This introduction to Matthew has in mind people who will be using Matthew regularly for preaching. In it I approach Matthew by looking at the opening 5 chapters, where most of the important themes of Matthew already appear or are at least foreshadowed. I begin by looking at Matthew as a whole, then focus on the early chapters as a group, then turn to the individual passages, treating them in three blocks: 1. The Birth Narratives (Matt 1-2); 2. John the Baptist and Jesus (Matt 3-4); 3. The Beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 4:23 - 5:48).
If we set out Matthew diagrammatically according to its patterns, it looks a little like an elongated Vienna loaf of bread or perhaps like a French roll. Looking at it in full length, all 28 chapters, it is clear that there is a major section at each end: 1-2 the birth narratives; and 26-28 the passion narratives (of Jesus' death and resurrection). In between we have five sets of speeches, which are like the cuts across the loaf. They are: 5-7 the Sermon on the Mount, matched by 24-25, Jesus' last discourse. In the middle we have 13, the chapter of parables about response and judgement, beginning with the parable of the sower. Between 5-7 and 13 in the first half we have 10, which is instruction to the disciples (sending out the 12). Between 13 and 24-25 in the second half, we have 18: instructions to the disciples about Christian community and discipline. Altogether there is a certain symmetry. Each of the five speeches ends with similar words: "When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he.." Some take these observations a step further and try to divide the main body of the gospel into five parts, each ending with a speech, and suggest Matthew is emulating the 5 books of the Law. This may or may not be so.
Another approach to Matthew, beside looking at the gospel as a whole and its composition and structure, is to look at the way Matthew has used Mark. In general terms we can say that nearly all of Mark is reproduced in Matthew sometimes with only minor revision. In the early chapters we shall see that Matthew makes some changes to the order; otherwise Matthew follows Mark's order very closely. By looking at the way Matthew uses Mark and revises Mark's material we can detect particular Matthean emphases.
When we look at the diagram showing Matthew and Mark in parallel in the opening chapters, we see that Matthew has used Mark's opening verse as his opening verse with some variations. Instead of following Mark by immediately speaking of John the Baptist, Matthew has included two chapters worth of material concerning Jesus' birth. We shall look at each set of material briefly.
1. The Birth Narratives (Matt 1-2)
The Genealogy 1:1-17
First he has a genealogy. It will have been constructed in part from Old Testament genealogies. Genealogies traced lineage via the male line. Matthew may well have been using a genealogy which someone had already constructed. The genealogy proves Jesus is of the lineage of David, qualified to be the Messiah. Matthew preserves this interest by signalling it in his opening verse. Here he emphasises that Jesus is Son of David and Son of Abraham. Mark had spoken of "the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God". Matthew will certainly go on to speak of Jesus as Son of God, but the primary concern here is to underline the link between Jesus and David, as Messiah, Son of David, and the link with Abraham, a descendant of Abraham. Jesus belongs to Israel, to God's dealing with Israel. This connection is important. It both lays claim to representing Israel and its tradition and to being connected with God's dealings in the past.
The genealogy secures the emphasis on divine involvement not only by the direct links through the family, but also through the pattern of 3 times 14 which structures the genealogy. In a world where numbers were highly symbolic, hearers would identify 3 times 14 as equivalent of 6 times 7. 7 is the number of perfection. With Jesus the 7th set of 7 had begun. History is reaching its climax. 7 x 7 = 49, a jubilee period. In other words, the code of numbers is making a major claim about the coming of Jesus and his significance and the existence of the pattern (slightly contrived/forced on the genealogy) would be seen as additional proof that God is behind all of this.
The genealogy also has some unusual features. Breaking the rule that males only appear in the lists, it lists four women, all of whom were figures of some controversy (like Mary, the fifth!) and were Gentiles. This appears to be Matthew's way of making a point about the kind of thing which would happen through Jesus: people normally marginalised because of their gender (women), their reputation (morally), and their race (Gentile), are included and have become part of the divine action.
The Birth 1:18-25
If originally the genealogy was proving Jesus' lineage, the story told in 1:18-25 goes further, so far in fact that it breaks the genealogical line, because Jesus is no longer strictly the descendant of David. Instead he is the miraculous creation of God at his conception through Mary. This is Matthew's christology of Jesus, the Son of God. It was not that he was with God in the beginning as the Word, as in John, or that he was the Son whom God sent into the world, as in Paul. Rather Jesus, the Son of God, was miraculously created at his conception. The New Testament contains a number of explanations about how it came to be that faith found God in Christ. This is one of the most famous. Later it would be combined with the one in John so that the Word became flesh through conception in the womb of the virgin Mary.
The "what" is more important than the "how". Miraculous conceptions and miracles at conception or which enable conception were not unusual in the ancient world, including in the Old Testament, where aged and barren women could be made to conceive through divine intervention. Miracles at conception were a favourite way of celebrating that someone was special in their life. Sex education in the ancient world, according to which the man provided the seed and the woman only the fertile ground, made it easier to develop such stories.
In Matthew the virginal conception (known also to Luke) is but one of a number of typical signs of divine involvement which have been woven into the story. The genealogy and its mysteries are another. Dreams and angelic interventions are another, as are scriptures fulfilled and echoes of scripture and the movements of a heavenly star. Matthew also uses a dream to introduce a new element into the story of Jesus' trial before Pilate, which results in Pilate washing his hands and the Jews claiming full responsibility for Jesus' execution (27:19). Fulfilment of scripture is a key theme in Matthew. As the genealogy cements the link with God's action in the past, the proofs of prophecy fulfilled show that the God of Israel is again active in the events surrounding Jesus. This occurs not only where Matthew uses the formula: "This is to fulfil that which was spoken by the prophet ... saying", but also where persons and events surrounding Jesus reflect persons and events of the past. Who was the dreamer of Israel, but Joseph!
Matthew uses the Greek translation (Septuagint) of Isaiah 7:14 which spoke of a "virgin" conceiving as the sign of a time of liberation and applies it to Jesus' virginal conception. The Hebrew speaks only of a young woman. The Greek version fits the story much better; some think it may even have generated it. At least equally important is the promise that the child should be called Emmanuel, "God with us". There is no evidence Jesus ever bore such a name, but its presence in the story is not trying to be historical, but to say why Jesus was historic: God was in Christ. God was acting in Christ. The name finds an echo in the closing words of the gospel which, in turn, promise the presence of Jesus with his disciples to the end of time (28:20). The primary focus of Emmanuel is on action: "he will save his people from their sins" (1:23). This is the first major statement about what Jesus will do, but more will follow. It is about forgiveness of sins, but about much more than that. The emphasis is not on how or in what form or substance God was with us in Jesus. That became a theme for later centuries.
Before leaving 1:18-25 we should note that Matthew describes Joseph as "righteous". He is righteous because, faced with two possible applications of the Law, the one severe, the other compassionate, he chose the compassionate option. He becomes a model for a major theme to follow: obeying and interpreting Torah (Law) with the focus on compassion.
The Magi 2:1-23
The magi appear on the Christmas cards alongside the shepherds, but only Matthew has the magi and only Luke has the shepherds. There are numerous other differences as well, not least that Matthew has Jesus born in the last years of Herod the king who died in 4BCE and Luke has Jesus born during a census dated at 6CE. A closer look at Matthew's story reveals that, much as in the previous chapter, the story is more like a symbolic painting than a verbal photograph of historical events. It is not difficult to recognise the distinctive contours: Israel went down to Egypt and returned; so did Jesus. Moses could have died when an evil Pharoah sought to kill all Hebrew infants; Jesus escaped Herod's slaughter of the innocents. Legends about Moses' delivery have also coloured such items as the dream warnings to the magi. During the exodus the evil king, Balak, threatened to destroy Israel, but Israel was saved by the prophet, Balaam, who predicted that a star and sceptre would arise in Israel (Numbers 22-24; especially 24:17). So here the Messiah is born and the star has been seen.
The star moves across the night sky taking up its station over the place where Jesus lay. To search the many astronomical/astrological records for evidence of the event is to miss the point. The closest around this time was the conjunction of planets but nothing matching the surreality of the moving and stopping star. The star in the scene proclaims that Jesus is the hoped for Messiah of Israel. It also gives the cosmos voice, just as the Psalmists declared that sun and moon bow before God. These are images. Matthew has woven the strands together to create a powerful story. God's Messiah is born; the universe itself signals the event (powerful at a time where people looked to the heavens for signs); the wisest of the Gentile world (typically astrologers) see it for what it is and acknowledge him for who he is; the Jews and their half Jewish ruler, Herod, embark on a conspiracy to murder him. Matthew will also shame Israel again because of its unbelief by citing Gentile responses: the centurion and the Canaanite woman. There are hints of the new order already in the genealogy. Indeed many will come from east and west and sit at table with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom, whereas the original people will be cast out (8:11-12).
Matthew will use cosmic imagery to great effect also when he narrates Jesus' death and resurrection. On both occasions Matthew reports an earthquake (27:51; 28:2). It is a Dickensian trait, where the inner meaning of an event is reflected in the description of the weather or the outer circumstances.
We should always remember that the birth stories are not about a baby but about the grown person Jesus, and, in particular, his ministry and passion. Matthew has woven strands into the story which appear as a thread running through the gospel as a whole. Already in the genealogy we see hints of the Gentile world finding a place in God's activity. The image of the world's wise coming bearing gifts echoes Old Testament visions of the nations flocking to Jerusalem, including their kings, and bearing these kind of precious gifts. No wonder the legend developed into the coming of three kings.
The pain at the heart of the story, echoing the inscription on the cross, "King of the Jews", should not be hard to miss. The slaughter of the innocents reminds us of the brutality of threatened powers in every age. The hints of Jewish collaboration foreshadow Matthew's depiction of the Jewish leaders and the people of Jerusalem as bearing the guilt of Jesus' death, but what began as inner Jewish recrimination became too easily anti-Semitic generalising with horrific consequences. These ghosts have not been laid to rest and wait eagerly for every new generalisation about 'the Jews' and are not disappointed.
2. John the Baptist and Jesus (Matt 3-4)
Matthew is now ready to return to Mark's account. But whereas Mark's hearers have heard but one verse before the introduction of John the Baptist, they have already heard two chapters worth in Matthew's account. More important, they know that Jesus is Israel's Messiah and that he is Son of God in much greater detail. Matthew has already presented Jesus' credentials. We are ready now to hear what he will do. Of that there has so far been only the hint about forgiveness of sins. What will it mean that in him "God is with us", Emmanuel? Matthew 3-4 offer the hearer important information about what all this means, and not least what this gospel is.
"Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (3:1-2)
Before taking up Mark's account of John the Baptist, Matthew offers an introduction: John appears preaching, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" (3:2). This stands as a summary over Matthew's account of John's proclamation. It is striking that Matthew uses the same words also to describe Jesus' proclamation (4:17) and later that of the disciples (10:7). This is the good news. John, Jesus and the disciples stand in continuity and unity. Despite their difference in status (only Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God) all have the same message.
This summary of the gospel derives from Mark 1:15, where it occurs in similar form as the summary of Jesus' message. Matthew has changed Mark's "Kingdom of God" to "Kingdom of heaven" not because he wants to talk about heaven, let alone make heaven the focus of the message, but as a common way of avoiding speaking directly of God. Heaven shines upon you, for instance, means: God shines upon you.
Mark 1:15 is taken up in Matthew 4:17. But in 3:2 Matthew has given these words also to John. This is extraordinary that he transfers Jesus' words to John. But the reverse is also true. Matthew takes John's word about bearing fruit (3:10), drawn from Matthew's source Q (and so found also in Luke 3:9) and uses it also as a word of Jesus in 7:19. As John addresses the Pharisees and Sadducees as vipers and threatens them with wrath to come (3:7), so Jesus does the same to the same group in 23:33.
Even more striking is the way Matthew has assembled three parables in 21: 23 - 22:14 to reflect on the responses to the messages of John, Jesus, and the disciples. In Mark 11:27 - 12:12 Mark had reported the encounter between Jesus and the Jewish leaders who asked the basis of his authority for expelling people from the temple. Jesus at first answers by challenging them about John's authority. He then goes on in 12:1-12 to tell the parable about the hired labourers using a familiar Old Testament image of Israel as a vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2). The hired tenants had not produced the harvest for the owner's messengers and even killed his beloved son, whom he sent. The application to Jesus himself is obvious. Matthew reproduces Mark's account, but adds two further parables, one on either side of the vineyard parable. The first is about two sons, one who agreed to obey and the other who at first refused (21:28-32). Matthew has Jesus apply the parable directly to people's response to John. After the vineyard parable (21:33-46) he includes the parable of the marriage feast (22:1-14). Its focus is the rejection of the mission of the church by Israel and the subsequent judgement on the holy city through its destruction.
John and Jesus (3:3-17)
What does this emphasis on continuity mean? At one level it means that we can find important clues to how Matthew understood Jesus and his message by listening to what John says. After describing John's appearance in 3:3-6 in terms drawn from Mark, Matthew introduces more of John's preaching (3:7-10), this time drawn from the Q material shared with Luke. John announces judgement. Having the pedigree of being a descendant of Abraham counts for nothing unless one lives a life which bears the fruit of goodness. Only performance counts. The theme of judgement continues in 3:11-12. Mark's material and Q's material appear to overlap. Here John announces that there will be an agent of judgement who will baptise with Spirit and fire. 3:12 expands upon this role by speaking of burning up chaff and of an axe lying at the root of trees that do not bear fruit.
The effect of John's preaching is to raise the expectation that judgement is at hand. Clearly proclaiming that the kingdom is at hand includes the message that the judgement is at hand. That gives the common summary, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand" a particular colouring, not present in Mark. That colouring affects the way Jesus and his message is understood in Matthew.
The effect of John's preaching is also to lead to the expectation that God's agent to come will have as a central role, that of judgement. 3:13-17 then reports John's encounter with Jesus. John recognises Jesus as the one to come and the baptism confirms it for all to see. The effect is to identify Jesus as the judge to come. That puts Jesus' role as judge at the centre of Jesus' role description. Jesus is the judge to come. That will echo throughout the gospel of Matthew and prove to be a central theme. We can see that already by noting the major emphasis on the judgement to come in Jesus' major speeches: the Sermon on the Mount ends with the image of building on sand or on a rock; the central speech majors on themes of judgement; the final speech ends with the parable of judgement when Jesus as Son of Man will separate the sheep and the goats.
The baptism scene also leaves us in no doubt that the continuity between John, Jesus, and the church does not amount to an equality. John protests that Jesus should baptise him as the inferior. But Jesus in Matthew asserts that righteousness must be fulfilled (3:15). Jesus is totally obedient. Righteousness is a key term. The baptism also shows us Jesus receiving the Spirit. That will equip Jesus for his mission. By the Spirit of God he will cast out demons (12:28). By the Spirit he will also proclaim judgement and baptise in judgement with Spirit and fire (see also its echo in 12:17-21). The baptism reaffirms what the reader has learned in chapters 1-2. Jesus is the Son of God.
The effect of chapter 3 is to give content to what the first two chapters tells us about Jesus. These establish Jesus' credentials, as it were, and chapter three then defines his role. At least, it indicates that a major part of Jesus' task is to be the judge to come. By association it also indicates that judgement is a major part of the message about the nearness of the kingdom of heaven. This presentation of Jesus, the Son of God, as the one who will baptise with Spirit and fire, burning up the chaff, and wielding the axe at the foot of trees that do not bear fruit, creates something of a problem as Matthew's narrative continues. The problem comes to clear expression in 11:2-3, where John the Baptist, now in prison, send disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one to come. The problem is that Jesus has not been carrying out a ministry of judgement, burning up the chaff with fire. He is not doing what John said he would do. Behind this, historically, may be the problem that early Christians had in meshing John's preaching about one to come and Jesus who appeared anything but a judge. Jesus' response is to call attention to his miracles and to his proclamation of the good news of the kingdom and tell John not to take offence (11:4-6). The implied response is clearly: yes, I am the one, but things are not "panning out" the way you expected. In fact, in Matthew Jesus is the judge, but this is portrayed in two stages: on earth he has come as the one who will judge the world in the future, but who is now warning of that future and expounding the basis of judgement, the Law; then finally he will come as Son of Man to hold judgment over all peoples.
At one level, the good news in Matthew is that the judge has come to help us know the basis of that judgement so that we might not live lives that lead to condemnation. In that sense he comes "to save his people from their sins" as 1:21 indicates. This raises a number of issues: is this justification by works? Is it basing one's life on seeking a reward/escaping judgement? We shall return to these questions. In the meantime it is important to see that by composing these early chapters in the way that he has Matthew has painted Jesus strongly in the colours of the judge to come and sustains that emphasis throughout his gospel. The image of Jesus as judge to come and of the message of the gospel as a warning about judgement and a promise about escape has had a major impact on Christian life and practice throughout the centuries of the church's existence, especially since Matthew has the lead position in the New Testament as the first listed writing and first gospel in the collection.
The Temptations in the Wilderness and the Move to Galilee of the Gentiles (Matt 4)
Chapter 4 shows us the Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness. Mark has a brief description of temptation in the wilderness (1:12-13). Matthew draws on this, but his main source is the Q material which Luke also uses. Here we find Jesus facing three temptations reminiscent of the temptations which Israel faced in the wilderness. Jesus' responses are drawn from Deuteronomy and portray him as the faithful Son of Israel and Son of God, who, unlike Israel of old, was faithful in the wilderness. Need for food does not lead Jesus to forsake what God wills: his fasting. Magic feats are not permitted; Jesus will not perform a stunt in the temple; he remains obedient. According to Matthew Jesus had such power, but refused to use it to his own advantage (see his claims at his arrest: 26:53). Nor would he surrender to the devil in the interests of gaining power as, like Moses, he surveys the world from a great height. That authority will be bestowed on him at his resurrection, where he reports to his disciples that all authority had been given to him (28:18). Throughout the emphasis is on Jesus the truly obedient Son. Obedience is not only called for by John and by implication, Jesus; it is also lived out by him.
It is this Jesus who according to 4:12-17 moves to Galilee in the region of the Gentiles. The universal thread reappears. There he proclaims, "The kingdom of heaven is at hand", as had John. It means at least: judgement is to come and total obedience is called for. The third party in the threesome (John, Jesus, and the disciples) comes in the following verses: 4:18-22. Here, following Mark 1:16-20, Matthew reports the call of the disciples, Peter and Andrew, James and John. They, too, are to be bearers of the message. They will be authorised to do as John and Jesus did.
Matthew thinks frequently in terms of delegated powers. The Father has delegated authority to the Son to teach (11:27) and after Easter to initiate world mission (28:18). Matthew finds ways of emphasising that this delegation is passed on to the disciples. He does so explicitly in 10:1-15). After Easter the disciples are instructed to teach all nations what they had been taught (28:19). Matthew makes a similar point when he retells Mark's story about Jesus walking on the water (14:22-33). What provoked a rebuke on the part of Jesus and lack of understanding on the part of the disciples in Mark (6:45-52), now in Matthew results in an acclamation: the disciples acclaim Jesus, Son of God. What is more, Jesus invites Peter to walk on the water. In the ancient world the waters were often seen as a symbol of the deep unknown powers. Here not only is Jesus able to master such powers; he invites Peter as representative of the disciples to do the same.
The story finds its echo in the way Matthew tells the famous episode of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi (16:13-23). In Mark 8:27-33 the episode is something of a climax. Jesus asks his disciples who people think he is. They list, prophet, Elijah, John the Baptist. Then Peter acclaims that Jesus is the Christ. Even though his understanding of the term still calls for some correction from Jesus, nevertheless this is a turning point in Mark's account. It is a breakthrough. In Matthew it is not a breakthrough, because the disciples have already acclaimed Jesus, Son of God (14:33). Even in the way Jesus asks them the question in Matthew we see that Matthew does not intend this to be a turning point in their understanding of who he is. He asks: "Who do people say that I, the Son of Man, am?" Peter responds similarly, acclaiming Jesus the Christ and adding, the Son of God. But this is not new. The focus falls instead on what follows. Jesus turns to Peter and says, "You are Peter (the name means rock) and on this rock I will build my church." He continues by speaking of the authority now given to Peter as representative of the congregation and later given to the congregation itself (18:18). Peter has a representative not a hierarchical role here. In effect Jesus is saying in words what, according to Matthew's expanded narrative, he was saying when he invited Peter to walk on the water. The disciples (and all whom they teach) are delegated, authorised to do what Jesus did.
3. The Beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 4:23 - 5:48).
Matthew's Editorial Changes is Using Mark
Throughout chapters 3 and 4 Matthew has been following Mark and Mark's order closely (look at the diagram), supplementing it at points with material from Q. By 4:18-22, the call of the disciples, he has included all of Mark 1:1-20. At this point, however, Matthew makes some changes which reflect a new structure which he gives to the material. 4:23 is a summary of Jesus' activity. It is based on Mark 1:39. Matthew uses it again at 9:35. The effect is to embrace all the intervening material within a framework. That intervening material illustrates the summary. In overview it consists of the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) and a series of deeds of Jesus (8-9). The Sermon on the Mount is drawn mostly from Q. In Luke 6:20-49 we find the same structure and content. The speech begins with blessings and ends with the parable about building on sand or rock. It looks very much like the version which Matthew had had already been significantly expanded, both with material from elsewhere in Q and with new material. That which takes 30 verses in Luke takes three chapters (132 verses!) in Matthew. Chapters 8-9 uses accounts of Jesus' activity, many of which are drawn from Mark, but have been gathered together, so that their order no longer corresponds to the order in which they appear in Mark.
Immediately after 4:23 we find an expanded summary: 4:24-5:2. It also draws on Mark, this time from 3:7-12 and the beginning of 3:13-19, where Jesus goes up a mountain and selects his twelve special disciples. Matthew has selected from these passages features which expand the summary and make a good transition to the Sermon which follows. Using the detail about Jesus going up a mountain sets the scene for the Sermon and gives it its popular designation: the Sermon on the Mount. The shorter speech in Luke is not associated with a mountain. The detail here may well be deliberately echoing Moses' ascent of Mount Sinai, especially since for Matthew Jesus' teaching about the Law is a major theme.
Matthew has been carefully re-editing and shaping his material. He had left off using Mark in sequence at Mark 1:20. He does not use 1:21-28, the exorcism in the synagogue, but does use the first two verses which speak of Jesus' teaching with authority being not like that of the scribes. He takes up these verses and uses them in 7:29, except that that he writes that Jesus taught them with authority, but not like the authority of their scribes. The contrasts is no longer with the scribes; it is with their scribes, because Matthew's community has its own scribes, as 13:52 indicates, and in a sense Jesus, as interpreter of the Law, is the supreme scribe. Apart from that, 1:23-28 is one of the rare pieces of Mark which Matthew passes over . He is generally not fond of exorcisms, perhaps because he wants to avoid anything which smacks of magic. Elsewhere he tones down such detail. The next part of Mark, 1:32-34 (evening healings), Matthew uses in 8:16-17. He then passes over Mark 1:35-38 (Jesus moving out from Capernaum), uses 1:39 at 4:23, as we have seen, and returns to 1:40-45, the healing of the leper, after the Sermon on the Mount, in 8:1-4. The episodes of chapter two are used partly in chapter 9 and partly in chapter 12.
The opening of the Sermon on the Mount 4:23 - 5:16
Returning to the substance of Matthew's account, we observe that 4:24-5:2 have the effect of preparing the hearer for the great speech which follows. The speech is a concrete instance of the teaching which Matthew mentions in 4:23. Jesus takes up the traditional stance of the teacher: he sits. The disciples are the audience, although the crowd is also in earshot. For Matthew the basis for salvation is not status, Jewish or Christian, but performance. Jesus is on the mountain like Moses, but greater than Moses. With chapter 3 in our memory, we see Jesus as the judge to come who has already appeared to offer guidance through teaching. Our expectations from the previous chapters converge: we are about to hear the good news of the kingdom spelled out and we expect that judgement will be a central concern.
The opening of the Sermon on the Mount consists of 9 so-called beatitudes. They are promises which hold out the prospect of divine reward in the future for people in the present. That is written into their structure. Leaving aside the ninth beatitude which has its distinctive form and greater length, we find the first 8 beatitudes divided into two groups of 4. In the first and the eighth we find the promise expressed in terms of the kingdom of heaven. In the fourth and the eighth, that is, at the end of the two groups of four we have reference to righteousness. Righteousness and the kingdom of heaven are key themes. The beatitudes are stating the positive aspect of the judgement to come. The judge is declaring what will count.
In the earlier form of the beatitudes, the four we find in Luke and that were probably also in Q, the focus is on needy people: the poor, the hungry, those who weep and the persecuted. That dimension is still partly present in Matthew: those who mourn and those who are persecuted. But the major focus in Matthew is not primarily the needy. Perhaps such neediness was not a major issue in Matthew's community. Rather the focus is appropriate behaviour. As a result Matthew changes the formulations to reflect this. So "the poor" become "the poor in spirit"; the "hungry" become "those who hunger and thirst after righteousness". Some of the other beatitudes reflect similar blessings in the Psalms: the meek, the pure in heart (Ps 37:11; 24:4; 73:1). Being merciful, being a peacemaker, these are the qualities that characterise righteousness according to Matthew's Jesus. This was what characterised Joseph, who chose the compassionate option when faced with Mary's apparent misdemeanour.
Hungering and thirsting after righteousness is not just hungering and thirsting for justice in the sense of human rights. It goes far beyond that. It is hungering and thirsting after God's will and God's will is manifest in acts of kindness and compassion that go beyond what is someone's right. There is a strong emphasis on caring but also on community. Many of the qualities are social or relational. This is a regular emphasis of Matthew's. Later in the chapter he shows Jesus expounding the commandment not to murder, but drawing out its implications for our attitudes and suggesting that where there is grievance in relationships we should set aside our pious duties and first try to work through the wrong (5:21-26). In chapter 18 we find strong warnings about abuse of power followed by equally strong statements about compassion and forgiveness. We even find a primitive set of mechanisms for conflict resolution which remain a good guide: first confront the person; if that fails draw in a third party; finally, if need be, bring the matter before the community (18:15-18). It is a way of countering gossip and backbiting and continues to be relevant. This is the context in which the promise is given that where two or three are gathered in Jesus' name he is present with them (18:19-20). It is about dealing with conflict in the community. The chapter ends with Jesus' saying about forgiving not 7 but 70 times and the parable of the unmerciful servant.
The beatitudes and their values set the scene for what follows. They show the way Matthew believes we should interpret the Law. All the emphasis falls on compassion and relationships in the community. Righteousness, purity, the requirements of the kingdom of heaven, are all coloured by this orientation. This is remarkable when one considers what might have been the alternatives. Obeying the Law might have focussed on keeping its commands about ritual and ceremony as well. Clearly that is not Matthew's focus. That issue will return when we consider 5:17-20.
In 5:13-16 the disciples are told that they are the light of the world and the salt of the earth. They are to be a city on the hill, a true Zion. We need to read these verses with the beatitudes in mind because they define the content and context. That which in John's gospel is said only of Jesus ("the light of the world") is said here of all who follow him. Here we see again the delegated authority. What shines is the life characterised by the good works, the attitude and behaviour blessed in the beatitudes, not life with miraculous achievements or life in an elite religious class. John the Baptist had already pricked the balloon of those who saw themselves as an elite because they were children of Abraham (3:7-10). In 7:21-23 Jesus will disown believers who front up to him on the judgement day with charismatic achievements such as miracles and exorcisms, but who have not lived out attitudes of compassion and brought forth the fruit of righteousness in their lives. The city that counts is not Jerusalem but the community which lives out the life of faith and obedience as defined by Jesus.
Jesus, the interpreter of the Law 5:17-48
The next section is quite unambiguous, yet oddly quite often falls foul of people's preconceptions. In it Jesus declares that he has not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfil them (5:17). The word translated "fulfil" has a similar range of meanings to the English word "fulfil" and could therefore mean: fulfil predictions as well as fulfil requirements. It can also include the notion of upholding, certainly affirming, and that is the thrust of the negative statement: they are not to be set aside. All shades of meaning may be present, but it is clear from the negative half of the statement and from what follows that the emphasis is on the durability and continuing validity of the Law, in particular. Not one jot or tittle is to be set aside (5:18). Anyone who teaches so is to be called least in the kingdom of heaven (5:19), which may be a rhetorical way of saying: there is in fact no place in the kingdom for anyone wanting to set aside God's commands, any of them! The passage clearly does not mean: the Law and the Prophets are inviolate, except since Jesus came. Nor can the opening statement be reduced to a notion that Jesus came to fulfil the scripture or Law and so to leave it behind. The judge to come is making it clear that no such thought is to be contemplated. On the other hand, as we have seen, it is not as though the focus is in fact on jots and tittles. It is rather on relational attitudes and behaviour, as illustrated by the beatitudes. For Matthew the whole Law remains intact. How could it be otherwise? It is the divine command and not to be tampered with. That is Matthew's view. 5:20 underlines the logic of what precedes: one's righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees. Righteousness is what counts for the kingdom of heaven. With these key words Matthew recalls the beatitudes.
The rest of chapter 5 expands these demands by taking the Old Testament Law, God's commands, and expounding their meaning in a manner opposed to the way people had been accustomed to hearing and understanding them. Here, too, we see careful structuring at work. There are six examples in two sets of 3. The beginning of each set of three has a more detailed introduction. The first and the last of the six are concerned with love/hate. The topics are selective, but reflect major concerns for Matthew. Not only is murder prohibited, but so is anger. Here the focus is on malevolent attitude, hatred. Not just the act, but the attitude. The same distinction applies in relation to commandment about adultery. Not just the act but the attitude. No attitude which writes others off; no attitude which lusts after other people's wives is be tolerated. Neither our natural sexual instincts nor hurt and anger is being outlawed, but rather the focus is on what we do with them. The other expositions are similar. The forbidding of oaths is less about prohibiting oaths and more about straight and honest speech that is not manipulative. The saying about divorce fits this pattern less and appears to have its place because of the adultery theme.
None of these contrasts is a setting aside of the Law/Torah, although inevitably Jesus' radical application does, in effect, disallow some actions which Torah allows, for instance, oaths and divorce. It would be quite misleading to see in this an abandonment of Torah. As many Jewish scholars have affirmed and as the diversity of Judaism of the period allows, such interpretation stands fully within the range of possible interpretations given by those zealous for the Law at that time. All tend towards making it stricter or, at least, probing beyond actions to attitudes. Thus they illustrate and give substance to the concerns expressed in 5:17-20. Jesus' authority is not being played off against the Torah. Nor are they two equal authorities. Matthew sees them as cohering in a way that by his authority Jesus expounds the true interpretation of Torah. He is on the same side. It is not the case that Torah belongs to the Jews and Matthew's Jesus offers an alternative to it. It is God's Torah, now expounded by God's Son.
Taken together with the beatitudes these contrasts are important pointers to what righteousness entails and thus where the emphasis and priority should lie in interpreting Torah. If 5:20 spoke of righteousness which exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, 5:48 speaks of perfection. But it is not perfection measured quantitatively or statistically, but compassion measured qualitatively. It is not about calculations of one's goodness with which to claim some recompense from God, a scheme of justification by works, which must fail, but a call for total commitment of mind, attitude and performance, letting God be God. Of course there is grace and forgiveness, but it assumes that those who follow Christ engage in a total commitment to God's will. There are no half measures. There is only one God. This emphasis comes out strongly in 7:15-23, where, reminiscent of John's preaching, Jesus' images of fruit and performance in contrast to words and charismatic achievements receive major emphasis. Not everyone who says "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the Father's will. That is the only way to build; all else is building on sand. No amount of religious experiences or achievements counts if there is no righteousness, as spelt out by Matthew's Jesus. That righteousness is true fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets, whose message, says Matthew, is based on loving one's neighbour as oneself (7:12).
The emphasis on judgement is found throughout Matthew's gospel; indeed, it is a regular feature that Matthew takes what Jesus once addressed to his contemporaries and addresses it to the church. The rationale for this is what we found already in John's preaching. There is no privileging on the basis of being an elite of any kind (a point also directed to church leaders: 23:8-12; 20:1-16). What matters is performance. In this sense the Sermon on the Mount is addressed to the disciples, but within earshot of the crowds, because its principles are universal. We find the same at the end of the final major speech. There, similarly we find an emphasis on maintaining the supply of oil (crying, "Lord, Lord", will be too late; 25:1-13) and on making sure the money works ("Talent" is designation of a coin; 25:14-30) and not burying it. There, too, Jesus tells the parable of the last judgement when the sheep and goats from all nations are divided before the Son of Man, the judge (25:31-46). The criterion for judgement is behaviour that is loving and caring. When the judge says, that the sheep have visited him in prison, clothed him, cared for him when he was sick, they are surprised. They were going about the business of being caring people. They were not seeking a reward or pretending to see Jesus in people and therefore loving them. That aspect is a surprise. They were just being compassionate. It is this attitude and behaviour alone which counts.
Summary of Key Themes
We have skimmed through the first chapters on Matthew, but have found already the major themes which dominate the gospel as a whole. They might be summarised in the following ways. Concern about claiming continuity with Israel and with God's actions in the Old Testament. This is secured by use of biblical texts read as fulfilled predictions, by use of biblical language (for instance, Matthew's preference for 'and behold'); through echoes of the great biblical sagas, not least the exodus, but also Moses, strong features of the infancy narratives. Jesus is Israel's promised Messiah and qualified for it in every way; but Israel will reject her Messiah. By contrast outsiders, marginalised (like the women in the genealogy), Gentiles shame Israel by acknowledging who Jesus is or being part of God's saving action in history. Matthew also uses cosmic signs to reinforce Jesus' significance: at his birth the star; at his death and at his resurrection: the earthquakes. Divine interventions through angels and dreams signal the importance of events.
The link with John the Baptist has special features in Matthew. John's preaching is aligned with the preaching of Jesus and there is mutual influence in the tradition to the point that in Matthew Jesus appears strongly as the preacher of judgement, like John, and is portrayed as exercising the role John announced for him: the judge to come. The message of the kingdom of heaven now includes a large component of judgement. The good news becomes the news that the coming judge has appeared in advance of the day to instruct us in the true meaning of Torah so that we shall be able to stand when we give account for our works before the Son of Man. In this approach commandment and Law are central. Yet it is far from a wooden or slavish obedience to commandments; for Matthew's approach to scripture operates with a hierarchy. We can see this well illustrated in Jesus' words in 23:23. There Jesus challenges the emphasis given by the scribes and Pharisees to tithing herbs. He counters that they have not given due weight to judgement (or justice) and mercy and faith. But the saying concludes: "these you should have done without neglecting those" (ie. tithing issues). This is typical of Matthew: not a jot or tittle is to fall; but the emphasis needs to be in the right place.
This is quite different from Mark, who in 7:1-23, the dispute over hand washing, reports that Jesus declared all foods clean (7:19). Mark's Jesus thus sets aside food laws and goes further declaring that such outward matters as foods are irrelevant anyway, because food, as we know, simply enters the body and then passes into the toilet. This is a real "put down" for food laws and purity laws, which, like the ritual washings of vessels, are pointless, even something to scorn. Jesus thus sets aside large slabs of the Law, the Scripture, a good deal more than jots and tittles. Matthew could never be happy with such an approach although he must have strongly agreed with Mark on Jesus' special authority. So Matthew revises Mark 7:1-23, turning it into a dispute over washing hands and limiting its theme to such concerns which are nowhere demanded in Scripture (15:1-20). In the process Matthew removes any suggestion that parts of scripture itself are to be set aside; for this could never be. It is not even clear that Matthew would make an exception of circumcision when welcoming Gentiles who may have begun to join the community and whose inclusion Matthew affirms.
Authority based thinking is a feature of Matthew's thought. The continuity between John, Jesus and the disciples (and the church) also reflects authority, delegated authority. We are invited to walk on water, to do all that Jesus taught his disciples to do and to continue the line of instruction, and also the line of rejection by opponents. Authority informs Matthew's understanding of the good news: the Law's authority is now being expounded. Yet paradoxically what is affirmed on the basis of such authority is compassion, mercy, love; a change of one's being rather than just obedience to an instance of authority, and certainly not obedience to sets of rules. Matthew holds together both the demand and the sense of good works being a fruit.
Issues in Preaching from Matthew
In conclusion I want to offer some reflections on some issues in using Matthew's gospel today. One feature strongly worth emulating is the imaginative retelling of stories, present especially in the birth narratives. Matthew has set the pattern for creative story telling, rich in imagery and imagination. Christmas pantomimes and pageants ought to thrive where such creativity is emulated. The Christmas stories are not about a baby but about a person and his significance. A call to play - seriously.
Matthew also offers us a model for taking our religious heritage seriously. Matthew's approach is one of being thoroughgoing and positive. Faith communities today need to keep people connected to their roots. Matthew has ways of doing so which are foreign to our ways of thinking: playing with numbers; introducing earthquakes and cosmic signs, finding proofs from prophecies which originally meant something else. But the task remains the same. A dose of Mark will encourage a more critical approach to the tradition, but we should not overlook Matthew's distinctive hierarchy of values. What matters most is compassion and there are strong indications that in this he continues an emphasis that was central for the historical Jesus and needs to remain central today, not least in interpreting scripture and its traditions.
Matthew's strong emphasis on the integrity of behaviour and attitude, his attack on hypocrisy and pretence, are important correctives. There are important correctives here against versions of the Christian faith which give major emphasis to religious experiences and achievements or appeal to Christian status ('once saved always saved'). Matthew cuts the ground from under such religiosity. A lifestyle that is caring and a community where mutual accountability is taken seriously is given priority. There is still much to learn from Matthew's rules for dealing with conflict and division and the way he sets discipline against abuse and compassion for the fallen side by side.
Matthew's emphasis on authority has been a legacy which has not always blessed the church. His emphasis on Jesus as judge has spawned versions of the Christian message which have been severe and threatening, against which one needs an alternative good news. Where Matthew has pride of place as the first gospel in the New Testament collection, such dangers were bound to arise. It is easy to hear Matthew's gospel as declaring that we should act in certain ways and have certain attitudes, because Jesus says so and because he is interpreting the rightful demands of the Law/Scripture. This is different in tone from the parables of the historical Jesus, for instance, which appeal to common human experience in order to win people to the notion that God is compassionate, like a parent retrieving a lost child. Matthew appears to have believed that threat of judgement from the judge to come and the promise of life on the basis of right interpretation of demand will produce change in people and achieve the goals of righteousness. There is a certain tension between what appears in the parable of the sheep and the goats as spontaneous goodness and the heavy emphasis on judgement and threat. Goodness based on fear will often fail since its foundation is shaky if not, indeed, false and sandy. It is important to bring Matthew's gospel into dialogue with Paul's excurses about the enabling and liberating power of grace which sets people free to bear fruit.
The authority structure of thought runs through much of Matthew's theology. It produces a Jesus who is the supreme scribe, that is, the authoritative interpreter of scripture. Here the focus is on instances of authority to which one can appeal. There is a certain ambiguity because, while Matthew affirms Jesus' authority, he is also at pains to demonstrate Jesus' consistency with the Law and to show Jesus dependent on it, even if interpreting it with all the authority of the Son of God. The result is a scribe who is not like their scribes rather than a sage who taught people with authority but not as the scribes. We are well on the way towards structures of christology which will emphasise Jesus' authority based on the right to power, rather than on the authority of the substance of what is said, a dangerous trend, but consistent with Matthew's approach to scripture.
Yet the same authority, especially the model of delegation of authority, can also be liberating. Jesus is not left in the distant past, but his task goes on; it is delegated to successive generations of those who have believed and have been taught the teachings of Jesus. They are to own this authority and act accordingly, but the authority authorises love and compassion and a loving and compassionate interpretation of authority - no elites. But Matthew jumps sometimes beyond authority: he promises the presence of Jesus where God's will is taught and interpreted, just as Jewish tradition spoke of God's Shekinah being present when the twos and threes studied Torah.
Matthew is a gospel born in pain, the pain of rejection. It appears that Matthew's Christian community of Jews had seen themselves as bearing the true meaning of the Old Testament and Israel's tradition. Yet that role was being usurped by the resurgent early rabbinic schools of thought that had emerged from Pharisaism after the fall of the temple in 70CE. Matthew's community is finding itself edged out, if ever it found itself near the centre, which I doubt. But now it was being increasingly marginalised. It belonged in the centre - in its view - but was now on the point of being ostracised completely. The pain of rejection colours the account of Jesus' crucifixion. Jerusalem's destruction represents God's judgement for rejection of Jesus and the same threat continues as a warning through the narrative. Hurting Jews are accosting fellow Jews, blaming, shifting the guilt more and more away from Pilate. In the hands, however, of anti-Semitic Gentiles the material served a terrible history which we are still having to undo and in which there is still need for greater effort.
Preaching from Matthew must always be more than translating Matthew into today's terms. The Christian tradition receives Matthew alongside 25 other writings. Matthew does not stand alone. Interpreting Matthew for preaching means listening to Matthew in its own terms but within a community of critical reflection and appropriation which has its own hierarchy of values. These remain fairly constant, but are also subject to constant review. Matthew is there because the people of the community have been able to acclaim, 'This is the word of the Lord', when it has been read. The reading is incomplete and the acclamation naive without the living proclamation which engages in critical reflection and personal encounter with its word. This paper is designed to stimulate such reflection.
revised edition September 2004 (1st edition: December 1998)
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