One last bit of reflection on Matthew before I move on to Luke. I want to begin with an observation I made at the beginning of this “series” related to the gospels and churches. If you believe, as seems obvious, that the gospels were occasional writings, (that is stories of Jesus suited for specific churches and their actual pastoral needs) then it’s important to think about the significance of using a narrative to address specific church problems. After all, a narrative is fairly indirect. So, a gospel wouldn’t function the way a handbook would or even a pastoral letter with specific advice. I think there are times when the narrator steps out of the narrative to make an unmistakable point, or when Jesus speaks directly to a situation that everyone in the audience recognizes. More often, though, a gospel invites participants into the experience of an unfolding drama so as to remake the world in which they are trying to make gospel sense of things.
While gospels are more indirect, they are also full of greater possibility. Our experiences with novels and movies tells us that there is always more meaning to be gleaned in subsequent viewings or readings. Poetry and narratives are particularly porous, carrying within their forms a surplus of meaning. Some of this meaning is undoubtedly intended by the author who leaves clues for interpretation along the way. But some of this surplus meaning is supplied by the reader. As a would-be author, I have been surprised by the ways things I have written have been interpreted, and not in ways that I felt were wrong, but in ways that suggested that there was more meaning in what I wrote than what was apparent to me.
This notion of a surplus of meaning is important to understanding Scripture as a living word, one that can speak beyond its context to new audiences while generating meanings never imagined by the author. These meanings are not indeterminate because the documents have specific words used within a specific literary and theological context. But they can produce meanings beyond what the author intended.
I’ve rambled a bit here to say that the narrative form has hermeneutical significance. That is, narratives produce an expansive imagination not created by other forms of literature, like a driver’s handbook, or an order of worship, or my wife’s shopping list. Narratives tend to be more evocative and less prescriptive. The gospel writers seem to understand that ministry is an interpretative art and not so much en exacting science.
In the last post, I discussed how Jesus’ approach to Scripture was more open than closed. Both Jesus’ key hermeneutical clue,”I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and the formula “you have heard it said…, but I say to you” are expansive, pushing beyond the letter and deeper into the demands of the love of God and neighbor. The interpretation of Scripture is not primarily self-referential, Scripture in that sense being a closed universe of meanings. Rather, Scripture is interpreted in light of the actual conditions of the lives of people.
“Scribes (interpreters) trained for the kingdom of heaven are those who take from their storehouse both treasure old and treasure new” (13:52). In other words, they don’t just apply the old to the new, but they value both the old and the new as opportunities for the living God to be known. This interpretative approach to the faith, one that is open to the new as well as the old, keeps faith from being reduced only to certain, safe performances of the tradition. Those who look to Matthew as a recipe for living as a “people of the book,” will also find themselves open to the new, and as a result, open to mission in God’s world.