The Gospel of Matthew Part 6: The Last Shall Be First. Love the Greatest Law, and The Liberating Picture of the Righteous Sufferer.

The author of Matthew goes to great lengths in his Gospel to reposition Jesus within the Jewish narrative, the story of the Israelites, and in my previous reflections I have noted how Matthew emphasizes, expounds on and elevates the Old Testament references in order to retell the story of Genesis and Exodus and essentially create a new Pentateuch that establishes Jesus as the new temple in the coming “Kingdom” of God. Understanding the nature of this Kingdom is paramount for the author, especially as he positions it as a contest between two Kingdoms, in which the religious leaders (Israel, the Jewish nation) is caught inbetween.

A Coming Death, A Coming Kingdom, and A Kingdom for the Least
In Chapter 16 we arrive at the first of three foretellings of Jesus’s coming death (16:21-23), where we find two essential markers of this coming Kingdom. First, it reemphasizes the context of the temptation narrative, in which Jesus and the devil drive this contest between the two Kingdoms. Which is interesting, because Matthew positions the confession of Christ as the “revealing” of the Father in line with his resistance to Jesus’s Kingdom as the work of the “devil”. When Jesus (in Matthew’s narrative) then moves to say “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up the cross and follow me”, he is giving definition to where the disciples are following him, which is to the Cross. This revealing gives way to the Transfiguration, which has Jesus once again ascending a mountain, which in ancient Israelite tradition is where God is often revealed (the root of that word “apocalypse” or “revelation”). In keeping with Matthews concern for establishing a new Pentateuch, this is where Jesus climbs the mountain with Elijah and Moses where Moses had his apocalyptic encounter with God (note the voice from the cloud), positioning John as Elijah and Jesus as the fulfillment of the Law (Moses). And then once again, as Jesus descends the mountain, he descends to do his work, which he says is to die and then to rise again (17:9). Just as Elijah came and suffered and died at the hands of their resistance to God’s Kingdom building, so must Jesus.

Here we get a crucial point of Matthew, which is this deep connection between the contest of the Kingdom of Rome and the Kingdom of God, the contest between the Devil and Jesus as the ones driving these Kingdoms, and the contest that exists within ourselves, both externally (the Kingdom of Rome and the person of Jesus) and internally (the spirit of the devil and the Spirit of God). It is a Kingdom that they are being asked to take up residence in, and this Kingdom is Jesus. And the way to this Kingdom, the straight path that John pointed us towards, is through the Cross as that which sets the Kingdom of God in contest to the Kingdom of this world.

This becomes the point of the Beatitudes, where Jesus on the mountain establishes the Kingdom of God as a Kingdom for the least. What we find in the temptation narrative is a contest of “powers”, and what the Cross does is reposition power towards the weakness and shocking nature of the Cross itself. In death comes life, in weakness comes power. This is what Jesus is dong in willingly settings himself under the powers of this world, under the powers of sin and death so as to establish a new Kingdom that proclaim liberation for the oppressed. This is the measure of the Cross.

As we now move towards the Cross, we once again find an establishing of this Kingdom nature sandwiched between what will be two more foretellings of Jesus’ death and resurrection (17:22-23; 20:17-19), beginning with this grand statement that declares children to be the greatest in the kingdom. “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven (18:4).” Pushing this further, Jesus says, “whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.”

Here Jesus connects His own ministry to the ministry of his disciples, saying that what you do to them you do to me, and to receive them means you are receiving Jesus. Jesus raises up the idea of children as an embodiment of someone who is not yet formed by an understanding of the Law in the way the religious leaders were. They simply come to Jesus and are giving a place in the Kingdom apart from the Law. This is a disassociating of works from salvation, finding Jesus as the new Law, and this forms the idea that where we find Jesus is in the least, the oppressed, the marginalized, the Gentiles, all those who have been marginalized by the Law.

Doubling down on this idea of a Kingdom for children (or coming into the Kingdom as “children”), Jesus now moves to add that “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin… (18:6)” would be better to have fastened a stone around their neck and thrown themselves into a lake then to face the woes that we find in 18:7-9. For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes.

This is obviously hyperbolic language, but it leaves a question about how Matthew is framing the attention of these verses pertaining to “children” and “temptation”, which Matthew’s Gospel seems to suggest are “necessary”. I think two things can help us as readers make sense of these verses- understanding who the children, the tempters and those being tempted are, and understanding how this relates to the Kingdom Jesus is establishing by way of the Cross,

The first clue I think is recognizing that Matthew is structured so as to kind of bookmark this passage about children with the later verse, “Let the children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven (19:15).” I found this helpful to read this almost like a “so then…” moment. The Kingdom of Heaven is framed by the question, “who is the greatest”, to which Jesus says whoever comes like a child will enter the Kingdom… “so then”, let the children come to me and do not hinder them.

Notice how this naturally shifts the focus away from them to those Jesus is calling into the Kingdom. This means the entire collection of passages are intended to speak to how those asking the question about who is the greatest (the disciples) are called to bring people into the Kingdom.

And who is Jesus bringing into the Kingdom? This is where Jesus positions the religious leaders (that brood of vipers) as the religious elite (the mature in the Law) over and against the gentiles, the oppressed, the marginalized, all those whom the Law has isolated ignored for the sake of building their Kingdom. “See to it” then, Jesus says, that “you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” This is curious language, but this reference to angels and “face” (note the face of God hidden to Moses and in the Cloud at the Transfiguration) alludes us to the ancient context of this understanding of the “hosts” of heaven (angels surrounding God in his throne room) and this freedom to imagine God as dwelling with us, watching over us. This is ultimately about the ways in which Jesus has come to reveal God, and in Him all those who are weak and burdened and sick and hurting find rest.

Pushing this further now into the heart of God in his Kingdom, we then find this passage connected to the 99 sheep, and the shepherd (Jesus) going out to look for the one. “It is not the will of my father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 18:14”

So again, who are the children, the little ones? This is the world that Jesus came to save. It is the Gentiles, the sick, the marginalized, all those who have been neglected by the temple establishment. This is why Jesus is coming to rebuild the temple as Himself. This is then positioned into a discussion of encountering the people, the ones Jesus is bringing into the Kingdom, in light of the law. Jesus says, “if your brother sins against you”, forgive him (18:15). “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”, which is whom we have found Jesus reclining at the table with earlier in Matthew’s “call”. And if you want to find reasons for why someone should not be in the Kingdom, consider how many times we are meant to forgive our brother. Forgiveness here has not measure, for the Kingdom of Heaven is forgiveness. Therefore woe to you who does not forgive, because (as is often the argument that flows out of these positions), this will simply mean that this limiting of forgiveness will flow back on you.

All of this is wrapped up again in this “so then”. If this is who the Kingdom is for, “so then”, don’t stop one of these little ones (cause them to sin) from coming into the Kingdom. To accent this frame of reference, which is all pointing us towards the Cross, we get a story about a rich man coming to Jesus asking about what it means to follow Him into this Kingdom. Jesus once again flips his reference- if you would be perfect, well what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Don’t present the measure of the Law, present the measure of Christ and that will be given back to you. For, and here is the great proclamation that forms this entire passage as a collective force, “many who are first will be last (19:30), the last will be first, and the first last (20:16).

Who Then Can Be Saved?
There is a really curious dialogue that is worth puling out of the Rich Young Man story in 19:16-30. It says that the rich young man turned and went away “sorrowful” because he had great possessions and knew that he did not want to sell them. I imagine this sorrow coming not from a resolute position, but coming from the revealed tension that the two Kingdoms in contest raises. This causes Jesus to say, “only will difficultly will a rich person enter the Kingdom of heaven.” Matthew’s Gospel gives a great focus on the topic of money, but I think this can be expanded not just to riches, but to the measure of our desire, which is really what the temptation “narratives” in Genesis and in Jesus in the wilderness is all about. One exposes the desire of our heart, the other exposes the heart of God for the world. Which leads the disciples to say, well then who then can be save!?, which arrives with a sense of exasperation. Jesus’ response is to turn their focus back on God’s desire, saying that nothing is impossible with God (19:23-30). Jesus then raises up the 12, which Jesus has brought into His Kingdom work, as the “judge” of the 12 tribes of Israel. There is a lot of context that can be explored within this imagery, but what this ultimately expresses is this ongoing dynamic of God’s Kingdom beginning in Israel, with the disciples bringing the Gospel to the synagogues, and the placement of Jesus as the liberating work of God’s covenant with Israel. There is a connection that exists within the NT understanding, as it breathes life back into God’s indwelling and absence in the temple and life of Israel, between Israel’s stumbling, the Kingdom being built on the Gentiles (the least), and the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise with his people (Israel). This forms the sweeping nature of God’s Kingdom as it presents Jesus as the temple and us in Jesus (God’s dwelling among us).

In any case, the important idea of this judgment comes in how the disciples are raised up as workers, which we find in the parable of 20:1-16, and the Kingdom where the last shall be first and the first last. It is fitting that Israel is both the first and the last in this Kingdom paradigm as Jesus reorients our idea of power in weakness. In this way this judgement has a restorative work, which following the 3rd and final foretelling of the Cross and resurrection in 20:17-19 once again declares that “whoever will be great among you must be your servant 20:26.” The answer to their question is found at the Cross, the very image that we find foreshadowed in the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem (21). He comes in humility and weakness, riding on a donkey, the one who becomes the measure of the Law which is summed up as the “greatest” commandment, Love your neighbors and love God (22:37). You cannot have one without the other. This is what becomes embodied in the placement of John’s death where it is in the narrative, a move that allows it to foreshadow and point to Jesus’ death. What we see is John’s own suffering revealing Jesus’ liberating work in world, and as Herod mourns his death and falls back in on himself, Jesus mourns John’s death and it pushes him to heal and comfort in 3 subsequent narrative stories that underscore this entire repositioning of the Kingdom as for the least.

The Cross as Judgment and Liberation
So, as we recognize this paradigm in which Jerusalem comes both first and last in this Kingdom formation, this establishing of Jesus, we come to this grand collection of 7 woes or judgments directed to the scribes and pharisees, which leads Jesus towards a lament over Jerusalem. Here it is said that in the restorative work of the Cross, the house (the temple) is being left desolate, which alludes to the destruction of the temple (24:1-2), and will eventually be once again overtaken by the Kingdom of this world. All of this arrives as the “signs” of the end of the age, the abomination of desolation, the coming of the Son of Man to bring this new Kingdom to fruition. The image of the fig tree reemerges here as a sign that the season is now upon them, and that the Kingdom has now come. As it says, this generation will not pass away until all of this takes place, and then, when the kingdom is established, the parable of the ten virgins and the parable of the talents allude to the great reversal of power which calls them to not sleep, to work for the Kingdom (for the least) and to be ready. What the final judgement depicted here, in the heavily symbolic language of heaven or eternal fire, brings to the surface is the contest of these two Kingdoms being decided and declared through the Cross and the Resurrection of Jesus. And in the most poignant of expressions, raising to light the character of the Kingdom and the desire for the world that is declared in Jesus at the temptation narrative, Jesus proclamation of the “final judgment” in 25:31-46 asks the question, when did you feed the hungry, attend to the least and the marginalized, because when you did, you attended to me. As you did to the least of these, you did it to me.

All of this judgment is fixed within the raising up of Jesus’ disciples as the judge of Israel. This is whom these words are directed to, is the tradition of God’s people, the temple. As they find themselves caught between Jesus and the Kingdom of Rome, what we have are these images of both the temple and the Kingdom of Rome coming to destruction. The necessary question that emerges from this then becomes, how is this going to happen, and to what end is this moving as Jesus is being established as the new temple and building God’s Kingdom. The answer to this is what we find at the Cross itself.

The repositioning of power that we find Matthew building through the raising up of Herod as the contest of the Kingdoms in the earlier chapters, the the representing of John as power coming in weakness, now positions us into this picture of Pilate and Jesus. The two Kingdoms have now come to a head. What is important to note about Matthew’s Gospel, is that the familiar picture of Isaiah’s Servant in Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus’ death actually kind of fades away. Instead, the Righteous Sufferer of the Psalms emerges. Matthew’s appeal to Isaiah 53 in 8:17, his most definitive dealing of the suffering servant, is actually associated with Christ’s healing work, not his death. It is restorative in is suffering. Matthew underscores most prominently the larger image for Jesus’ death as set within the “righteous sufferer”. Isaiah 40-55 is what actually provides Matthew with the framework for the new Exodus, not the death. What is read into the death is Psalm 69-71, which coincides with the idea in Hebrews of Christ being made perfect “in suffering”, which is what establishes the new Kingdom over and against the powers of the world. The righteous sufferer is actually what frames our understanding of the Cross as both the judgement of the powers and the reforming of the powers. It is framed around one who is “cast out”, which is also how we come to the scapegoat imagery of Yom Kippur, who carries the load of our sin out into the wilderness (those who had been cast out by the religious leaders and institution), and who’s blood becomes the blood that saves the oppressed in the Exodus story on the doorstep.

What is really interesting about working through the Cross by way of the Psalm and by way of the scapegoat imagery is that the sin that God forgives (the sin which the the religious leaders have used to cast out people) is paired with the Sin that holds the world in bondage, forming into this larger language of judgment that positions the religious leaders (in whom the tradition of Yom Kippur would have held value) alongside the Kingdom of Rome. The force of the two goats of Yom Kippur can be seen seen in one of two ways- Jesus emboddies both, or Jesus and Barnabas represent the two goats. In either case, the image that the Cross evokes, when set within Matthew’s desire to present a new Pentateuch, is one in which the sins are being carried away, but also the power of Sin is being defeated. This is what would not have been represented in the usual sacrifice for sin. And all of this in Jewish/Israelite tradition has to do with the presence and dwelling of God in their midst. What is necessary though about Yom Kippur and its context, is that the death of the goat and the sending of the scapegoat into the wilderness are two different things. One sends the sin away, the other sends a message of liberation to the oppressed..

It can’t be missed as well the relevance of the Cross taking place at passover. This is where it emerges as the New Exodus, and this is where Jesus’ blood arrives in the way that it did for the Israelites. And so as we walk through the passion narrative- the plot to kill Jesus, Jesus annointed at Bethany in a way that becomes the expression of the Cross’ reveersal of power, the passover meal, the prayer in gethsemane as a prayer for the work of the Cross to made true for the world, the betrayal and arrest, Jesus set on trial and delivered to Pilate, Jesus before Pilate, the choosing of Barnabas (perhaps as the scapeboat imagery), Jesus then mocked, beaten, crucified, died and buried, the story of Genesis, Exodus, the giving of the Law, the building of the temple, all of this is supposed to come alive in the story of the righteous sufferer.

The necessary focus becomes the understanding of the role of the two goats as that which centers our understanding of what the death on the Cross is doing. It seems to me that this is the part that becomes so misunderstood. If we follow Matthew’s Gospel, he has set up Jesus as a retelling of the Genesis-Exodus narrative (fleeing to Egypt, coming out of Egypt, coming through the water, going into the wilderness, and then establishing life in the promised land (the new Kingdom of his ministry). This reaches forward to the Law being given to Moses in the transfiguration, and Jesus’ resurrection being the building of the temple.

In this sense, what happens with Jesus is He is bearing the weight of sin that has outcast those from the temple, and taking it away from them so that the presence of God can dwell among them freely (they can be invited into the Kingdom). This fits with the imagery of the suffering that leads to the Cross, which is what happens with the scapegoat symbolically before being let go into the wilderness. The death though falls in line with the painting of the door frames, which is a story of liberation, of the Powers (of Egypt) being subverted, and the power of God being made known in the liberation of the oppressed. The difference now though is that the Kingdom has come.

So many conflate the two and miss the force of this story arc, arriving at a retributive God who demands death because of sins. That misses so much of the story itself, which in context of the traditional context functions as both a removal of sins (the righteous suffering of Jesus’ ministry) and a restorative work (the death) which is what subverts the power (of Rome).

And what is so interesting about the way this plays out in the Gospel of Matthew is that it all seems to be in service of Jerusalem, the people of God, the Jewish people/Israelites. They are once again the first and last to emerge in this picture of the powers being subverted, the subject of the judgment that this subverting of power creates. It takes us back to that journey of the Israelites in the wilderness, and what seems to stand on a precarious and unsettled line in this story is this picture of God’s Kingdom being built inspite, and in light of their stumbling and rejection. But what comes after the Cross and Resurrection proclaim the Kingdom here in the not yet reality of their current oppression (under the Kingdom of Rome), is that the wilderness is something we still have to trudge through. the Resurrection moves us back to the way to the Cross as the way this Kingdom is being established. The story is not finished. Jerusalem has been judged, and now it is being rebuilt. To me this leaves so much room for that tension that the Gospel holds of this ultimately being hopeful for Israel itself, of the salvation of the Gentiles breathing God’s liberating force back into Israelites story and history. In rewriting the story (or revealing it for what it is declared to be in Jesus), this question, who then can be saved, comes back to their own story. With God all things are possible become the refrain.

And as we come to the end of this Gospel, we find Jesus once again on the mountain, where they saw him and they worshiped him. And yet some doubted. What an extraordinary picture of this not-yet reality. The Kingdom is here, and yet it arrives in the same doubts that John the Baptist had. The answer comes in the same fashion as it did to John though. If you are doubting, look to the healing work of Jesus, and let that push you to “go make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching them to obey.” And as we do so, we do so knowing that He (Jesus, the incarnate presence of God) is with us always, to the end of the age.

How do you recognize false prophets? Sheeps clothing but fruits reveal… tree with bad fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… many who say “Lord Lord” will enter the kingdom, but Jesus will say “depart from me, I never knew you” (7:21-23)… the relationship between hearers and doers- house on a rock (7:24) or house on the sand (7:26)… fruits and trees from chapter 3
– all of these teachings astonished the crowds, because he was teaching “as one who had authority” 7:29

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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