Gospel Elements and Culture

  by Dhyanchand Carr



It is well known that all cultures which have received the Gospel have acted as filters choosing to emphasise those elements deemed relevant or convenient to them. In this process of selection for emphasis the Gospel story itself gets reshaped. Sometimes such reshaping takes place in the context of people who suffer persecution or oppression. At other times the reshaping takes place in cultures of domination. Such an interaction between Gospel and culture is not only inevitable but it is the only saving feature when the Gospel that is communicated to an oppressed people is that which has earlier been filtered and shaped by a dominant group. For example, the Gospel which came to Asia from the West is the domination endorsing version of the Gospel. Through sheer providence of God, however, we have access to the bible. Through this access it is now possible to recognize the conveniently introduced distortions and we are free to reshape the Gospel Story as is relevant to our situation.

Can such a reshaping and retelling be allowed to go on endlessly? What is the connection between the original Gospel Story and the reshaped version? In other words, "What are the unchangeable elements of the Gospel’ both with regard to the events of Jesus’ life, Jesus’ teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus and with regard to the faith affirmations about the relevance of Jesus’ teaching, the meaning and significance of his death and the nature of the hope based on belief about his resurrection.

It is at the level of perception of meaning cultural and contextual factors play an important role. The Gospel Story, needless to point out, is the combination of received tradition comprising the historical events and the meaning perceived. The perception of meaning cannot be neatly culled away from the historical events. For in any retelling of the story the events themselves also get reshaped. This is inevitable. It is also necessary to bring out the contextual relevance. However, as already pointed out a particular shape of the story gets given the status of an authoritative tradition especially when the story is shaped by dominant vested interests. Such an imputed authority gets internalised by the dominated. Then it becomes extremely difficult to get the subjugated people free to retell the story which makes it relevant to their situation.

Especially because the oppressed and subjugated people get intimidated that they have no right to perceive meaning differently and to retell the story in accordance with that perception we need to reassure them by showing first, that the Gospel has been reshaped repeatedly even within the bible itself. This is why we have four canonical gospels. We shall seek to show in this essay the way in which Matthew and Luke attempted to retell the Story of God in Jesus of Nazareth in ways appropriate to their communities. The purpose is not to show one as more appropriate than the other. Rather, in so far as both are in the canon of scriptures, the purpose is to see how both though significantly different from one another at many crucial points yet met the needs of particular communities. Secondly such an understanding about different reshaping within the canon will also help us to identify the basic elements which are unalterable. The identification of such basic elements could not be limited to the bare historical facts in so far as they can be known through the historical critical method. The basic elements which are unchangeable constants will also have to do with the unalterable perception of meaning and significance.

Our task, in short, is to see how we may identify the basic elements on the one hand and in what ways we can incorporate those elements in a reshaped Gospel Story which is culturally and contextually relevant. To do this we shall see how Matthew and Luke made two different stories from the unchanging story of God’s redemptive presence in the despised, rejected and killed Jesus of Nazareth.

1. Matthew’s Story

1.1. The Story Behind Matthew’s Story

The community of Matthew probably was made up of Jewish Christians of Glilean origin. They had to flee the wrath of Rome during the uprising which was itself instigated by the zealot movement which had originated in Galilee. It is probable that at least some Christian youth had joined the revolt and had been slaughtered by Rome. This meant that the core of Jewish Christians of the Matthaean community had nurtured a grievance against all non Jews. In spite of this prejudice, however, they found that the Gentile Christian numbers were constantly increasing. Inevitably, therefore, inter ethnic tensions surfaced and it was not easily abated by mutual Christian love and understanding.

Secondly the separation between Jewish Christians and the non believing Jewish community came about only gradually. The Jewish Christians could not bring themselves to eat non Kosher meat and meat of the deemed ‘unclean’ animals easily. Such cultural inhibitions would have naturally made them to keep links with the local Jewish synagogues. This meant that repeatedly they would be called upon to explain how they could accept Jesus as the Messiah when Jesus had neither broken the Roman yoke nor had he led the scattered ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’ i.e., Jews who lived away from Palestine among the surrounding nations back to Palestine and the Christians found it difficult to give a convincing answer. This meant that the Jewish section of the Matthaean community was not happy among their own people either. On the one hand they found it extremely difficult to overcome their prejudices against all non Jews even if some of them were part of their faith community as fellow Christians. On the other hand they themselves did not find a happy welcome among the local Jewish community either. Matthew tells his story in such a way as to bring a corrective as well as comfort. It was mandatory that the Jewish Christians learnt to accept the Gentile Christians in every way and that meant that they had to overcome some of the long cherished cultural prejudices. They had to learn also to forget and forgive the Romans. It was also important that they became able to give a convincing apologetic to the fellow Jews. Matthew’s story attempts to meet this need too.

There was yet another debate going on at a different level. This was regarding the way in which Jerusalem had become the head quarters of the early universal church that was emerging. Jewish Christians who had come from Galilee felt very uncomfortable about this. Especially as Peter’s leadership had been side lined and James, who seems to have had greater orthodox Jewish leanings, had assumed leadership the Matthaean community naturally seems to have been upset. Matthew in this respect seems to approve these reservations and sentiments.

Matthew’s community needed to be challenged about the unnecessary exclusivistic aspects of their cultural inhibitions. Yet they had to learn in what way God was present in the history of the children of Abraham upto the time of the coming of Jesus. The community needed equipping in terms of making sense of Jesus’ Messiahship in spite of many texts in the Jewish scriptures which seemed to endorse Jewish expectations. The community also needed reassurance that the Galileans had a special place in Gospel.

1.2. The Matthaean Reshaping

It is common knowledge that Matthew accepted the Marcan tradition as a core tradition. We are, therefore interested in the embellishments which Matthew introduced into the core tradition inorder to achieve the desired results according to the situation described above. We shall briefly point those out.

(a) The Jewish Prejudices against Gentiles

Matthew goes about his job in a systematic way. He begins with a genealogy when Mark had none. A superficial reader will get the impression that Matthew was keen to emphasise the Jewish ancestry of Jesus, but Matthew in fact had a very subversive design. Without questioning the promise to Abraham and his descendants he points out that the Jews were not a ‘pure’ race. Gentile blood ran in their veins. Even the chosen dynasty of David among many other descendants had at least four Gentile women Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba.

The much feared and hated Romans were not despised by Jesus (Mtt.8:1-13). The way Jesus commended the faith of the Roman Centurion, and the way in which he yielded to the great faith displayed by a Canaanite both show that somehow the Jewish Christians had to learn to overcome their prejudices. Matthew holds up the example of Jesus. At the same time very ingeniously through the story of the failing faith of Peter (Matt.14:22-32) tries to tell his Jewish Christians of his community their faith is frail like that of their fellow Galilean. This reference to Peter’s failing faith which is found only in Matthew probably has a veiled reference to Peter’s hesitation in relating to the Gentiles in Antioch (See Gal.2:11-14). This way Matthew tells his community that their faith should become great like that of the Canaanite woman who through sheer perseverance broke down barriers erected by the people of God themselves.

(b) The Messianic Expectations of the Jewish People

The Jewish people, a much oppressed nation, had been longing for liberation. This was but natural. However, their hope was not just for liberation and freedom. They also aspired to become the top most nation and make all other nations serve them as imperial masters. Unfortunately, even many of the prophets voice similar sentiments. No wonder, then, that their expectations were centered around a Messiah who would not only liberate them from the Roman yoke but who would lead all the scattered Jews back to Palestine and build a great big empire which will last for ever and the Jewish people will be the most powerful among all the nations.

No wonder then that the Jewish people were not ready to accept Jesus the one who was crucified by Rome and one who died crying ‘My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?’

What Matthew does is to show that Jesus chose to be a servant rather than an emperor (Matt.8:17; 20;). Even as Son of David Jesus was keen to reverse the wrong done by David. For example, David had taken Zion from the Jebusites, and nicknamed them as blind and lame. In order to create a permanent symbol that Zion for ever will exclude the Jebusites he declared that all blind and lame will be kept out from the Temple (II Sam.5:6-8). But Jesus, the Son of David reverses this injustice by bringing them into the Temple and healing them inside the Temple. This offended the elders. But children sang praises (Matt. 21:14-16).

(c) The Lost Sheep of the House of Israel

Similarly the understanding about gathering together the lost sheep of the house of Israel also is radically reinterpreted. The lost sheep are not those who are living comfortably in foreign lands who were merely looking forward to return to Israel inorder that they may participate in the Messianic Empire. The Lost Sheep are those who are socially scattered and stigmatized right within Israel itself. i.e., those who are deemed cursed because of their physical handicaps, those who are socially ostracised like the sex workers and tax gatherers, those who are culturally stigmatized like women and the Galileans... are the ones who are to be designated as the lost sheep (see Matt.9:36 and 11:2-5).

Thus Matthew helped to strengthen the faith of the Jewish Christians so that they can convince their fellow Jews so that they too can be weaned away from particularistic and exclusivistic attitudes and develop clarity about the hope for God’s Righteous Rule for all those rendered poor in spirit. It is not that Jesus’ Messiahship is spiritual and otherworldly. No, what Matthew is showing is that his Messiahship is that of the Servant/Son of Man, that it has a universal scope inclusive of all the poor in spirit, all the landless, all the mourners of wars and devastations and in general all those who are longing for God’s justice (Matt.5:3-6).

In summary we can say that God in Jesus of Nazareth was showing solidarity with all the oppressed and stigmatized and opened up the way for collectivising power in the hands of the poor in spirit and for restoration of all legitimate rights and privileges of all the victims of injustice.

The culture and context of the oppressed everywhere can make this story their own. The dominant and the imperialists on the other hand should repent of all the ways they have abused the story for their own advantage.

2. Luke’s Story

In order to understand how Luke’s community reshaped the Gospel we should take the twin volumes of Luke-Acts together.

We do know that Luke has many special emphases. He too emphasises the universality of God’s love made known in Jesus of Nazareth. He highlights the way Jesus praised a Samaritan traveler for his humanitarian act and set him up as an example to follow by those keen to obtain salvation through religion. He has a special place for women. He alone mentions the names of the women disciples of Jesus (Lk.8:1-3). All this we know.

What is not that readily perceived is the way in which Luke seeks to provide a justification for the leadership of the Jerusalem church taken over by James.

Matthew and Mark as we can easily notice say that Jesus appeared to the disciples in Galilee and not in Jerusalem. but Luke insists that the Risen Lord commanded them not to leave Jerusalem until they were empowered by the Holy Spirit. When we read the story of the early Church in Acts it is very obvious that James is in a position of authority over Peter and Paul (see Acts 15:1-21 and 22:17-26).

When we attempted to draw out the salient features of Matthew (in 1.1) we mentioned that Matthew sought to contend James’ position. But we did not discuss this further. We can recall that only in Matthew we have our Lord’s declaration that it is upon Peter as the rock on which the church would be built and the keys of the kingdom would be given to him. This story in Matt.16:16-19 is there simply to tell all Christians of Galilean origin that they are the ones chosen by God as the keepers of the Gospel not the Church headquarters in Jerusalem.

Luke on the other hand seeks not to press the issue. He is a person with an irenic spirit. So he compromises. And inorder to clinch the compromise he retells the story of the resurrection appearances and of Pentecost very differently from Matthew and also from John. It would be no use trying to harmonise. Rather, we should be ready to recognize that Matthew as leader of a Christian community in which a majority of them were from Galilee a stigmatized community thought fit to emphasise how God chose them to be the bearers of the Gospel. Luke on the other hand seeing that James’ leadership had come to stay because of his closeness to the conservative Jewish leaders of Jerusalem decides to offer an apologetic through his story telling. Who is right? Who is telling the facts?

We can say theologically Matthew is more in the right. Pragmatically, considering the Jewish militant opposition to the Gospel Luke’s compromise is understandable. Even today often compromise candidates are chosen for positions of leadership for the sake of vested interests. This is how culture and context influence the shape of the Gospel. There is no fixed formula for discerning whose story we should accept. We should ask whether the story originates in a situation of domination, or whether the story is the story of an oppressed people and brings assurance and empowerment to them. We should also ask whether the story affirms God’s preferential option for the poor or whether the story seeks to legitimise oppression, marginalisation and exploitation. It is by asking such questions and by developing the confidence that we have to retell the story in a way that fits our context we can move forward. Jesus the Organizer, Messiah and the Minjung are examples of such bold retelling. A just and loving God was fully present in the despised, rejected and killed Jesus. The powers that be (religious, cultural and political) put him to death. But God raised him from the dead. He is walking in all the Galilees of the world. We can meet with him in the Galilees of the world and receive power to do what he did. This is the basic story. How we shape it today interweaving it into our own stories is the task of every generation.