- Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) & Psalm 112:1-9 (10)
- 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 (13-16)
- Matthew 5:13-20
This week’s notes focus especially on the Gospel reading, and suggest a way of reading Matthew that takes seriously his interpretation of Jesus and the implications for those who would be disciples of Christ.
Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20
This section of Matthew’s Gospel presents many challenges for Christians who elevate faith to a solitary and exclusive place in the divine economy. When Paul’s letters are read through the traditional lenses refined by theologians in the Augustine/Luther trajectory, it does seem that Matthew (like James) fails the “TC” (Theological Correctness) test. For Matthew, for James, for John (and most likely for Paul as well), salvation was not an outcome achieved by giving assent to a set of propositions but a benefit available to humans because of the faithfulness of Jesus and requiring in return a certain faithfulness on the part of the beneficiaries. As with the ancient covenant faithfulness of Torah observance, this intentional piety was not to secure God’s blessings but to express gratitude for them.
It is no surprise then to find Matthew representing Jesus as the master Rabbi, calling on his disciples to practice a visible piety that would exceed (rather than replace) the piety of the scribes and Pharisees.
A review of the different interpretations of discipleship preserved in the Sayings Gospel Q, Thomas, Paul, Mark, John and and Luke would provide some idea of the range of options that were available to Matthew when he came to write his own interpretation of Jesus and discipleship
From the sources employed, we can see that Matthew has started with Mark and Q, and yet he has created his own interpretation that addressed the question of how to be faithful to Jesus and Torah in the devastating aftermath of the loss of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.
For Jewish Christians (such as the author of the Gospel of Matthew must be presumed to have been), the loss of Jerusalem and its temple would have been a deep tragedy. The stark failure of both Jewish and Christian apocalyptic hopes would have weighed heavily on Matthew and his community.
God had not saved the people. Jesus had not appeared in glory as both Paul and Mark had urged people to expect. “This generation” had indeed passed away without seeing the Kingdom come in its power. What was left? What could stand the test of time?
Matthew must also have known that many Jesus people were finding themselves excluded from the Jewish synagogues. As Jewish communities sought to pick up the pieces the one great symbol left was the Torah, and the synagogue was the place where Torah was celebrated and applied to lived practice. In the absence of nation and temple, the Torah had become the defining hallmark of Jews.
Where Mark had dismissed traditional forms of Jewish life in confident expectation that Jesus would soon appear to inaugurate a new Kingdom, Matthew took a different path.
The Gospel of Matthew represents Jesus as something like a new Moses, and represents Christianity as a way of being deeply faithful to Torah. Rather than calling for a choice between Jesus and Torah, Matthew affirms Jesus as the great teacher of Torah for a community that embraced both Jew and Gentile.
The apocalyptic drama that so captivated Paul and Mark has been toned down. Jesus remains the one to whom all authority is given (Matt 28:19) but this divine authority is expressed through his presence with the community as they teach the Torah of Jesus to all humanity until the end of the age. Matthew and his community see themselves as here for the long haul. They are not expecting an early return of the Messiah.
Matthew creates a birth legend for Jesus that reflects the Moses Haggadah that was developing in Jewish folklore around that time. In the sermon on the mount Matthew has created an extended teaching block that sets up Jesus as the great teacher of Torah, and carefully affirms that Jesus has come to fulfil the Torah not abolish it. Indeed not even the tiniest scribal markings will be lost from the sacred text! The classic statement of this principle occurs in the programmatic speech that Matthew creates in what we call the Sermon on the Mount:
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 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. 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. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. [Matt 5:17–20]
In his treatment of Jesus’ parables (see especially chapter 13), Matthew shows an appreciation that the teachings of Jesus are for everyone — not just for the inner circle, as Mark had suggested. Compare the following texts:
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.'”
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet:
“I will open my mouth to speak in parables;
I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world.”
The contrast could hardly be more stark. Where Mark sees Jesus as the property of a special clique, Matthew has a universal vision for the relevance of Jesus. His picture of a scribe (i.e., a Torah scholar) who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is someone able to bring out what is new as well as what is old from their treasures.
One can barely imagine Paul speaking of Heaven’s scribe!
At the heart of Jesus’ teachings on Torah, as in his disputes with the scribes, is a call for people to embrace the demands of Torah and to practice a personal piety that reflects the character and holiness of God.
Matthew has co-opted the Sayings Gospel Q into his story of Jesus. Mark’s narrative of the Strong Man has been diluted with a strong dose of Jesus the non-apocalyptic sage. He has come to terms with the destruction of Jerusalem, and seeks a durable relationship with the wider community of the Torah.
Burton Mack described the significance of Matthew in these terms:
The remarkable thing about Matthew’s story is that, though completely dependent on Q and Mark for the bulk of his material, it achieved a character for Jesus and a tenor for his teachings that were totally different from either precursor. In Matthew’s mind, Jesus appeared as the very flowering of the wisdom and spirit intrinsic to the Jewish tradition and religion. He stepped forth as a teacher in the tradition of Moses and his Torah, not to set it aside, but to explicate its significance as an ethic of personal piety, a call to holiness at the level of attitude and motivation. In Matthew’s language, Jesus said that one could and should be “pure in heart” (Matt. 5:8).
[Who Wrote the New Testament, 1995:162f]
It is therefore no surprise — given his place in the historical development of the Gospel tradition and his setting with a deeply troubled Judaism in the aftermath of 70 CE — that Matthew did not take the path chosen by either the Gospel of John or Luke-Acts. His theological orbit revolved around the Torah, not the Hellenistic concept of logos; and Jesus was the promised Emmanuel born to a maiden, not the divine Son making a passing visit to the world of darkness. The most keenly felt social dynamics were those of exclusion by the synagogue, not persecution by the empire.
We could perhaps summarize Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus as neither fire insurance nor jail pass nor divine therapist. Matthew’s community did not feel that the end of the world was imminent, they did not fear incarceration by the authorities, nor did they find themselves torn apart by internal schisms.
The immediate reality for Matthew’s community was provided by Torah as the ancient expression of God’s demands on their lives, and the prophetic wisdom of Jesus as the master teacher of Torah obedience — from the heart. They shared a vision of a community that included Gentiles while also reflecting the holiness of God, but they did not buy into the radical visions of Mark and John or the accommodating pretensions of Luke.
Matthew’s people lived as disciples of Christ in a world that offered other more exciting visions of faith, as well as less demanding models of faithfulness. His interpretation of Jesus called for radical holiness without breaking the bonds of affection with other Torah-observant Jews.
As it happened, Matthew’s vision was a minority voice in a church that was opting for Luke’s vision: a modified Paul (see Acts) with a cosmic Christ who is no threat to the status quo. Christianity would soon become a majority Gentile religion with aspirations to be accepted in the Roman world. The major debate would soon become whether to excise the Old Testament from the Christian Bible and eliminate the Jewish legacy within Christianity, not how best to observe Torah!
Between them the gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke may have defeated Marcion, but Luke’s version of Paul would become the classic account of Christianity. We would become a Gentile Church and Matthew’s story of Jesus would simply become the bridge between the Old Testament and the Church.
- 126 Salting the Salt – Matt 5:13
- 021 The Worlds Light – Matt 5:14a
- 078 The Mountain City – Matt 5:14b
- 036 Lamp and Bushel – Matt 5:15
- 391 Your Good Works – Matt 5:16
- 392 Not to Abolish – Matt 5:17
- 169 Not One Iota – Matt 5:18
- 393 The Least Commandment – Matt 5:19
- 394 Greater Righteousness – Matt 5:20
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.