Monday, November 20, 2006

Exploring the Kingdom Gospel

As part of my preparation of the Gospel of Matthew as story, I've decided to review the gospel focusing specifically on the Kingdom of God dynamic. When preparing a story for telling it is a necessary part of the process to examine the story from different angles so as to understand the perspective of all involved. To help me in this process I've decided to share my observations in this forum. (I’ll be publishing more often than I have been, but I can’t promise more than that.) However, I do invite you to participate in the process. Whatever input you feel led to provide will be welcome. You could question my observations, offer up alternatives, or just let me know if what I have come up with makes sense to you. Whatever the feedback, it will be most helpful and greatly appreciated.

To Begin...

One of the first things that needs to be considered when preparing a story is – who was the story originally intended for? Many scholars are of the opinion that the gospel was written by a Jew for Jews because of the numerous references to information that would have been of great interest to the Jewish community. While this certainly seems to be the case, many commentaries point out the number of times Matthew writes as if he is outside of the Jewish community. For example, he refers to the Jewish houses of prayer as "their synagogues." In fact such is the rhetoric against the Jewish leaders that in the past many Christian preachers have used Matthew's gospel as justification for their anti-Semitic views. How do we explain this?

After researching a number of sources, I find myself wondering if Matthew's church (he's the only gospel writer to use the term) was in fact a group of Jews who, having come to belief in Jesus as Messiah, had been forced to leave their synagogue; thrown out of the community for their blasphemy. They were struggling, faced with the question of how do they maintain their heritage as the people of God and Abraham while at the same time embracing this new spiritual reality. To help them answer this question Matthew writes his gospel. He clearly sets out to prove that Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the promised Messiah of the Jewish people.

And yet, he just as ardently presents salvation through Jesus Christ as being for all the nations. Cast out from the synagogue these Jewish Christians now find themselves worshipping the Messiah in the company of Gentiles! For this reason it is important for Matthew to include examples of the faith found by Jesus among the Gentiles he encounters. He wants them to see a larger kingdom that encompasses not just the twelve tribes of Israel, but the world as a whole. He knows that if they are all to be productive citizens of the same kingdom they will have to overcome their differences. (A lesson some modern nations have yet to learn.)

Having established our 'audience' we now need to examine the other aspects of the gospel story, namely, characters, setting and plot. We will examine plot as we work our way through the gospel in the coming weeks. However, because plot most often involves the interactions of the characters with each other and their settings, lets take a quick look at these elements in Matthew's story.

As I just said plot involves the interactions of the characters in the story. Some of these interactions will involve conflict while others will bring characters together in a variety of ways. The scope of this interaction is determined by what type of character they are. There are, for the most part, three kinds of characters in a story.

Round characters are those with sufficient character and personality traits displayed that we are able to create in our minds a near complete picture of just who they are. They are the characters who seem most real to us and with whom we tend to develop the most empathy. Jesus, of course, is the most round of all the characters. As the hero of the Kingdom Gospel he is the one Matthew most desires that we come to understand and relate to, both as King and Messiah.

The Disciples are also, to varying degrees, a round character. I say "a character" because, like most groups in a story, the disciples function as a single character. They are in a very real sense an 'everyman', a character that all of us can relate to in some way. The occasional glimpses we get of the individuals within the group highlight specific character traits that can be found in all of us. While most of the disciples are individually flat (definition in a moment) it is as a group that they develop into a fully-rounded character with all of the strengths and weaknesses that go with being truly human.

Flat characters are those who display very few traits. Unlike round characters they are very predictable in their behaviours. They tend to operate from one or two root traits that determine, in large part, their course of action. The Religious Leaders (scribes, pharisees and priests) are the greatest example of a flat character in this story. Like the disciples, the group as a whole is regarded as a single character and they all follow the same path. In the case of the religious leaders their root trait would seem to be hypocritical, to the point of being 'evil.' Their sole motivation seems to be self-preservation in order to retain power.

The Crowds are also an important flat character. Their traits are few and uncomplicated. They either support Jesus or they oppose him depending on the occasion. They represent the wave of public opinion and raise for us the important questions: Is this man really the Messiah? How can he do such things if he is not from God? Who is our king? The crowds are there, in part, to ensure that these questions are raised and debated in the mind of the reader/listener.

Stock characters are those that exhibit either only one trait or no traits at all. In the kingdom gospel the minor characters are in fact all stock characters. The lepers, the blind, the cripples, the relatives of the disciples, the Roman and temple guards, and the myriad of other individuals that come into the narrative, perform their function and leave it just as quickly. That is not to say they do not have an important role in the story of the Kingdom. In God’s kingdom all have their purpose; however, in general they must be regarded as minor characters.

Now I realize this seems like a cruel way to dismiss these people; after all, they were real people that met and were affected by the person that is Jesus Christ. But I ask you to understand that this kind of categorizing helps the storyteller to make decisions about how a story is told. It is not a reflection of the validity of anyone as an individual. That happens at a whole other level.

The settings used in the Kingdom Gospel are also of great importance and will be discussed in detail as we go along. But here it should be noted that Jesus’ arrival, death and ressurection take place at both a geographical and temporal crossroads. Jerusalem and its environs were located at the centre of all the major trading routes. Peoples from every nation in the Roman Empire and beyond were present and had varying degrees of influence on the culture of the day.

And while the time period has become of crucial significance to us, creating a fulcrum across which even our calendar rotates, it was also a crucial time for those who had no idea regarding the significance of the events about to unfold. Rome's power was at its height and the beginnings of revolution were in the air. While not the only point of conflict in the empire, Israel was about to take a crucial turn in its relationship with the emperor. Long protected from many of the requirements of being in the empire, many in Rome were starting to tire of the constant complaints from the Religious Leaders, and the eyes of many other occupied regions were waiting to see what Rome would do about Israel.

Well that’s it for now. I apologize for the great length of this discourse, and the absense of any real point to take away with you. But I felt it was necessary to establish this as the perspective from which I would be exploring the Kingdom Gospel. Next time (hopefully later this week) we'll get started into the meat of the story itself with the first episode – "The Lineage of a King."


(Exploring the Kingdom Gospel - episode 1)

1 comment:

Phil English said...


I really like what you've done in identifying the characters, etc for this.

Perhaps we could encourage the other storytellers to review this and we could take a look at it more at one of our meetings.