Formations 06.23.2019: The Kingdom Has Come

El Greco. The Apostle Saint Matthew, 1610–1614.

Matthew 12:22-29

The novel Slaughterhouse-Five offers two stories about Billy Pilgrim’s life. In the first, Kurt Vonnegut tells of Pilgrim’s, and his own, experience as a soldier in World War II and his witness of the destruction of Dresden. At the same time, Vonnegut describes Pilgrim’s encounter with a group of aliens known as Tralfamadorians, who see time completely—past, present, and future all at once. They have taken him captive, and he lives on their planet as an exhibit in a kind of zoo.

Vonnegut’s two story lines produce a kind of tension between the sci-fi and the realistic, and a similar thing seems to happen in this passage from Matthew. On one hand, the writer leads readers to think about facts of nature—speech, sight, family relations, and religious and political institutions. At the same time, the story concedes an unseen plot among demons, Satan, and the spirit of God. That these are central aspects of some religious lives, I do not doubt. That these have been diminished in my strand of the tradition, I feel confident.

All of this to say, I don’t know what to make of Matthew’s scene. My instinct is to draw out the material implications of the passage: that a “kingdom divided against itself is laid waste,” that “the kingdom of God has come” when people are healed (vv. 25, 28). But this reading limits the reality that Matthew creates, denying the perceptions of his characters in the process.

So what battles, if any, are we led by the spirit to fight? Jesus, at least in this story, follows the spirit to oppose those that enforce silence and prevent sight.

The crowds, at least some in the crowds, ask, “Can this be the Son of David?” (v. 23). Meanwhile, the Pharisees, or some of the Pharisees, answer, “It is only by Beelzebul, the ruler of demons, that this fellow casts out the demons” (v. 24). This is when Jesus says to them, perhaps to both groups, that “no city or house divided against itself will stand” (v. 25). The call for unity comes after the expansion of voices.

We’ve often struggled—and continue to struggle—with this dynamic of forming communities united by a common identity while preserving the freedom for all individuals to speak, see, and be fully as they are. I’m not sure Jesus resolves that struggle here, but I do believe that Matthew’s vision, like Vonnegut’s, offers the chance to practice the kind of community which is coming with the kingdom of God.

In a recent essay on Slaughterhouse-Five, Salman Rushdie reflects on the change he discovered when rereading the novel. “That young man, faced with Vonnegut’s masterpiece,” he says of his past self, “responded most strongly to the sci-fi aspects of the book. To read it again has been to discover the humane beauty of the non-sci-fi parts, which make up most of the book.”

In the same way, Matthew’s work challenges us to encounter a reality that surpasses our vision. Either it insists that the concrete world of health, religion, and politics is at the center, or it appeals to an even larger world of demons and a spirit. Such expanses may help us grow toward the kingdom, where we both share and hold the differences.

Salman Rushdie, “What Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ Tells Us Now,” The New Yorker, 13 June 2019 <https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/what-kurt-vonneguts-slaughterhouse-five-tells-us-now>.

Discussion

• Which aspects of Matthew’s vision are most compelling? Most challenging? Why?

• How have you sought to maintain unity within your community? When has this served God’s kingdom? When has this opposed it?

• When have you encountered people silenced or kept from seeing? What actions can bring freedom in these contexts?

Reference Shelf

Jesus and Compassion

He was Son of Man but also Son of David, sage and Wisdom. No one made these kinds of claims, even indirectly, in early Judaism unless he had a very high image of himself or else he was crazy. Jesus had a Christology and it focused on himself, and everyone else he compared himself to, including John the Baptist, was seen as a lesser figure. Either he was a megalomaniac, or he clearly had a messianic self-concept. There is not much middle ground when one really analyzes the Matthean portrayal of Jesus. If the First Evangelist’s portrait is even reasonably close to conveying who the historical Jesus truly was, he was the most remarkable person to ever walk the earth.

Jesus was a radical, and even today we struggle to keep up with him and to put his teachings into practice. But unlike most radicals, he was a radical with a huge compassionate heart who was prepared to give his life, not merely for a cause, but for all of us, so we might have life and have it abundantly. Though his words could be severe, at the same time he could be gentle and meek. He was, as E. Schweizer once said, the man who fits no one formula.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 252.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

*****

For further resources, subscribe to the Formations Teaching Guide and Commentary. Additionally, the Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary series is a scholarly but accessible means for enhancing your study of each lesson. To purchase the volume quoted in today’s Reference Shelf, please click Here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

*