Good Society And Its Victims

“Matthew understands Jesus to be the rightful heir of the chieftaincy who instead volunteers to become the Victim at the tribe’s feast. But by being the voluntary victim, he becomes the first victim in the world who can speak.”

An excerpt from Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s “Fruit of Lips”:

“…as oral as Peter the fisherman must have been and as much as he probably detested ink, Matthew certainly was familiar with paper work and written records, only too well. Since we do not expect him to be employed inside his old activities, where he had used writing for superficial purposes to say the least, we may expect him to fight elsewhere…”

Now, we read that he was not received in good society. And on the other hand, he begins with Jesus’ place in the social register of Israel. He stresses this fact that his master belonged in the very best society, as the son of kings. And he goes on to show that there were privileges connected with this social place which Jesus abandoned. “The son of kings should be scotfree” (Mt. 17.26). He should not pay customs duty nor any tax, be it capitation tax or the half shekel tax, as Jesus smilingly says (Mt. 17.27). But, Matthew goes on to say, the reverse happens.
He expresses the whole meaning of Jesus’ life in terms of an account, and I am sorry to grate the refined feelings of the suburban reader, but he does say: He gave his life as the price for buying back many (Mt. 20. 28).

This is not a figure of speech with Matthew. Matthew understands Jesus to be the rightful heir of the chieftaincy who instead volunteers to become the Victim at the tribe’s feast. But by being the voluntary victim, he becomes the first victim in the world who can speak. Nobody had ever spoken in this role. But victims, though mute, were essential. The association between the ancestors and the living was based on the common meal at which the dead partook as though alive, and the whole burial and funeral rite was based on this association between the dead and the living. The spirits of the dead asked for food, and these ghosts were bloodthirsty if they were not fed, according to the faith or superstition of all tribes. We accomplish the same by high entrance fees into clubs or fraternities. In this manner, we become members. Sacrifices were the core of ritual since they alone incorporated the group and gave it a legal status as a public corporation, beyond the grave, beyond the accidents of birth and death. Sacrifice, then, was the only means of establishing order and of creating legal persons.

“The price of a good dinner party is the complete silence kept by those who serve and by the food which is served.”

And to speak the proper names, to make the proper movements at these sacrifices was essential. They were that which we hold essential as table manners. To how many people of our own time table manners are the yardstick of promotion, membership, fellowship! The table manners of antiquity were equally strict. With us, a waiter at table is not expected to join the conversation of his own accord. Even less do we expect the roast-beef and the fish to talk. The price of a good dinner party is the complete silence kept by those who serve and by the food which is served. And my whole paragraph will be condemned by any reader of good taste because I mention the remote possibility that the roast-beef might speak. And this is Matthew’s whole point. The verdict ‘bad taste’ – how often had he heard it turned against himself and his bad company – he knew to be more murderous for a man than any other crime.

Society expects us to play the rules of the game. It is inexorable if we break this etiquette. And yet, I had to commit this breach of etiquette myself if I wished to introduce Matthew at all. For herein lies his real achievement. He is the only Evangelist who tells of Jesus’ escape to Egypt when Herod murdered the children of Bethlehem. The whole point of Matthew is that though Herod could not murder him, he was murdered by good society for his breach of etiquette because he insisted on giving or lending speech to the victims of society. That Jesus spoke as the victim, made him impossible. Matthew scandalized the Jews. After all, they had nothing but burnt offerings since Abraham did not slaughter Isaac. They were highly civilized. In Sweden it could still happen a thousand years later that a king butchered six of his sons to placate the spirits. When he turned to his seventh son, the people saved the child, became Christians and gave up human sacrifices.

But Israel, after all, was the nation of Abraham and Moses. To this day, all Jews think that the Gospel is in bad taste. We read the word “scandal” in our texts, but “bad taste” would really convey better the whining under the Gospel. The ritual of any society – and I am afraid, we lose sight of this more readily than of anything else – protects itself by this violent recoiling. It does so at all times and in all places. Matthew: “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the Elders by not washing their hands before meals?” the Scribes asked. “Why do you,” Jesus retorted, “transgress God’s command and deny your own parents something they need because it is ‘consecrated’?” “You have made futile God’s words for the sake of your table manners.” (Mt. 15. 2-6). “Eating with unwashed hands does not make unclean.”

Against the taboo of table manners, Matthew “sins” and Jesus “sins.” For, Matthew shows Jesus as the speaking victim, as the meat and wine who begin to speak, in the midst of dinner. The shock administered by Matthew is wonderfully formulated by a modern critic:

“The reference to eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood is impossible in an Aramaic Gospel in Jerusalem in the first century; nothing could be more repugnant to Jewish ways and feelings. Words such as these would horrify Jewish residents of Jerusalem, then or now. The Jews were and still are, utterly opposed to the drinking of blood which the Law repeatedly forbade. It would be difficult to imagine a sentence less likely to have been written in a Jewish Christian circle anywhere at any time. No Jewish evangelist could have recorded it.”

This is an eloquent paragraph and the feeling of vomiting is probably well nigh aroused in many a reader. The humor of this passage lies in two facts: first, that the critic deals with John who in this matter simply affirms Matthew. The critic tries to refute the Jewish origin of John. And he ignores the case of Matthew, who obviously wrote for Hebrews. The second humorous fact is the modern assumption that every scandal can be avoided. The Jews stoned Stephen, killed James, jailed Peter because they were furious. The lamb, the blood, the bread, all these terms, of course, were blasphemies. But the whole history of the Church was based on this fury. Paul in Athens when he for once tried to be adaptable, was a complete failure. Matthew was abhorred and the Gospel was abhorred and, be honest, is abhorred by all men of good taste today.

“Matthew knew that the pudenda of life were real. That it was less bad taste to speak as the victim, as bread and wine, than to do the act of Condemning the Just.”

The price of all ritual is sacrifice. When we bind ourselves to a ghost of the past, to a piece of paper, to a house, to a grave, we are apt to spill somebody else’s blood for the purpose. And so it is to this day. This is all right if it is in our consciousness which price we pay. But Jesus created a brotherhood where before the victims had been drafted. But the Eucharist is still a scandal to a Jew. It makes him vomit, quite literally, as it would any man of etiquette. Matthew knew that the pudenda of life were real. That it was less bad taste to speak as the victim, as bread and wine, than to do the act of Condemning the Just. He [Matthew] was immune against the mortal disease of good society. He knew that everything has its price. And that nothing is more expensive than freedom from the taboos of good society. And so he ceased to call the first man who had spoken for the victims and as a victim, by his name in society, son of David, Son of Abraham, as he had begun in Chapter One. This taboo was broken, Matthew, in his last chapter found himself in the infinitely more exciting society of sinners who no longer were bound together by high entrance fees but by the name of the first victim who had spoken out loud.

It is not impossible, by the way, that Matthew went to Ethiopia. Now, the point of this mission would be that the Ethiopians, to this day, observe the whole Jewish ceremonial as well as the New Testament liturgy. They circumcise and baptize; they observe the Sabbath as well as the Sunday. One cannot tell; but it would be in accordance with the Word of the Gospel if this duplication happened because of Matthew. Because the only disease which he fought was the superstition of ritual. Manners must be; but manners are not more than manners.

Matthew, by illuminating the breaking of table manners, went over primeval ground. In primeval days, table manners had. been the creative elements from which the body politic sprang. Instead of snatching food from each other – in our C.C.C. (Civilian Conservation Corps) camps of the unemployed this beastly snatching was not rare and always indicated the loss of camp morale – like the animals, the introduction of common meals created a new peace of mind. Around the meal for the dead, or perhaps more exactly, with their dead, the new incorporation took place. Food was placed between the living and the dead, and both partook of it, in one spirit and in one name. Hence, sacrificial meals were the first constitutions of mankind. Here it was that the community was enacted because the stomach’s enlightened “self”-interest was forgotten when the best pieces were reserved for the dead and later, the gods. Permanency eclipsed the interests of the living generation. The accidents of birth and of being alive were overshadowed by the eternity of the dead.

In the cooling shadow of this permanency and eternal order, peaceful arrangements were made between friend and foe; hospitality, the right of the enemy to eat with us, was introduced and became possible because ritual showed man his place in the succession of endless times. Here, people did not eat like the animals but they toasted each other by their full name. The salutation at meals is primeval. Men greeted each other and thought of each other at meals as “convivials,” id est, as co-livers, as now the other fellow’s life counted more in one’s own eyes, than the “self.”

To these primeval foundations of society Matthew takes us back. John spoke to peoples who knew the arts and sciences. Luke spoke to the greatest religionists and puritans of the ancient world. Mark spoke to the civilized inhabitants of the temple state. But Matthew penetrated, by his “bad taste,” to the most archaic layer of all society, to the tribal layer of ritual. Hence, Matthew gave a version of the Gospel which had to become the most universal and the most fundamental feature of the new Way of Life. The Mass and the Eucharist, the inner core of all divine services is written up in Matthew.

Since he made it clear that Christ bought, by his sacrifice, the salvation of the sacrificers, it was now written that the victim of every meal, that [namely] bread and wine, spoke to the dining communion and invited them to shift with their master to the other side of the counter, so to speak, to the side of the victim. In the Mass, every member is invited to be sacrificed or to be ready to be sacrificed for the salvation and the renovation of the world. In the Mass, the first victim invites the others, the partakers, to a service in which they themselves are the offerings. In the dullness of the average mind, this fact rarely makes a dent. People have degraded the divine service to a church parade or a social gathering. But the Church was built on the faith that from now on, no divine service was permitted unless the people considered themselves as the sacrifice offered. The whole expression of a Body of Christ, with the head in Heaven, meant exactly this, that we who would crucify the Lord every day, in our rage and envy and indifference, now, with our eyes opened once for what we have done and are doing, declare solemnly: We now, together with our Head, step on the side of the silent victims and offer ourselves to our Maker so that he can remake the sacrifice as he pleases. How else could ever a new inspiration befall us as a people unless we offer ourselves as the body for this inspiration? Time and again, man has to be ripped open by the ploughshare of suffering and open himself like a dry and desiccated earth to dew and rain. And ever since one men did this manifestly all alone and by himself, his congregations relieve the members of the total pressure of absolute loneliness. In every generation, the group which may be remodeled, may increase, until the whole of markind will be allowed to fall silent and to cleanse themselves from the chatter and clatter of the day, and to listen to the Spirit, simultaneously…

“The minds which scorn the sacraments as myth or obsolete, never fail to frighten me by their childishness.”

Matthew, the most drastic, the least mannered, also is the most elementary evangelist. Through him, we have received the ritual in writing. Our era would otherwise have been without any dress for its nakedness. It is very nice to leave obsolete clothing behind you, but our era needed dress, some dress, just the same. Now we received the power of ritual free from superstition or myth or magic. Everybody can understand Matthew — child and genius, warrior and farmer — unless his heart is alien to self-sacrifice. The minds which scorn the sacraments as myth or obsolete, never fail to frighten me by their childishness. What an ignorant and uneducated heart they must have; how the gristmill of their brain must have crushed all serious experience of life and of their own deepest hopes! Usually, these same people expect to be adored by their family, read by the public, paid by their endowed institution. How can they expect it unless man’s nature is fulfilled by his entering the ranks of the offerings? It is our highest nature that we should be offerings. “Liturgy is only another name for Almighty God’s table manners.”

The victim made eloquent, the world heart crested by responses, the No of God turned into an intermediary medicine of suffering on the road to a new incarnation, the human soul God’s newest poem — these were the four glad tidings. The blind alleys of ritual, temple cult, Israel, Greece opened up to each other. And these four men succeeded because they were immune to the specific disease of speech which their tidings deluged. This is the reason why it is faulty to call John Hellenistic, Mark Egyptian, Matthew Judaizing, Luke Pauline. The restoration of free speech by the Gospels proceeded by a matching of opposites. Neither does the prophetioal John write for the Jews, nor does the learned Luke write for the Greeks. The fisherman Peter writes for the scientific world. And it is not a man of good taste and good standing who by his first Gospel matches the Old Testament, but the in-no-way venerable publican.

(Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, Fruit of Lips, pp. 66-74.)

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