In 2004 when I was working in Asia teaching in the School of Biblical studies, because of my constant time studying and reflecting on Scripture, I had many questions about the work for the original authors. I don’t know how long it took, but I finally built up the courage to hack out a letter to the gospel writer St. John and ask him a few questions that had been brewing somewhere in my subconscious for a time.
To my surprise, John responded with an email, and suggested we sit down for a talk. We did. That experience not only changed my life, but opened the door to similar conversations with each of the gospel writers. Oh the places we went. I asked them a lot of questions: about the Gospel, suffering, cyborgs, feminism, literature, the F-word, meaning and language and more. The interviews turned into a book-length manuscript The Gospel Writers Meet: Conversations with Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, that I hope to publish somewhere, somehow in the future. It’s a collection of conversations about their writing in the present day, and includes some of their latest poetry and literary work as well.
The following is an excerpt from a detailed conversation I had with St. Matthew on a balcony overlooking the ocean at a fine establishment in a beloved Malaysian city.
AK: I’m always interested to pick the brain of other writers. If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you some questions about writing.
MT: Of course.
AK: The life of a writer is a lonely journey so it can be nice to have some fellowship with others along the way.
MT: Such fellowship is essential.
AK: I’m interested to hear what you have to say about the writing life. What advice do you have for young or aspiring writers?
MT: Be careful what you write and what you wish for. You never know how many people will read the finished result. I say that partly in jest, but I do mean it.
AK: Do you think about an audience when you sit down to write?
MT: Of course I do. Every one does. You have to. Now, you don’t want to think too much about audience response or else you’ll never really write. But you need to consider audience. You’re writing to be read otherwise you wouldn’t have picked up your pen. You have to think about what interests people, what interests you. I always tell young people there is one important rule. Sit down and write. Make time for it, be jealous for that time and protect it. Writing is a discipline. Don’t sit and wait for that moment of inspiration. You’ll wait your whole life. Be thankful for the times when the inspiration comes. Otherwise, be disciplined: read books, study other forms — painting, music, drama, experiment.
AK: This might seem a strange question to ask, but I think it is relevant. Do you think Virginia Woolf’s statement that the writer must “kill the angel in the house” applies to all writers, not just women?
MT: Yes, to a degree. I think there is a location of courage and honesty any writer worth her weight in words must write from. If you care too much what people will think about you or what you say, then you’ll be handicapped and frustrated. I think it is important to make a habit of not censoring yourself and writing what is inside you. But I would say it’s more a matter of inviting the Spirit then killing the angel. God can handle every good or dark thing inside of us, no thought is unknown or surprising to him. He’s heard it all. I think it’s always safe to write honestly.
AK: Your gospel, which we call by your name, was written to a Jewish audience. Since our Lord’s life and ministry on earth, the question about his true identity has been a topic of heated debate, especially among Jews. How was your work received? You must have received a wide range of feedback.
MT: Now there’s an understatement. (Laughter). The question about Jesus’ identity will always be a hot and contentious topic among us Jews. Before I wrote the book there were riots in Rome over Chrestus, over this very question about the Messiah. Claudius, the Emperor at the time was so frustrated that he expelled us from Rome. My people know how to argue, and argue for good reason. There’s too much at stake with the coming of the Messiah. I’ve had some fantastic debates and shed not a few tears because of my gospel.
AK: Did it have the impact you desired it to have?
MT: Oh, I had no clue what would happen. I wrote with the desire to see my brothers and sisters believe that Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. So many of us were too blind to see it. I admit surprise that the gospel is so oft read outside of the Jewish world. I praise God that it has moved people to faith and obedience throughout the centuries. And am thankful that both Jews and Gentiles have received it.
AK: I’m interested in the audience you had in mind as you wrote the gospel.
MT: My original audience, the first people to read my account were men and women, little orphans without sight, groping blind in the darkness of their sin, called to be children of light. My audience had a destiny that they were trying to fulfill in their own righteousness, and they were falling short of it in their efforts at an outward form of godliness.
Something that amazes me about our race, and the human race in general, is that with all the evidence of our sin and moral failure before us, yet we are able to deny it. And, though the truth stand in front of us, we are able to deny it also. What stubborn, hard hearts we have. That is why I included the history of Israel in the genealogy recorded in the book. Any honest Jew reading the text would have to come to terms with the good, the bad, and the ugliness of his history. Any seeker of truth would be confronted, face to face, with the stubbornness and the sin of his race.
AK: How do you respond to accusations that you are anti-Semitic?
MT: Those accusations hurt me deeply, because they are so far from the truth. I understand how Paul felt when he wrote the Roman believers and declared he would be willing to be accursed if only he could save his own people. Please understand me, my goal was not to condemn or discourage, but to honestly remind the reader of their tendency to disobey. It amazes me that Jesus, as a child was taken back into Egypt, and in a few short years would retrace his people’s steps. And, once and for all, not only symbolically, but truly and finally, he did all the work required to release his people for good from the bondage of slavery. Let the reader understand, let the reader understand. Jesus undid all the shame of our race.
To be fair to the audience I wrote to, I must remind you of the humanness of their own story. Many of the readers were familiar with the events surrounding the Messiah’s birth. Wise men, a mysterious star, angels and kings, fear, conspiracy and murder. This was the stage onto which Jesus was born. Whether your average Jew knew the story of the Christ or not, he had heard rumors. All of Israel heard rumors of the birth of a king. It may seem odd that their initial reaction was fear, but you might be afraid also, if your heavy-handed king now had a rival for power. Judea was an incubator for power-hungry Jews. There were life and death consequences for the people whenever someone claimed to be king or Messiah. Remember that Rome, ultimately, had rule in Judea: Herod was a pawn of a greater player. For any citizen or subject of Rome to claim kingship was high treason, a crime punished with the most severe form of public execution.
There were direct social and political consequences at Jesus’ arrival on earth.
AK: Such as –
MT: Well, many of my readers grew up remembering every year, the day their son or brother or cousin was brutally murdered by Herod and his men. I have great sympathy for these readers, who, on reading the account of Jesus’ life, from birth to rebirth, had to wrestle with the fact that because of his advent on earth, their cousins and brothers and sons were murdered.
As if believing in a crucified Nazarene were not difficult enough, they were asked to believe in someone that their own children or cousins or brothers had died in the place of, at a very young age. The arrival of Jesus on earth was life-altering. For some, it was in a very costly way.
AK: Did you ever talk to Jesus about the deaths of all those children?
MT: I didn’t. I never asked Jesus how he felt when his parents told him the story of their dramatic flight to Egypt. It was something I thought of later. I do wonder how he felt when he learned that as an infant he escaped the sword, and all the other boys his age died.
AK: How do you resolve these cruel facts?
MT: Not without compassion. Not without a broken heart. The impact of heaven colliding with earth left casualties. The consequences of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection are, at times, brutal and damaging. But not only. The reader, like any other Jew, like any other human being, is called by God to see. To see that the consequences of the sin that Adam and his race endorsed are devastating. To see that the effect of sin was vicious and terrible to all mankind, but even more so to God. But, to see that sin, ultimately, would be ravaged and devastated by Christ. The advent of Jesus damages the hardness of the human heart. The account that I wrote was and still is, for some, a difficult account to read. Sobering and painful but full of hope if there are ears to hear and eyes to see.
AK: What are your hopes as people read your work today? Have they changed as kingdoms have emerged and passed away, or as cultures have taken on different shapes and sizes? What would you say to your audience today, which is primarily non-Jewish?
MT: (Silence for a few minutes). Originally, I challenged my readers to be honest about their life, honest about the sin they could not hide and the righteousness that on their own they could not achieve. I still feel the same.
I hope my words give some insight and that they challenge readers, whatever time they read the gospel in, to think about their lives. As they read, they should be faced with the ugliness of their own sin, their innate inability to measure up with God’s holy standard of perfection. They should confront the sadness and pain left in this world because of sin. That may be unfair. That may not be comfortable. That is reality.
The gospel message cannot and does not deny the bitterness and sorrow of life on earth. However, it is the good news, because it offers comfort and healing in the midst of all of life’s pain. I hope they come to terms with that as they read, and in the reading, find they are amazed by our Lord.
AK: Matthew, I don’t want to stop here, but I have to. Thank you, it’s been such a pleasure.
MT: You’re most welcome.
Portions of The Gospel Writers Meet appeared in the 2006 edition of Rock & Sling which can be viewed here.
Other interviews with Andrew and figures from Scripture:
© 2010 Andrew Kooman
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