"Deception, Ambiguity, and Revelation: Matthew’s Judgmental Scenes in Social-Science Perspective"
Jerome H. Neyrey
University of Notre Dame
Copyright - Jerome H. Neyrey - 2001
The manuscript as it stands is much too long for the SBL meeting; therefore I will present only sections, 1, 2 & 4
I would love to continue working on it until the meeting, but I have some health problems currently which will shortly require surgery. But I will be at Denver
Admittedly it is an incomplete work at present, but all suggestions, criticisms and queries will be most gratefully received. J. H. Neyrey 9/30/01
1.0 Introduction, Hypothesis, Models
As most other people in the first century did, Matthew understood God’s judgment occurring at the end of the age, when God raises the dead and apportions rewards and punishments. We do not present another study of redactional themes or apocalypticism. We argue that Matthew characteristically portrays judgment both as the exposure of deceit, hypocrisy, secrets or lies and as the clarification of ambiguity. This "revelation" closely corresponds to the problematic that Matthew sees in his world, namely, it is a place rife with lying deception, hypocrisy, secrecy and ambiguity. We argue that in a world where secrecy, lying, deceit, hypocrisy and ambiguity are common and expected social strategies (Pilch 1992, 1994), God’s judgment will be largely "apocalyptic," that is, revelatory of hidden things. God alone can read hearts and know all secrets; thus God will pull back the veil which both hides disguised evil or conceals unrecognized good. In a scene full of surprise and shock, God brings to light "the hidden things of shame" (2 Cor 4:2). In the light of God’s omniscience, all ambiguity, masquerade and deception vanish.
To develop a reading scenario which adequately interprets this Matthean phenomena of secrecy, lying, hypocrisy and deception, we turn to social science materials dealing with secrecy (see Tefft 1989; Neyrey 1998). In addition we ask of symbolic anthropology what kind of world is it where exteriors do not match interiors, where one expects to be lied to, flattered or deceived, and where good not is rewarded nor evil shamed? ( Douglas 1982; Malina 1981; Neyrey 1986a, 1987, 1990). We are interested in the symbolic world implied by such phenomena; for we seek a correlation, if it exists, between a certain social perception of reality and a symbolic scenario of judgment. With these materials we hope to develop the scenarios adequate for interpreting the way God’s judgment is described in Matthew’s world of secrecy, lying and deceit.
2.0 Data Describing an Ambiguous, Secret, Deceitful World
Part of our hypothesis is that Matthew’s world is rife with lying, deception, hypocrisy, secrecy and ambiguity. We itemize below some of terms typically found in the semantic word field of ambiguity, lying and deception (Darton 1976:107-110; Louw and Nida 1988:388-445). For purposes of economy, the list below contains the material found only in Matthew, although it would be greatly expanded if the whole of the New Testament were examined .
1. deception (•πατη): Matt 13:22; to deceive (πλανω): Matt 18:12, 13;22:29; 24:4, 5, 11, 24; deception (πλανη): Matt 27:64
2. hypocrisy (Ûποκρισις): Matt 23:28; hypocrite (Ûποκριτης):Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5; 15:7; 22:18; 23:13, 14, 15; 24:51
3. lying (ψευδομαι): Matt 5:11; to bear false witness (ψευδομαρτυρεω): Matt 19:18; false testimony (ψευδομαρτυρια ): Matt 15:19; 26:59; a false witness (ψευδομαρτυς Matt 26:60; false prophet (ψευδοπροφητης): Matt 7:15; 24:11, 24; false Christ (ψευδοχριστος): Matt 24:24
4 secret (κρυπτος ): Matt 6:4, 6; 10:26; secret (κρυφαιος ): Matt 6:18; to hide/make secret (κρυπτω): Matt 5:14; 11:25; 13:35, 44; 25:18, 25
5. to appear, seem (δοκεω): Matt 3:9; 17:25; 18:12; 21:28; 22:17, 42; 26:66
6. to reveal (•ποκαλψπτω): Matt 10:26; 11:25, 27; 16:17
We now briefly examine some of the relevant material having to do with these items as well as other phenomena for which Matthew has no word, such as ambiguity and equivocation.
2.1 Deception. Sometimes deception is mandated (see Neyrey 1993a:38-42). For example, Jesus commands those who fast: "Anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret" (6:17-18). In regard to alms, Jesus ordered, "Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (6:3). All acts of piety must be done "in secret" (6:4, 6, 18). To outsiders, then, the disciples of Jesus will appear to be non-observers of traditional piety.
Deception seems to be practiced regularly by characters in the narrative. To all appearances, the Pharisees and Sadducess who come to John at the Jordan seek purification. But John perceives deceit in them, and exposes their hidden evil (3:7-10). Deception constitutes the essence of Jesus’ temptations by the devil. Outwardly what is suggested to Jesus seems reasonable and good, but therein lies the snare. Evil is disguised as good. Jesus’ prophetic role enables him to discern this hidden evil, and so expose it and avoid ruin (4:1-13). People regularly ask Jesus questions, not seeking revelation or information from him so much as "to trap" him (16:1; 19:3; 22:18). And some practice a form of flattery on him: "Teacher, we know that you are true, and teach the way of God truthfully, and care for no man" (22:16). It takes great wits to tell a flatterer from a friend. We remember that one of Jesus’ intimate associates, Judas Iscariot, seemed to be a loyal disciple yet was secretly plotting with Jesus’ enemies for his death.He maintained that deception even up to the last Passover mean when Jesus revealed his deceptive status (26:21-23).
Deception occurs regularly when people honor God with their lips, while their heart is far from Him (15:8). This is not understood as faulty education, namely, learning more about the tradition of elders than the commandments of God. On the contrary, because of the financial benefit of the korban tradition, they make void the law of God.
2.2 Lying. Matthew, moreover, narrates scenes in which lies are told, even if the terms pseudo- or plan- do not occur. For example, Herod tells the Magi to follow the star, go to Bethlehem, and then report back to him, "That I too may come and worship him" (2:8). The king, who was "troubled" when he first learned of "the king of the Jews" (2:2), lies to the Magi; he seeks to kill this newborn rival (2:16-18). After Jesus’ death the religious elite in Jerusalem described Jesus as "that deceiver" (planos) who falsely predicted his vindication (27:63). With Pilate’s approval they posted a guard to prevent Jesus’ "lie" from being realized by the theft of his body (27:62-65). Yet this guard saw sights at his tomb which acclaim the truth of Jesus’ prediction (28:4), which they told to their superiors (28:11). In the end, the guards were bribed to tell a lie of their own, namely, that Jesus’ disciples stole his body (28:12-15; Cadbury 1937:106-8).
2.3 Hypocrisy. Like deception, hypocrisy refers to the mismatch of exterior behavior and internal states. Hypocrites might be people who practice piety, not that God may be honored, but that others might notice (6:2, 5, 16). Hypocrisy describes those who find the smallest speck in another’s eye, but are blinded themselves (7:5). They feign concern for the law in questioning Jesus, but their intention is to trip him up (22:18). Pretending to make proselytes, they bind them with burdens to they cannot find God (23:15).
2.4 Secrecy. Jesus instructs his disciples to absent themselves from the public arena where typical villagers perform public acts of piety. Ostensibly Jesus’ disciples will then appear non-observant, perhaps even neglectful of God and scornful of piety. Yet in fact they are not, for they are instructed to give alms in secret, to pray in secret, and to fast in secret (6:1-18). This is not a secrecy which hides valuables from the envious gaze of onlookers or protects family matters from village gossips and nosy parkers. This secrecy is meant to hide something and is calculated to create a wrong impression. This secrecy, then, is a form of deception?
In contrast to Jesus’ triple injunction to secrecy in 6:1-18, he earlier told his disciples that they are to be visible as a city on a hillside. Their good deeds should be manifest for all the world to see (5:14-16). Nevertheless they are commanded to "secrecy." Jesus himself strives to keep secret his powers (8:4) and his identity (16:20). He appears not to practice what he preaches. God likewise practices a form of secrecy by withholding revelation from some, while giving it to others. Jesus states quite clearly that "To you it is given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given" (13:11). And in another place he gives thanks to God for secrecy, "Thou has hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will" (11:25-26). Clearly, then, it is acceptable for God to withhold information, or to keep secrets, just as it is for Jesus and his disciples to act secretly.
2.5 Ambiguity. Although Matthew never uses the word "ambiguous/ambiguity," things are seldom what they seem: one cannot tell a book by its cover, nor a man by the clothes he wears (Mt 23:5). External actions do not serve as reliable indicators of internal states. [People are asked to describe what "seems to be the case" (17:25; 18:12; 21:28; 22:17, 42; 26:66)]. Moreover, many situations and persons are often fundamentally ambiguous. For example, the Gospel begins with Joseph learning that his espoused wife, Mary, is pregnant with a child not his. Outwardly, the scene bespeaks sexual immorality to Joseph, but the angel assures him that in truth Mary has conceived by the power of God’s spirit (1:20-21). Things are not what they seem, either for good or ill.0 Jesus himself can be viewed as the most ambiguous figure in the Gospel. Matthew interprets him positively: he is acclaimed by some as Son of God (3:17; 17:5; 27:54), Son of David (9:27; 15:22), Christ (16:16), and prophet (21:11). He does mighty works (11:2-5), teaches Torah (5:3-7:27), and attends the synagogue (4:23; 9:35; 12:9). Yet in the perception of some, his actions do not correspond to his claims to be God’s anointed agent. They perceive him as a deceiver and a sinner who breaks the Sabbath (12:1-8), eats with tax collectors and sinners (9:9-13), disregards purity rituals (15:1-20), and profanes the Temple of God (21:12-14). Thus they label him a "deceiver" (πλανος, 27:63). Which version is correct? and how can we know (Malina and Neyrey 1988:81-88, 118-30)? Indeed the very gospel itself is testimony to Matthew’s attempt to remove that ambiguity by proclaiming Jesus’ prominence. But he does so in the face of formidable alternative interpretation by the Jerusalem and Temple elite.
One should not ignore the ambiguity contained in many of Jesus’ statements. His evaluation system literally turns social perceptions upside down: those who are shamed, reviled, dispossessed, etc. he acclaimed "blessed" or honored (Hanson ???). Life is gained by losing it (16:25), and greatness, by being least and servant (20:26-27). The normal categories of experience, then, are painfully ambiguous: last is first, low is high, empty is full, and losing is saving.
2.6 Say One Thing, Do Another. Finally, the Gospel contains many stories about people who say one thing and do another (see Neyrey 1993b:59-63). The parable in 21:28-32 tells of a father who asks his two sons to go and work in his vineyard. One said "Yes!" and did not go, while the other said "No!" but went. From a cultural reading of the passage, the one who said "No!" publicly insulted his father, bringing shame on him; yet the story ironically implies that he is the better son. Ostensibly he shamed his father, but in the end honored him. Appearances, then, are fundamentally misleading. People say one thing and do another. See 7:21-23.
What, then, is the world of Matthew like? The evangelist describes the world in his narrative as a place of profound ambiguity, secrecy, and deception. Speech does not match deeds; people regularly say one thing and do another. External behavior provides no safe indicator of internal states. Persons and events regularly occur which outwardly appear either good or bad, but which in fact are otherwise. Yet ambiguity is too kind a term for the world Matthew describes. All characters in his narrative expect to be lied to and deceived. They too practice secrecy and deception. They regularly hide from others, their true thoughts, their authentic deeds, their knowledge and their piety. They are alert to masked compliments, feigned requests for information, flattery and the like. Moreover, they are formally warned to expect false prophets, false Christs, and false apostles. Those who ask for signs to clarify matters are often ridiculed (16:1-4). False testimony is often given.2
3.0 The Sociology of Secrecy and the Matthean Data
3.1 History of the Sociology of Secrecy. Secrecy in antiquity is adequately described in Dvornik's The Origins of Intelligence Services (1974). It examines the phenomenon in the records from Egypt, Assyria-Babylon-Persia, Greece, Rome and Byzantium. Scholarly interest in "secrecy" has tended to focus on governmental secrecy and intelligence services. In addition to international espionage and spying, scholars too have undertaken the systematic analysis of "secrecy," beginning with Georg Simmel's publication of "The Secret and the Secret Society" (1906; 1950). Simmel's work has been newly reexamined by sociologists who examine the phenomenon in cross-cultural perspective (Hazelrigg 1969:326-30; Tefft 1980; Frizby 1994). Even some biblical scholars have begun to tap into this material for purposes of biblical interpretation, notably John J. Pilch (1992; 1994; see Neyrey 1988). The model, then, has profitably and accurately been used to interpret New Testament documents.
3.2 Secrecy Defined. Tefft defines secrecy as "the mandatory or voluntary, but calculated, concealment of information, activities, or relationships" (1980:320-21). Thus, secrecy is a formal, conscious and deliberate concealment of information. Secrets, moreover, are "a social resource (or adaptive strategy) used by individuals, groups, and organizations to attain certain ends" (Tefft 1980: 35). As a strategy, secrecy may be employed aggressively against rivals or defensively against attackers (Tefft 1980: 36). Secrecy enables certain types of associations to avoid political persecution or destruction while it allows other groups to maintain an exclusive monopoly on esoteric knowledge.
3.3 The Secrecy Process. Tefft describes secrecy as an adaptive device containing five interrelated processes: 1. security (control of information), 2. entrusted disclosure, 3. espionage, 4. evaluation of spying, and 5. post-hoc security measures. He notes that all peoples engage in some form of secrecy or information control (1980:39). Kees Boole makes the same claim: "Not only is there no religion without secrecy, but there is no human existence without it" (1987:1). Families do not want their squabbles, embarrassments, plans, strategies, private interactions or finances discussed outside their houses; likewise with groups, organizations and governments. All practice some form of information control, whether they base it on the right to privacy, the nature of interpersonal relations or the politics of business and administration. All engage in some form of "security," that is, information control, and hence secrecy.
Within families, groups, or organizations, certain people are privy to what is withheld from others. In fact, who knows what may serve as an index of status or ranking within a group. But not everybody knows all things. Thus secrets are entrusted to some, not others. The others may or may not know that secrets are withheld from them. Governments use of sliding scale of increasing degrees of classified information, such as "secret," "top secret" and "for your eyes only." Thus there tends to be an inner circle which is "in the know."
Then arises some sort of "security system" in terms of who can or should be entrusted with secrets. It is a known fact that group members who develop bonds of mutual loyalty pose less security risk than those of low morale. Nevertheless, groups tend to develop security systems to secure their secrets, simply because not all group members can be counted on to have highly developed bonds of mutual loyalty. Such systems can include a number of steps in securing its secrets, such as: (a) required loyalty tests for old and new members, (b) total obedience to the group at the expense of other ties, (c) gradual revelation of secrets to members, and (d) imposition of strict norms of silence . .
Secrets invite snooping, espionage and disclosure, which is due in part to fear that secrets may be used to harm others (i.e., a planned coup) or to shut others out from certain benefits (i.e., technological formulae; discoveries). Thus people deem it a matter of vital self interest to know what others are up to. Whatever the reasons, outsiders tend invariably to engage in some form of espionage to learn the secrets of others.
By "espionage" is meant "acquisition of information held secret by another group or individual" (Tefft 1980:333). Spying, whether done by persons or technology, entails a body of people who watch, scrutinize, lie in wait, trap, trick, etc. others so as to learn their secrets. They may investigate records, interrogate associates, plant informers and spies, and so forth. If successful in gaining access to controlled information, an evaluation process must take place. Is the new information of any value? is it a cover? a false lead? "Leaks" of information may be intentional to distract those engage in espionage from more vital secrets or to lull them into thinking that they have cracked the secret.
If individuals, groups, or governments learn that their secrecy has been breached, they are likely to engage in a post-hoc program to identify the spy, plug the leak, bury the secret deeper, etc. New loyalty tests may be demanded. But the "secrecy process" is hardly over, for with the renewed interest in keeping secrets, those who control information invite a new round of espionage and evaluation, which may result, if successful, in new post-hoc programs to shore up security. And so the cycle repeats itself again and again and again.
3.4 Extra-Group and Intra-Group Secrecy Sociologists distinguish two types of secrecy. Manifest secrecy describes the formal, overt actions of certain groups to hide ceremonies, rites, information, and the like from the curious and perhaps dangerous eyes of others. In contrast, latent secrecy is practiced by groups as the additional and unintended consequences of certain structural arrangements, such as covering up unintended actions. We focus on the specific functions of manifest secrecy, also distinguishing extra-group secrecy from intra-group secrecy (Brandt 125-27).
Extra-group secrecy may be practiced for aggressive or defensive purposes (Tefft 36). Aggressive secrecy describes actions and strategy used by secret groups to organize political rebellion or provide secret leadership for revolutionary organizations. Moreover, groups subject to coercion deal with their antagonists by hiding information or resources as a way of neutralizing superior power. Alternately, groups often employ defensive secrecy strategy to protect themselves. . Alienated groups, which are embattled minorities within a larger hostile society, use secrecy to escape persecution or destruction (Tefft 324; Brandt 131).
Intra-group secrecy can be employed for a variety of purposes (Tefft 51-53). It may prove significant for group formation, in that some groups form for the overt purpose of engaging in covert actions, such as secret societies. Likewise, secrecy both sets up group boundaries and, when defended, maintains them. Those "in the know" distinguish themselves from those "not in the know." This is called the "superiority syndrome" and the process of guarding this distinction contributes to group cohesiveness. Internal secrecy within groups, whereby only select members know certain information, serves to control access to rank, status and political power. "Elders" or "experts" regularly maintain their special position within groups by monopolizing esoteric information even from other insiders, thus buttressing their own power and status within the group (Brandt 130-34).
3.5 Matthew and the Sociology of Secrecy. In our canvas of Matthew’s data, we observed that both Jesus and his enemies formally and voluntarily conceal information and relationships. Jesus commands his disciples to perform their pious actions "in secret," whereas others hide their hostility through flattery or other means. We find, moreover, frequent references to manifest secrecy, that is, the "formal and overt function of certain societies . . .to hide ceremonies, rites, information and the like" from outsiders. John Pilch has argued that this is one of the chief functions of the so-called "messianic secret" (Pilch 1994).
Matthew contains both extra-group and intra-group secrecy. While extra-group secrecy can have both offensive and defensive purposes, Matthew basically describes the defensive one. As noted above, the "messianic secret" serves to deflect the attention of Jesus’ rivals, thus lessening the conflict.
1. Deception, deceive
- aggressive strategy to harm another by hiding the evil offered (4:1-13; (Matt 24:4, 5)
2. Hypocrisy, hypocrite
- defensive strategy which purpose fully conceals weakness with facade of good (Matt 23:13, 14, 15, 28)
3. Lying, lie
- aggressive strategy to mislead others, to trick and harm them (Matt 19:18; 24:11, 24; 26:59)
4. Secrecy, secret
- defensive strategy to confuse one’s opponents as to intent and behavior (Matt 6:4, 6, 18; messianic secret)
- aggressive strategy to expose opponent’s secrets (Matt 10:26and also to strengthen inner group with superior knowledge (Matt 11:25; 13:11, 34-35)
5. Appearances, appear
- defensive strategy, like hypocrisy, to hide evil or falsehood by display of good (Matt 3:9; 4:1-12)
- aggressive strategy to claim some benefit by external display of good or by actions (Matt 23:5)
- defensive strategy to eradicate external markers of shame or weakness (Matt 1:19-26;
7. Say one thing, do another
- defensive strategy to avoid criticism by false words which appear correct but which hide shameful behavior (Matt 7:21-23; 21:28-32)
Who knows what and when? Elizabeth Brandt’s study of the Taos Pueblo provides insight into the function of secrecy within hierarchical groups (125-34). Information is restricted even within close-knit groups; not all people know everything. Thus we can plot out status and role within such a group: who i.e, Peter, knows something serves as an index of group status. Those in the group who are "not in the know" represent persons of low status, who are not well integrated into the social networks within a village. They contrast with the few elites in the group, who are privy to the group's secrets, and who stand atop the status hierarchy in the group and control it in virtue of their monopoly of esoteric information.. Between these two extremes we can observe a diversity of individuals in terms of the kinds of knowledge they possess (Brandt 133; Hazelrigg 1969:324). In Matthew, God of course knows all things, as does God’s authorized agent, Jesus. In the circle of disciples, 1) Peter has the most knowledge and revelation, which warrants his role as "rock on which I will build my church," 2) the disciples with Jesus at the Transfiguration, and 3) all the disciples.
What do Peter and the disciples know? Divine revelation of Jesus as "Son of God" (16:17) as well as unique knowledge about God-Father and the Son (11:27). They know secrets hidden from the wise (11:25) as well as "secrets of the kingdom of heaven" (13:11). Not only did they hear Jesus’ five speeches, they learned his distinctive teachings about Sabbath observance, temple taxes, and the like. Matthew, then, informs us that Jesus makes entrusted disclosure of the most valuable information to his disciples and especially to Peter.
The sociology of secrecy proves to be a useful way of examining Matthew’s data and letting it weave itself into recognizable social patterns. It allows us to see that both Jesus and his hypocritical adversaries practice the conscious defensive strategy of keeping secrets, either to protect themselves or to fend off shameful exposure. Moreover, we appreciate the aggressive attempts of Jesus’ adversaries to learn his secrets, to test and try his public behavior, so as to unmask him as a "deceiver." The sociology of secrecy also serves well to describe how Jesus himself constantly practiced forms of secrecy, even as he engaged in entrusted disclosure of his secrets to his disciples. His opponents then engaged in espionage to learn all about him, his identity and his teaching. Finally, if knowledge is related to status and role, Jesus knows all, just as God does; he is never fooled. And Jesus has elevated his disciples above the crowds by unique disclosures to them, and Peter above the rest by special revelations and information entrusted to him. Well and good, but we ask a further question which the sociology of secrecy is unable to answer.
4.0 The Symbolic Universe of An Ambiguous, Deceptive World
Is there any correlation between the sociology of secrecy and the way Matthew views the cosmos? To answer this, our methodology shifts to a search for an anthropological model which might aid us in understanding the symbolic universe of Matthew and audience. We depend here first on the works of Mary Douglas (1982), the application to second-temple Judaism by Neusner (1973; 1975), the synthesizing of Douglas’ materials first by Isenberg and Owen (1977) and then by Malina (1986:1-27), and its systematic use for interpreting New Testament materials by Malina and Neyrey(1988:3-32 and 2001:161-97) and Neyrey (1986:160-70; 1988:72-100; 1990:21-55). In delineating a symbolic world, anthropologists focus on certain key, regular topics, which serve as the basis for emic and etic description: 1. purity (the perceived order in the world), 2. rites (boundary crossings and status transformation), 3. understanding of the human person (group-oriented vs individualistic), 4. meaning of sin (rule breaking and/or pollution), 5. God and cosmic order, (who’s in charge?) and 6. suffering and misfortune (lex talionis or bad things happen to good people). Attitudes to these topics vary, depending on group’s social location in society. The symbolic universe of the temple elite will surely differ from that of subsistence peasants. We must, then, compare and contrast these two symbolic universes.
Aristocrats and Temple Elite
Peasants, Artisans, Untouchables
1. Purity: strong concern to classify all things in terms of Israel’s system of clean/unclean; articulated rites for purification; purity rules define and maintain social structures
1. Purity: strong concern for purity, but interior, not exterior of social & physical body attacked; articulated rites for purification, which are ineffective.
2. Rites: fixed rites which express the internal classification system of the group; permanent sacred space.
2. Rites: fixed rites which focus on group boundaries; rites aim to expel deviants from group; fluid sacred space
3. Personal Identity: focus on internalizing clear social roles; individual subservient to but not in conflict with society; group-oriented personality
3. Personal Identity: focus on group membership, not in internalization of roles, which are confused; distinction between appearance and internal states; group- oriented personality
4. Body: tightly controlled, but a symbol of life
4. Body: physical and social bodies controlled but under attack; invaders have penetrated bodily boundaries
5. Sin: breaking of formal rules; focus on behavior rather than internal states of being; rites efficacious in dealing with sin; individual responsible for sin or deviance
5. Sin: a matter of pollution; evil resides in individual and society; sin equals corruption or disease from the social system; internal states more important than external behavior
6. Cosmology: anthropomorphic, non-dualistic; universe is just and reasonable; personal causality
6. Cosmology: anthropomorphic and dualistic; war between forces of good and evil; universe is not just; personal causality
7. Suffering and Misfortune: the result of automatic punishment for violation of formal rules; part of a divine "economy"; can be alleviated, but not eliminated
7. Suffering and Misfortune: unjust; not automatic punishment; attributable to malevolent forces; may be alleviated, but not eliminated
Let us briefly describe these seven categories.
4.1 Purity: Order, System, Classification. Temple elites perceive the cosmos as a very orderly and exactly classified system (Neusner 1973; Newton 1985): At creation, God "separated" wet from dry, dark from light, earth from sky and water, so wrote the priestly author of Genesis 1. This priestly vision was embodied in the Jerusalem Temple, where all persons, places, times and things were elaborately classified. Holiness meant living according to the classification system and the sense of order expressed by it. In 2nd Temple Israel, the temple elite articulated this holiness system when it made judgments about humans on the base of this. They determine if lepers have been cleansed and so may be readmitted to society (Matt 8:4), if the Sabbath has been broken and if purification rites are correctly practiced. This orderly and clear world enjoyed crisp boundaries and precise classifications. It was, moreover, a just world in which the good prosper and the wicked perish. God’s judgment, then, is eminently clear and fair; there is no secret about it nor can God be deceived. As one sows, so shall one reap. Since the norms of evaluation/ classification are clear, the verdict of God’s judgment can be know well in advance. No surprise or shocks attend this judgment.
But from other perspectives in Israel, the system is not at all clear and the classifications articulated in the temple do not match the experience of the population called "the little tradition." For example, far removed from the Temple, the prophet John preaches "repentance" (3:2); people come to him, confess their sins are washed in a baptismal ritual to achieve holiness (3:6). But not all accept John’s holiness, for some claim he has a demon (11:18) or doubt his heavenly authorization (21:25-27). Observant people like Pharisees and Sadducees come to John, but their presence at the Jordan does not conform to John’s definition of holiness. He accuses them of deception and unmasks their hidden evil (3:7).
Matthew, moreover, contains numerous instances of concern for holiness and purity, which are different from the system represented by the Temple. Jesus, for example, teaches a reformed Torah, so that people may be "perfect as your heavenly father is perfect" (5:46), but in terms of a "perfection" not based on the temple’s classification system and purity concerns. Pharisees, according to Matthew, frequently confront him, making plain the different understandings of holiness. Pharisees, who profess to being separated from evil and zealous for God’s law; challenge Jesus over his keeping holy the Lord’s day (12:2), his eating with tax collectors and sinners (9:11), his failure to fast (9:14), his neglect of washing rituals before eating (15:2), etc. These controversies dramatize different and conflicting symbolic universes; they illustrate two systems at odds with each other.
It will aid our appreciation of conflicting symbolic worlds if we examine more closely the system represented by the Temple. It admits of very precise degrees both of holiness and uncleanness. We find, for example, in m. Kelim a classification of space which moves from the farthest borders of Israel (not holy), to its cities, to Jerusalem, the Temple mount, the temple and the Holy of Holies (1.6-9; see Neyrey1986b:94-95). Persons, too, can be classified; for we find in t. Megillah lists those who may hear the scroll of Esther; beginning with Priests and Levites and concluding with bastards, eunuchs and those with damaged genitals (2.7). As Malina has shown, the list describes different degrees of holiness persons which correlates with space or standing: the most holy, the Temple functionaries, stand closest, while those least holy or defective in some way stand furthest, i.e., those who are defective in lineage and/or generative powers (Malina: 2001:173-76). This system makes detailed decisions about skin disease (Lev 13-14)), bodily discharges (Lev 15); animals for sacrifice (Lev 16), marriage partners (Lev 18), the physical bodies of the priests (21:17-21), and even the "fathers of uncleanness" (Danby 1933:800-804). Thus, in the ideal orderly world, the rule makers in 2nd temple Israel could map persons, places, times and things, and thus bring systematic clarity and order to the world.
Matthew’s story of Jesus and the disciples tells of a different symbolic universe. Whereas birth from Israelite parents and circumcision on the eighth day suffice for membership in the Temple system, In Matthew God’s favored people include those who come from east (2:1-11) and west and sit at table with the Patriarchs (8:11), including a centurion of the occupying army. Even the "bread of the household’s children" is shared with the dogs (15:27-28). Inasmuch as Jesus travels outside Israel to Tyre and Sidon, to the Decapolis and to Caesarea Philippi, the designation of Israel as the "Holy Land" is certainly strained. Boundaries and classifications are thus more fluid for Jesus and Matthew . Their keeping of the Sabbath is more fluid than that of the Pharisees argue. (map of time); touching a corpse is not a "father of uncleanness." Precisely in such matters, we can observe the conflict between the complete clarify and fixity of the 2nd Temple system and the more fluid, even ambiguous system embodied by Jesus and narrated by Matthew.
Moreover, like the 2nd Temple system, Matthew likewise engages in classifying people. First, we observe Jesus constantly employing a system of binary opposites to evaluate and classify people.
- wheat or chaff (3:12),
- the few on the narrow way or the many on the wide way (7:13-14)
- sheep among wolves (7:15)
- houses built on rock or built on sand (7:24-27),
- babes to whom revelation is given or wise and understanding from whom knowledge
is kept hidden (11:25)
- wheat or tares (13:24-30, 36-43),
- good or bad fish (13:47-50),
- those who leave all for Jesus or those who cannot leave all (19:16-30)
- wise or foolish maidens (25:1-13)
- profitable or unprofitable servants (25:14-30)
- sheep or goats (25:31-46).
Then, to his followers Jesus gives private instruction on parables as well as mysterious revelations, which are purposely withheld from others (11:25-27; 13:10-17; 15:15-20). His disciples are "holy" in virtue of God’s revealing to them of hidden revelations, but not to others. In short, this world is divided into insiders and outsiders. The operative principle is: "Who is not with me is against me; who does not gather with me scatters" (12:30). One of the important social effects of this type of symbolic perception and labeling should be the ready differentiation of truth from falsehood, goodness from evil, and the like. But such is not the case, as we saw earlier.
4.2 Continued Threats; Ineffective Rituals Dualistic labels should function to remove ambiguity from the world. This sort of labeling constitutes an informal ritual which attempts to purify the ambiguous cosmos, draw clear lines and establish reliable fences. Alas, it does not always work. Unlike the Temple system, Matthew perceives his world to be threatened by deception and masquerade. Except for a prophet who can read hearts, no one else can detect hypocrisy or ferret out false prophets, false Christs or false teachers.
Pharisees, although they publicly profess total separation from evil and zeal for Torah, are judged by Jesus to be deceivers who hide their evil from view. Thus he likens them to whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear clean but inwardly are filled with "all uncleanness" (23:27). They teach Torah, but Jesus accuses them of insinuating a poisonous doctrine ("brood of vipers," 12:34; 23:33) and a corrupting teaching ("leaven," 16:6). Their evil is doubly compounded because it is masked as good. But Jesus says that while they honor God with their lips, their heart is far from God (15:8). The traditional norms for evaluating holiness are no longer trustworthy. Even among the disciples of Jesus (the few, the elect, and the chosen), we learn that some say "Lord, Lord," but do not do the will of God (7:21-23). Among them, moreover, are wolves disguised in sheep’s clothing (7:15). False prophets and false Christs will come to lead even the elect astray (24:24). The desired classification system remains perilously threatened from without and within. The community of Matthew frequently hears certain outsiders labeled as "hypocrites." While this label identifies Pharisees, it sticks to other unnamed people as well (Matt 6:2, 5, 16; 7:5). This means that the labeler perceives that some people, who outwardly observe Torah, are inwardly evil or empty. The act of labeling it itself a ritual intended to introduce clarity into an ambiguous and deceptive situation. But its success is doubtful. Deceivers abound not only in the synagogue, but even in the circle of disciples.
4.3 Ethical Secrets: Heart, Motives, Desires While it is true that Matthew and other NT writers insist on a divine judgment based on one’s deeds (Matt 12:37; Rom 2:6-11), it is readily apparent in these same writings that a person’s deeds may be deceitful attempts to mask an evil heart. One cannot tell a book by its cover. In this context, we should not be surprised to find a corresponding emphasis on the "heart" as opposed to the hands and feet or on the motive for action as well as the act itself, or on the difference between external actions and internal states (Neyrey 1988).
In several of the "antitheses" in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reforms the Torah to include correct internal states as well externally correct behavior. God proscribes not just avoidance of murder (exterior), but also of anger and hate (interior) (5:21-22); not just absence of adultery (exterior), but also lust in the heart (interior) (5:27-27). Hence holiness consists in agreement between deeds and desires. As we shall see, Jesus knows when the lips say one thing, but the heart another (15:8), when people speak one thing, but do another (21:28-31). In short, one comes to suspect a dichotomy in people, where the heart, motive, and desire are veiled by deceiving actions and words. Actions and words, then, are unreliable indices of holiness for they may be practiced to deceive others. Hence certain "good deeds" (such as the strict observance of Torah) cannot function as the norm of judgment. Conversely, the non-observance of the Sabbath or the absence of washing rites does not automatically indicate a sinner. Hence spectators cannot tell the truth of what they observe, for they cannot know the heart. A penetrating revelation is needed by a person who can read the heart.
4.4 A Cosmic War of Personified Figures. The world of Matthew and his characters is peopled with personified cosmic figures. On one side we locate God and the angelic messengers whom God sends to aid, inform, gather, and protect the elect (1:20; 2:13, 19). They also serve as agents in God’s final judgment, separating the good from the wicked (13:41, 49; 16:27; 18:10; 24:31). Yet Matthew also describes a world of devils and evil spirits, who wage war on God’s people, tempting them with evil disguised under the appearance of good (4:1-13), making them ill (4:24; 17:15), sowing evil in their midst (13:39), and enslaving them. A quick list of these personified evil spirits would include:
Beelzebul: 10:25; 12:24,27
demons: 7:22; 8:16,28,33; 9:32-34; 10:8; 11:18; 12:22,24,27-28; 15:22; 17:18
the moon: 4:24; 17:15
unclean spirits :10:1; 12:43,45
sons of the evil one: 13:28, 38-39 (Malina and Neyrey 1988:3-5)
The world, then, is fully peopled with cosmic figures both good and evil who are at war.
One may ask if Matthew perceives any relationship between these cosmic evil figures and the false prophets, false Christs, and hypocrites described above? On the one hand he notes that some people associate Jesus, John the Baptizer and even the disciples of Jesus with demons. Jesus is perceived by some as acting as Beelzebul’s agent (12:24). Some claim of John, "He has a demon" (11:18). Speaking about his disciples, Jesus remarks that "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household" (10:25). Some people, then, who are "outsiders" to Jesus’ circle, link him and his disciples with agents of cosmic evil powers who war on God’s holy people (10:25). On the other hand, Jesus is wont to label others as demon possessed (12:43-45; 23:15). The cosmic war of evil spirits, therefore, is being waged on earth by their agents and proxies. The frightening thing, however, is the difficulty of identifying the enemy. Evil masquerades as good; appearances are fundamentally deceiving; hypocrisy abounds.
4.5 Unjust Suffering and Undeserved Success: Flaws in a Moral Universe. Ancient Israel boasted to the Gentile world of the antiquity and excellence of its laws (Josephus, Ag. Apion 2.146). In this ideal world, the fundamental notion of justice that prevailed was the the lex-talionis (Käsemann ). As you sow, so shall you reap (Gal 6:7; see 2 Cor 9:6). Ideally God rewarded the pious (Matt 6:4, 6, 18), a reward proportional to one’s deeds (Matt 16:27; see 12:36).And God requited the wicked.
But people in Matthew’s world experience that it as not functioning justly: the good do not prosper, but the wicked do. Jesus himself, faithful agent of God, meets rejection and death. So did all the prophets (Matt 5:12; 23:29-27). The disciples of Jesus can expect unjust suffering (Matt 5:3, 4, 6, 10; 10:16-23, 34-39). In short, the universe appears fundamentally confused and unjust. Appearance, behavior and other external criteria seems painfully deceptive.
The crisis is further compounded by the uncertainty which surrounds the norms for a just judgment. As we noted above, some people like the Pharisees perform external actions which are observant; but these external actions are not reliable indicators of the heart, which may be filled with "all uncleanness . . . hypocrisy and iniquity" (23:28). Thus, people may enjoy public honor because of their observance, but this is not a just judgment. Correspondingly, in the eyes of others Jesus and his disciples do not keep Torah, and according to this norm they experience criticism and challenge. Thus, the norms for assessing holiness are themselves ambiguous. What this world needs is a revelation of secrets and a discovery of hidden things.
5.0 Strategy for a Deceiving World: Revelatory Judgment
In light of Matthew’s symbolic universe, what strategies are considered necessary and desirable for dealing with an ambiguous, deceiving world? What scenarios does he envision to deal with such a world? In other places, we have employed an anthropological model suitable for dealing with this type of symbolic universe. It is not uncommon to find accusations of sorcery or witchcraft, which aim to expose a deceiving and deadly foe (Malina and Neyrey 1988:3-32; Neyrey 1990:181-217). Moving beyond that material here, we turn to the way God’s judgment is perceived in Matthew for clues to its appropriateness to an ambiguous, secret, deceitful and lying cosmos. Basically, Matthew envisions judgment in terms of some sort of revelation of hidden evil or good and a subsequent recompense that justly rewards or punishes. From our investigation we find the following typical elements of judgment:
1. need for a revelation to clarify ambiguity, uncover lies, expose deception and manifest hidden secrets,
2. a just judgment, which reverses fates and awards rewards or punishments on the basis of the truth,
3. an element of surprise or shock, as the truth is finally known and true recompense is rendered.
The person who does this, then, must possess both omniscience (to penetrate disguises and read hearts) and omnipotence (to administer true justice finally). Such characteristics describe God and God’s agents in Matthew’s gospel.
5.1 Judgment as A True Apokalypsis -- Finally! If true judgment is ever to come to a world of ambiguity, secrecy, lying, hypocrisy and deceit, there must needs be omniscient people, especially people with power to see through deception. Matthew credits the prophet John the Baptizer with this judgmental power. As people stream to him for rites of purification, John reads the hearts of one group and discerns hypocrisy and deceit, which he then reveals: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit that befits repentance" (3:8). It belongs to a prophet to recognize evil, especially hidden evil. The scene, of course, has to do with imminent divine judgment (3:10, 12); hence the prophetic judgment serves as a foretaste of what God will do.
This prophet John the Baptizer occupies a strategic place in the narrative. Matthew’s handling of this material acquaints readers/ hearers of the phenomenon of deception and judgmental revelation, an ability that Jesus himself will display shortly. Jesus, who might be said to be John’s apprentice (Hollenbach 1982: XXX), learns this aspect of the role of the prophet by association with him. John’s revelation about the hidden corruption of the Pharisees and Sadducees (3:7-10) contains also a judgment:"every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (3:10). In fact, the judgment demands the unveiling of hidden motives, desires and actions.
Jesus too demonstrates a prophetic ability to unveil secrets and read thoughts and motives. When critics in the silence of their hearts accuse him of blasphemy, he reads their thoughts: "But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, ‘Why do you think evil in your hearts?’" (9:4). Every time he labels someone a "hypocrite," Jesus demonstrates an ability to read hearts and not to be deceived by false exteriors. Equipped with the prophetic power of Isa 29:13, Jesus knows when people honor God only with their lips, but their heart is far from the Lord (15:7-9). Matthew illustrates this revealing power of Jesus most clearly in the "woes" against the Pharisees. Because of his ability to read hearts and unveil secrets, Jesus formally accuses them of deceptive hypocrisy, namely, external purity and internal corruption: "You cleanse the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of extortion and rapacity" (23:25). He reveals that externally they are whitewashed like tombs, but inwardly are "full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness" (23:27).3
But the person who can read hearts and know secrets and apportion just judgment remains the omniscient. And the scenario most appropriate for the exercise of this power is the final Assize when God’s definitive judgment is revealed.
It is a truism that •ποκαλυψις and •πκαλυπτω have to do with the revealing of secrets, namely, the pulling back of the veil that hides. "Apocalyptic" sometimes describes a genre of literature (Collins 1979: ; 1984), and it is also a feature of divine judgment. Given a world of ambiguity, deceit and masquerade, God’s judgment and only it can serve as a true unveiling. And such is the hope of righteous people in this type of cosmos: "Nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known" (Matt 10:26). It is in this vein that Paul describes the judgment of God as the event when the Lord "will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart" (1 Cor 4:5). It belongs to the judging God to "judge the secrets of men" (Rom 2:16). God’s judgment is truly a "day of revelation" when God’s power and sovereignty are revealed (Rom 1:18; 2 Thess 1:6), when true character is unveiled (1 Cor 3:13) and when rewards and punishments are justly awarded (Sir 11:26-27; Rom 8:18).
4.2 Judgment as Just Recompense -- Finally In the ideal cosmos, God sits in his heaven and all’s right with the world. But most people, i.e., John, Jesus, their disciples, and Matthew, do not experience the world in this way. As we have seen, the wicked prosper and the good are shamed; observance of God’s law does not serve as an index of holiness nor non-observance evidence of sinfulness. Thus the norms of judgment are themselves ambiguous; so that many who think they stand are in great danger of falling. Thus we learn that there will be a delightful surprise to some, but a devastating shock to others when all is revealed.
When God removes the veil over all secrets, then the true nature of people will be revealed and their subsequent fates justly apportioned. Just judgment in the case of deceiving hypocrites will mean a shocking reversal of their status, namely, shame and confusion. But for the ambiguous, suffering righteous, God will grant honor and glory. God will not judge by appearance, nor will the Lord be deceived. By way of illustration, let us examine the three parables in Matthew 25 as exemplary of this culturally specific form of divine judgment.
Matt 25:1-13 The evangelist describes a group of ten maidservants in a nobleman’s house. By telling us that five are wise and five foolish, the author invests the story with a serious moral perspective (Via 1967:124). Some maidservants will enter with the bridegroom and be rewarded in his households as loyal and true servants; but some will find the door shut and the bridegroom excluding to them: "I do not know you" (25:12). Nothing less than salvation and damnation are at stake (see 7:21-23).
The scene contains a strong element of ambiguity, secrecy, and deception. Ambiguity: while all have lamps, five have oil and five do not. Neither the maidservants among themselves nor we the audience can distinguish at this point who is wise and who is foolish. All appear the same, and so we cannot see beyond appearances to know who has oil and who does not. Secrecy: the time of the bridegroom’s return is hidden from them (and us). Deception: yet ambiguity is too mild a word to describe this scenario, for deceit and masquerade are being practiced. Things should be otherwise than they are: all maidservants should be prepared with oil in their lamps. While some are indeed prepared, others pretend readiness. If all goes well, that is, if the bridegroom comes quickly, the unpreparedness of the five foolish maids will escape detection. They shall have successfully deceived the groom and entered his household under pretense. The foolish maidservants are not simply unprepared; they hope to deceive the bridegroom, hide their fault and be fraudulently rewarded. They are, in short, masquerading their moral deficiency. And up to a certain point, their ruse succeeds.
But the bridegroom is delayed; and so all ten maidens slumber and sleep. Karl Donfried has argued that this "sleep" means death (1974:426), and so in life the deception by the foolish maidens went undetected. Had the bridegroom come while they were alive, the lack of oil and the maidservants’ unpreparedness would not have been noticed. They and the wise servants would have fared equally by entering into the marriage feast. The bridegroom would have been effectively deceived; the wicked would have fared the same as the just. And such seems to be the experience of people in Matthew’s world. In the preceding parable, the wicked servant noted this obvious fact: "My master is delayed" (24:48), which effectively serves as a denial of divine judgment and moral accountability (Neyrey 1993:236-37). But despite the ambiguity of life on earth, despite the fact that the foolish maidservants’ ruse succeeded up to a point, there is a second moment when all maidservants awake from the sleep of death and face a moment of reckoning. At midnight they are aroused and required to prove themselves. The time of ambiguity and deception is over. The "secret" which no one could know (24:36, 42, 43, 44) is surprisingly revealed. Other revelations are sure to follow.
This particular parable does not describe the bridegroom personally removing the veil over secrets; after all, he is a bridegroom, not a judge. But his coming occasions revelations nonetheless. The foolish maidservants are revealed for what they are: culpably unprepared (see 24:44, 48-51), while the wise are shown to be prudently prepared (24:45-47). As the parable continues, the "judgment" takes the traditional Matthean form of a separation. The foolish leave the house to go in search of oil, but return to find themselves locked outside. Their subsequent appeal to the bridegroom ("Lord, Lord") mocks their earlier attempt to deceive this same lord. The wise and prepared maidens accompany the groom into the house. Thus in the end, the fates of wise and foolish, true and deceitful servants are not the same. The good are finally separated from the wicked, as wheat from chaff. Furthermore, just rewards and punishments are finally meeted out. This parable, then, illustrates the type of judgment scenario we have been describing, where ambiguity and deceit are finally unveiled, and the just and the wicked are finally separated, and each is accorded his or her proper recompense.
Matt 25:14-30 The next parable begins with notice of an absentee landlord, a common feature of gospel stories (Matt 21:33-36; 24:45-46, 47; Luke 16:1-8). The landlord entrusts three servants with substantial but differing amounts of wealth. The servants treat the landlord’s wealth differently: two trade with it and double their initial investment, while the third buries it. Since parables function in terms of binary opposites (Crossan 1979:17-35), both strategies for dealing with the master’s wealth cannot be correct. One strategy will prove to be honorable and deserving of reward, but the other shameful and deserving of punishment. But which? In these details, this parable resembles that of the wise/foolish maidservants in 25:1-13: (a) a master, either "delayed" or absent; (b) servants with duties, either "prepared" with oil and prudent with the master’s wealth or otherwise; (c) return of the principal figure, judgment, and separation of the good from the wicked. In both, we find a strong element of secrecy and ambiguity. Will the strategies work?
The landlord finally returns and demands an accounting. In Matthew and the New Testament, judgment is often cast in terms of "rendering an account" for one’s deeds:
(a) συναραι λογον: Matt 18:23-24; 25:19
(b) •ποδωσουσιν λογον: Matt 12:36; 16:27; 18:25; 20:8
(c) δωσει λογον: Rom 14:12
(d) •ποδωσει κατα τα ¦ργα: Rom 2:6
Other formulations express much the same idea: 2 Cor 5:10; 11:15; Heb 13:17; 1 Pet 4:5. But on what norm is judgment based?
Richard Rohrbaugh has persuasively argued that in the peasant world of the rural hearers of Jesus, the conservative actions of the third servant who hid the master’s wealth would have been recognized by peasants, at least, as the right course of action (1990). Peasant hearers would in fact approve this traditional response of the servant with the one talent, who continued to do what had always been done. On the other hand, the servants who traded with the master’s wealth would have been perceived as risking his wealth, and thus putting it and the master’s honor and status in jeopardy. Moreover, to double an investment such as the first two servants did would be tantamount to theft or fraudulent dealings; Israelite usury law forbade lending money at at levels that could earn interest of 500% and 200%. At first glance, the first two servants appear to be reckless thieves; and the third servant appears to have acted correctly according to peasant norms. But, as is typically the case, appearances are deceiving.
At the master’s reckoning, the apparently incorrect actions of the first two servants are surprisingly praised by the landlord, who honors both of them: "Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a little, I will set you over much; enter into the joy of your master" (25:21,23). The apparently correct action of the third servant is shamed by his master: "You wicked and slothful servant . . . take the talent from him . . . cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness" (25:26, 28, 30). Something, then, is tragically ambiguous when the "imprudent" are praised and rewarded, but the "prudent" is dishonored and punished. Like other judgment scenes in Matthew, we are privy to a revelation which dissolves life’s ambiguities and deceits and which issues in a separation of the good from the wicked. The enterprising servants are richly rewarded and "enter" into the master’s joy, while the conservative servant is stripped of all and "cast out" into darkness.
The parable turns precisely on this ambiguity of correct/incorrect behavior. The third servant boldly confesses that he thought that he was doing the right thing by his conservative, traditional treatment of the master’s wealth (25:24-25). He knew the measure of the master, "a hard man." But to his chagrin, the master accuses him of self-deception: "You knew that I reap where I have not sowed, and gather where I have not winnowed" (v. 26). If he truly knew the character of his master, then why did he not act accordingly? The master judges the situation to be morally indefensible, and so condemns him, dispossesses him, and expels him.
When deceiving appearances are finally clarified in the surprising revelation, then statuses are reversed. Those who appeared to act honorably or prudently are shamed; those who appeared to act dishonorably or imprudently are honored. Insiders become outsiders; become insiders (e.g. Matt 8:11-12; 21:31-32; see Luke 1:50-53; 16:19-25; 18:9-14).
The parable, then, operates on the shock of revealing the ambiguity of a hidden value (the norm of judgment). To the utter surprise of the observer, the third servant is revealed to have judged falsely and acted wrongly. The parable does not tell us if the other two servants were surprised to be praised and rewarded. But the hearers and readers would be shocked. Traditional patterns of conservative behavior are not just "inoperative" now, but lead to ruin. Dishonorable actions are praiseworthy. The world has been turned upside down. What appeared morally correct and praiseworthy may be wrong and shameful; conversely, what appears riskly and reprehensible may be morally correct.
With the revelation of the master’s will and the dispelling of ambiguity, another feature emerges, namely, reversal of status. Indeed, many scenes in the gospels turn precisely on the ambiguity of cultural expectations and their reversal. For example:
1. last is first/first is last (Matt 19:30; 20:16; Mark 9:35; 10:31; Luke 13:30)
2. smallest is greatest/greatest is smallest (Matt 13:32; Mark 4:32; see Luke 7:28)
3. dishonored is honored/honored is shamed (Matt 5:3-15; Luke 6:20-26)
4. humbled is exalted/exalted is humbled (Matt 23:12; Luke 14:11; 18:14)
5. losing is saving/saving is losing (Matt 10:39; 16:25; Mark 8:35; Luke 9:24; 17:33)
6. children are knowledgeable/wise do not know (Matt 11:25)
7. low is high/high is low (Luke 14:9, 10)
8. foolish is wise/wise is foolish (1 Cor 1:25)
9. weak is strong/strong is weak (1 Cor 1:25)
These patterns are not to be taken lightly as "paradoxes," but as perceptions of a painfully ambiguous world. Pursuing the wrong course leads to ruin. Individuals are warned that they are living in an ambiguous world where things are truly other than they appear. Appearances are deceiving; the stakes are very, very high. This parable, then, functions precisely on the shocking revelation of a secret norm of correct behavior whose truth cannot be known until too late.
Matt 25:31-46 In this third parable another judgment scene occurs. No bridegroom arrives late nor an absentee landlord returning from a journey! Now the Son of Man comes in his glory and sits on his glorious throne (25:31). Before him are not maidservants or estate stewards but "all the nations." No scrutiny over oil in lamps, no audit over trade investments, but nevertheless a surprising judgment by which the blessed are separated from the wicked. The nations gathered before the Son of Man are likened to sheep and goats before a shepherd, and the scene operates on the basis of recognizable forensic process: a judge, a norm of judgment, trial, rewards and punishments. Yet for all of its clarity, the parable presumes a world of disguise, secrecy, revelation, and surprise/shock.
Appropriately, the Judge first addresses those at his "right hand," the favorable position. He judges them favorably: "Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom." Then he reveals to them of his norm of judgment: "For, I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, etc." (vv. 35-36). They are surprised at the judge’s remarks, because they confess to not recognizing him when they acted: "Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?" (vv. 37-39). Finally, the Judge reveals the secret of secrets to them, namely, his disguised presence in their midst: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (25:40). Thus in a world where they could not discern the Judge’s disguise, they nevertheless are revealed to have acted correctly. Their surprise rests in the delight of finding an unexpected treasure and an unanticipated reward. Despite the disguise of the Judge, they did the right thing by their neighbors, although by peasant standards such liberal generosity might be though foolishness. Judgment is a revelation which pulls back the veil and a surprising reward for those who acted "foolishly."
The Judge then addresses the goats on his left. He condemns them: "Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels." His judgment rests on the same norm whereby he rewarded the sheep on his right: "For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, etc." (vv. 42-43). They are shocked at this judgment, and beg for clarification: "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison and did not minister to you?" (v. 44). Now the Judge reveals the secret to them: "As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me." (v. 45). Like the blessed in vv. 34-40, they too lived in an ambiguous world; they too confess to not seeing him and not recognizing the disguised Lord. They too did not penetrate the secrecy around them. One might say that they acted wisely by not squandering the family’s meager resources on non-family. Yet the Judge reveals that this calculation was wrong and culpable.
What shall we say of the Judge’s norm of judgment? How can anyone refuse acts of basic charity to someone in need? In a world of limited good, where one’s honorable obligation lies in a type of generalized reciprocity to one’s family (after all, "charity begins at home"), the generous behavior of a "good Samaritan" may not appear honorable at all. One should not take the children’s bread and throw it to dogs (15:26). And if one does not recognize in a needy beggar a kinship bond, is the reservation of whatever food and clothing is available for one’s recognized kin so fundamentally evil? I suspect that the norm of judgment operative in the parable is much less clear than it appears in our liberal theology.
Yet in both scenes, the judgment consists of a revelation of secrets, the unmasking of disguise, and the clarification of ambiguity. Things were not what they seemed, but only the Lord who reads hearts can remove all the veils and make known what was hidden. Both good and bad are surprised, for neither knew the extent of the truth of their world: a disguised Lord, ambiguous norms, and hidden deeds. Yet according to the Gospel’s narrative logic, these participants have been warned that they live in a world of unknowable secrets. Of the greatest secret, the day of the Son of Man, "no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, (nor the Son), but the Father only" (24:36; see Mark 13:33, 35). Hence, they are all commanded to "watch": "Watch, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming" (24:42). It is only those who are "ready" who will enter (25:10) or survive a revealing judgment (24:44). The Lord makes no apology for secrets, disguise and ambiguity; the world remains frightfully insecure and unpredictable, as he said. And readiness and watching constitute the appropriate strategy.
In summary, judgment in Matthew’s world has to do with an •ποκαλψις, the unveiling of things hidden. Despite what Jesus says, it is no easy matter to read either the signs of the weather or the signs of the time (16:1-3). There are major secrets in the lives of the people of the narrative and the parables; some things cannot be known. In a world is filled with ambiguity, who is wise and who is foolish? who is kin and who is not? what is right and what is wrong? People are disguised and go unrecognized, even by the most astute. Others practice deception, appearing dutiful while unprepared, hoping to escape detection and shame. Hence people experience surprise and shock: surprise that they acted correctly or shock to learn that traditional wisdom no longer applies. But all need to be told by another whether they were acting correctly; another reveals to them secrets hidden from them or by them. The essential act of judgment becomes revelation.
What, then, is Matthew’s understanding of God in a world of ambiguity, secrecy, lying and deceit? God must read hearts, not merely keep records. God must vindicate his rule/norms by finally setting honor and shame where they belong, which means a revelation of true worth and true behavior. God’s judgment must be not simply a just judgment, a lex talionis, but an "apokalypsis," the revelation of secrets and the dispelling of deceit. And so God will vindicating his honor by exposing the shame of the wicked.
5.0 Other Forms of Judgment?
The symbolic universe described above and its corresponding description of divine judgment are not the only ones found in the first-century. And it will help to compare and contrast it with another perspective in which the world is seen to be more orderly, and where judgment is more predictable. For purposes of comparison, we can only sketch this form of judgment.
Some people in the first-century perceived the cosmos as much more orderly than the scenario described above. God enjoys uncontested sovereignty, both as creator of the world and as its ruler and judge. All things in God’s world are elaborately classified, as in the case of Jerusalem’s Temple and Leviticus. In this world, rituals of purification work. Temple feasts such as Yom Kippur effectively purify the nation of sin. The washing of hands, vessels, clothes, etc., and the use of mikvoth effectively purify individuals from uncleanness. In such an apparent world, a man is known by the company he keeps, and books are known by their covers. One’s actions, moreover, adequately express one’s moral state. The rules of right conduct are clearly stated in codes such as the Ten Commandments or in the conventional lists of virtues and vices. The rights and duties of household members are expressed in traditional haustafeln. Guilt follows the transgression of these rules, even inadvertent violations (Hanson 1990).
In such an orderly and clear world, when God acts as a just judge, the divine judgment evokes no surprise. The rules are well known and human actions are thought to express accurately the moral status of the person. Thus in God’s presence the books are opened, and God impartially rewards or punishes according to a predictable lex talionis. Thus clarity of moral norms and behavior match divine fairness and predictability of rewards and punishments. Hence, no surprise, no unveiling of secrets, no shocking reversal of status.
Thus two different perceptions of the universe yield two contrasting views of God’s judgment. We can compare and contrast these world views and judgment scenarios in the following diagram.
Traditional Judgment Scenario
Apocalyptic Judgment Scenario
1. The Presentation of God:
- supreme, uncontested sovereign
- God’s laws & judgment evident:
good is rewarded and evil is
1. The Presentation of God:
- orderer of the world
- but opposed by rivals, who war on
- judgment not evident: the wicked
prosper and the good suffer (i.e.,
the prophets, the Baptizer, the
2. How the Cosmos Works:
- clarity, exactness of classification;
- outer matches inner
- sense of cosmic fairness; God is
- God is impartial judge (Rom 2:6-10)
- judgment confirms the Judge’s
honor; the lawgiver enforces his laws
2. How the Cosmos Works:
- would that there were order and
clarity; pervasive ambiguity
- outer does not match inner
- sense of cosmic masquerade; God
& Evil Powers at war
- God is not mocked (Gal 6:7)
- Judge defends his honor from
challenge; secrets revealed and
3. Moral Order in This Cosmos:
- rules, laws clear (e.g. Decalogue)
- actions manifest the heart & motive
- sin is transgression of known laws,
rules and customs
3. Moral Order in This Cosmos
- traditional rules, lists of virtues
- but hypocrisy: actions do not
manifest inner states
- sin is not just transgression, but
corruption (leaven, poison,
4. Mode of Judgment:
- principle: lex-talionis (Exod 21:23-
24; Lev 23:18-20; Deut 19:21)
- God renders judgment according to
deeds (Ps 62:12; Sir 16:14; Rom
2:6; Matt 16:27; 2 Cor 5:10)
- results: confirmation of what has
already been known: e.g., the
measure you give is the measure you
get; as you sow, so shall you reap (2
Cor 9:6; Gal 6:7-8)
- no surprise: norms clear and
recompense predictable; e.g. book of recorded deeds, scales of justice, motif of two ways
4. Mode of Judgment:
- principle: revelation of hidden evil,
deception; clarification of
- God reads hearts (Pss 7:9; 64:6;
139:1; 1 Chron 28:9; Job 10:6; Jer
11:20; 17:10; 1 Cor 4:6; 1 Thess
- results: disclosure of secrets and
surprising reversals, which include
reversal of external status (Matt
21:31; 25:31-46; Luke 1:51-53;
- surprise: ambiguous norms and
For those familiar with the classification system of Mary Douglas, "high grid" adequately describes the left column and "low grid" the right column (Malina 1986:29-44).
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2. One might appeal here to the tradition about the Messianic secret, first argued by W. Wrede. See John J. Pilch," Secrecy in the Mediterranean World: An Anthropological Perspective," BTB24 (1994) 151-56.
3. Revelation of secrets and the unveiling of deceit and hypocrisy are a recurring feature of God’s own judgment in Jewish and Christian literature. When judging, God judges justly; for, he is able to "try the heart and mind" (Jer 11:20; see Jer 12:3 and 17:10; Pss 7:9; 17:3; Prov 17:3). God is not impressed or deceived by exteriors, for he "knows the heart" (1 Sam 16:7; 1 Chron 28:9; Prov 15:11; Jer 20:12; Luke 16:15; Acts 1:24). As Isaiah said, God "shall not judge by what his eyes see or what his ears hear" (11:3). Paul regularly speaks of God’s judgmental ability in terms of the divine power to unmask secrets and read hearts. Paul does not fear to stand before the judging God "who tests our hearts" (1 Thess 2:4). In Revelation, Jesus the Judge of the Seven Churches describes himself as "I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you as your work deserves" (2:23). It belongs to God to know the "hidden person" apart from worldly ornamentation, which is an external and ambiguous claim to honor and status (1 Pet 3:4).