Epistle of the Elder of Omaha
“whom I love in Truth, “2 John 2:1
Tomorrow is the feast of St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Perhaps you have, as the elder, heard or will hear a sermon on Matthew. It is likely to have gone something like this: one day Jesus walks up to a man setting in a tax booth and tells the man to follow him. The man gets up and follows him even though there was no pre-history to that call. This apparently illustrates the homiletic point that we ourselves should be ready to take such risks on the unknown in the same way that this amazing man did. To bear the cost of discipleship, as will likely be said. This man in short order entertained Jesus in his home and followed him up to the cross. Then he was sent out as apostle, authored a gospel and ultimately became a martyr, even through there is no history of him being a martyr!
This ahistorical call makes the caller, Jesus, and the callee, Levi/Matthew, a myth, which seems not to trouble anyone anymore. But if you are old enough to have been schooled in the 60's like the elder the result might have been dyspeptic. We worked our way though the unsettling source analysis of the Five Books of Moses only to be faced with the “demythologizing” of the Gospel by Rudolf Bultmann and company. In the end, we were better of for this historical criticism. It was not that we believed less, but that we believed more. It is a little unsettling to listen to a homiletic which seems to be unaware of the historical problems of material they rely on.
In honor of Matthew, I share with you an original poem that deals with the historical tension of one called in third decade to the first century CE with the one writing a gospel in the eighth decade or so. To the fragments of history that can be garnered out of the Gospels about Matthew, there is the early church document, The Didache which illustrates a fluid piece of church life in Syria - Galilee in the early post apostolic era, 50-70, roughly the same time as the church life portrayed by Paul in the Greco Asian diaspora.
of the apostle, of the prophet and of the scribe,
divided by age, distinct in function and separated by time,
yet allegedly held to be one.
First, I would sing of the man who sat in the booth,
collecting the imperial tax along the shore of the Galilee,
the owner of a great house where he hosted the Nazarene
famous for declaring the opening of the kingdom of Heaven.
This the man who walked out of the booth
and away from a gracious home
to follow the Nazarene
to the foot of the cross
and then to be sent to the lost sheep of Israel and more,
only to end in the schooling of a generation of prophets,
learned in the testimonies of ancient prophets,
rehearsed in the sayings of the Nazarene.
Second, I would sing of the man called prophet
who wandered the Galilee, visiting the households
which had taken the Nazarene in as their Lord:
comforting them with the explication of oracles
made in the former times by the prophets of Israel;
confirming them with the sayings of the Lord
that had brought them into the kingdom of Heaven.
He presided over their sacred meals,
and ordered the heads of their homes
where they waited for the kingdom to come on earth.
And he marshaled an army of visiting prophets
sending them out not only to the Galilee,
but off in the lands of the Syrians.
Third, I would sing of the man who kept school
in the heart of the Galilee
shaping a text partly received and partly expanded
with the testimonies in which he had been schooled,
with the oral sayings which he had committed to memory,
so that the overseers and elders of the merging households
could keep church no longer dependent on itinerant prophets,
which he himself once was, or better the student of one,
who were declining in number and becoming less worthy of trust.
The Apostle saw the passing of his age,
saw his replacement by the itinerant prophets
some of whom he had schooled
and some of whom he feared.
The Prophet saw the end of his days,
saw himself over ruled by elders and overseers
some of whom he had ordered
and some of whose order he feared.
The Scribe saw the end of his task
saw himself replaced by his text in the hand of elders and overseers
saw that with it they could normalize and defend their life,
but also could turn the text against life.
Who then could imagine that these three could be a single author?
separated by method and time as they were?
Quick the moderns insist as reason for their doubt
that it is impossible for them to imagine
such individuals, unique in person
and separated by years, to be a single author.
And so I see that they who insist
that they can be known by no one, but themselves,
and who pretend to know no one else except for themselves,
cannot imagine it.
Out of such modern solecisms,
no imagination can come
as in the ancient hell
no imagination could be born.
Still I must say that I have imagined it,
even as I am poorly known
and poorly know
and wait for the light
in which I will be known
and will fully know,
a single author!