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Sermon – April 17, 2011 – This Took Place

Sermon for April 17, 2011
The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg
This Took Place

Psalm 118: 1-2, 19-29, Matthew 21: 1-11
This morningʼs account of Palm Sunday is from Matthewʼs gospel, and Matthewʼs account is the most interesting, because it has a problem. There are people who believe the problem is fatal to faith in the gospel, and they fall into two camps. One camp is made up of people who see the problem as undermining belief and who are determined, for that reason, to deny there is a problem. They are represented on the internet by web sites like apologeticspress.org and god-proof.com. The other group is represented on the internet by agnosticreview.com, rejectionofpascalswager.net, errancy.com, godandscience.org and infidels.org. They accept that Matthewʼs problem is fatal to belief and they trumpet the problem in order to demonstrate that belief has no basis.
Either it is in the nature of the internet to encourage extreme postures, or it is difficult for people to entertain nuanced views. I turned to the computer to review what others thought about Matthewʼs account and, despite the fact that I know mainstream Biblical scholarship sees the matter entirely differently, the first three pages of citations referring to this topic were by those who believed in the irreparable harm recognizing Matthewʼs problem does to Christianity. The fact is that Matthewʼs problem is only a difficulty for one approach to reading the Bible, and that the approach for which it makes trouble is an unhistorical one.
You may, partly because the Palm Sunday story is so familiar in general, have missed the problem in Matthewʼs version. It is based on Matthewʼs reflexive linking of events in Jesusʼ life to passages of scripture. Matthew is always quick to interrupt his narrative to say things like, “This took place to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah, blah, blah, blah.” Two things happen to Matthew. The first is that he has before him as the scriptures heʼs using a Greek translation of Old Testament books, and it is faulty, and he doesnʼt know it. Hereʼs the scripture he is determined to demonstrate is fulfilled by what Jesus does at the start of Holy Week: “Tell the daughter of Zion, Look; your king is coming to you, humble and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” It should read, “mounted on a donkey; a colt, the foal of a donkey,” which is a poetic device called parallelism, which Hebrew uses a lot, in which they repeat things. You know this best from “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined”: repetition for emphasis. Anyway, because of the mistranslation, Matthew has two animals here and so he is obliged to have Jesus have two animals coming down the mountain. Not only commonsense tells us this is awry, but Mark, Luke and John notably speak of his riding one animal.
“Whatʼs the big deal?” you may ask, and I agree. We see Matthewʼs devotion to proof texting, we see the misleading translation with which he works, and we know what happened. We even see that Matthew is conscious of the difficulty. Hereʼs how he finesses things, “they brought the donkey and colt, and they put their cloaks on them, and he sat on them.”
The people for whom this is serious business are the people who accept that it is in a literal reading of the scriptural text that one finds certainty. Biblical literalist Christians are part of this group, and evidently all kinds of people who donʼt accept Christianity also are in this group. Those who want to deny that Matthew has one too many beasts of burden in the picture offer all kinds of arguments, which, if you accept their premise, make some sense. Those who think itʼs scandalous that Matthew has one too many beasts of burden let it speak for itself, but the only kind of believers they are engaging with their arguments are the Biblical literalists. I am bothering to lay this out for you because it seems that talk about Christianity in America is dominated by these two perspectives, neither of which is necessary.
The easiest explanation is that Matthew is so determined to make his events match scripture that he swallows hard and makes do with the two animals his translation presents to him. Some refuse to accept that because it overturns their idea about why they believe scripture. They think that it is in our insistence that there can be no contradictions or inconsistencies in scripture that the reliability of scripture lies, and hence the validity of belief; but the reasoning for that approach is that scripture is not the product of a historical process, of informed and insightful persons constructing their best account of events, inspired by their deep faith. Literal readers require that the authors have been automatic writers of words guaranteed to be Godʼs. That means that all of scripture, though it relates history, is not the product of history at all.
What they fear is what their opponents presume, and that is that admitting an error like Matthewʼs is the thin edge of a wedge of questioning and doubting that will subvert all faith in God. There is no reason that this should be so, either for anxious believers or for agnostics or atheists playing “gotcha!” Real history has, by its nature, many different ways of being perceived. There are various perspectives based on oneʼs physical vantage point, and differing responses based on loyalties, assumptions, and intellectual models. People have written books claiming that the 1960ʼs were a great era of human liberation and social progress, and others have written books decrying the 1960ʼs as the source of bad culture, bad politics, and bad morals. We know that real history–the way the past is understood and communicated–depends on perspective and what theories are currently dominant, and that different historians will emphasize different facts and assign different meaning to the same events. That doesnʼt mean we donʼt think the 1960ʼs saw increased power in groups traditionally subservient. It means we have different reads on what that has meant.
So with Matthew: he has a dominant principle in conveying the traditions he knows about Jesus of Nazareth, and it is that everything surrounding Jesusʼ life related to prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures. It is of course no accident that this is a sound principle by and large, because Jesus knew his own traditionʼs scriptures and took them seriously in his own self-understanding. However, the principle all by itself, in the instance of the misleading translation from Zechariah, imposed on Matthewʼs method, and led him to this odd variant on the Palm Sunday story.
Rather than being an argument for Matthewʼs account undermining the historical character of the gospels, it supports it. History always is marked by small variations due to pet theories or partial information, and for that reason, it always is a good thing for posterity when more than one history exists about any given thing. Christianity has the four gospels, and even though Matthew and Luke are believed to owe something to Mark, Matthewʼs difference with the rest of them, including John, shows that each authorʼs own angle and inclinations offered the possibility of shades of meaning and even, in Matthewʼs case, a discernible small error of fact.
We donʼt know how things happen in heaven. Godʼs realm is beyond our comprehension. We only know God from Godʼs dealings with creation, and particularly with people. If God did dictate a single, simple story about Jesusʼ life and death and resurrection, how would that be the kind of story we know from the real world? Nobodyʼs life is really as simple as that. Our world is experienced by individuals who neither are all- knowing nor sharing one fixed perspective.
Thatʼs the world in which Jesus was born, our world. It was not only God to whom Jesus was known, but men and women, boys and girls. Bethlehem and Capernaum and Samaria and Bethany and Jerusalem werenʼt just backdrops for miraculous events, but places inhabited by real people, people full of rivalries and regrets, hopes and fears, accurate perceptions and mistaken ideas. It was the fear and folly of real people that Jesus opposed, and the aspirations and loyalties of real people that Jesus encouraged.
This story we highlight in this season is not the great springtime myth of our ancestral religion. It is the history of what happened when Jesus of Nazareth was first hailed as a savior and after executed as a criminal, with an outcome so unexpected that the real people who witnessed it at first didnʼt know how to relate it, and eventually discovered, in Jewish tradition, a way to make sense of the incredible. We donʼt have any of the original texts, but we have a few things to connect us to that world of twenty centuries ago. Paulʼs personality comes through in his letters, and the troubles of his churches are there between the lines. Johnʼs gospel contains, in a kind of code, a reflection of what happened and how it felt when Judaism, after a generation or so, broke decisively with Jews who had accepted Jesus as Messiah. Matthewʼs gospel shows us that evangelistʼs exhaustive framing of Jesus in terms of Hebrew prophecies, and here, in the Palm Sunday story, like an ink stained thumbprint, what happened because there was an error in the translation he used for that purpose.

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