Monday, September 23, 2013

Matthew's "Tabernacle"

The Tabernacle motif, though implicit, plays a critical role in the Matthean narrative. The Tent of Meeting or Tabernacle symbolized, literally, God’s presence among God’s people (Exodus 35-40). In the 40-year sojourn of the Israelites in the wilderness, God was always with them via the Tabernacle, a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night. In other words, where the Tabernacle was, there was God. Matthew begins and ends with Immanuel, God-with-us (1.23, 28:20). Thus, the Gospel effectively sets the boundaries of its own “tabernacle.” Matthew creates a world of insiders and outsiders relative to this “tabernacle.” 1 And right at the middle of this “tent” is the greatest symbol of faith in the gospel—the centurion (Matthew 8:10).
The encounter between the centurion and Jesus, according to Musa Dube (in Postcolonial Feminist Interpretation of the Bible), particularly highlights Matthew’s stance toward the Empire. Both men are presented as having authority to effect things simply by the power of their words (Matt. 8:8-9). The comparison of Jesus’ authority with that of the centurion’s has the effect of sanctifying the imperial power. Jesus pronounces the centurion’s faith greater than the faith of everyone in Israel (Matt. 8:10), a statement that contrasts the imperial agent with the colonized and exalts his righteousness above theirs. The passage casts imperial officials as holier and predicts that they, and other groups, will have more power (in the kingdom of God). Such characterization not only disguises what imperial agents represent—institutions of exploitation and oppression—but also pronounces imperialism holy and acceptable. A quick survey of the history of the interpretation of Matthew and centuries of Western colonization—euphemistically called “civilizing missions”—in Asia, Africa, and Latin America shows that most interpreters followed the Gospel’s imperial rhetoric. In Matthew’s “tabernacle,” God’s presence is most evident in a military officer, in an imperial agent. The first one thousand years of Christianity was one millennium of war and destruction in the name of Jesus Christ. And those “civilizing missions” have not stopped. Even today, the most oppressive and dehumanizing societies are led by “Christian” centurions who have no qualms maiming and destroying those who are not “one of them.”
The centurion is to Matthew as the 30-caliber machine gun mount is to the military jeep. To read Matthew inside a jeepney is to celebrate the fact that the first thing Filipinos did in their transformation of the military jeep was to rid it of that machine gun mount. To read Matthew inside a jeepney is to remove our gaze from the centurion—and, yes, even Jesus, who mimics the centurion—and focus it on someone else. I suggest focusing our attention on the servant (pais in Greek) of 8:5-13. The pais, whether translated son, daughter, girl, boy, servant, slave, or sex slave, is a child. He or she serves to remind flesh and blood readers that the reality of empire—in varying forms and degrees—is experienced by children and by those who are treated as children. Political sociologist Ashis Nandy draws attention to the way the colonized are viewed as children by the colonizers.2 The pais reminds flesh and blood readers that children’s oppression—of varying forms and degrees—is written in the text because, despite the rhetoric that God’s reign is for children (Matt. 19:14), no child is ever named—except Jesus—or is given a voice in the gospel—except Herodias’s daughter, who says what her mother tells her to say. Like the Canaanite woman’s daughter (15:21-28) and the pais, Herodias’s daughter serves only as a medium through which competing discourses present their claims. The girl falls prey to manipulation by her mother and by Herod. We don’t even get to hear the cries of the children who are massacred in 2:18, only their mothers’ cries. Children are the primary victims of Matthew’s “culture of silence.” Look at how the pais is described in Greek: ho pais mou, “the servant who is mine.” That child’s body is under somebody else’s control—whether it’s his father, his owner, or, as I have argued elsewhere, his pedophile. The centurion’s act on the pais’s behalf emphasizes the latter’s marginalization. As far as Matthew is concerned, the pais cannot speak or seek his own healing. Yet, because that child is “paralyzed,” albeit momentarily, he also paralyzes his owner, who must seek help from Jesus. The child also interrupts the goings and the comings of the centurion’s soldiers, since the centurion is not with them to give them orders (Matt. 8:9). Thus, with his paralysis, the child also interrupts the imperial expansion. Throughout the Gospel, characters come and go, borders are crossed: magi from the East come seeking the king of the Jews (2:1-12); Joseph and his family flee into Egypt (2:13-15); Herod sends his death squads to Bethlehem to murder children (2:16-18); Joseph and his family go to Nazareth, from Egypt (2:19-23); Jesus goes to John the baptizer and is led by the Spirit into the wilderness (3:1–4:11); Jesus leaves Nazareth and makes his home in Capernaum (4:12); the centurion comes to Jesus and the latter is convinced of the imperial authority that effects goings and comings, travel to distant lands, and control at a distance (8:5-13). The disciples are systematically prepared for their commissioning (10:1-42); the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus (15:21-28); the heavy-laden come to Jesus (11:28). Jesus eventually sends out his disciples (28:16-20). Everyone in the story moves, except the pais in Matthew 8:5-13. Yes, even for a brief moment, the pais revels in the space her paralysis brings. For about eight short verses in the very long 28 chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, the pais is free of the centurion. The colonized is free of her colonizer.
Notes: 1. The Gospel of Matthew is a narrative discourse constructed against the backdrop of Roman imperial occupation. In other words, it is a story of people in this imperialistic situation. 2. See Leela Gandhi, Postcolonial Theory (New York: 1998), 32.