, some 2000 years later, know this: Jesus SHUT THEM DOWN. In his very Jesus way he simply outsmarted, outshined and outdid the highest, most respected religious leaders of the day. “You think the Messiah is David’s own son? Um. No. Let me just school you on this one, boys.” End of conversation.
This passage, then, is sandwiched right here for a reason, and literary criticism shows it is a necessary thing. Jesus has just finished telling everyone that the most important commandment is to love God and love people. In a few verses he is going to give the Pharisees a piece of his mind about hypocrisy and being good role models and how the kingdom of heaven is for EVERYBODY. But first he needs to settle a little matter of his Sonship once and for all. No more questions.
And this, my friends, is how a sermon theme begins to percolate.