Gospel of Matthew Chapters 1-7

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Transitioning into the Gospel of Matthew
Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
Matthew 1: 1-17 How the Story Begins
From Abraham to David in Matthew’s Genealogy
The Line of Kings compared with the Hebrew Scriptures
Matthew 1: 18-24 The Birth of Jesus
Matthew 2: 1-12 Magi, The Creation and Scriptures Point to Jesus
A Brief Introduction to Herod the Great
Matthew 2: 13-23 Hearing Hope in Tragedy
Matthew 3: 1-12 The Herald of the Kingdom of Heaven
Matthew 3: 13-17 The Baptism and Revelation of Jesus
Matthew 4: 1-11 The Temptation in the Wilderness
Matthew 4: 12-17 The Kingdom’s Foothold
Matthew 4: 18-25 Snagging the Fishers for Humanity and Spreading the Kingdom
Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount
Perfection and Blamelessness in the Bible
Matthew 5: 1-12 The Wisdom of the Sermon on the Mount
Matthew 5: 13-20 A Visible Vocation Connected to Scripture
Matthew 5: 21-32 Law and Relationships in the Kingdom
Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell
Matthew 5: 33-47 A Community of Truthful Speech, Non-Violence and Love
Matthew 6: 1-4 Exploring Righteousness and Justice
Matthew 6: 5-15 Exploring Prayer, Forgiveness and Righteousness
Matthew 6: 16-18 Exploring Fasting and Righteousness
Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness
Matthew 7: 1-6 Nonjudgmental Righteousness
Matthew 7: 7-12 Seeking God and Right Relationships
Matthew 7: 13-29 Choosing the Way of Christ
The Imperfect Church and the Kingdom of Heaven

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The Imperfect Church and the Kingdom of Heaven

The Ruins of Holyrood Chapel by Louis Daguerre (1824)

One of the tensions in any type of interpretation of scripture that embraces a communal perspective is the distance between the church or whatever type of community of faith the individual is a part of and the vision of community outlined in the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew’s gospel as a whole. The church in all of its forms: the local congregation and the various denominational (and even non-denominational assemblies) are communities in need of reconciliation, healing, forgiveness, reform, compassion, grace, and as institutions they often are as invested in the kingdom of the world as they are in the kingdom of heaven. This is a place where I think a greater familiarity with scripture helps me to live with this tension. The people of God have always struggled to live into their vocation: from Israel’s call to be a treasured possession, a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Exodus 19: 5-6 )to the quick transition in the early church from a community where the believers hold everything in common, distribute to any in need and eat with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2: 44-45; 4: 32-33) into communities like Corinth, Galatia, and the seven churches mentioned in Revelation. This familiarity can lead to a pessimism about the human potential to embody these seemingly utopic visions of community, and there are times where even a person who loves the church may consider walking away after encountering the brokenness that is a part of many church and religious communities but I believe the scriptures also offer us another perspective that is a reason for hope. The God who the scriptures point to is the reason I still think speaking, dreaming and imagining the kingdom of heaven among people who are ensnared by the lures of wealth and the cares of the world still makes sense.

Learning from Israel’s Relationship with the LORD the God of Israel in Scriptures

Israel’s relationship with God that we see in the scriptures is complicated, and yet God and those called to speak for God to the people (and to God on behalf of the people) refuse to abandon the covenant people. Israel’s God desires for Israel to be an alternative to the models of acquisition and accumulation of power practiced by Egypt, Canaan, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and the rest of the nations that they will encounter, but frequently Israel (despite the witness of the Law, prophets and wisdom literature) turned to these attractive alternatives practiced by their neighbors or (in some cases) masters. The bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures lives in this tension between “the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression of sin,” and “yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34: 6-7) God is a God who is merciful, gracious, abundant love, steadfast faithfulness and forgiveness and God is a God who refuses to be taken for granted, to live with continued disobedience, to allow the way things are because of human greed, destruction and idolatry to continue unchecked. Moses stands between faithless community and the God who desires faithfulness. The prophets also are called to stand between a community that has forgotten or misused their identity and the God who desires them to return to their calling.

Yet, God is for the people of Israel a God of hope. God’s anger at their failure will not endure forever. God can take the desolate boneyard of their failures and knit them together and breath new breath into them and make them a new people. God can take their hearts of stone and turn them into soft, malleable hearts and even write God’s law upon their hearts so that it may order their lives. God can take the brokenness of their community in their exile and give them a vision of homecoming and return where once again God brings life out of death and hope out of humiliation. God has chosen to be a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression of sin. Even in the community’s failures God’s steadfast love and faithfulness remains.

Learning from the ‘little faith ones’ and the ekklesia in the New Testament

In Matthew’s gospel the disciples are not portrayed as paragons of unwavering faithfulness, or even people of great faith. The disciples are the ‘little faith ones’ as I render the translation of oligopistos throughout this reading. They misunderstand Jesus, fail to act in line with Jesus teaching, abandon Jesus at the critical moment of betrayal and still these ‘little faith ones’ are the ones that Jesus chooses to embody Israel and to carry on the ministry once Jesus is done. Matthew is kinder to the disciples than Mark’s unrelentingly negative portrayal of these followers drawn into the close circle around Jesus, but they are still fallible and yet they are the foundation for the community to come.

Ekklesia is the Greek word often translated church in the New Testament. Matthew is the only gospel to use this term and to talk about the ekklesia.[1] While the term means assembly, in the New Testament it is often the community of believers and so bearing a common vocation with the church. Even though the early communities of Christians would seem strange to those who have worked and lived with almost two thousand years of church growth and tradition, they like Israel before them, struggled to embody the vocation they were called to. Peter, Paul, James and John were not able to establish communities of faith able to easily embody the kingdom values of Jesus and yet, I believe that God has not abandoned or forgotten either Israel or the church in all their imperfections.

The theological tradition that shaped me as a follower of Christ focused on God’s grace in Christ instead of the human ability to faithfully embody God’s commandment. Maybe it is my own deeply ingrained Lutheran theological identity that embraces the paradox that I can be at the same time justified (to use a Pauline term) and a sinner[2], and that the church is filled with these justified sinners and sinners who continue to rely upon God’s forgiveness and mercy. Luther once said, when explaining the petition of the Lord’s prayer about the coming of God’s kingdom, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come about in us.” (Luther, 1978, p. 34)

I do think there is a vision in the Sermon on the Mount of the kind of community that God calls his followers to embody. God has a dream or a vision for us, and it is a vision for life instead of destruction, of wholeness instead of brokenness. We may be ‘little faith ones’ caught between the kingdom of God’s approach and the kingdoms of this world, and yet I do think that in some way God is at work in these words bringing this kingdom of heaven into being among us. Going into Matthew’s gospel and the rest of scripture and seeking the wisdom it offers does change us and perhaps we become the salt and light that (albeit imperfectly) preserve the community and the world around it and shine a light into the darkness of the world. Yet, the kingdom of heaven’s approach is based on the steadfast love and faithfulness (or to use the New Testament’s favored term grace) of God instead of the perfect righteousness of God’s followers at any particular time and place.

[1] Matthew 16: 18 where Jesus declares to Peter “on this rock I will build my ekklesia (church) and Matthew 18:17 in the context of attempting reconciliation with a brother or sister who is unrepentant, “and if the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the  ekklesia (church); and if the offender refuses to listen even to the ekklesia (church), let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. The other two times the NRSV uses church (18:15 and 21) the term is adelphos, literally brother and commonly rendered in the NRSV inclusively as brother and sister unless context dictates the referenced individuals are male.

[2]  Martin Luther’s famous paradox referring to Christians as simul justus et peccator, popularly simultaneously saint and sinner, literally simultaneously justified and sinner.

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A Request

File Folders with my Notes and Work on the First Seven Chapters of Matthew’s Gospel

Seven years and 600 posts later, I’ve learned a lot from this process of writing and discovery and at this point I feel compelled to share some of these insights from the last several years with a broader audience. I have a couple more reflections to write about topics related to the Sermon on the Mount, but as I continue to write I also am asking for readers of various backgrounds and experiences who would be willing to give some constructive feedback on this growing work in progress on Matthew’s gospel. I will be compiling all the posts from chapter 1 through the Sermon on the Mount (chapter 7) into a single document and doing one additional edit of the first portion of this document. If you’d be interested and willing to read and critique this initial section of my writings on Matthew I’d value your time and perspective. This may be around 100 pages of text in its initial form. There is a lot of thought that has gone into these reflections and it is a vulnerable process to let these out into the world to be engaged and challenged and yet I know that this is the only way to test out my reading-to see if it is a compelling reading to other readers of Matthew’s gospel in particular and the scriptures in general. If you are interested please send me an note at chargerneil@gmail.com.

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Matthew 7: 13-29 Choosing the Way of Christ

Fra Angelico, Fresco in the Cloister of Mark in Florenz (1437-1445)

Matthew 7:13-29

Parallel Luke 13: 23-24, Luke 6: 43-46, 13: 25-27, Luke 6: 47-49, Mark 1: 21-22

13 “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. 14 For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? 17 In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. 18 A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will know them by their fruits.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’

24 “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26 And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell — and great was its fall!”

28 Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29 for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.

The conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount brings together several contrasting choices between wise and foolish choices, encouraging the hearer to follow the right way, recognize true prophets, and to enact right actions. This would be familiar to hearers familiar with the pattern of wise and foolish choices that Proverbs, Psalms, and the prophets often use as a rhetorical framework to encourage a wise course of action. These short but vivid images attempt to capture the weight of the decision to live out these words that Jesus articulates. The road to obedience may be challenging, there may be others who proclaim an easier less costly way but what Jesus has been presenting is a way that leads towards life and away from destruction. The Jesus we meet in Matthew’s gospel is merciful and yet does expect his followers to be obedient. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, is inviting his followers to be a part of a community that embodies these teachings. The people of Israel were called into a life of obedience to the Law and there were blessings if they remained obedient and consequences for being unfaithful. Jesus reinterprets the Law to this new community and this is the way of living in the covenant of the kingdom of heaven. The path does involve wisdom, holding mercy and obedience together, discerning between Jesus’ authority and those of other teachers, and the commitment to hearing these words and acting on them.

The translation of the Greek hodos as road, while proper obscures that throughout most of the New Testament this word is translated as way. A frequent theme of Mark’s gospel of Jesus being ‘on the way’ and in Acts we learn that Jesus’ earliest followers were referred to as belonging to ‘the Way.’ (Acts 9: 2) Just as critical for Matthew would be the numerous linkages with how ‘the way’ is used to call the  people of God to be attentive to God’s way in the law, wisdom literature and the prophets. In Deuteronomy, for example, we see the basic pattern of blessing for obedience to the commandments and curses for turning from the way commanded:

the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God that I am commanding you today;  and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn from the way that I am commanding you today, to follow other gods that you have not known. Deuteronomy 11: 27-28 (see also Deuteronomy 9: 12, 16)

For I know that after my death you will surely act corruptly, turning aside from the way that I have commanded you. In time to come trouble will befall you, because you will do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, provoking him to anger through the work of your hands.” Deuteronomy 31:29

The linking of obedience to the metaphor of a way or a road occurs in several places in Psalms and Proverbs and throughout the prophets, a couple of examples include

for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish. Psalm 1:6

Their feet run to evil, and they rush to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity, desolation and destruction are in their highways. The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths. Their roads they have made crooked; no one who walks in them knows peace. Isaiah 59: 7-8

And to this people you shall say: Thus says the LORD: See, I am setting before you the way of life and the way of deathJeremiah 21: 8 

False prophets are a concern throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and within the early church as well. Again, this echoes Deuteronomy with how to determine if a prophet is an authentic process.

If a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD but the thing does not take place or prove true, it is a word that the LORD has not spoken. The prophet has spoken it presumptuously; do not be frightened by it. Deuteronomy 18: 22

Like the community of Israel after Moses, Matthew’s community is having to learn how to live without the immediate presence of Jesus. Like Moses, Jesus now is setting up the community to continue once he is no longer present to speak with them. Just as the disciples have been called to a whole or complete life, so those who speak on behalf of Jesus or God will have good fruits that reflect that life.

Mere confession of Jesus as Lord is insufficient for Matthew, this confession must be linked with obedience to the law as Christ articulates it and the practices of righteousness and mercy. Hearing and even speaking words ultimately do not prove an adequate foundation for the life and community Jesus wants to build. The words which are heard must ultimately be acted upon for a life that will resist the storms that come. The Sermon on the Mount is designed to create a community which is modeled by Christ and faithful to the vision of the kingdom of heaven. It is a community that is visible by its distinct practices of mercy, reconciliation, and righteousness and it exists for the sake of the world.

Jesus takes up the mantle of Moses, and unlike the scribes whose authority is derivative and who cannot go beyond what was given to Moses, Jesus will take what was said in the law and with his own authority reframe, extend and reshape what the law states. Jesus speaks in the language of the law, and yet one greater than Moses is here speaking to the crowds. Jesus speaks in the language of wisdom, and yet one greater than Solomon is sharing the wisdom of the kingdom of heaven. The crowds are astounded because either Jesus has transgressed the boundaries of what is accepted by the interpreters of the law or he has the authority to speak a new way of relating to God and the community into being. Jesus has invited the hearers of his words to become doers who wisely choose that way of life instead of the way of destruction. Even though I’ve moved away from framing this in terms of moralistic perfection, obedience is still a part of the complete life that the disciples are called into as a part of the community. Matthew’s gospel is concerned about establishing a community where the disciples can live this life of peace and reconciliation, of righteousness and mercy, of obedience and trust and any interpretation of Matthew should be judged by its fruits: by how it helps communities of disciples build their lives by acting on these words of Jesus.

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Matthew 7: 7-12 Seeking God and Right Relationships

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Matthew 7: 7-12

Parallels Luke 11: 9-13, Luke 6: 31

7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

The vision of the Sermon on the Mount relies upon the fundamental assumption that God is trustworthy. Asking God for what the petitioner needs assumes that God is trustworthy in providing daily bread and all the petitioner needs. The rhythm of ask, seek, knock each followed by a positive answer to the action and then the second restating of everyone who asks, searches and knocks receiving, finding and having the door opened reinforces this view of God’s trustworthiness. The Father that Jesus has encouraged his disciples to pray to will give what is needed to those who ask of him.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are continual calls for the people of Israel to ask or seek the LORD their God, and the God we meet in the scriptures desires for God’s people to ask and seek. Sometimes this is stated in terms of promise, for example:

Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession Psalm 2:8

Other times, it indicates an openness to repentance, that even once the relationship seems broken that God is open to reforming the covenant if they people if they will seek God.

From there (the places where you are scattered) you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. Deuteronomy 4: 29

Ultimately the way of wisdom is to continue to be in a relationship with God and to continue to ask, seek and knock, as in 1 Chronicles

Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his presence continually. 1 Chronicles 16: 11 (this is also Psalm 105:4)

Yet, the strongest resonance with Matthew 7 comes from Isaiah where God desires to be sought and asked but the people do not seek or ask

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. Isaiah 65:1-2

The Sermon on the Mount is continuing to restate important themes in different ways to attempt to communicate what righteousness looks like in practice. Followers of Jesus in Matthew 6: 5-15 are instructed in what asking God looks like in the context of prayer. Seeking first the kingdom of God[1] and God’s righteousness are now reinforced as things that the seeking one will find. God knows what the asking one needs, desires to be sought by those who are willing to ask and seek, to open the door for those who are willing to knock, to give good gifts to God’s children like earthly parents who love their children do for their own.

A right relationship with God is tied with a right relationship with others. As in Matthew 22: 37-38 where the two greatest commandments are loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength and the neighbor as oneself, so here asking and seeking God is tied to the golden rule in relation to one’s neighbor. The law and the prophets are summed up here by Jesus as doing to others as you would have them do to you. Some form of the golden rule occurs in most religious traditions including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Confucianism.  Most religious traditions have realized the wisdom of this practice of treating others as one would like to be treated. This way of living in relation to others is not dependent on how others act towards you, but instead the follower of Jesus is to act towards the other in a way that models the righteousness they would desire to receive.

[1] Even though the NRSV in Matthew 6:33 begins “But strive first for the kingdom of God” the word translated strive in Matthew 6 is translated by the NRSV as seek here obscuring the parallel language and themes in Matthew 7:7-8

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Matthew 7: 1-6 Nonjudgmental Righteousness

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)

Matthew 7: 1-6

Parallels Mark 4: 24-25; Luke 6: 37-42

1 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.

6 “Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.

There is a rhythm that underlies the Sermon on the Mount where the individual pieces, which are so often broken apart, attempt to flow together to form a linguistic and thematic resonance. There is a necessity to the practice of addressing things in smaller pieces but I do think it is important to hear the resonance of “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged” with “blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” or the imperatives of reconciliation and peacemaking outlined in the interpretation of the commandments and the imperative in the Lord’s Prayer to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” and its restatement on forgiving trespasses and finally doing to others as you would have them do to you. This has the rhythm of wisdom literature which tells us to make the wise, or perhaps the whole/complete/authentic choice, in contrast to the hypocritical/inauthentic/self-righteous or pious choice. The Sermon on the Mount, and Matthew’s Gospel in general, is a tightly composed unit that needs to be heard and practiced together.

Matthew uses the terms hypocrite, hypocrites and hypocrisy more than the rest of the Bible combined, we saw it used three times in chapter six and again here. This is an important term for Matthew since it differentiates the practice Jesus is calling his disciples to in contrast with the practices of other groups. In the Sermon on the Mount the focus is on righteousness as it is practiced in the community, but within the individualistic way of hearing scripture most modern people use it is easy to transform communal practices of righteousness into individual acts of piety and instead of being those who hunger and thirst for righteousness who will be filled (see Matthew 5: 6) we attempt to become those whose practices of piety fill ourselves with our own self-righteousness. When righteousness is reduced to piety we find ourselves among those who Jesus has previously called hypocrites (see chapter 6) and here when we judge others by the standards we set we may be unaware (willfully or unwilfully) of out own failure to seek justice and righteousness.

When we talk about not judging so that we are not judged, we are not negating everything that has been discussed previously. We know that unreconciled anger, uncontrolled sexuality, broken relationships, untrue speech, violence and love for a limited group of people and excludes enemies are contrary to the kingdom of heaven. Exchanging piety for righteousness or attempting to secure our own future instead of trusting in God’s providence are contrary to the wisdom which is offered in these words. On the one hand there is truth to scholars who make this passage about not placing ourselves in the place of God and condemning a person or group as outside of the kingdom of heaven, but my worry about this type of interpretation is that it limits the way refraining from judging is not only about salvation/damnation matters. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is about imagining a community where relations are key to righteousness.

The parable of the person with a log in their eye also points to the reality that we often judge others most harshly in the areas we are least secure. Judgment is often a tool people use to compare themselves to another and to prop us their own insecurity as the critique another. Like Luke’s parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector where the Pharisee compares himself to the other by saying, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.” (Luke 18: 11)which is lifted up as an example of how the disciples are not to trust in their own practices, this humorous visual of a person with a log in their eye is used to highlight the lack of self-awareness of the situation of the judging one.  Instead of comparison we are invited throughout the Sermon on the Mount to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, to value even those who we may have called enemies previously, and to learn to value the other person as a worthy part of the community.

Yet, a certain type of judgment, or perhaps better discernment, is necessary in our relations with others. The kingdom of heaven that the Sermon on the Mount proclaims encounters the kingdom of the world, not completely eliminating it. The individuals in the community may have those who label them as enemies or dangers. The community may love, pray and forgive others but it also doesn’t place the holy and precious among those who will reject or destroy it. The righteousness the community is to practice is not only practiced in a perfect world free from those who practice different values. How to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world in among others who may not value that role calls for wisdom among the people of God.

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Matthew 6: 19-34 Wealth, Anxiety and Righteousness

Evelyn De Morgan, The Worship of Mammon (1909)

Matthew 6: 19-34

Parallel Luke 12: 33-34, Luke 11: 34-36, Luke 16: 13, Luke 12: 22-32

19 “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20 but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

22 “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; 23 but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

24 “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? 28 And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you — you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

34 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Following three practices of righteousness (acts of mercy or giving alms, prayer and fasting) we encounter a set of interconnecting proverbs connecting the relationship of the disciple to wealth and the anxiety encountered around possessions. From the very beginning of the Sermon on the Mount we’ve seen an emphasis on possessions, giving to those who beg and not refusing those who want to borrow and doing acts of mercy in this kingdom of heaven where the poor in spirit can be blessed. This kingdom of God that the disciple is to seek depends upon the abundance of God’s provisions rather than the disciple’s ability to accumulate wealth, power and property to secure their own future. Their treasure rests with the God they serve and their trust in God’s provision frees them from the anxiety produced by the cares of the world and the lures of wealth.

Martin Luther’s explanation of the first commandment where the disciple is to, “fear, love and trust God above all things” (Luther, 1978, p. 13) taps into the same wisdom as these sayings in the Sermon on the Mount. Love and trust in God are bound together and placing trust in something other than God, like wealth, interferes not only with the trust in God but also the disciples’ ability to love God. If the kingdom of heaven is approaching, like the Sermon on the Mount assumes and Jesus’ practice of sharing the table anticipates, then images like the image of the banquet in Isaiah 55 probably shape the imagination of Jesus’ hearers. As Isaiah can state:

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and you labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Isaiah 55:1-2

I’m convinced that the great idol in the United States is security. People are told to attempt to secure the future for their retirement, for their health, and entire industries are engaged in helping people achieve this illusory security they seek. Yet this displacement of joy and happiness to a future time, or the inability to secure one’s own security is a source of anxiety for many people. The accumulation of wealth on earth can provide moments of happiness and treasures and wealth are not bad things, unless they are placed in a position of prominence where they become the meaning of our life, the thing that we serve. Yet, there is a note of hope in this passage because how we use our wealth can help lead us to the life we desire to live. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

Jesus does not want us to give from the heart. He wants us to give according to where we believe our hearts should be, to give according to where we hope our hearts will someday be. Give of your treasure and let your heart catch up. (Powell, 2004, p. 140)

The proverb about the eye being the lamp of the body may seem out of place in between two proverbs talking about treasures or wealth, but when paired with the other two proverbs (and the longer saying about anxiety and possessions) we can see the orientation of the eye towards wealth or possessions is the darkness spoken of here. The culminative effect of this group of sayings is to encourage the disciple to make the wise choice of looking (or seeking) first for the kingdom of God. In contrast to the kingdom of God which is light, seeking the ways of this world is the unwise way of darkness.

Jesus is calling his disciples to trust in God and not to have divided loyalties. As he will later share in the Parable of the Sower those who are ensnared by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth will choke the word that has been sowed among them and make them yield nothing. (Matthew 13: 22) One can trust in wealth or one can trust in God. The NRSV translates mammon as wealth, and while this is correct it misses the way in which the text personifies wealth into an entity which is able to possess and demand allegiance. Mammon becomes an alternative, and an attractive one for many people, to trusting in God to provide security.

After these three proverbs which point to the wisdom of trusting and serving God rather than attempting to secure our own security by hoarding or serving ‘wealth’ we are told therefore not to be anxious about our life and the things we need.  The Greek merimnao which is translated worry by the NRSV has the meaning of anxiety or even obsession about the object of concern. (Allen, 2013, p. 77)  Food, drink and clothing can become objects of this anxiety when one begins to adopt the worldview of providing one’s own security and provision. God takes care of the birds of the air, the grass of the field and the righteous will be provided for as well. In a world which seeks to ensnare the righteous in its snares and the lure of mammon the disciple of God is called to trust that God has given them enough, that God will provide daily bread and drink and clothing. They are to be different than the nations, to embody a different relationship with the fruit of their labor. The disciples do not abandon sowing or working, but instead this sowing and working is a part of their life before God instead of their own struggle to secure their own future. The future will bring worries of its own, but the God who is faithful today will also be faithful in the future. They live seeking righteousness knowing that they will be filled with the bread and drink of the banquet of God’s kingdom. They seek the security and wealth of the kingdom of God even though they may be the poor in spirit or those persecuted for righteousness sake.

One final translation note that I think is important to hearing Matthew in a less judgmental way. In verse thirty we have the first use of the Greek word oligopistos which is almost universally translated ‘You of little faith’ which is a proper English rendering of this adjective which always appears in the second person form (mostly plural but once as a singular form because it is addressing Peter). This term occurs four additional times throughout Matthew[1], always addressing either a disciple or disciples. My struggle with the traditional translation is the statement, ‘You of little faith’ in English implies a biting and condescending tone. The more I’ve listened to Matthew’s gospel, the more I’ve read this term as ‘little faith ones,’ a term of endearment or compassion. Instead of upbraiding the disciples who are listening for not having enough faith or trusting enough, perhaps Jesus here, and throughout the gospel is encouraging his little faith ones who are gathered around him, encountering the struggle of seeking the kingdom of God while the snares of the world are still present.

A part of this translation of oligopistos as ‘little faith ones’ goes to the heart of my struggle with the way the Sermon on the Mount is often presented. If Jesus is the embodiment of the judgmental God who is setting an unrealistic perfectionistic standard, then being derided as ‘You of little faith’ makes sense within this context. Yet, I am an heir of the Lutheran reformation which began with one man’s search for a gracious God, and I know that informs my view of Jesus who we meet in the scriptures. It is a part of my search for a way of reading the Sermon in a way that goes beyond an individualistic and moralistically perfectionist reading. I understand this reading is going against the grain of established scholarship, but it is also done for the little faith ones, like myself, who go to the scriptures seeking wisdom and seek the kingdom while still struggling with: the anxieties of the world, having both treasures and hearts in the right place, having eyes turned toward the kingdom of heaven and feeling the pull of two opposing masters.

[1] Matthew 8: 23-26; 14: 28-31; 16: 5-10; 17: 18-20

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