Since the civil war began in 2012, 3.9 million Syrians have fled their homes. They join the ranks of over 50 million refugees worldwide. Many of them are Christians, forced to leave villages where Jesus has been worshipped for over a thousand years. Matthew’s Gospel, the text from which Urbana 15 is designed, was written for believers facing similar challenges.
The war between Judea and Rome ended in AD 70 with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and intensified the suffering of Jewish people throughout Judea, Galilee, and Syria. Rome touted their triumph by minting Judea Capta coins, which depicted a woman bound and kneeling at the base of a tree. This image and caption was carved in stone arches in both Rome and Antioch, functioning like a billboard to prolong the humiliation of the Jews.
Rome touted their triumph by minting Judea Capta coins, which depicted a woman bound and kneeling at the base of a tree. This image and caption was carved in stone arches in both Rome and Antioch, functioning like a billboard to prolong the humiliation of the Jews.
Like today’s Syrian refugees who have lost homes, seen loved ones murdered, and fled with only the clothes on their backs, life amidst armed conflict was disruptive and demoralizing for the Jewish refugees to whom Matthew wrote his Gospel.
Matthew’s first readers struggled with their dual identity as Jews and as followers of Jesus. In the wake of the destruction of the Temple, the Pharisaic movement spread rapidly and became the dominant force in Jewish synagogues. Jewish followers of Jesus were treated with hostility by this movement, sometimes being forced out of synagogues.
When they fled Jerusalem to Syria, Jewish followers of Jesus looked for solace among fellow Jews in the synagogues of Antioch. But rather than welcome and care, they experienced criticism and rejection because of their belief in Jesus the Messiah. They began to mingle with Gentile believers, which led to accusations from other Jews that they had compromised their Jewish identity.
Displaced by war because they were Jews, they were now rejected because of their faith in Jesus. Matthew ministers to their wounds by affirming Jesus’ Jewish identity, demonstrating how he fulfills Messianic prophecy, and showing that Jesus too was rejected by Jewish authorities.
By God’s grace, I’ve not yet had to flee my home for any reason, including war or persecution. But I imagine most refugees are concerned foremost with survival. And if that can be accomplished, they want to recreate some semblance of normalcy. However, Matthew wants more than this for his early readers.
Throughout his Gospel, Matthew motivates and empowers his audience to move beyond their own community and bring the gospel to the world by showing how non-Jews readily received and worshiped Jesus, including: the Magi (2:1-12), a Roman centurion (8:5-13), and a Canaanite woman (15:21-28).
The Gospel of Matthew is incredibly good news to those who are displaced, isolated, and vulnerable. The book begins with the bold assertion that God is with us in Jesus (1:20) and ends with the promise that Jesus will be with us always (28:20). Jesus’ presence can be known wherever two or more are gathered in his name (18:20). And when Jesus returns in glory (16:27) he will bring an end to evil and will reign in justice (19:28), vindicating those who have suffered in his name (25:31-46).
Though Jesus was rejected by the Jewish leaders, though he was killed in humiliation by the Romans, his triumph over death proves that he is the true King and ruler of all. This good news frees even Christians who are suffering and displaced to make disciples of all nations:
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Come explore Matthew’s Gospel at Urbana 15, and listen to what it’s saying to us today.