I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Inclusio: Encircling St. Matthew's Gospel

If one was going to take anything away from her high school English composition classes, it was the teacher’s tenacity concerning the unparalleled importance of a good, strong thesis statement and conclusion. The body of a writing assignment, we were always reminded, would drip from our pens if these two elements were carefully created. Further, we were encouraged to treat the first and last sentence of each paragraph in generally the same manner. This is not a modern phenomenon, however. Although the ancients did not stress certain minutia such as insisting the thesis be in the first paragraph, consist of only a single sentence, and the conclusion as an indicative restatement of the thesis, they did make a copious use of this composition convention.

Within the world of literature found in the scriptures and other extant ancient documents is a figure of speech that the Latin students called the inclusio, while the Greeks called same the figure the cyclus. Essentially, like our thesis-conclusion convention, this figure is applied near the beginning and the end of a sentence, a chapter, a unit, or even an entire book. As the Greek name implies, it creates an encircling around the body of work. It is often the case that the author encircles the body of his work with a strong or evocative statement, which he intends to guide the reader’s interpretation of each element between these two outer poles. In lesser to greater degrees, these words or fuller statements at each end of the work will color everything in between. When we can spot these features, we can be sure that we are near to discovering the author’s deepest purposes in his writing.

St. Matthew’s gospel contains several examples of this literary device, the inclusio. For example, the Evangelist begins his work, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ...son of Abraham” (1:1). To any reader conscious of the Old Testament, these introductory words, especially “genealogy” and the mention of Abraham, would have evoked the covenant promises to Abraham, which involved his “seed” bringing Yahweh’s covenant blessings to “all nations” (e.g., Gen. 12:1—3). And then St. Matthew ends with Jesus’ commission to his disciples to take those blessings of his glorious gospel to “all nations” (28:19). This is a textbook inclusio.

Then there is also 1:23, Jesus’ Isaianic title, “Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” This is met with Jesus’ promised presence to all of his disciples, “And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (28:20). On this divine note, it is worth mentioning that Jesus was “worshipped” at the opening (by the magi, 2:2, 11) and close (by disciples, 28:9, 17) of St. Matthew.

Jesus begins (4:13—16) and ends (ch. 28) his public ministry in “Galilee of the gentiles.” It is there, in Galilee, that he has his first (4:18—22) and final (28:7—10, 16) gathering of his disciples. Additionally, “the angel of the Lord” announced both Jesus’ incarnation (1:18—21) and resurrection (28:1—7).

Perhaps most importantly to St. Matthew are some of the political implications of the Messiah. In the moments of his greatest humiliation and weakness, Jesus brought (and brings) terror and trouble to the worldly powers that stand against him. In his infancy, Jesus “troubled” the supreme Jewish civil authority, Herod (ch. 2); in his trial, while beaten, bloodied, and bound, Jesus struck fear in the Emperor’s extended-self in Pilate (ch. 27). Things are hardly different today. This is likely connected to the fact that people well beyond the Jewish society recognized Jesus for who he was, the “King of the Jews,” the anointed One, the Messiah, who would rule over all. Representing the eastern world, the magi understood this (2:2); representing the western world, Pilate, too, understood the same, even if not wittingly (27:37).

These threads, these themes must color our understanding of the body of St. Matthew’s gospel. If they don’t, we risk misreading the rest of it.  

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