Tag Archives: Matthew

Faith in Matthew’s Gospel

Jesus Healing the Blind From 12th Century Basilica Catedrale di Santa Maria Nouva di Monreale in Sicily.

 

Faith, believing, and unbelief are frequently used terms in Matthew, all originating with the Greek pistis. When modern people use terms like faith or belief they typically are referring to some type of cognitive assent-I believe certain things to be true, but the frequent usage of faith related terms in Matthew indicates definitions closer openness or trust than some type of cognitive assent to certain beliefs. There is a certain elasticity to how Matthew employs these terms but when we think about faith in Matthew it is not belief in the dogmatic sense.

As I’ve alluded to several times while discussing portions of Matthew that we view the world differently than the people that Matthew’s gospel is written to. I still find one of the more helpful ways to think of this difference comes from the philosopher Charles Taylor in his work A Secular Age where he differentiates between our ‘disenchanted’ world and the ‘enchanted’ world of our ancestors. Most ancient cultures, and the readers of Matthew’s gospel certainly fit within this characterization, believed there were times, places and individuals where the spiritual side of reality permeated their reality. Divine and demonic forces were actively at work in the world and responsible for sickness, famine, war, acts of nature and could be at work for or against the individual living in this enchanted world. Demons might cause a person to be mute or have a seizure, they might cause a storm to come upon the sea or the crops to fail. God or another deity might bring a bountiful harvest or hold back the rains as a judgment on the lack of ‘faithfulness’ of the chosen people. Ritual, when done by the priests, or magic, when done by others, often tapped into these people, times, and places where the spiritual world drew close to our own.

The gospel of Matthew is written from the perspective that the spiritual realm of the LORD the God of Israel, the Kingdom of Heaven, has now drawn near and turning towards the approaching Kingdom of Heaven is the proper response. (Matthew 4: 17) Although this is a minimalistic way of putting things, in Jesus we have a person where the spiritual side of reality associated with the God of Israel is able to act upon the earth and against the demonic forces that enslave, the sin that condemns and the lack of holiness that excludes. Faith or belief in Matthew’s gospel seems to reflect an openness or an awareness of this reality that some have while others do not. Some, like the centurion and the Canaanite woman, seem to perceive this reality in Jesus without having the background of the Jewish scriptures and practices, but instead use their own frameworks to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus means.

A special usage of this term, oligopistoi, what I’ve translated ‘little faith ones’ is always used in relation to Jesus’ disciples. They may not demonstrate the moments of clarity or openness that those coming to Jesus requesting a healing or exorcism may, but their faith is enough to recognize the call that Jesus extends to them. Traditionally translators and commentators have viewed ‘little faith’ as a criticism but Jesus, even asked to increase the disciples’ faith in Matthew 17: 20 (after they were unable to exorcize the demon of the son the father brings to them) tells that if they have ‘faith the size of a mustard seed’ they can command mountains to move. Being a ‘little faith one’ is not a crisis, for indeed these little faith ones will be sent out with the authority to heal and cast out demons and carry out the mission in chapter ten as emissaries of the kingdom and workers in the harvest. Jesus seems to be indicating that those with a small amount of faith can still do incredible things. As Mark Allan Powell can state,

So, Jesus seems to be saying, the amount of faith is not what’s important; you just need to know what to do with the faith you have. Quit worrying about whether you have enough faith and start asking, “Which mountains does God want me to move?” (Powell, 2004, p. 112)

Jesus may be able to expound about people like the Canaanite woman or the centurion that they have ‘great’ faith (in contrast to the little faith of the disciples) and they may simply have a greater openness to what God is doing in the world. This is not limited to Jesus’ time. There are many who are outside of organized religion who demonstrate a greater openness to God’s action than those who have been shaped by congregations. That doesn’t mean that faith and understanding cannot coexist, merely that they are not the same thing. I do think when Matthew invites the disciples who come to hear his gospel into the world of Jesus, he is also trying to invite us into a world where God’s kingdom is active and present, where in Jesus we meet the ‘God who is with us’ and to invite us, whether our faith is great or little, to hear about the people whose faith enabled them to see in Jesus the opportunity for God’s healing, forgiveness, and even resurrection.

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.

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.

Matthew 6: 16-18 Exploring Fasting and Righteousness

Ivan Kramskoy, Christ in the Desert (1872)

Matthew 6: 16-18

16 “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

The third practice of righteousness that Jesus lifts up is fasting. Fasting, like prayer, is often considered in terms of personal piety but most of the discussion of fasting in the scriptures, like here, pushes against a public demonstration of piety. The disciple again acts in private, but their actions related to the community are to embody the justice they are to live. Much of the discussion of fasting in the Hebrew Scriptures comes in the prophets as they criticize the way fasting is done by other members of the community and attempt to reunite fasting with the practices of righteousness.

Both Jeremiah and Isaiah have the LORD rejecting the fasting of the people because of the wider practices of unrighteousness. This stark language from God in Jeremiah will draw protest from Jeremiah for the people’s sake:

The LORD said to me: Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Although they fast, I do not hear their cry, and although they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I do not accept them; but by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence I consume them. Jeremiah 14: 11-12

Even though the LORD commands Jeremiah to no longer pray for the people, Jeremiah does exactly that to intercede on their behalf. The prophet is still in a person where the words and actions are seen and heard by God for the people, but the practices of the people cannot be separated from either fasting or offering sacrifice. In a similar way the prophet Isaiah criticizes the disconnection of religious practices from practices of righteousness in his familiar critique:

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; the ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. “Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?” Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Isaiah 58: 1-7

I’ve quoted Isaiah at length because this understanding of fasting also connects with final teaching of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel where the righteous are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick and visited the imprisoned. (Matthew 25: 31-46)

Fasting is an appropriate practice of righteousness as a practice of repentance (see for example Joel 1: 13-18; 2: 12-17; Jonah 3: 5-9) and is practiced by the followers of John the Baptist (Matthew 9: 14-15) and Jesus’ followers are criticized for their lack of fasting in comparison with the Pharisees and the followers of John the Baptist. Fasting is appropriate to times and seasons, but it is also to be a practice which doesn’t exempt the disciple from their normal manner of interacting with the community. Fasting is not an excuse for oppressing workers or quarreling and fighting. Instead fasting is to be an act seen by God and is to be instead of a mournful act a joyful act for the kingdom. As the prophet Zechariah can state:

The word of the LORD of hosts came to me, saying: Thus says the LORD of hosts: The fast of the fourth month, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh , and the fast of the tenth, shall be seasons of joy and gladness, and cheerful festivals for the house of Judah: therefore love truth and peace. Zechariah 8: 18-19

Matthew 6 is read in churches that follow a lectionary at the beginning of the season of Lent where fasting is one of the practices that Christians may choose to practice in this time of forty days. Fasting can be a challenging discipline to practice but it does not exempt the disciple choosing to fast from engaging in the life of the community or the world around them. The community which practices fasting and righteousness will be seen, even when the individual disciple’s fast is not. They will be seen by the way they loose the bonds of injustice and their fasting allows them to hunger and thirst for righteousness. Fasting may be an occasion for repentance but should also be practiced in joy, for such seems to be the fast that the Jesus chooses for his disciples.

Matthew 5: 13-20 A Visible Vocation Connected to Scripture

Sermon on the Mount by Carl Bloch (1877)

Matthew 5: 13-20

Parallel Mark 9:49-50 and 4:21, Luke 14: 35-35, 8: 16, 11:33 and 16: 16-17

Highlighted words will have comment on translation below

 13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

Both Mark and Luke have individual sayings from this portion of the Sermon on the Mount scattered throughout their gospels, but Matthew places them in a crucial place immediately after the opening of the Sermon to help frame the identity the community is to adopt and to connect it with the scripture. As mentioned earlier, Jesus probably used these sayings multiple times, but Matthew has given us a tightly woven net composed of these saying to capture men and women who are being called into the community of disciples. They have been called to choose the wisdom of the Sermon, to embrace the blessedness or happiness of the kingdom of heaven and now they are called to their vocation and connected with the gift and vocation of Israel.

Salt in the modern world is a seasoning, salt in the ancient world was a preservative and that is a critical distinction. Salt is not what keeps the world tasting better, followers of Christ were not called to be the spice of life for the world. Instead salt in a world before refrigeration was that which preserves the earth. They are not called to become salt, they already are. The throughout this section is plural so ‘all of you’ are the salt of the earth and the light to the world. Even though salt is primarily for preservation it does have a distinctive taste, it does make itself tasted with the rest of the meal that is to be consumed. The disciples and hearers are not given a choice of whether they will accept the vocation of being salt, but they can choose the foolish path of not living as salt. The word translated ‘lost its taste’ is the Greek world moraino which literally means to become foolish. This is the verbal form of the word we get the English moron from. As I mentioned in the previous discussion of the Beatitudes an underappreciated linkage of the Sermon on the Mount is to wisdom literature with its choices between the wise and foolish, righteous or wicked and here salt of the earth and foolish salt. There is a vocation in the kingdom of heaven for the sake of the world for the hearers of Jesus’ words who live according to them, but for those who take the path of becoming foolish there is no longer a use for them, they are not called to be salt for their own sake but for the sake of the earth. They, like Israel before them, were given their vocation to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth and if they choose to live in a way that is not distinctive from the earth that they serve then they are no longer good for anything.

Light is another frequent image in scripture for the vocation of the people of God. For example:

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out from the prison those who sit in darkness. (Isaiah 42: 6-7 emphasis mine)

he says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6, emphasis mine)

We have already had Jesus identified as a great light (Matthew 4: 16 quoting Isaiah 9:2) and here the vocation of light is granted to those gathered around Jesus and hearing these words. In combination with the image of light is the image of the city on a hill which is meant to be visible. This also taps into Isaiah’s imagery of Jerusalem being a place where the nations are drawn to:

In the days to come the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. May people will come and say, “Come, let us go to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. (Isaiah 2:2-3)

But now the mountain is not the temple mount in Jerusalem but the mountain of the Sermon on the Mount near Capernaum. The transition back to the choice of wisdom literature between wise and foolish is presented. The people do not have the choice to be light, but one can make the foolish choice to put a light under a bushel basket instead of on a light stand. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind his students, “The followers are the visible community of faith: their discipleship is a visible act which separates them from the world—or it is not discipleship.” (DBWE 4:113) The community of disciples is to be light in the midst of the darkness, they are the light of the world and the city on the hill, they are visible to the world around them and their good works give glory to the God they serve.

One of the struggles that many Christians, myself included, wrestle with is the visible nature of their faith in a secular world. For people in the United States, faith has mainly been consigned to the private or spiritual realm, but it was never intended to be so. I know this is one of the things I struggle with as a private person and even as a pastor. As a pastor people do tend to watch my actions and words much closer than the average person of faith and I’m OK with that, but a salty, city on the hill, light of the world faith is much more visible than what I or my congregation often live. That type of faith will meet resistance and even persecution, and I’ve met that type of resistance in congregations I’ve served and from those in the community who disagreed with the hermeneutic of mercy that shapes my understanding of how we are to live our calling. I do struggle with the vanilla nature of the church as it actually exists, and while I’m not willing to embrace the model of some churches which pull away from society it is a challenge to continue to be salt and light in the midst of the world without being shuttered or made foolish. The Sermon on the Mount does not grant us a complete ethical system which can help us answer every question but it does, like all good wisdom literature and attempts to interpret scripture, point us toward the path of wisdom and help us begin to imagine what a life informed by the kingdom of heaven might look like.

The vocation of the hearers of the Sermon on the Mount relates to the vocation of the people of Israel. In being connected with the vocation of Israel the hearers are also connected with the scriptures of Israel. For Matthew it is critical for the reader to see the connection between Jesus and the scriptures, that is one of the reasons he continually alludes and quotes the scriptures to help us understand who Jesus is and what the vocation he calls us into looks like in the world. As we prepare to hear Jesus show us how to hear the scripture, we are not called to forget what came before but instead to hear and learn from it, to preserve and honor it, and to live lives that show forth a righteousness that is different from the scribes and Pharisees. Again we are framed with the question of wisdom literature in terms of the ones who breaks the commandments and teaches others (by words or actions) to do the same is the least while the one who keeps the commandments and teaches other to keep them is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This keeping of scripture will be a visible witness which brings glory to God but may also bring persecution to the one living this public faith.

Before we move into hearing Jesus interpreting scripture a brief pause to frame the way Jesus will read scripture. This is often heard as legalistic or pointing towards a type of moralistic perfection and the interpretation below will run counter to this path. A helpful question when approaching either the law in the Hebrew Scriptures or Jesus’ interpretation of it in the Sermon on the Mount is: What type of community/society are they trying to create/imagine? That doesn’t mean that what lies ahead is easy to live into, I struggle with it, but it does give us a different horizon to hear the law within. The law is about a society where my neighbor’s best life is possible. One of the key differences between the scribes and the Pharisees as they are represented in Matthew’s gospel and Jesus is mercy being a central part to understanding what righteousness is about. As we now enter Jesus’ interpretation of the law and prophets which are connected to our vocation may we apply that merciful and, dare I say, gracious hermeneutic to our neighbors and to ourselves.

Introduction to the Sermon on the Mount

Mosaic on the Mount of Beatitudes in Israel (Images are St. Ambrose,, Moses and the Stoning of Stephen) Shared under Creative Commons 2.5

The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) is probably the best know piece that is unique to Matthew’s gospel (as it is assembled, although much of the material in the Sermon is found throughout Luke’s gospel) and there are scholars who have spent their entire careers focused on this small section of Matthew’s gospel. You don’t have to be a scholar to read the Sermon on the Mount and see that it calls the hearer to a different set of values than one will see practiced in the world around them. As a hearer you have the choice of how to respond to this expansion on the law given to Moses, the practices of prayer, fasting, how one values one’s treasurers and what one does with them, judging and more in this initial teaching section of Matthew’s gospel. Matthew constructed the gospel to quickly bring us to this first block of teaching and instruction and Matthew spends a lot of space in the gospel listening to the teaching of Jesus and letting it shape the community that hears it.

The words of the Sermon on the Mount have often been viewed as: an unattainable ethic which serves only to drive us to the grace of Christ, an interim ethic to bring about a radical reorientation in the context of Jesus’ presence and the quickly approaching judgment (which didn’t occur as expected in most reconstructions following this view) or a perfectionist ethic that Christ does expect Christians to follow. Each of these approaches in their own way minimize the imperative to attempt to live into the vision the sermon presents.  Prior to Luther the way of life embodied in the Sermon on the Mount was mainly limited to those who had separated themselves in monastic communities but one of the impacts of the Reformation was the ideal of bringing the reading, interpretation and the living of scripture as actions of the entire church was the perceived impossibility of all the baptized keeping this ethic. The solution for Luther, as one example, was perfect doctrine rather than perfect practice:

We cannot be or become perfect in the sense that we do not have any sin, the way they dream about perfection. Here and everywhere in Scripture “to be perfect,” means in the first place, that doctrine be completely correct and perfect, and then, that life move and be regulated according to it. (LW 21:129)

In fairness to Martin Luther, he did believe that correct doctrine would lead to a reformed way of living, that faith would lead a Christian to be a perfectly dutiful servant of all. Yet the perfectionistic way in which we frame the Sermon on the Mount I believe prevents us from honestly wrestling with the way of life that Matthew is presenting to those who would be disciples of Jesus.

Although I will deal with the translation of Matthew 5:48 when I reach that section, I do believe it is important enough to deal with up front because it is a crucial verse. The NRSV translates this final verse of the fifth chapter, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Many scholars follow the translation in a manner like O. Wesley Allen,

Likewise, there are idealistic expectations in the discourse that seem beyond the reach of any normal, finite, sinful human being or human community summed up in the expression, “Be perfect, therefore, as you heavenly Father is perfect. (Allen, 2013, p. 53)

The word translated as perfect is telios which is a word with the connotation of completeness, or reaching an end/goal, of being mature or grown up. As a person who grew up in the individualistic ethos that is instilled in people who grow up in the United States, perfection is a term which depends upon individual rigor in attending to the letter of the law but one of the things I’ve discovered in my time studying the Hebrew Scriptures is that the law is always directed towards the community. An individual may act righteously or wickedly, they may be innocent or blameless but the law itself is always directed towards the life of the community. When I studied Deuteronomy, for example, I framed my examination of the law in terms of the type of society they were attempting to create. If the Sermon on the Mount is about the type of community that the kingdom of heaven embodies, as I will argue, then perhaps it is a primer in how to live together as the people of God rather than a model for individual perfection.

Jesus doesn’t seem to focus his ministry on attaining moralistic perfection, but instead the kingdom of heaven seems to be much more related toward surprising compassion towards the people Jesus encounters. As E. P. Sanders can state:

Secondly, the overall tenor of Jesus’ teaching is compassion toward human frailty. He seems not to have gone around condemning people for their minor lapses. He worked not among the powerful, but among the lowly, and he did not want to be a stern taskmaster or a censorious judge, who would only add to their burdens…

Thirdly, Jesus did not live a stern and strict life. For most of us the word ‘perfectionism’ calls up images of severe Puritanism: lots of rules, plenty of punishment for error and not much room for fun. This sort of Puritanism, according to Jesus, was all right; an austere life had been fine for John the Baptist, but it was not his own style. (Sanders, 1993, pp. 202-203)

Finally, the way perfection is modeled in the United States does pull on our history of severe Puritanism, even as it has transformed in our secular society under the guise of a non-religious perfectionism.  So for the moment let us set aside our ideas of being perfect or achieving perfection in an individualistic sense and let us enter this world that Jesus is articulating for us in the Sermon on the Mount. Matthew has brought us quickly to the mountain to hear these words from Jesus, so may we have ears to hear, eyes to see, minds whose imagination can dream this dream of the kingdom of heaven, and hearts to courageously strive together for this community of disciples.

 

 

Matthew 3: 1-12 The Herald of the Kingdom of Heaven

Cristofano Allori, John the Baptist in the Desert, 17th Century

Matthew 3: 1-12

Parallel Mark 1: 2-8, Luke 3: 1-17

1 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2 “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6 and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9 Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Some time later we arrive at the beginning of story of Jesus as an adult and to set the stage for that story we are introduced to John the Baptist who will share a common message with Jesus but a different role within that message. John will be the Elijah character who proceeds the promised messiah, but there is much more to the story than just preparing the way for the messiah’s coming. Here the story builds on what was revealed to us in the first two chapters to prepare us for the advent of the kingdom of heaven.

Place matters in the gospels and the wilderness of Judea along the Jordan river is a place that is rich in meaning. Wilderness indicates a place away from Jerusalem, Judea and all the inhabited region along the Jordan. It is unsettled and because of that it has the connotation of being a place where one may encounter danger or the divine. The wilderness is the place of baptism, of being joined to the community of the faithful and it is the place of devilish temptation where one’s identity is continually questioned. It can be a place where the voice of God may speak to the one who is listening, and it can also be a place where the demonic voices drive a person to madness. Israel had to pass through the wilderness to become the people of God, they would pass through the Red Sea on leaving Egypt and the Jordan on entering the promised land. The wilderness can also be the place where God’s creative power does new things, particularly the rich language of Isaiah is relevant here:

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43: 19, see also Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31: 2)

The beautiful and hopeful language of Isaiah 43 along with Isaiah 35 and Jeremiah 31 add resonance to this theme, these hopeful passages spoken to an exiled people about God making a way in the wilderness and creating a new people enrich our hearing of the hope embodied in this strange prophet in a wilderness space.

The message that John the Baptist is summarized with the exact words that Jesus will use later in the gospel (Matthew 4: 17; 10:7). Both Mark and Luke include the ministry of John the Baptist to introduce the ministry of Jesus, but Matthew links the proclamation of John the Baptist explicitly to the later proclamation the good news that Jesus will proclaim. Both will run into challenges with the Pharisees, Sadducees and Herod and the other political powers, yet according to Matthew they are both sharing a common proclamation. As O. Wesley Allen Jr. state, “the difference between John and Jesus is not their message but the role they play in relation to that message.” (Allen, 2013, p. 35)

Scripture now speaks to give its direct voice to the role that John the Baptist will play in this story. Matthew instead of adopting the mashup of multiple verses used in Mark uses Isaiah 40:3 to identify John as “the voice crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD, make his paths straight.’” Isaiah 40 is a message of comfort and hope to a people who have been exiled and may have felt forgotten by their God, but now Isaiah announces that God is indeed coming and that the people shall see the glory of the LORD together.

John is linked visually with Elijah by wearing clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. Elijah is described in 2 Kings 1:8 as “a hairy man with a leather belt around his waist.” As mentioned above there was an expectation that Elijah would proceed the coming of the messiah, this hope comes both from the manner that Elijah’s death is recorded in 2 Kings 2 and in Malachi (the book that immediately proceeds Matthew in the way many bibles are organized) in the final chapter we hear of a time when God will judge the unrighteous and will lift up the righteous and in this judgment and exaltation:

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4: 5-6)

The God of Israel is a God who desires repentance. As the prophet Joel can remind the people, “Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love’ (Joel 2: 13, see also Deuteronomy 30:2, this portion of Joel picks up the language of the thirteen attributes of God from Exodus 34: 6-7) and we hear in Malachi that the expected Elijah was to go before the advent of the Lord to turn families back to the way they were intended to embody so that they would be among the righteous and not the unrighteous ones. They would be those who were greeting the advent of the kingdom of heaven with joy instead of with lamentation.

This first herald of the advancing kingdom of heaven is not the lavishly dressed and well fed ambassador we might see attempting to negotiate a peace treaty between two nations but is instead a strangely dressed (but typologically familiar) prophet who eats the diet of the poorest in the desert (but which was ritually clean). In a kingdom where the poor in spirit are blessed and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be filled, where the merciful and peacemakers are those who embody what this kingdom is about, the kingdoms of this world will look more like the kingdom of Egypt that the Israelites escaped from than their hoped for reign where God was their king in the promised land. This heavenly kingdom will be different than the kingdom of Judea or the empire of Rome, but that doesn’t mean that Rome and Herod Antipas wouldn’t hear this proclamation as a challenge to their own kingdoms and wouldn’t oppose it with every tool at their possession.

When the Pharisees and Sadducees arrive in the wilderness to investigate what is occurring with the movement around John the Baptist, we may be surprised by the confrontational language that John uses towards them. For most people who have been trained in reading scripture recently there has been a reappraisal of the Pharisees and Sadducees viewing both movements in a more positive light than the previous generations of scholarship. Often the Pharisees and the Sadducees became embodiments of a legalistic and rigid worldview in Christian writing and like Judaism in general most writing about these two movements was polemical in nature. Hopefully I can provide a more nuanced approach to the topic as we move through the gospel, but it is worth noting that in general both the Pharisees and the Sadducees will find themselves aligned on with the forces opposed initially to John and later to Jesus. Neither group is completely aligned with the goals of the political powers of Herod Antipas in Galilee or Pontus Pilate in Judea, but they have negotiated a way of working with these powers and maintaining their position. There is no separation of church and state in the ancient world, and any close look at the political world of the time of Jesus will quickly illuminate a connection between the religious authorities and the political.

The Pharisees and Sadducees are both movements within second temple Judaism that are connected with both local and national power, and they have struggled with each other for influence for generations, but they are still tied to the existing networks of power. I believe this alliance with the existing networks of power is behind the criticism of John the Baptist when he calls them a brood of vipers fleeing wrath and challenges them to bear fruits worthy of repentance. In John’s view their reforms are not enough, God is doing something new. This symbolically rich baptism of repentance is reconstituting Israel to begin again in a new and forgiven state. The Pharisees were a reform movement attempting to be faithful to the law by reclaiming practices of holiness and the Sadducees were focused on maintaining proper worship at the temple by the priesthood, but John stands within a long line of prophets who continually call the people of Israel to see that repentance is more than ritual or religious practice. As Anna Case-Winters can state, “If they “change their minds” it will change their lives. Where is the evidence of this? Ritual purity without righteousness counts for nothing. This message is strong in the ethical tradition of Judaism.” (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 46) [1]

Matthew wants us to hear John the Baptist in concert with Jesus and just like John using the language of the kingdom of heaven to introduce what his proclamation is about we will also hear almost identical words come from Jesus’ mouth towards the Pharisees about being a brood of vipers and bearing fruit worthy of repentance.

Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. I tell you, on the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned. (Matthew 12: 33-37)

Jesus, in Matthew, can be both gracious and direct. He will embody both the prophetic hope and the prophetic critique. John foreshadows this by letting us know that Christ’s coming and the advent of the kingdom of heaven will not be a painless process for everyone. Forgiveness often means that something must die, repentance means that one must turn one’s back on something to turn towards that which you are returning to and grace while it is given freely may indeed cost the recipient much in terms of their relationship with family and the existing power structures of the world. The coming of Jesus means that some trees will be cut down and thrown into the fire so that those with good fruit have the space to flourish providing their fruit in each season for the healing of the nations.

Even though Matthew begins his telling of Jesus’ story with a genealogy he lets us know early that genealogy is not enough. Here in John’s accusation taps again into language from the prophet Isaiah:

Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. (Isaiah 53: 1-2)

In Isaiah’s time he is speaking to an Israel that has already drained the cup of the Lord’s wrath (Is. 53:17) but now John is speaking to a people who are being offered a cup at the banquet of the Lord, but like those who will later refuse their place at the wedding banquet (see Matthew 22: 1-14) they will find themselves receiving the king’s judgment because they refused the invitation to turn away from the things that concerned them, their own negotiated settlements with the powers of the day and instead would mistreat and abuse the messengers of the banquet.

J.Ross Wagner in 2000 published a work called Heralds of the Good News: Paul and Isaiah in Concert in the Letter of Romans and if you haven’t guessed by the string of quotations from Isaiah referenced in these initial chapters I believe that Matthew as a herald of the kingdom is placing John the Baptist and later Jesus’ ministry in a key that would be in harmony with the prophetic hope and challenge of Isaiah in particular and other prophets as well. For years Christians have mined the prophet Isaiah for prooftexts that, cut off from their context, could be used as predictors for Jesus’ life and ministry but what if, instead, we actually allowed Isaiah’s words and hope to provide language and richness to the experience of Jesus narrated by Matthew. As I have argued from the beginning of these reflections, Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ story is a uniquely Hebrew way of reading the story of Jesus and as we immerse ourselves in Matthew’s gospel we should expect to be swimming in waters deeply infused with the words of the law, the prophets, the narrative and the poetry of the Hebrew people. Yet one of the major rivers flowing into the deep sea of Matthew’s gospel is the prophet Isaiah with his vision of hope and reinterpretation of what Israel’s identity is to be.

We are introduced here with the actions of John the Baptist baptizing those coming into wilderness a key piece of what Matthew will continue to reinforce: the identity of the chosen people. In a context where the people of Jerusalem and all Judea is now attached to the Roman empire and its emissaries (including the religious authorities in Jerusalem) John is making a prophetic break from the temple and its leaders. What will define the reconstituted Israel will be the God of Israel rather than the newly rebuilt temple but instead an orientation towards the approaching kingdom of heaven. They stand at the Jordan river awaiting a new Joshua to bring them into the kingdom that their Lord has promised them. And to use one final image from the prophet Isaiah they are reminded:

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear for I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you, Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and from the west I will gather you; I will say to the north, “Give them up,” and to the south, “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the ends of the earth—everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.” Isaiah 43: 1-7

Yet John the Baptist is merely a herald of the good news, but the gospel (and the play on words here is that gospel and good news are the same Greek work euangellion) is not merely about the proclamation of the kingdom of heaven but its advent. One greater than John is coming, John can stand in the waters of the Jordan and reorient the people of God, but he cannot bring in the kingdom. Ultimately, for Matthew, he wants us to see that God will be with the people calling them by name, passing through the waters with them and gathering them from the ends of the earth. John sees God’s harvest approaching where the faithful will be gathered together and not consumed by the flames that are to come.

I’ve hinted that this will be a gracious reading of Matthew’s gospel and if John the Baptist and Jesus both can advocate this type of division between chaff and wheat some might ask from our context where the grace can be in the judgment. Working through Exodus, Deuteronomy, Psalms,  Jeremiah and Revelation you have to come to terms with the judgment of God against those forces either within or beyond the boundaries of the community which have set their will against their creator: Egypt, the people of Israel and Judah, Babylon and Rome all come under God’s judgment for the sake of the life and witness of God’s people and the prosperity of the world. Yet, God’s judgment is always preceded with an opportunity for repentance, with a chance for those who will be sorted to return to the Lord who is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. God is not content to allows things to remain the way things are, to allow the ways of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon or Rome to be the truth. As Miroslav Volf can state insightfully, “In Pilate’s world, truth and justice were fruits of Caesar’s sword. In Jesus’ kingdom, truth and justice are alternatives to Caesar’s sword.” (Volf, 1996, p. 275) John in heralding the advent of the kingdom of heaven is offering the people to turn to an alternative to Rome or Herod Antipas’ reign, the kingdom of heaven is an alternative to the empire of Rome. A God who changes the world without judgment is, in Volf’s words, a pleasant captivity of the liberal mind[2]. (Volf, 1996, p. 304)

The challenge of John to the religious authorities of his day should also give pause to those with ears to hear when they are tempted to closely align with the political powers of their own day. As one of my readings outside of the work I’ve done on Matthew I’ve been going through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings in the critical years of 1932-33 where the National Socialist Party rose to power and successfully asserted influence on the state churches (Catholic, Lutheran and Reformed) in Germany and effectively coopted the majority of practicing Christians into the rise of the policies that would unfold while the Nazis remained in power until the end of World War II and the destruction of much of Germany. Even though in the United States there is a separation between church and state there is still a great lure to being closely situated to those in political power. Like the people of Israel being reconstituted here in the wilderness of the Jordan, there are times where we will need to return to our own baptism and be reminded that our trust is in the Lord our God who created us and who passed through the waters with us and that we as people of God are called to an alternative to the empires of this world.

[1] See for example Isaiah 29: 13 or Amos 5: 21-24 as two examples of times where God speaks to a people who may be worshipping correctly and yet are not living reformed lives, I also believe that this is behind much of the critique of the prophet Jeremiah during the reforms in reign of Josiah: the people may be worshipping correctly but their lives are still oriented around a way of life that does not reflect the values God desired for Judah (and Israel as a whole).

[2] The liberal mind has little to do with liberal verses conservative politics and instead references the liberalism that arose with the age of Enlightenment upon which both conservative and liberal political groups find their reference. Key to this disenchanted view of the world is a God who is no longer active in the secular sphere but is concerned only with the spiritual realities. This is a very different God than we encounter in the Bible.

Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

Barent Fabritius, Saint Matthew and the Angel (1656)

The Gospel of Matthew is a book that has generated countless books and studies and continues to be one of the most read and preached upon books in the bible. Writing about this gospel is, to use the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “an honor, a burden, and a daunting task.” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 18) On the one hand, as a pastor who deals with the gospels on an almost weekly basis there is a greater familiarity with these texts and with the various scholarly perspectives on them. On the other hand, to take up a project like this is a burden and daunting task because it attempts to capture years of learning, study, and remain open to new discoveries. There are scholars who dedicate their entire life work to Matthew’s gospel or even to a small portion of it like the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, to the casual reader many of the commentaries and works of interpretation on the bible may be unapproachable because they are written for those who have an insider’s knowledge of the world of Biblical studies.

The Gospel of Matthew gives us a window into Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching and by extension the world he did his living, ministry and teaching within. Both the time of Jesus life and the time when Matthew’s gospel was written were times:

when there was conflict and division in the community of faith;
when some were insiders and others were outsiders;
when political and religious leaders were coopted, mistrusted, and discredited;
when the great majority of the common people were without power;
when cultures clashed. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 1)

In 2015 I wrote a guide based on a class I taught on Mark’s gospel and Mark’s portrait of Jesus and the world he lived in and many of the things addressed in that series apply to reading Matthew. If you want to read more as an introduction about the Kingdom of God (or in Matthew frequently kingdom of heaven) in contrast to the Kingdom of Satan, the Roman Empire as a setting for the gospel, Second Temple Judaism as a setting for the gospel, the gospel writers as interpreters of scripture, structure and some other topics I would invite you to these brief introductions below:

Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 1
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 2
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 3
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 4
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5

There are a few additional topics I want to introduce prior to beginning my journey through Matthew’s gospel.

Gospel Parallels

Matthew, Mark and Luke share a lot of material in common while John occasionally will have a common story but in general will narrate Jesus life and teaching in an independent manner. Where there are stories or teaching that are shared between Matthew and other gospels, I will list the parallels as a subtitle for the section. For those who have not studied the gospels they may not be aware of the similarities and difference among Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the synoptic gospels (syn-with, together; optic-relating to eye or sight: they are the gospels that share similar patterns, stories and often word for word correspondence). Mark is the shortest of the gospels and is believed by most modern scholars to be the oldest. The authors of Matthew and Luke probably had access to Mark’s gospel and added material to that to compose their own gospels. There is also material that Matthew and Luke share that are not a part of Mark’s gospel and scholars have often labeled this material shared in common as ‘Q’ from the German ‘Quelle’ or source.  Whether there is an independent source behind these shared sayings in Matthew, Luke and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas or whether Matthew is the second gospel written and the source of the common material is something that can interest scholars but for most readers of the gospel it is helpful to understand that there are parallels are shared between Matthew and Luke in addition to the material that is present in Mark and in addition to the material that is unique to each gospel. Each gospel writer does bring specific accents to their portrayal of Jesus, but I do think it is helpful to see what they share and how the similarities and the accents give us a richer picture of Jesus and his teaching.

Matthew as an Interpreter of Scripture

Matthew invites us into his world viewed through the lenses of a scripture formed imagination. Even though Matthew will use explicit quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) far more than any other gospel writer the entire gospel is permeated with allusions and imagery from the law, prophets, psalms, wisdom literature and story of the Jewish people. Matthew’s reading of scripture is shaped by the merciful and inclusive reading that comes out of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea which expands the promises of God’s covenant beyond the boundaries of the Hebrew people. As Richard B. Hays can state:

Thus, for Matthew, the story of Israel is carried forward through a particular, prophetically shaped, interpretation of Torah within a community called to embody the mercy of God. Emphasis authors (Hays, 2016, pp. 127-128)

Matthew’s scripture formed imagination hears within the story of Jesus both a continuity with and an expansion of the story of the people of Israel and their relationship with the Lord, the God of Israel. Throughout this journey I will attempt to highlight the way Matthew uses both the explicit quotations and the implicit allusions to scripture to show how these all give Matthew’s gospel a fuller exposition of who Jesus is, what he teaches and what it means for those who are now invited to become a part of this story.

Matthew, Discipleship and a Meaningful Life

The name Matthew means disciple and from beginning to end the gospel is for the formation of a community of disciples who will follow Jesus in the world. Most readers of Matthew may reflect upon the Great Commission at the end of the gospel with its command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ but the entire book in both its narrative and teaching is forming the follower to first become a disciple themselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work the Cost of Discipleship, originally published in 1937, attempted to capture this for the church of his day by returning to the Sermon on the Mount as the center of this journey behind Christ. Unfortunately, discipleship has become a term that churches may use frequently but I think many people may wonder why they would follow Jesus, especially when it means picking up one’s cross to follow him, when they have been taught they can simply believe in him. For Matthew, and for us as readers of Matthew, the key comes in understanding what it means to live a meaningful life. In Matthew’s scripture formed view of the world a meaningful life is a life lived in harmony with God’s will for the creation. For the Jewish mind the will of God for the creation is expressed in God’s law, or Torah, and God’s Torah is a gift that enables one to live the life God intends. Matthew points the hearer to Jesus interpreting God’s law to show how one can live the wise and righteous life that God intends. Following Jesus becomes a school where the student slowly learns the blessing of a life of shalom (peace, harmony) in contrast to the cares of the world.

Reading the Gospel as a Story

Matthew’s gospel has multiple genres: genealogy, narrative, teaching, and parables for example, but fundamentally Matthew tells us a story. Matthew’s story is theological in nature, it talks about God and God’s kingdom and how Jesus is God us. If you’ve read any of my other writing on scripture, you’ll find I stay close to the text as I write, I’ll bring in historical elements as the illuminate the story but primarily I want to enhance rather than distract from the story Matthew wants us to hear. Sometimes the story may differ dramatically from how we would tell a story, no modern writer would probably begin a narrative with a long genealogy but for Matthew this makes a critical connection to what comes before. Matthew will use clues, some visible in English translations and some not, that help us frame and give structure to the gospel of Jesus Christ he tells.

Conversation Partners on this Journey

I learn as I walk along the journey. I have several works on Matthew that I have read over the years, but the following are ones I will either be reading for the first time or who I intentionally want to re-engage as we move systematically through the Gospel of Matthew:

Allen, O. Wesley, Jr. Matthew (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013)

Relatively recent work on Matthew and one of two commentaries I will be reading through as I do these reflections.  First of the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries series I have looked at.

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001 (1937)) Cited as DBWE 4 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English volume 4)

Bonhoeffer’s classic work that I read for the first time at the beginning of my seminary education in 2000. I’ve read it multiple times but particularly with the Sermon on the Mount I’m interested to reread it considering where I think this project is going.

Case-Winters, Anna, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Publishing, 2015)

I’ve used several of the Belief Theological Commentaries in other places and they’ve proven to be a good conversation partner. The authors in this series are not biblical scholars but instead theologians so they bring slightly different gifts and perspectives to the process, but I’ve been impressed with the series volumes I’ve used.

Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016)

Richard B. Hays is one of the most insightful readers of scripture I have found. This book and the earlier Reading Backwards examine the four gospel writers as interpreters of scripture.

Luther, Martin, The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1956) Cited as LW 21

When possible I’ve gone back to read Luther’s perspective on scripture to help me understand my own tradition. Luther was a phenomenal reader of scripture for his age. His work on the Sermon on the Mount wrestles with it theologically within Luther’s idea of the Kingdom of God and the Secular Kingdom (often called Luther’s two kingdom theology). There are some useful insights even if I know that there will be several places I take a very different perspective than Luther.

Transitioning into the Gospel of Matthew

 

Guido Reni, St. Matthew and the Angel (1620-1630)

The one constant in my writing over the past seven years has been the practice of reflecting on this strange and wonderful book of scriptures that have been handed on to both the Jewish and Christian faiths. Over this time, I’ve worked primarily with books I had less familiarity with even if I had some general knowledge and skills honed both in education and years of interpreting scripture. This has been an instrumental part of my personal growth and has helped both my appreciation and love for the scriptures grow. The past seven years have seen me work through (in order of appearance in the Bible, rather than date they were worked through) Exodus, Deuteronomy, Esther, Psalms 1-51, Ecclesiastes, Jeremiah, Haggai and Revelation. Until this time I have not worked through any of the gospels or Pauline letters since these were areas I invested in heavily in both my education and early in ministry and which as a pastor I preached on more frequently but my work in both the Hebrew Scriptures and recently in Revelation has made me reconsider this approach due to some new insights.

The Gospel of Matthew is often described as the most Jewish of the four gospels and I would agree with this statement but not with what scholars and readers have often implied from this statement. For much of the history of Christian interpretation of scriptures had been plagued by readings that are at best unfair portrayals of Judaism and at their worst strongly anti-Jewish. Although the church continued to recognize the Hebrew Scriptures as a part of the Christian cannon, their usage was often either used for constructing a salvation history in which the election of the Jewish people is merely one step along the process of God’s eventual creation of the church or the Hebrew Scriptures became places where the interpreter of scriptures looked for prophecies (in the sense of telling the future rather than the way prophesy often works in the Hebrew Scriptures) that pointed either to Jesus or helped interpret the words of Revelation to help the diligent student predict the end of the world. When people have referred to Matthew as being the most Jewish of the gospels what is often understood by this term is it is the most judgmental or legalistic of the gospels. This fundamentally misunderstands both Judaism (both ancient and modern) and the Gospel of Matthew.

One of the gifts of spending much of the last seven years engaging both Christian and Jewish scholars on the Hebrew Scriptures and being engaged in dialogues with multiple faith traditions is that it has given me a number of insights into the way the New Testament in general, and the gospel of Matthew in particular engages the language, stories, poetry and the law of the Hebrew Scriptures. For me the gospels and Paul’s letters have become much richer documents as I’ve seen how they attempt to use the language of the scriptures (and at the time the New Testament is written the only scriptures they have are the books that make up the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament as many Christians know them.) The God that the gospels and Paul point to is the same passionate God of Israel.

People who come to these reflections are coming from different levels of familiarity with the study of scripture and particularly to some of things that are helpful in approaching the gospels. The introduction will talk about some of the perspectives I will be using in this reading. There will be times throughout this work where I will retranslate certain passages because their current translation encourages us to read Matthew in a way that is more judgmental than the Greek is: for example at the end of chapter five of Matthew, during the Sermon on the Mount, the NRSV states: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5: 48) but the word translated perfect does not mean perfect, the word telios is a word that means having attained a goal or completion. To translate this as perfection takes most people into an accounting or courtroom like usage but what Matthew is probably attempting to communicate is something closer to: “Be complete like your Father in heaven is complete” which fits the context better, even if it may be a little harder to comprehend and force us to think about things differently. Another phrase that I will change throughout occurs most famously in Matthew 14:31 when Peter attempts to come to Jesus on water. This is Jesus’ response to Peter in the NRSV, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” which in English sounds judgmental, its hard to say ‘you of little faith’ in a kind and compassionate way but the Greek oligopistos behind this term is simply an adjective with an implied second person object. I will render this ‘little faith one’ which seems to me a term of endearment, especially when you realize that the object of this adjective is always Jesus’ disciples in Matthew.

I am heavily indebted to those who have studied Matthew and the gospels across the history of the church. There are several passages in Matthew that I will suggest a reading that goes against the grain of many interpretations of Matthew. I will also be building on the work of different scholars who at different points have seen some of the things I am seeing. For those of you making this journey with me welcome to this experiment to test out some of the theories I have about how to read this witness to the life and teaching of Jesus. I am not sure at this point whether the reflections will continue to follow the pattern of one reflection per chapter, since they may become quite lengthy at times, or the more common pattern of breaking down the individual chapters into pericopes (smaller sections like those frequently read in worship).

If you are reading these reflections, I pray that they can help give some insight not only in the Gospel of Matthew but also to the object of Matthew’s description: Jesus. I will occasionally be writing about things debated among academics, but I am attempting to write in a matter that can be heard by people in the congregations that I’ve served. I do this out of a sense of love for the gospels and the witness they bear to both Jesus and the life he attempts to direct us to. The name Matthew means disciple, and Matthew’s gospel attempts to call the readers to engage with the first disciples as they attempt to follow Jesus through his life and beyond his resurrection. Generations later may we continue to come to take Jesus’ yoke upon ourselves and learn from him for rather than being heavy and hard to bear it is light and intended for us to find rest for our souls.

Review of Reading Backwards by Richard B. Hays

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READING BACKWARDS: FIGURAL CHRISTOLOGY AND THE FOURFOLD GOSPEL WITNESS, by Richard B. Hays. Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2014. 155pp $34.95

Richard B. Hays began his work of examining how the earliest followers of Jesus were interpreters of scriptures in 1989 with his work The Echoes of Scriptures in the Letters of Paul. Twenty five years later, after changing the dynamic of the way many people view Paul’s engagement with the Hebrew Scriptures Professor Hays now gives us a short introduction into what he states he hopes will be a much larger projects examining each of the evangelist’s engagement with the scriptures, but this short and provocative work should help continue the conversion of the imagination he challenged his readers to see in Paul now in the voice and words of the authors of Mark, Matthew, Luke and John. The book is the adaptation of the Hulsean Lectures presented at Cambridge University in the fall of 2013 and the spring of 2014 and is a work that will encourage its readers to understand the manner in which these early evangelists use the Hebrew Scriptures prefigure their experience of Christ.

The relationship of the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament is an important question for the church, but one that has often been overlooked. Richard B. Hays invites us into an exercise in learning to place ourselves in the evangelists’ places and see these scriptural texts that they used through their own eyes. Dr. Hays is convinced that “the Gospels teach us how to the OT, and –at the same time—the OT teaches us how to read the Gospels.”(4, emphasis author’s) Rather than seeing the evangelists as proof-texting pieces of the Hebrew Scriptures to make a certain points but rather invoke a set of rich and intertextual relations between the experience of the words of Jesus and the experience of his followers with the vision and world presented by the portions of scripture that the evangelists cite or allude to. The readings of each of the four gospels that are presented in Reading Backwards provide a rich and concise with the way in which each gospel distinctively uses scripture to paint its picture of Jesus.

The Gospel of Mark tells a story that is more suggestive and allusive in its narrative style and likewise many of Mark’s uses of the scriptures are allusive as well. Mark rarely quotes scripture but frequently uses language that alludes to how Jesus’ work and God’s work are mysteriously linked. Mark intimates that Jesus is, “in some way that defies comprehension the embodiment of God’s presence. Mark never quite dares to articulate this claim explicitly; it is too scandalous for direct speech. For Mark the character of God’s presence in Jesus is a mystery that can only be approached by riddle-like allusions to the OT.” (19f.) By looking at the way Mark creatively cites and alludes to scripture from the beginning of the story in Mark 1: 2-3 and running through the crucifixion narrative examining the way the larger context of the scriptural allusions to open the readers to the mystery of Jesus’ relationship with the God of Israel. Mark’s characteristic tension holds this identity in suspension as well, never overtly coming out and claiming Jesus’ identity but rather in a poetic way hides this answer in order that it might be revealed to those with eyes to see and ears to hear. Mark attempts to lead his readers into an exploration of the mysterious way in which Jesus is recognized as the embodiment of the God of Israel.

The Gospel of Matthew is much more explicit in its claims and the ways in which it uses scriptures. Matthew quotes scripture explicitly more than any of the other evangelists and from his first citation of Isaiah 7.14 in the birth narrative where Jesus is titled God is with us until the end of the gospel where all authority has been given to Jesus who will be with them forever Matthew presents, in a much more direct way, that Jesus is the presence of God among the people and the appropriate response is to worship the living presence of God who is present with them. Matthew uses a combination of scripture quotations as well as allusions to the Old Testament stories, like Herod in the slaughter of the innocents certainly would be heard as echoing Pharaoh’s decree in the Exodus narrative, to show how Jesus comes to embody not only God’s presence but also comes to be the fulfillment of the hopes of the law and the prophets. Where Mark encourages us to explore the mystery of the way divine presence of the God of Israel is present in Jesus, Matthew wants us to see this presence in order that we may worship God where God has now been found.

Luke reads the scriptures in a way that points to Jesus being the one who is the hope of Israel. From the prophecy of Zechariah, where God is praised for having “looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.”(Luke 1.68) to the journey with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus where these disciples, in their sadness, say, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel.” (Luke 24. 21) Hays invites us to read again how Jesus might be seen in Moses and the prophets and how Luke might use the scriptures to help us see who Jesus is. Luke uses language and events that reflect the type of things that happened in the stories of the scriptures while never simply the same. The effect is to create a powerful but indistinct relation between the saving acts of God in the story of Israel and the liberating acts of fulfillment in the story of Jesus. (59)

For John’s gospel the fundamental hermeneutical claim is that the scriptures are the ones that bear witness to Jesus, but to understand those same scriptures one must first come to Jesus to receive life. This retrospective reading of Israel’s scriptures allows John to use a more visual set of images and figures from the narrative of the people where Jesus through verbal echoes and direct quotations link Jesus with both the wisdom of God as well as the images of the temple and sacrifice. Through these images John wants to illustrate that Jesus is not only the temple—but also the place where God’s presences comes to meet us and deliver us into union with the divine presence. (82) Since John understands Jesus as the Logos of God the entire narrative, the temple, sacrifice and the festivals of Judaism are a rich set of signs and symbols of God’s activity in the life and presence of Jesus.

In this short work with numerous illuminating explorations of the way the evangelists read their scriptures and the scriptures provide a fuller meaning to the telling of the story of Jesus, Richard B. Hays invites the reader to discover a gospel shaped hermeneutic. This, he argues, involves a complex poetic sensibility that pays attention to the narrative arc of the scriptures. Hays argues that the more we explore the way the evangelists explore the scriptures the more clearly it is apparent that each of the evangelists in their own unique portrayal point to Jesus being the embodiment of the God of Israel.  This short work, which continues Richard B. Hays long work with intertextuality and the art of reading scripture, is a very generative and helpful introduction to the deep question of how the evangelists became interpreters of the scriptures and how the experience of Jesus reframed their reading of scripture while scripture gave them the language and symbols to express the mystery of who Jesus is to their communities.