“Whenever religion becomes a depressing affair of burdens and prohibitions, it ceases to be true religion.”
― William Barclay (The Gospel of Matthew)
While the author of the Gospel of Matthew remains anonymous, tradition has long positioned it to be the words of Matthew, one of the Disciples of Christ and an Apostle (also known as Levi).
What is clear from the Gospel’s biting and often scathing critique of the religious leaders, those caught between competing visions of the Kingdom of Jesus and the Kingdom of Rome, is that the author, whom is clearly writing his Gospel in light of the Jewish tradition and Israelite story (see my previous reflections) has had some sort of a transformative experience regarding how he sees his own Jewish heritage. What we find are the words of someone who has been set on the margins of this tradition, and someone who is desperate to present a Gospel that echo the words of Jesus in his own life, words that say that he belongs, that he is a child of God. This is the force of the Genealogy, his decisions to set Jesus’ story in line with what appears as a new “Pentateuch, and it is the entire force of the Kingdom vision he is trying to point.
In Chapter 9, we find the “call” of Matthew to come follow Jesus. If this is in fact the author, what we have are more of the particulars of his context. He is said to be a tax collector (9:9), a Jewish man who was collaborating with the Romans. Someone who was towing the middle line, which might be why the author of Matthew is so attentive to painting a picture of Jewish leaders and a Jewish tradition caught between these two pictures of the Kingdom.
As the story goes, we find Jesus reclining at a table with other “tax collectors and sinners” (9:11), and inviting Matthew to “follow him”. This invites a distinctive for the Pharisees between a teacher of the Law and a teacher like Jesus. They ask his disciples, why is your teacher eating with these kinds of people. Which arrives with a bit of irony, because in the call of Simon, Andrew, James and John we find the context of humble fishermen whom were likely to have said “why me” as well. Overhearing the question, Jesus says in response, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” do. And then he goes on to make the distinction, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice”, contrasting the word of the Law with Jesus’ ministry. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
What is interesting to consider about these words is that the call of Jesus is consistently followed by them teaching in “their synagogues and proclaiming the Gospel of the kingdom.” In the sending of the 12 Disciples in Chapter 10, we find the workers sent to the house of Israel (10:6), declaring the kingdom (10:7). The message of Matthew’s Gospel, the one that declares a Gospel for the oppressed, the outsiders and the sinners, begins with the house of Israel in order to reestablish the temple as God’s dwelling place. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is being raised up as the new temple, the one in whom all of us reside, the new Kingdom, and thus declaring this new temple being built is part of this new Pentateuch that Matthew is drawing out, one in which the death and resurrection declare Jesus as the new temple in the center of this new Kingdom. This, Matthew insists, is what God is up to and has been up to all along, making a Kingdom for the least, the oppressed, a Kingdom that brings with it a true message of liberation for all the nations and all the people of the world as it states in the Abrahamic covenant.
Up The Mountain
Unlike in Luke where Jesus is positioned on a level (equal) place, where Matthew has Jesus is ascending up a mountain in order to now declare the vision of this Kingdom in what we know as the Beatitudes (5:2-12). This elevated place is a continued repositioning of power from the rulers to the lowly, which arrives with a clear picture of who the Kingdom of God is raising up in power- the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, the peacemakers, the persecuted, and the reviled.
This elevated position then becomes the image that is passed on to the workers Jesus is calling (his disciples). They are called to be a light to the world set on a hill so God can do a good works 5:14)). You, Jesus declares, are the “salt of the earth (5:13), and these “good works” (the works of Jesus, which is the power given to the disciples when they are called in chapter 10) are to be seen so that God can be seen in our good works (5:16).
And yet there is a distinction between the works of Jesus and the works of the Law. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law of the Prophets” Jesus says. I have come to fulfill them (5:17).” This leads him to once again express a bit of irony in terms of these competing visions of the Kingdom that Matthew is trying to establish. Just as he tells them to let their works be displayed on the hill, we then get a series of challenges in chapter 6 that caution against “practicing their righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them (6:1).” This includes a call to given in secret (6:1-4), pray in secret (6:5-15), and fasting in secret, all of which correspond to gaining the heavenly riches as opposed to the external praises of people.
So what is this distinction about? At the beginning of the section we gewt this sentence that says, “unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven (5:20)”, for whoever relaxes even the least of these commandments (and teaches others to do the same) will be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven, and whoever dose them will be called great (5:19). Which all feels slightly convoluted and contradictory given how Matthew has been setting up his Gospel as a Gospel not for the righteous, but for the least. This is followed up with examples of anger (5:21-26), to emphasize this point (you will never get out of the prison until you have paid the last penny, fulfilled the Law perfectly), and then he does the same thing with Lust, Divorce, Oaths, Retaliation, and all matters of the Law.
But then he ends with love (5:43-48), which he has established as the “greatest” commandment. And not just love, but the hardest form of love (the call to love their enemies). In this, Jesus says, “you must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Notice the shift here from exceeding even the perfection of the Pharisees under manner of the Law to the call to be perfect “as” your heavenly father is perfect. The difference is this phrase “in love”. The difference between mercy and sacrifice, is that Jesus, God’s chosen servant has come to declare God’s love to the world on that mountain in the work of the Cross. This is not to elevate the Law, but it is, as Paul often says, so that the Law can point to Jesus as the measure of our perfection, the one we are then called to follow and imitate in the work He called us to do, which is to enter into the suffering of others, eat with the tax collectors, reside with sinners, forgive our enemies. We cannot underscore just how radical this would have been for someone like the author of Matthew.
Down the Mountain
And so, as we now find Jesus coming down the mountain (8:1), we see him entering into this work, healing the sick and the broken, liberating the oppressed, with all of this work arriving as a visible sign of the light for the world in declaring the forgiveness of sins, the loving of the enemy. The forgiveness of sins is to that they can know the Son of Man has authority (9:6), the same authority that is then given to his workers.
This is the faith that Jesus continues to uphold in the work of these healings, faith that is found and upheld in the faith of the Centurion (8:8), the healing stories throughout chapter 9 (9:20; 9:29), the faith of those bringing in the paralytic (which coincides with the declaration “your sins are forgiven” 9:1-17)
Jesus upholds the faith of the Centurion saying “with no one in Israelhave I found such faith (8:10).” Contrast this with the disciples of little faith Jesus finds in the boat and in the storm (8:26). And I think it is here where we get Matthew’s point. Jesus continues saying, “Many will come from east and west and recline at the table witih Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the Kingdom of Heaven, while the sons of the Kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness…. so go, let it be done for you as you have believed, and the servant was healed at that very moment (8:11-13).” This is in line with the parables (such as the wedding feast) which we find later on. Matthew once again positions Jesus as establishing His Kingdom in Jerusalem “for the world”. This is why he heals a leper and sends him to the religious leaders to offer proof according to the law (8:4). Whereas the religious leaders stand above their disciples, Jesus now declares in 10:24-25 a different picture. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant not above his master.” This is their reality. But in Christ, it is enough to be like the teacher and like the master.
What is curious here is that Jesus then adds this. “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household (10:25).” This of course brings us back to the accusation that in Jesus’ healings and forgiveness of sins, the religious leaders called Jesus the devil. Notice how Jesus spins this into his establishing of authority over the house, and consider the setting (the house of Israel). This blends in Jesus’ words with Him as the new temple for the world. The house of Israel (the temple) becomes a picture of the whole order being God’s temple, which for someone like Matthew would have been recognized in the imagery of Genesis (the whole cosmos is God’s throne room, God’s temple) and the language of the prophets (God sits above the waters of the sky on his throne looking down on us and with the earth as his footstool). The Jewish narrative had to do with God’s presence no longer dwelling in the temple. What Jesus is establishing is not only God’s presence in the temple, but he is reestablishing God’s presence with them in the whole of the world, the world that the religious leaders were rejecting in the hope of their salvation. It is for this reason that it can be said then to “have no fear (of those calling them Satan)”, for it is enough to be “like” Jesus who himself was called Satan. For “nothing is covered that will not be revealed, and nothing hidden that will not be made known.” And what is it to be like Jesus? This brings us back to this up the mountain, down the mountain movement. Jesus is raising up the weak as the powerful (on the mountain) by eating with sinners and tax collectors, healing the sick and the oppressed and the marginalized (coming down the mountain). This is why he ends his walk through the measure of the Law with love. Love is what we find at the Cross, the Way in which they are following Jesus and called to be like Jesus. What Jesus demonstrates on the Cross, the weak being made powerful, the suffering being made strength, is theirs to give to the world. So don’t be like the Jewish religious or the gentiles who want their works to be seen as the measure of their salvation, be like Jesus, whose work is in the business of pointing people to His liberating work on the Cross (6:7). This is the light for the world. Pray so that others may be lifted up. Give so that others may be lifted up. Forgive so that Jesus may forgive. This is the measure of love as the fulfillment of the Law. This is the same hope that Jesus offers John the Baptist as he is languishing in prison. It is enough to be like me (suffering, being called an enemy), because in this the sick are healed, the blind see, the oppressed are freed, the marginalized find acceptance. This becomes the measure of John’s faith, this becomes the measure of the disciples faith, and it must become ours.