Part Two, The Mission and the Message
It is a peculiar fact that in age and at a time in human history when more people are literate that the Word of God has become more difficult to read. People born before the rational scientific revolution of the last few hundred years knew how to read sacred literature. They knew and they understood images, not photographs or paintings, but the kind of images found in time-tested mythology. They knew that the truth was passed on through symbols and stories. It is not that the stories were made up and therefore not true, but that the stories, the characters, their challenges, their failures, were told to reveal or convey the truth. What is peculiar, and very unfortunate is that we modern or post-modern people, however we want to call ourselves, have been infected with something more troubling that a virus. That something is best called “the scientific method.” Because of that, we have forgotten how to read sacred literature. We read the words all right, and there are countless Bible study programs to give evidence that people do read the Sacred Scriptures. The very fact that the Bible is still to this day is the most purchased book on the market.
Because we’ve been infected, we look for what we might call “empirical truth”. By that I mean, evidence, research, and reason. If there is no evidence, if there has been no research, and if it is unreasonable, it isn’t the truth. That kind of thinking will not allow the message, the truth, the revelation of our Sacred Writings to come through to us. The fact is, our ancient scriptures are full of mythical, symbolic images, and in order to understand our Scriptures, we must will willing to look for the symbols, to treat the sacred stories as powerful, truth-bearing stories, not historical reporting.
This bothers a lot of people, and that’s too bad because too often those who are shocked or upset about this fact are too afraid to move beyond the comfortable, and I’ll say, “lazy” way of just thinking that reading the Bible, especially the Gospels is like reading someone’s diary. Here’s an example. In Matthew 24 it starts with “Jesus left the Temple.” We think the Temple is a big building in Jerusalem, but not for Matthew. The Temple represents the entire system of life, faith, and economy. The entire verse says this: “Jesus left the Temple, and as he was going away his disciples came up to draw his attention to the Temple buildings”. The disciples are always doing things like that. It’s the end of the Gospel, the 24th chapter out of 28, and they have not gotten the point! He’s leaving the Temple, and they are admiring the building. The disciples are stuck in the system the Temple represents, marveling at the structure, and the reply of Jesus is: “You see these stones? In truth I tell you, not a single stone will be left on another. It’s all going to fall apart. Stop putting your trust in it.” Jesus is talking about the end of the world, not about a building. He is talking about the end world as we have known it. And I’ll bet your sitting here thinking I’m talking about the apocalypse or the destruction of the universe or creation. No. I’m talking about the end of the world as we live it. Because when Jesus comes, when the Messiah comes, when the Kingdom of God breaks into our lives, the world as we knew it, saw it, and served it is all over. We cannot welcome the presence of Christ, the full coming of Christ until we have let go of the old. Too many live under the illusion that it is possible to worship this world order and at the same time say: “Thy Kingdom Come.” Yet, we can’t say, “Thy Kingdom Come” until we say, “My Kingdom go.”
Here’s the point in our discovery of Matthew’s Gospel and all scriptures for that matter. The story is always true, and sometimes it really happened. That’s the nature of all sacred scriptures. This is what I wanted you to understand in the first of these talks before Christmas, and you have to hang on to that as we go forward. Did three kings from somewhere in the east to Bethlehem? I don’t believe that really happened, and you don’t have to. But you do have to believe the truth that the story contains. Every nation on earth will come to adore the King. So, what does the virus of our age do to us, people spend hours and waist all kinds of time trying to prove by science and the study astronomy to see if there was some kind of special star. Those folks are done for when it comes to their ability to read the images and find the truth in the stories that may or may not be true.
So, let’s wade into the middle section of Matthew’s so well-structured Gospel. There is a signal phrase in this Gospel that signals a change. It’s like the “ding” in an elevator that tells you another floor has been reached. When Matthew writes this: When Jesus had finished these sayings…. it is the signal that one of the five divisions or books is finished. Sometimes these divisions are called, “discourses”. The sequence of events in Matthew matches Mark’s Gospel with groups of sayings inserted. An example is what we call “Sermon on the Mount.” Those sayings in Mark and Luke’s Gospels are scattered throughout but Matthew groups them together. So, Mark gives Matthew the structure, or sequence of events. 600 of the 661 verse of Mark are found in Matthew. Events from Mark have sayings added by Matthew. Then, unique to Matthew is great attention to the Old Testament. Remember that yesterday I spoke of Matthew’s audience being made up of primarily Jewish converts to the “Way”. Matthew wants them to feel OK about that conversion. Also unique to Matthew is his interest in Church affairs. This is the only Gospel that makes a direct mention of the “Church”. Much of it is directed toward situations that the Church of the first century was facing. With that said, let’s take up the five Books noticing that there is a progression that shows Jesus moving from his homeland in Galilee, to his rejection in Jerusalem, and then triumphantly back again to Galilee at the end.
The First Discourse: Chapters 3 to 7:28 concerns The Ethics of the Kingdom
Details tell us a lot. Jesus sits, the disciple’s approach, he opens his mouth and teaches. Those first two verbs suggest to us that Matthew wants us to see a king on his throne, and his disciples come like subjects in a royal court. Notice that the disciples are the ones he addresses. The crowd is just there listening in. This is not something private for an exclusive group. They can hear and potentially become disciples. Here is the Teacher addressing the learners.
In many English translations, the word Blessed is used which does not always carry into English the complex meaning of the word Matthew chooses in Greek. Congratulations would really be more accurate.
Congratulations to the poor in spirit. We should not miss the point that both Matthew and Luke open the Good News for the poor. Matthew adds “the spirit” leading us away from thinking about an economic condition. This is about the need for God.
Congratulations to those who mourn. This is not about the loss of a loved one. This is about sharing God’s sadness over sin and evil, war and injustice. It’s a longing for God to act and make things right.
Congratulations to the meek refers not to those who are powerless, but to those who use power and strength for the right reasons. This is a description of Jesus who is humble. In Greek, the term Matthew uses refers to taming a wild animal.
Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These people hunger and thirst for the right things – their deepest longings are for fellowship with God. They will know a comfort only God can provide.
Congratulations to the merciful. This is not about feelings. It is about action that leads toward helping another. These are people who have experienced God’s mercy and know it was given to be shared.
Congratulations to the pure of heart. This is about the very center of a person’s innermost being, the place where decisions are made. The condition of one’s heart determines one’s actions. The issue here is moral purity. It assumes that communion with God depends on purity of heart, not purity of cups.
Congratulations to the Peace Makers. These are the ones who leave the altar to make peace with another.
Congratulations to those persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The “righteous one” is Jesus in the mind of disciples. He is also the “Just one” leading the disciples to see that there is a price to pay for justice in an unjust world.
Congratulations to you when people revile you and utter all kinds of evil on my account.
There is a switch here from the third person to the second person that few people ever notice, but it is important. Matthew is now addressing the Christian community. They are congratulated because they share the same fate as the prophets.
We are all so familiar with the Beatitudes, that we often tend to think that the first thirteen verses of chapter five is the sermon. Wrong! The Beatitudes are simply the opening for this Sermon which really gets down to business as Jesus begins to clarify, describe, or define the vocation of a disciple in the world. Immediately Jesus makes it clear that faith and discipleship are not private matters. Thinking or saying that “My faith is a matter between God and me” is the opposite of what Jesus says. The salt and light instruction ought to make that perfectly clear. Why should we do this? To win rewards or acceptance? Jesus is not telling disciples that by doing good works, they would earn salvation. Those good works are to give glory to God.
Then comes a clarification about the Law. It is not abolished. It is fulfilled which means complete, and in this sermon, disciples are instructed to complete or perfect the law in six areas: Murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, revenge and love of enemies. Each of these are introduced by a lead-in phrase: “You have heard it said, you shall not commit murder. “You have heard is said, you shall not commit adultery, and so on. With this instruction for us disciples, comes the practice of almsgiving, fasting, and prayer. When Matthew has Jesus get to this final instruction, he provides the model prayer. As this first discourse draws to a close, Jesus tells disciples about what kind of treasures matter, reminds them that they cannot serve two masters, that they are not to judge, remember that God provides, so disciples must ask trusting that God provides what they need, and finally, the discourse ends with the news that those who do the will of the Father will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. This discipleship is about doing something. A disciple cannot just be a “hearer” of the Word. There must be action. With the last verse of this discourse, Matthew tells us that the crowds were astonished at his teaching because he taught with authority, not like the scribes. With Matthew, as I said earlier, it is not miracles that bring the people to amazement. It is the Word Spoken.
Second Discourse: Chapters 8:1 to 11:1 Concerns the Mission
The second discourse begins with the usual Matthean bridge saying: “Now, when Jesus had finished saying these things……. It is a reflection on the authority of Jesus and the need for disciples to submit to that power and authority. Now the authority that raised such amazement is confirmed with a series of miracle stories that lead disciples to understand the Mission of the Kingdom. Divine power goes on display through Jesus, and it’s all about healing. There are three sets of stories that concern the fact that each person has been excluded from participation in the life of Israel. There is pattern of triads in Matthew’s Gospel. You will see it again and again.
The first is the cure of a leper, the second is a gentile centurion and his son, the third is Peter’s mother-in-law who has not be able to serve. We can see immediately Matthew’ all-inclusive vision of the Kingdom of God with a look at the Church for which he is writing. That Church must have been very comforted with a story about a gentile being included as well as a woman. After the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law, we see one of Matthew’s principal characteristics, connecting this to the Old Testament prophets – “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, “he took our infirmities and bore our diseases.” Jesus has the power to restore and heal what is broken. It’s not just about diseases. It’s about the consequence of the disease, alienation from the life of the community.
The second set of three now show another kind of authority. Jesus gets into a boat, and the disciples follow him. Matthew says that Jesus wanted to go to “the other side”. That is a detail worth noting. It does not simply mean the opposite shore. It literally means the other side. It’s like a Democrat going to the Republicans. So, in those days, what is “the other side”? It is the Gadarene country. This was a pagan place, one of the ten Greek cities. That Jesus would head over there through a storm should raise an eyebrow or two. It’s not only a pagan place, there are swine there, but that does not stop Jesus. Then, another sign of his authority is given as he cures a paralytic and forgives his sins. The people were filled with awe not because he cured the paralytic, but because he forgives sins. It is what he says, not what he does that Matthew goes after, and he tells us that they glorified God who had given such authority to human beings. Matthew’s use of the plural reminds readers that this authority to forgive sins did not leave earth when he, the Christ, was exalted in to heaven. So, Jesus has authority over fear (the consequence of a storm at sea), over evil forces, and over sin. There is the triad again. Disciples of Jesus shall inherit that authority.
As a bridge to the third set, the story of Matthew’s invitation is told and Jesus goes to dinner with sinners providing the occasion for an instruction – a discourse that is summed up simply by saying it is mercy God desires, not sacrifice, and Jesus (and therefore his disciples) came to call sinners so he comes as a doctor to the sick.
The third set of miracles begins with a dead girl being raised to life and then a woman with a hemorrhage is cured. What unites these stories is faith. In the first, it is the faith of the father who asks Jesus to restore his daughter. Then comes a woman who just wants to touch Jesus. Again, it’s about faith as Jesus asks two blind men: “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” Finally, there comes the healing of a death-mute. It takes four verses, but it is important because, for the first time it introduces conflict. The Pharisees say: “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” The section ends with the final selection of the Twelve and their sending out to proclaim the good news: to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. They are to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. There is no universal outreach yet. Then, we get what must by now be familiar words: “Now, when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities.” You know what that means: Discourse Three.
The Third Discourse: Chapters 11:2 to 13:53 Ministry in Galilee & the Nature of the Kingdom
Up this point, Jesus has been the sole missionary. Now he makes partners for preaching the gospel and healing. There is a somber mood to this Discourse as it unfolds in Matthew’s Gospel. Refusal to accept the gospel will be the rule, not the exception which leads to parables about judgement at the end of this third discourse. The negative response we first saw at the end of Discourse two will grow. This is a serious reminder that the gospel is not the story of a religious hero but of a dying savior, the final discourses lead us to the passion narrative.
This section begins with John’s disciples coming to Jesus to ask if Jesus is “the one who is to come.” True to form, Matthew links all of this to the Old Testament as Jesus declares that John is “Elijah who is to come.” Elijah’s task in the Old Testament was to prepare the people for the coming of God. It didn’t go well then, and that is what is happening now. After a thanksgiving prayer to his Father that reveals his relationship with the Father, he issues the Great Invitation: “Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.” There is something very important being promised her, and it isn’t a vacation. The burden that Jesus wants to lift is the burden of the law being imposed too heavily. So, the next two episodes concern the Sabbath, and a conflict arises because disciples of Jesus pluck some grain while walking on the Sabbath, and Jesus cures a man with a withered hand in a synagogue on the Sabbath day. Remember, Jesus did not come to abolish the law. Yet, the law must yield to a higher principle: Mercy. More conflict is the result. So, Matthew says: When Jesus became aware that the Pharisees were conspiring against him seeking a way to destroy him, Jesus departed.
This third discourse continues with a demand for a sign. Until this point, the Pharisees have been the source of conflict. At this point Matthew introduces the Scribes into the conflict. They are the ones who interpret the law. They are the professionals, so to speak. The Pharisees, are lay people who teach the law and show how it is to be observed like Catechists in our day. The opposition is growing. Finally, the focus of this discourse emerges with a series of parables about the Kingdom.
In the Greek language, the word “parable” comes from a verb that means “set side by side”, that is “to compare”. In Hebrew, there is slight change as “parable” begins to mean something hidden. Matthew is using the word “parable” with its Hebrew nuance which is why he speaks about “things that are hidden”. Jesus now uses parables to respond to the rejection he experiences. They all begin with the same phrase: “The Kingdom of heaven is like…” These parables do not describe the future or what the Kingdom will be like. They are concerned with the present
Finally, there comes three parables about sowing: (1) seed thrown everywhere, (2) someone sews weeds among the wheat, (3) Mustard Seed and Yeast. Deeply distressed about the mixed state of the Church, Matthew uses these parables to remind one group that just because they are church members is no guarantee of salvation. They need to change and bring a harvest from what God has planted everywhere. The general message is that those who receive the word of the kingdom and understand it not just intellectually but with commitment at the depth of their being, will be able to withstand temptation and tribulation. Those are the ones who will produce a bountiful harvest in terms of the good fruits of obedience to God’s will.
This discourse reveals that the Kingdom of Heaven is not a thing that can be acquired as a permanent possession. It is a life-style, a gracious gift of participation in God’s life. With that, Matthew writes: “When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place, came to his home town and began to teach the people in their own synagogue….”
The Fourth Discourse: Chapters 13:54 to 19:1Opposition & The Governance of the Kingdom
Jesus is now at home. When he takes his turn in the hometown synagogue there is amazement, wonder, and suspicion. At this point, Matthew tells us about the death of John the Baptist as one more reminder about the hostility disciples of Jesus will find in this world. He then reports the only miracle reported in all four Gospels which suggests that this is of unusual importance. This is the feeding of the multitude. There are two feeding stories in Matthew. Being the people that we are, infected with the “virus” of science, the question always lingers: “Did this really happen?” My response is as always: “This is not history. It is theology.” It does not make any difference. We have to ask what it means, not did it happen. Details give us a lead. Bread and Fish are the basic ingredients of a peasant’s meal in Galilee. Jesus provides no cooked dishes, luxurious fruit, and there is no wine. These simple details tell us that God can provide what is necessary for life. While not the “Banquet” we might expect in the Kingdom of God, what we see is that the Messiah is the host who supplies what his people need out of compassion. Matthew reminds the Church that they are to give, to share, to feed, and to serve with the further reminder that God uses what we bring.
Then something happens that again raises a question. Jesus walks on water. “Did that really happen? How did he do that?” Some might think of this as evidence of divinity confirming that Jesus is God since he can walk on water. But, Peter does the same thing which means this is something that comes from God. It is not God walking on water. This is not some kind of “show off” stunt. Details make that clear. The boat is far from land. The boat is in trouble. This is a story about Jesus coming to the aid of his threatened disciples. This is about a rescue not about the nature of Jesus. It is worth noting that Matthew refers here to “those in the boat” not to the Twelve or the Apostles. It’s about all of us dependent upon the savior. While the other Gospel writers tell the story of Jesus on the water, only Matthew includes the part about Peter exploring what it means to be caught midway between faith and doubt. Peter represents all who dare to believe that Jesus is Savior, taking their first steps in confidence that Jesus will sustain them. I have always found it very important to remember that in John’s Gospel, faith or believing is always a verb, never a noun. It is not a thing or a possession. It is an activity.
Suddenly, once on land, Pharisees come from Jerusalem. This is an ominous statement. Jesus only goes to Jerusalem to die. This presence of the Pharisees coming from Jerusalem is a like a dark cloud on the horizon. They come to start trouble, and it’s over the washing of hands and what is clean and what is unclean. Jesus never suggests that the law and the customs around the law should be done away with. He simply wants to remind his listeners of the reason for the law so that the law will be observed because of faith not obligation or fear. It would seem that he is also writing about these things to support the Jewish converts who are a minority in his predominantly Gentile Church. He seems to be protecting them from ridicule for wanting to preserve their life-style. We would do well to remember that in today’s multi-cultural and multi-generational church. Matthew is revealing that there are disputes in his church over life-style.
To affirm the presence of Gentiles among believers, there comes the story of the Canaanite Woman who begs for help. The response of Jesus seems harsh to our ears when he refuses at first and makes that comment about taking children’s food and throwing it to the dogs. The word Matthew uses for dog means “a household pet”. That’s not as harsh sounding as “DOG” in English. The whole scene is a test of her faith, and by responding positively to her, Jesus signals that the Kingdom is going to be wide open. It is this emphasis on faith that makes Matthew’s version of this story slightly different from Mark’s. Matthew takes care to show us believing Gentiles in contrast to the unbelieving Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem. Jews reject Jesus. Gentiles come to him.
After this scene there comes a second feeding story. There is with this one a mass healing as well as a mass feeding, and importantly it happens on a mountain. This is theology not geography. This is about God’s people being gathered on the mountain of the Lord as Isaiah describes the end of time. What happens to them there is a theological expression of salvation: healing and feeding in abundance. Why two feeding stories? Two different messages. The first is about God providing what we need using what we have. The second includes details that have no connection to Israel. Instead of twelve baskets leading us think of the Twelve Tribes, this time there are seven baskets. At that time people counted seventy nations on earth. Then trouble comes again as the Pharisees return wanting a sign from heaven. Jesus is having none of this since he’s been working signs and wonders all along and they can’t see what’s right in front of them because what he says threatens their life-style and security, and they want none of that. In effect, what Jesus says to them is “No. You can’t see what’s going on here.” So, he takes to the boat and heads to the district of Caesarea Philippi. There, with one of the greatest cities the Romans had built high on an out-cropping of rock above them, he asks a question: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” He uses his favorite title, “Son of Man” which comes right out of the Old Testament (Daniel 7) meaning an exalted human like figure. In other words, the “Son of Man” is perfect humanity. At that moment, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah, and at that point of Matthew’s Gospel, things change, the mood changes, and the whole energy increases.
The Fifth Discourse: Chapters 19:2 to 26:1 Jesus and the Future of the Kingdom
As always, the next discourse begins: “And when Jesus finished these sayings.” Now Jesus departs from Galilee and comes into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” well on his way to Jerusalem. Since Peter’s declaration, Jesus now teaches the Twelve even though the crowds follow him. The Pharisees are back now with their evil intent. They start with a mocking question about marriage and divorce. The response of Jesus makes even more obvious Matthew’s respect and concern for the law. While the Pharisees may be trying to trap Jesus into disregarding the law, Matthew’s Jesus interprets the law using other scriptural verses to back up his argument, and it works. They are humiliated before the crowd, and that makes them all the angrier.
As the journey continues there are three short scenes which reveal what it takes to become a child of the Kingdom. The first is the story is about children with which Jesus embraces and makes it clear that children have a special importance. Of course, in that culture, children were not valued, but in the mind of Jesus, a child is the perfect example of what it means to be helplessly dependent on the Father in heaven. It is not unreasonable to suspect that Matthew is also urging his church to include children in every aspect of the communities’ life. The second of the three scenes is about a young rich man who thinks perfection comes from doing things. The perfection Jesus expects is undivided devotion. He can’t do that. He has too many things. He’s rich. Then comes a parable that reveals a God of compassion rather than a God of justice. In that parable a vineyard owner pays workers the same wage regardless of how long they have worked. The climax of this parable is: “am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” Matthew is challenging some seniority claims among the early disciples as former pagans begin to assume roles in the community. The old-timers don’t like it.
Having arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple. As Matthew tells the story of the “cleansing”, there is some refinement as judgement is tempered by grace. Because we often blend all of the Gospel events together, we can often miss some details that are unique to one or the other of the Evangelists, or we think that they all say the same thing. Not so. This story is a perfect example. It is unlikely that Jesus stopped the commerce of the Temple even for a short time one day. He would have been arrested on the spot. More than anything, this event is symbolic. Since it is told in all four Gospels there is probably some historical fact to this. With the other three Gospels, there is a mood of judgement. In Matthew, right in the middle of this Jesus responds to the blind and the lame who came to him in the temple. He cured them. Matthew does not give us some wild angry judge. There is a moment of compassion in the middle of it. The scene ends with conflict between Jesus, the Chief priests, and the scribes. Jesus then heads out to Bethany to spend the night.
In the morning he is hungry, and with the story of that cursed Fig Tree. It’s really not about the fig three however. It’s about faith and prayer. It is a symbolic gesture (remember, this is theology not history) with which Matthew uses the judgement on the tree as a symbol of what happens to people without faith or prayer. When Jesus gets to the Temple, they are waiting for him with more trouble. At this point, Matthew uses parables to further give focus to the Father Jesus has come to reveal. First there is the parable of the two sons, one who says no and then does what is asked, and one who says yes and does nothing. The second parable tells of an owner who sends people to collect his portion and the tenants kill them. The theological focus of this parable comes not from the cheating tenant farmers but their violent treatment of those the owner sends. Matthew includes this parable here to show the rejection of the Messiah – because of it, Israel is now decommissioned. It’s elect status as “light to the Gentiles” is taken over by the church. Now comes the third parable about the wedding Feast in which the defiant refusal to participate in the wedding feast matches the refusal of the tenant farmers to share the fruit.
Jesus then leaves the Temple, and the final address concludes as Jesus speaks of the Temple’s destruction which was not some divine fore-knowledge. Anyone with any sense would have known that given the corruption, the lack of faith, the internal conflicts within Israel itself, there would be big trouble ahead that would probably end with the destruction of the Temple. Israel as it was then was destroying itself by refusing to listen to Jesus. Matthew now switches into a different style of writing here called: Apocalyptic describing the signs of the end of the ages. It must not be forgotten that this is not a prediction of the future. It is an interpretation of things already happening that mark not the end of the world, but the end of age. The last discourse closes with talk of the last things, the Judgement. The final parable concerned the coming of the Son of Man who is easily recognized as the “bridegroom”. The waiting maidens the are easily identified with “disciples.” But the condemnation of the foolish maidens raises the question as to who does belong to the group of “disciples.” The criterion for knowing who belong and those who do not belong is what people do or do not do. What one is to do is not the issue here. What matters is that something is done before it’s too late. Whatever is done must be done because of mercy and compassion, for no other reason. Because this is what the perfect human being (Son of Man) does. Then we hear the familiar words: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things….”