Is it possible to have differing, actually differing, tellings of what the gospel is and how Jesus works side by side in the same faith community? Or is that just a recipe for two different denominations’ churches in the same town?
Sometimes I will give my students this piece of advice: get to know one of the Gospels really well. Actually, make it one of the first three: Matthew, Mark, or Luke.
These are called the Synoptic Gospels, because it looks like they’re seeing the same thing, like they’re saying all the same things.
Until you really get to know them.
That’s why I say get to know one. Then when you dive into another the differences will strike you and you’ll be able to better catch what’s unique about the telling that’s unfolding in front of your eyes.
You’ll be able to better understand why God gave us multiple Gospel stories instead of one.
How does the story of Jesus’s ministry begin?
Like Mark, Matthew first shows us Jesus calling his inner core of followers–Simon, Andrew, James, John.
But then Matthew wants to create a different sort of impression. Mark shows us a series of encounters, beginning with a sermon and exorcism in a synagogue then moving into healing stories. But Matthew summarizes for us that Jesus preached in synagogues and healed without showing any particular examples, and moves quickly into the Sermon on the Mount.
Interestingly, both Mark’s first story about Jesus teaching in the synagogue and Matthew’s first demonstration of teaching in the Sermon end with the same acclamation: Jesus teaches as one who has authority and not like the scribes.
But it’s the contrast in how the next few stories unfold that grabbed me recently (and by recently I mean 20 minutes ago).
Mark moves rather organically through the first few stories: from calling Peter et al, to the synagogue, to the house where Peter’s mother-in-law is sick, to the arrival of evening on that same sabbath, when the Jewish people are at liberty to bring people to Jesus for healing, to Jesus running off to pray and learning that it is time to go elsewhere, to a leper in one of these other villages asking for help.
Matthew’s stories unfold differently.
The first story that’s told is the one where Jesus transgresses religious and social taboo by touching the leper. “You are able,” the leper declares. “You can do this if you want to.”
The second story Matthew tells is, shockingly, of a Roman centurion asking for healing for a paralyzed child or servant. This man understands authority. And he understands what it means to say that Jesus has it.
Jesus is astounded: “I have not found such faith in Israel!” This is the first healing story in the Gospel. And it is done on behalf of a Gentile. Not only an outsider, but one whose military position marks him as the agent through whom God’s people are being kept from their freedom.
And he becomes a sign–a harbinger of a greater ingathering to come: people will come from east and west to recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the great eschatological banquet.
All of this from the first story of Jesus healing. Because it came by way of an unexpected confession, the unforeseen insight of the consummate outsider.
Matthew’s Jesus then goes and heals Peter’s mother in law.
And, after rebuffing a pair of would-be followers, he heads off to the Decapolis to take care of the Gadarene demoniac(s), those who are called legion in Mark. These are placed much later in Mark, in what might be Jesus’s first significant contact with a non-Jewish supplicant.
But in Matthew, we have the Gadarene/Gerasene story right up front, before the first controversies with the religious insiders.
Well, a couple of things.
First, we need to remember that differently telling the story of Jesus, what Jesus did, and what the significance of that story might be, is an inherent part of our religious reality.
Especially because our gospel is first and foremost a story, no two people are going to tell it in exactly the same way.
Second, when people tell the story differently they often do so not for the purpose of saying the same thing in different words, but for the purpose of saying something different from what was said before.
Third, this business of storytelling and its inherent diversity means that most of us want something from scripture and/or God that we simply haven’t been given.
This difference troubles us. Well, it’s the part that often troubles me.
I want a cleaner line. I want a clearer sense of the one thing I need to say in order to be saying it right. I want to be able to simply recite the right answer and get my gold star.
But our message is a story, not a statement of faith. It doesn’t work like that. The facts that we believe are always embedded in narratives that provide them with sense and significance.
Fourth, we are supposed to not only tell, but to be and to live the gospel story. This means that the challenge of telling a faithful story with embedded truth is the continuing challenge for all Christians in all times and places.
Fifth, Matthew here is framing his story in a way that I think resonates with some of us and terrifies some others.
Matthew is telling the story in order to front-load the possibility that people who are outsiders might better know the reality of God in Christ than insiders.
Matthew is telling the story to highlight the taboo-breaking touch that comes to the leper, the enemy-affirming love that comes to the centurion, the grace of deliverance that comes to the terrifying demoniacs of Gadara.
Yes, yes. The multitudes followed from Judea and Jerusalem and Galilee and the like. But maybe they… well… maybe we, who should know, who have been trained to listen, who know all the right answers, who have all the gold stars on our God knowledge sheets–well, maybe we aren’t as impressive as we sometimes think.
For the past week or so we’ve been having a lot of talk here about forming Christian communities as places where people can differ.
I wonder if we have such a hard time because we haven’t yet come to grips with the fact that there always have been, and always will be, multiple tellings of the story?
I wonder if we have such a hard time because we don’t want to face the possibility that the comfort we have in knowing the truth might be the very thing keeping us from being the prime example of the radical in-breaking of the kingdom of God?