Brother Christian Morissette, OCSO
Abbey of Saint-Benoît du Lac (Quebec)

 

Matthew 13.52:
The scribe, treasurer of new and old

 

LectioCMorissetteTo judge by the synoptic gospels, apart from Judas the traitor who betrayed Jesus, there is no more hated figure than the scribes and pharisees. The scribes are specialists in the Law and its application. Nevertheless, as the Gospel points out, they teach without authority (Matthew 7.29), not being able to get beyond the tradition of the ancients (Matthew 15.1). Their justice is not that of the Kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5.20), and they cannot help anyone to enter it. Their true nature is seen in the polemic with which they oppose Jesus. They try to catch him out by compromising questions (Matthew 22.35) and plot to have him killed (Mark 11.18; Luke 22.2). Jesus manages to frustrate their efforts by returning their invective. There is no doubt that the toughest passage in their regard is Matthew 23, where the formula, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees’ comes six times.

Consequently one may be surprised that St Benedict in his Rule applies to the abbot a text concerning a scribe, ‘The abbot must always consider what a task he has received, and to whom he must render an account. He must realise that he must serve rather than be served. So he should be learned in the divine law, so that he knows where he can draw “the new and the old”.’ The last phrase of this passage is an allusion to what Matthew says in 13.52, ‘thus every scribe who becomes a disciple for the kingdom of heaven is like a man, master of the house, who draws from his treasure the new and the old’.

This text from Matthew’s own source is highly intriguing. At first it seems utterly simple, but when one seeks to discover the exact meaning one bumps into all kinds of obstacles. For example, why does Matthew finish a chapter entirely consecrated to the parables of the Kingdom with a saying on a scribe? What does this figure really hide? What are the new and old things which he brings out? It is tempting to think that this text is itself a parable whose interpretation is not obvious. This figure demands an explanation.

 

Every disciple of Christ is a scribe of the Kingdom of Heaven

Firstly, who does Matthew envisage when he speaks of a scribe who has become a disciple of the Kingdom? Some have seen in this verse merely a signature of the scribe Matthew, rather in the manner of the beloved disciple in the Fourth Gospel or the mysterious young man at the end of the second Gospel (Mark 14.52).[1] So St John Chrysostom does not hesitate to make Matthew the first example of a scribe who has become a disciple of the Kingdom, ‘Would you like me to give you a living image and help you to see what I have just said to you? Cast a glance at St Matthew, the fine evangelist whom we are explaining to you’.[2] Certainly Matthew was a practised scribe become a disciple, but the adjective ‘every’ which in the Greek text qualifies the word ‘scribe’ forbids any too limited interpretation of the verse.[3] To whom, then, is Matthew referring?

It is quite possible that there were Jewish scribes who had become Christians, or that the Christian scribes of the first communities are envisaged. In fact, of course, there were literate members of the first Christian communities and it is very probable that the evangelist Matthew is addressing this verse to them, to underline the importance of their role in the service of the word of God, since he himself was a scribe who had become a disciple.

But it is possible to go even further and believe that every disciple of Christ in fact becomes capable of bringing out of his treasury things new and old. It is by replacing verse 52 in its context, that is, in chapter 13 as a whole, that one sees its meaning emerge. To begin with, it must be understood in conjunction with the preceding verse to which it is linked by the formula Δια τουτο (that is why). Jesus, after his discourse in parables, speaks to his disciples saying, ‘Have you understood all this?’ The disciples reply by a firm ‘Yes’, to which Jesus raises no objection. However, as Orton[4] has shown , a survey of the occurrences of the verb συνιημι (understand) in Matthew reveals something striking: of the 9 usages, 6 occur in Matthew 13. This leads to the conclusion that the question of the understanding of the disciples constitutes ‘the dominant theme of the chapter’.[5] Matthew shows that the disciples share in a special understanding of the
mysteries of the Kingdom.

‘The disciples came up to him and said to him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” He answered, “Because to you it is given to understand the mysteries of the Kingdom of Heaven, but to them it is not given”’ (13.11). “But you, blessed are your eyes because they see and your ears because they understand!” (13.16). Furthermore, to understand the parables and the mysteries which are there hidden is part of the function of a scribe, as this fine text of Ben Sira shows:

It is different for one who wishes to concentrate on reflecting on the Law of the Most High, who studies the wisdom of all the ancients and consecrates his leisure on the prophecies. He guards the stories of the renowned, and delves into the descriptions of parables. Such a one studies the hidden sense of proverbs and passes life among the enigma of the parables. … If the Great Lord wishes it, that person will be filled with the spirit of understanding, will make the words of his wisdom rain down, and in prayer will praise the Lord. Such a one will possess rectitude of judgment and knowledge and will reflect on the secrets of God (Sira 38.34b-39, 1-3, 6-7).

Thus it is at the moment at which disciples arrive at an understanding of the mysteries of the parables, that is to say of the Kingdom, that they are called scribes.[6]

 

New and Old Realities

LectioSpencerAccording to Matthew, the gift of understanding the secrets of the Kingdom achieved by the believer on becoming a disciple is a capacity to draw out the new and the old; but what exactly is this? What reality lies hidden under the terms ‘new’ and ‘old’? Irenaeus naturally thinks of the Old and New Testaments.[7] But is not the new rather ‘the spiritual realities ceaselessly renewed in the interior of the just’ and the old ‘which is engraved in letters on stone and in the heart of stone of the old humanity’?[8] Or indeed the secrets of the end of time and things hidden since the creation of the world?[9] As these few examples show, it is unexpectedly difficult to discern what the new and the old designate. Perhaps that is the intention of the author, that is to say, to invite the reader to examine the text more deeply in order to discern its hidden meaning which can be no more than glimpsed at a first reading.

Let us penetrate deeper by examining texts where new and old occur together. Such passages are not frequent, and tend to underline the incompatibility of the two realities, as is shown by these examples taken from Paul:

‘Anyone who is in Christ is a new creation. The old world has passed away and a new reality is there’ (2 Corinthians 5.17).

‘You must put aside yourselves, the old self as you were according to your earlier conduct, being corrupted by deceptive passions, in order to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, so that you could put on the New Man that has been created according to God, in the righteousness and holiness of the truth’ (Ephesians 4.22-24).

In the gospels the only occurrence of the combination of ‘old’ and ‘new’ occurs in a discussion between Jesus and the Pharisees on fasting, which issues in texts on old cloth and the new clothing, new wine and old wineskins (Mark 2.18-22 and parallels). Apart from Luke, who seems more conciliatory and does not want directly to discredit the old, the other two evangelists agree with Paul about the incompatibility of the new and the old.

How then should we reconcile the contradiction in Matthew between what he says about new wine and old wineskins and the parable of the scribe who becomes a disciple? It is well known that Matthew is the evangelist most eager to show the continuity between the Old and the New Testaments, since Christ completes the scriptures (Matthew 5.17-19). In this perspective certain tensions cannot be avoided. Thus it is surprising to read in Matthew 23.2-3, ‘the scribes and the Pharisees sit in the chair of Moses, so do and observe all that they say to you’, although Jesus has just said that the ‘leaven’ of the Pharisees (meaning the teaching of the Pharisees, 16.12) must be mistrusted (16.6). The contradiction between Matthew 9.14-17 (new wineskins) and 13.52 (the scribe-disciple) is evident. When Matthew recognises a separation between the disciples of Christ (new wineskins) and the Jewish synagogue (old wineskins), or between two completely distinct groups of people (9.14-17) it cannot for him be a question of rejecting the Jewish heritage contained in the gospels.[10]

However, to discover the reality designated by the term ‘new’ Mark puts us on the right track at the very beginning of this gospel: ‘They were so astounded that they asked one another, “What is this? A new teaching, with authority”’ (Mark 1.27). This new teaching of Jesus in Matthew, especially in chapter 13, occurs in parables. Thus what had been hidden since the foundation of the world is now revealed (Matthew 13.34-35). It is especially in this perspective that Matthew 13.52 must be understood. The teaching of Jesus occurs in parables. A parable is a poetic image intended to reveal a reality which by itself transcends all understanding, especially when it concerns the Kingdom of heaven. In other words, no parable can fully explain the Kingdom; it remains only a part of the mystery. Like the master, the scribe-disciple is called to become a creator of parables, to enter into an always new dynamic of the Word.

‘The final image (Matthew 13.52) recapitulates the others by showing the reader a place to stand. This metaparable invites the reader to enter into the parabolic process which is occurring, to become in turn the creator of new parables which will be joined to the others.’[11]

So the fact that the parables of Matthew 13 end in a parable is not without significance.

‘This image of verse 52 is added to many others; for a final time it destabilizes the reader in the assimilation of the text, removing the illusion of a definitive understanding of the discourse in parables.’[12]

The scribe who becomes a disciple is thus equipped to bring to reality the continuous renewal of the teaching of Jesus.

 

Every Christian possesses this treasure

The important word of the verse of Matthew is ‘treasure’. Every Christian possesses this possibility, consciously or unconsciously. Although the Old Testament contains texts which affirm that wisdom is a treasure, such as Wisdom 7.14, ‘Wisdom is for people an unfathomable treasure’, it seems that when Matthew mentions treasure he is thinking primarily of the human heart, as the link between Matthew 13.52 and 12.34-35 suggests by the occurrence in both passages of the word εκβαλλω (bring out), the words ‘man’ and ‘treasure’ and a neuter plural adjective.

‘What the mouth speaks is the overflow of the heart. The good man brings out good things from his good treasure’ (12.35)

Therefore the scribe-disciple, with the new heart received according to the promise made to the prophet Ezekiel, ‘I will give you a new heart and will put in you a new spirit’ (36.26), can understand the mysteries of the Kingdom and pass them on. This is surely the reality which Paul had in mind when he wrote,

‘But their minds were hardened! To this day, when they read the Old Testament this veil remains. It is not lifted, for it disappears in Christ. Indeed, until this very day, every time that they read Moses a veil is on their heart. It is only by turning to the Lord that this veil falls away, for the Lord is Spirit, and where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Corinthians 3.14, 17).

 

[1] Cf. David E. Orton, The Understanding Scribe, p. 165.
[2] Jean Chrysostome, Homélies sur Mt, XLVII, 4, trad. Jeannin.
[3] Cf. U. Luz, Matthew 8-20, p. 287.
[4] Orton, op. cit., p. 143.
[5] Orton, op. cit., p. 144.
[6] Ibid., p. 148.
[7] Adversus Haer., IV, 9, 1.
[8] Origène, Commentaire sur Matthieu, X, chap. 15.
[9] O. Lamar Cope, Matthew: A Scribe Trained for the Kingdom of Heaven, p. 25.
[10] Cf. U. Luz, Matthew 8-20, p. 37-38.
[11] Céline Rohmer, « La singularité anonyme comme indice pragmatique; remarques sur la figure du scribe devenu disciple (Mt 13, 52) », Études théologiques et religieuses, 2016/4, p. 655.
[12] Loc. cit., p. 650.

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