Readings: Matt 5:17-22, 27-32 & 43-45, Matt 12:9-21, Matt 19:23-26 (see below for text)
So today we continue our sermon series on Jesus in the four gospels. And you will probably have figured out by now that the gospel for today is… Matthew.
Apart from reading through Matthew a couple of times, I also spent an evening with Peter re-watching Pasolini’s 1964 film, The Gospel According to Matthew. According to one website, this shows “a socially-committed, quasi-Marxist version of the Gospel preached by a harsh and uncompromising Christ who was in many ways a revolutionary and a provocateur not unlike Pasolini himself”.
Which takes me nicely to my starting point for this sermon. Pasolini painted a Christ “not unlike Pasolini himself”. And in trying to figure out what kind of Jesus Matthew’s gospel presents, I’ve found it hard to disentangle Matthew from Jesus. Is Matthew’s Jesus in fact “not unlike Matthew himself”? Is it, for instance, Matthew or Jesus who is preoccupied with the ways Jesus fulfils OT prophecy? Is it Jesus who is so keen on righteousness or is it Matthew?
Well, fortunately for us all, we have four gospels and four perspectives on the story and person of Jesus. In her very helpful introduction, Emily reminded us that we create our stories together, from our different memories, perspectives and interests. And the four gospel writers each have their own background, their own experience, their own questions and interests, their own intended audience. They highlight different aspects of Jesus’ life, knitting the strands together in different patterns.
But before we look at Matthew’s picture of Jesus, let’s deal with “Matthew” the evangelist. Who wrote this gospel? Well, there’s an early tradition that it was the apostle Matthew, but his name isn’t attached to the earliest manuscripts. And there are some reasons for thinking it wasn’t him. The gospel is usually dated after the fall of Jerusalem in AD70 and long enough after Mark wrote his gospel for a copy to have reached Matthew, maybe somewhere between 75 & 85AD. The apostle Matthew would have been pretty old by then, though it’s possible that he was still alive. Apparently there are a few misunderstandings of Jewish customs and literature, suggesting the writer may not have been Jewish – as Matthew was. (For instance the author tells us that Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey with her foal in tow, to fulfil a prophecy “Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey”, whereas someone familiar with Hebrew parallelism might have taken the prophecy as a poetic reference to just one donkey so wouldn’t have needed the foal to tag along too.)
Like Luke, Matthew draws heavily on Mark’s gospel and for me a more telling argument against the apostle’s authorship is that even the account of the conversion & call of Matthew is pretty much lifted verbatim from Mark. If I was using someone else’s accounts as one of my sources, I think I would want to write more personally when it came to the one bit where I was centre of attention.
So, it’s probably safest to say we don’t know exactly who the author of Matthew’s gospel is – but I’ll continue to call him Matthew anyway. There is a consensus that he was writing for Jews who were being persecuted for following Jesus.
But what about the central character in this book? What can we say of Jesus in this gospel?
Well, perhaps the first thing that strikes me is the position of Matthew’s gospel in our bible. It’s the first book of the NT & as such follows straight on from the last book of the OT. And the OT looms large in Matthew’s story. His genealogy of Jesus gives us a bird’s eye view of the whole of Jewish history from Abraham to Jesus, neatly divided into 3 chunks each of 14 generations, from Abraham to King David, from David to the exile in Babylon and from Babylon to Jesus.
Matthew shows Jesus’ significance in the story of Israel by having him round off the third chunk of fourteen generations. He also includes three women. In the midst of all the men we also find Rahab and Ruth, both Gentiles and Rahab a prostitute. So perhaps Matthew is saying: “don’t get all sniffy about the rumours you may have heard that Mary was pregnant with Jesus before she was married – we’ve had the whiff of scandal in our history before and Rahab and Ruth turned out to be great grandmother and great great grandmother to our great king David”.
And throughout the rest of the gospel the author is always at our elbow ready to point out that what Jesus has just said or done was “to fulfil what had been spoken through” some prophet. Maybe sometimes this is Matthew making sure we’ve noticed, as for instance when Joseph takes Mary and the infant Jesus to Egypt so that Hosea’s prophecy can be fulfilled when they are called back “out of Egypt”. But maybe sometimes this is a window into Jesus’ own thinking. In the reading we heard today, perhaps it was indeed meditation on the words of Isaiah that inspired Jesus to reach out to the bruised reeds and smouldering wicks of humanity he encountered yet to seek to do so gently and without fanfare.
Although Matthew stresses continuity with the OT, his story of Jesus is something new and different too. Jesus is the longed for Messiah, the son of David, the long-awaited king – but without the nationalism and militarism. He is a prophet – but not any old prophet, not just a servant of God faithful enough to be described in traditional Hebrew terms as a son of God. Matthew is at pains to make clear that Jesus is THE Son of God, declared so by a voice from heaven at his baptism and the transfiguration.
Of course Jesus’ own relationship with the OT is complex. He’s steeped in scripture and uses it, for instance, to put the devil in his place when he tempts Jesus in the wilderness. In our first reading he tells his listeners: "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.” And yet moments later he seems to be setting aside the law with the repeated formula “You have heard that it was said… But I say to you …”
I think there are two ways of reading this. One is to say that what Jesus is addressing is not what is written, the law itself, but what has been said about it over the generations. In a later chapter (ch 23), Jesus accuses the scribes and the Pharisees of making the law too burdensome. And there are several examples of the opposite too, like divorce which is OK so long as you give your wife a certificate of divorce, or the written commandment to love our neighbour which in popular tradition has somehow morphed into “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”.
The law legislates for murder. Jesus is concerned about all broken and strained relationships, even about unvoiced anger in our hearts. The law wants us to tell the truth under oath, Jesus wants us to tell the truth always and keep our promises. In short, Jesus wants us to “be perfect … as [our] heavenly Father is perfect”. To which my first response is “but that’s impossible” (and as Veronica pointed out in her sermon on Jesus in Luke’s gospel, Luke’s version seems a lot less scary – “Be merciful as your Father is merciful”). But some of you will already be right there with a retort from Matthew 19’s story of the rich man for whom it is impossible to enter the kingdom of heaven - "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."
Because Matthew’s Jesus can also be understanding, comforting and tender. In the first chapter Matthew links Jesus with Isaiah’s prophecy “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us.” Jesus promises that “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am with them”. And the gospel closes with another promise of with-ness: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
And the God who is with us knows us and cares about us. Jesus encourages his disciples to address God as “Father”, to pray to “our Father in heaven” knowing and trusting that our heavenly Father “knows what [we] need before [we] ask him” and that he values us more than many sparrows, none of whom falls to the ground without him noticing (ch 6 & 10).
When the disciples fail Jesus is quick to forgive. For instance Peter urges Jesus not to go to Jerusalem to “undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed”. Jesus responds with a stinging rebuke: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”(ch 16) But just a few verses later Jesus is hand picking 3 disciples to accompany him up a high mountain (where he will be transfigured) – and Peter is among them. And when Peter and the others are scared out of his wits, Jesus doesn’t scold them for their lack of understanding but touches them – this seems such an affectionate, tender moment to me – and tells them not to be afraid. (ch 17) Later Jesus describes Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it ” AND then in the same breath says that he has often longed to gather her children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. So alongside the fierce purity of Jesus’ life and ethical teaching there is also the tender affection of a friend and a parent.
So let’s look a little more closely at the fierceness of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel. If you search through the gospels for examples of Jesus’ teaching about people or things being thrown into fire or outer darkness you’ll find, if I’ve counted correctly, two or three of these references in Luke, one in Mark and one in John but many in Matthew.
What are we to make of this kind of language? And why does Matthew insist on it more than the other gospels?
Well, this is probably a sermon topic in its own right so I will just make a few observations. Firstly, the images of fire and darkness sometimes occur in parables where the main point is not to tell us in detail what awaits a person who, for instance, doesn’t feed the hungry, give the thirsty a drink, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick or visit those in prison but to point us towards right behaviour – to urge us to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger and so on.
Secondly Matthew is shaped by the literary traditions of the time, including those of apocalyptic literature (like Revelation & parts of Daniel for instance) where the style of these passages would fit well.
I came across an interesting comment on the parable about weeds sown among the good seed, where the householder instructs “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'” The writer, not Anabaptist as far as I know, suggests that this parable is non-violent, which seemed a bit odd at first sight. But I think he means that this parable reminds us that it’s not up to us to judge who or what is a weed and who or what is the good seed of the kingdom of heaven. We need to wait patiently for God to deal with this in due course, so the promise of the ultimate destruction of the evil elements is an encouragement to us not to destroy…
And finally let’s think about Matthew’s context. Writing after the fall of Jerusalem, he and the church he was writing for had already witnessed cataclysmic events right on their doorstep without having to get anywhere near the fire of judgment. And they were experiencing persecution, with the temptation to turn away from the faith for fear of torture or death. Could Matthew be trying to show that it would ultimately be even worse to fall away from the faith that to stick with it and be persecuted?
Well, I do think we can get a sense from each gospel of the pressing questions in the community for which the author wrote. In Matthew’s case one example is his apparent determination to tie up lots of loose ends to help with Christian apologetics in his day. For instance, the Messiah is supposed to come from Bethlehem but Jesus came from Nazareth – so Matthew makes sure we know that he was at least born in Bethlehem. Or there was a rumour that Jesus’ disciples stole his body while the guards were asleep by the tomb – so Matthew tells us this rumour was deliberately concocted by the priests and bolstered by their bribing the soldiers. So I don’t think it is too far-fetched to speculate that, for an audience that might be tempted to give up their faith, Matthew homed in on Jesus’ most “fierce” and fiery language to drive home a message about persevering in spite of persecution.
Well, there is much more to say, but you’ll be relieved to hear that I’m not going to say it. I’ll close with a summary of what has struck me most as I’ve spent a couple of weeks in the company of Matthew’s Jesus. I’ve seen a passionate, fierce and uncompromising man. He’s deeply concerned that his disciples should be truly righteous from the hidden places of their hearts to the action that flows out of their hearts, without attempting to rationalise or weaken that call to righteousness – there’s a challenge there for me and perhaps for others. I’ve been reminded, somewhat to my surprise, how many opportunities Matthew takes to point out that Jesus is special, not any old man of God, a prophet or a son of God, but THE Messiah, THE son of Man and THE Son of God. And I’ve seen Jesus also as surprisingly gentle and tender, encouraging us into a warm relationship with a heavenly Father who cares deeply for us.
Matt 5:17-22, 27-32 & 43-45
17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, "You shall not murder'; and "whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.' 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.
27 "You have heard that it was said, "You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. 31 "It was also said, "Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' 32 But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
43 "You have heard that it was said, "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
9 He left that place and entered their synagogue; 10 a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, "Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?" so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, "Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath." 13 Then he said to the man, "Stretch out your hand." He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. 15 When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16 and he ordered them not to make him known. 17 This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: 18 "Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19 He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 20 He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. 21 And in his name the Gentiles will hope."
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, "Then who can be saved?" 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."