Monday, December 5, 2016

Messiah Who?

A colleague of mine, Pam Payne, once told me that she avoids using the term "messiah" to refer to the Christian identification of Jesus. She was glad to use the tem "Christ," but "messiah," she argued, was reserved for an exclusively Jewish context. Of course, she understood that they are actually the same word--one Hebrew and the other Greek--but she still insisted on maintaining the distinction. It was a semi-provocative statement designed to convey a more subtle message: Christians have defined all messianic expectations in the person of Jesus to the exclusion of any Jewish understandings that may not be reflected in his life and witness.

Can we do that? Of course we can. Just like a preacher who "borrows" other people's stories and makes them fit his or her sermon, we can take the story of salvation history and view it exclusively through the lens of Jesus' narrative. But should we? That's another question--one more difficult to answer.

In Sunday's gospel lesson (Matthew 11:2-11), Matthew will identify Jesus as "Messiah" without any explanation or fanfare. He writes, "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, 'Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'" It's as if Matthew sees the term "Messiah" functioning as a part of or substitute for Jesus' name--much as "Christ" does when we refer to him as "Jesus Christ" or just "Christ." It surprises me a little bit that Matthew throws that label out there without bothering to build up to it. In the rest of the passage, we get to explore that messianic identity, but I wonder whether his readers would have found his use of the term provocative--as if it demanded a fuller explanation.

Unlike Mark, who waits until Peter's confession in Mark 8:29 to link Jesus with the title "Messiah," Matthew begins his gospel account by making that connection: "An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah..." (1:1). Five times in his first two chapters, Matthew uses that title to describe Jesus as he recalls his parents' preparation for his birth and the wise men's quest to find him. But then, with regard to "Messiah," Matthew goes quiet. He stops using the word as we read about Jesus' ministry. Perhaps following the example of Mark, Matthew waits until chapter 16, where Peter confesses Jesus' true identity, to use the term again with one big exception: chapter 11.

John the Baptist gets his own moment to make the connection between Jesus and the anointed one upon whom Israel waited, but Matthew doesn't wait long enough to let him (or us) figure it out. "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing..." We aren't given the opportunity to doubt. We start the passage knowing what the answer will be. The narrator has told us how it will end. Jesus is the one we're looking for. He is the anointed one. He is the Messiah. But what does that mean? What sort of messiah is he talking about? Jesus said to John's disciples, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me."

On Sunday, when we hear this passage, I think we're supposed to marvel at the surprise-but-no-surprise nature of this revelation. Jesus is the Messiah. Like Matthew, we all take that for granted. But what does that mean? Do we really know what we're saying when we use that label? Jesus tells us that he is the one who restores sight to the blind, allows the lame to walk, cleanses the lepers, unstops the ears of the deaf, raises the dead, and brings good news to the poor. Do we remember that that's the Jesus of the gospel? Do we remember that that's the messianic identity he ascribes to himself?

There are lots of different messiahs upon whom the prophets of the Hebrew Bible wait. Some are like Jesus, but others are not. Similarly, there are lots of messianic expectations within the Christian tradition and within each of our hearts. Some of them are fulfilled by Jesus, but others are not. This Sunday, we have the chance to stop and think about what we mean when we talk of Jesus as the Messiah--what do we mean, what did Matthew mean, and what did Jesus mean? I suspect we'll leave church knowing what we already knew--that Jesus, indeed, is the Messiah--but I also think that if we pay attention we may leave with a clearer picture of what that means.

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