Matthew has some of the most familiar stories of Jesus’ life, making it a great study for beginners. It is also beautifully nuanced which should appeal to those who have spent some time reading and thinking about the scriptures of the New Testament.
Tradition tells us that Matthew was authored by one of Jesus’ disciples, the former tax collector. As we work through our study, we will see that this author was educated. He is quite knowledgeable about Jewish scripture and demonstrates repeatedly the ways that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise of a messiah.
Matthew probably enhanced the story of Jesus’ life as told in Mark. He adds a poetic structure, dividing the stories into blocks of discussion around Jesus’ major teachings. He also adds stories not covered in earlier gospel writings, giving us a more complete picture. Finally, his character development brings more life and personality to the disciples.
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
Michal Beth Dinkler
Assistant Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School
She holds a doctorate in New Testament from Harvard, a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Master and Bachelor degrees in English from Stanford. She is especially interested in the usefulness of literary theory for interpreting the New Testament. Her first book, Silent Statements: Narrative Representations of Speech and Silence in the Gospel of Luke, explores the uses of speech and silence in Luke’s Gospel, and she currently is writing a book on literary theory and New Testament scholarship for Yale University Press. She also is a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Matthew has long been the most popular of the four canonical Gospels: consistently placed first in the canonical lists, it was widely used in early Christian communities, and for some time was thought to be the first Gospel written (though now we believe Mark was written first). Indeed, even today, people are often most familiar with Matthew’s Gospel. For example, over the next eight weeks, you’ll be encountering some of Jesus’ most famous teachings: “Love your enemies,” “Turn the other cheek,” “Do not be anxious about tomorrow,” “Let the children come,” “Go make disciples of all nations,” and the Lord’s prayer in the form most churches use today (as opposed to Luke’s version in Lk. 11:1-4). As the most Jewish of the four canonical Gospels, Matthew also provides a nice bridge between the two testaments of the Christian Bible.
Author and Provenance
According to tradition, this Gospel was written by Matthew (also called Levi), a former tax collector and one of Jesus’ twelve disciples (Mark 3:18; Matt 9:9; 10:3; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). The author implied by the text itself was clearly an early Jewish Christian who was well-educated and multilingual (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek). He was also an interpreter of earlier traditions, adopting and adapting several sources in the telling of his tale (the Gospel of Mark, a hypothetical sayings-source scholars call “Q,” the OT, oral tradition, and possibly a “special source” scholars call “M” or “special Matthew”). Most scholars believe the Gospel of Matthew was written from Antioch in Syria during the 80’s C.E., after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E.
Several details suggest that Matthew was written after the destruction of the Temple. For example, Matthew 17:24-27 refers to “collectors of the double drachma.” This could be a reference to a two-drachma tax levied by the emperor Vespasian on the Jews in the aftermath of the Jewish War; on the other hand, it could simply be a general tax paid to the Jerusalem Temple prior to the War. In addition, some scholars argue that the parable in Matthew 22:1-14 (especially v.7) is too close to the reality of Jerusalem’s destruction to have been written before 70 C.E. In the parable, a king whose invitation to a wedding is spurned sends armies to destroy the city (which does not happen in the parallel version in Luke 14:15-24).
Matthew’s intended audience was probably a relatively well-to-do city church made up mostly of educated Jews who already believed Jesus was the Messiah, but who disagreed amongst themselves about the import of the Law. Several features of the Gospel suggest that it was written for a Jewish audience. For example, unlike Mark, Matthew does not explain Jewish customs (compare Matt. 5:1-9 to Mark 7:1-13); he portrays Jesus as a new Moses and Jesus’ teachings as a new Torah; he cites the Hebrew Scriptures and refers to OT figures often, usually in order to demonstrate that Jesus fulfills Jewish prophecy. For instance, in the birth narrative, Matthew describes Joseph taking Jesus and Mary to Egypt, and back out to Nazareth. Matthew then quotes Hosea 11:1: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son’” (Matt. 2:15). Other examples include Matt. 3:3 (quoting Isa. 40:3), Matt. 4:4-10 (quoting Deut. 8:3; Psalm 91:11-12; Deut. 6:13, 16), Matt. 12:17-21 (quoting Isa. 42:1-4), and Matt. 21:4-5 (quoting Isa. 62:11), to give just a few of many. By one count, Matthew includes 61 quotations from the Old Testament, compared to 31 in Mark, 26 in Luke, and 16 in John. Underlying these quotations is the conviction that God actively works, accomplishing the divine purposes foretold in the Jewish Messianic prophecies.
Matthew’s is the most clearly organized of the four canonical Gospels. Matthew adheres fairly closely to the structural outline of his source, the Gospel of Mark, although he clearly found Mark’s beginning and ending to be insufficient, since he added the infancy narrative and post-resurrection scenes to his version of the story. Alternating between blocks of narrative and blocks of discourse, Matthew’s Gospel is built around five major speeches of Jesus, each of which concerns the Kingdom of Heaven:
5-7 Sermon on the Mount (The Ethics of the Kingdom)
10 Commissioning the Twelve (The Mission of the Kingdom)
13 Parables (The Nature of the Kingdom)
18 Community Instructions (The Governance of the Kingdom)
23-25 The Olivet Discourse (The Future of the Kingdom)
Each of these sections ends with a similar formulation:
- “Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching…” (7:28)
- “Now when Jesus had finished teaching his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and proclaim…” (11:1)
- “When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place…” (13:53)
- “When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee…” (19:1)
- “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples…” (26:1)
The overarching geographical progression of the narrative depicts Jesus moving from his homeland in Galilee, to his rejection in Jerusalem, and triumphantly back again to Galilee at the end.
This a theologically mature piece, dealing with complex topics like eschatology (i.e., what followers of Jesus might hope for), a mission to all nations, salvation history, ecclesiology (i.e., how followers of Jesus should behave in community), and how the commandments of Jesus relate to the Mosaic Torah (was Jesus a lawmaker, or a lawbreaker?).
Matthew’s Jesus is a king, set against the “kings of the earth” (Matt. 17:25). The word “Christ” means “Anointed One.” In the Old Testament, anointing signified a divine covenant between God and the king of Israel (e.g., Saul, David, and Solomon; see especially the account of Jehu’s anointing in 2 Kgs 9:1-13). In Matthew, Jesus is repeatedly called the “Son of David,” a phrase that carries overtones of royalty (9:27; 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31; 21:9, 15); and he is even greater than David in Matt. 22:41-45. As a “Son of David” in the promised everlasting Davidic dynasty (2 Sam. 7:11-16), Jesus brings about the kingdom of heaven – the blessing for which the Jewish nation had been waiting a very long time.
Matthew’s Jesus is a king; he is also a teacher – a rabbi – and his disciples are learners (in Greek, the word is mathetos, “one who is trained/taught”). In Matthew, Jesus is a master storyteller: he often tells parables as a teaching tool, especially to describe the kingdom of heaven (notice how six of the eight parables in Matthew 13 begin with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like…”). Matthew also tends to provide allegorical interpretations to explain the parables. For example, chapter 13 starts with Jesus telling the well-known parable of The Sower and the Soils (13:1-9), then he describes the reason for parables (13:10-17), and finally, he explains the Parable of the Sower allegorically (13:18-23).
Still, even as Matthew’s Jesus is a teacher, he is more than a teacher. For Matthew, Jesus is the embodiment of Wisdom. Matthew 11:19 speaks of Wisdom being justified by her deeds (cf. Luke 7:35, where she is justified by her children); the context of Matt. 11:1-19 suggests that Jesus himself does Wisdom’s deeds. In Matthew 11:28-30, we find a version of a wisdom saying found in Sirach, an apocryphal Old Testament writing. In Sirach, Wisdom calls people to come close and dwell with her, where they will find rest (Sir 51:23-27). In Matthew, Jesus speaks these words in Wisdom’s place.
Matthew polishes the portrait of the disciples, who are dull and uncomprehending in Mark’s Gospel. Peter plays an especially prominent role in Matthew: this is the only place we find the story of Peter trying to walk out to Jesus on the water (14:28-31), the only mention of Peter’s question about how many times to forgive (18:21-22), and the only place we are told that Peter is the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his church (Matt. 16:17-19). Peter’s depiction in Matthew has led many to associate this Gospel with Christians who had a special regard for leadership of Peter, who was later revered as a prominent leader of Christian communities both in Antioch and Rome.
Matthew also (in)famously vilifies the leaders of the Jewish people, particularly the Pharisees. It is important for us to remember that for Jews, Pharisees are positive. They sought faithful adherence to God’s law, and offered sophisticated, learned interpretations of the Torah; many consider them to be the spiritual fathers of modern Judaism. In Matthew, however, they are Jesus’ opposition; he condemns their “hypocrisy” and includes a long list of “woes” and unfavorable comparisons (Matt. 23:1-39). The prediction that there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” at judgment time is repeatedly directed at the religious leaders. Especially troubling is the “blood curse” of Matt 27:25, which, as we shall see, reflects Matthew’s attempt to make sense of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Some scholars have taken this harsh polemic as evidence that Matthew’s community had been expelled from the synagogue. Though the specific situation is difficult to know with absolute certainty, we can see clearly that there was serious tension between Matthew’s community of Christ-followers and the Jewish leaders with whom they interacted.
Craig Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2009.
R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew. NICNT; Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2007.
Donald Senior, Matthew (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries; Nashville: Abingdon, 1998).
Elaine M. Wainwright, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in Searching the Scriptures. II. A Feminist Commentary. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (ed.) New York: Crossroad, 1994. 635-77.
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
I. Matthew 1-3: The Ancestry and Birth of Jesus
When we start a story, we tend to want a “hook” – a line that will reach out and grab our attention. Perhaps that’s why many people skip over the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-17) and go straight to the familiar birth narrative (1:18-25); genealogies don’t strike us as very exciting. But there’s a catch if we skip over the genealogy. The catch is that, for Matthew, the genealogy, a Matthean addition to the Markan source (Mark 1:1-11), is crucial for the rest of the story.
After the genealogy establishes a frame for the Gospel, the story itself begins with an account of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s version of the infancy narrative is filled with danger, drama, and intrigue, including strange visitors from the East (2:1-12), the machinations and plotting of a jealous King (2:1-12, 16-18), the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt in the dead of night (2:13-15), and a massacre of innocent infants (2:16-18). Unlike Luke, who includes a story of the twelve-year-old Jesus (Lk. 2:41-52), once Matthew has said that the family makes their home in Nazareth (2:23), he follows the chronology of his Markan outline: the story launches immediately into Jesus’ adulthood, beginning with the appearance of Jesus’ forerunner, John the Baptist (3:1-12), moving into Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River (3:13-17), and then the temptation in the wilderness (4:1-11).
The Genealogy (1:1-17)
The genealogy (Matt. 1:1 has the word genesis in Greek) is separated into three sections of fourteen generations each (1.2-6a; 6b-11; 12-16) with varying time spans: the fourteen generations cover about 750 years in the first section, 200 years in the second, and 600 years in the third. It was not unusual in ancient genealogies to omit names, and in fact, the final section only lists thirteen names, even though Matthew says it covers fourteen generations in v. 17. The point is that Matthew’s genealogy isn’t really about biological lineage. Rather, as is common with ancient linear genealogies, Matthew’s aim is to honor Jesus by associating him with key figures in Jewish history. With this genealogy, Matthew introduces several key theological themes that will appear throughout the rest of the narrative.
On the one hand, the genealogy creates unity between the Jewish tradition and the new community of Jesus followers. Matthew sets Jesus up as Israel’s promised Messiah within the framework of Jewish history (notice the reference to the Babylonian exile of 597-539 BCE in Matt. 1:11). He traces Jesus’ genealogy back through the Davidic line (see 1 Sam. 16:1-1 Kgs. 2:12) to Abraham, ancestral patriarch of the Jewish nation (see Gen. 17:4-5). Matthew thus highlights Jesus’ Jewish origins (compare this with Luke 3:23-38, where Jesus’ genealogy ends with Adam, the first human), and establishes that followers of Jesus are directly connected with Judaism.
On the other hand, the genealogy highlights discontinuity and difference from Jewish traditions of Matthew’s day. For example, it is remarkable (if not unprecedented; see, e.g., Gen. 11:29; 22:23; 25:1-4; Exod. 6:23) that Matthew includes four women in Jesus’ lineage: Tamar (v. 3), Rahab (v. 5), Ruth (v. 5), and the “wife of Uriah,” that is, Bathsheba (v. 6). These women’s stories are found in Genesis 38 (Tamar), Joshua 2, 6 (Rahab), Ruth 1-4 (Ruth), and 2 Samuel 11-12 (Bathsheba). Notably, all four of these women are Gentiles; for Matthew, from the beginning, Jesus is King of the Jews, but also of Gentiles, of men, but also of women. God had promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4); tracing Jesus’ lineage to Abraham subtly prefigures the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel, where Jesus says to go make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:16-20). All who have traditionally been “on the margins” culturally and socially are, and always have been, incorporated into God’s plan. The genealogy is filled with named individuals, each with his or her own story, and yet, God draws these individuals together. One by one, their stories bring us to the birth of Jesus, and ultimately, to the birth of a new community – the followers of Jesus.
The Birth Narrative (1:18-2:23)
If we set aside our familiarity with this story for a moment and compare Matthew’s Gospel with Mark’s, it is striking that there is a birth narrative at all. Mark has no stories of Jesus’ birth or childhood; when the curtain opens in Mark, Jesus is already a grown adult, coming to the wilderness to be baptized by John (Mk. 1:1-11). One effect of adding the infancy narrative to the Gospel story is that Matthew expands the time period that his narrative covers: Matthew’s Gospel stretches over decades, lasting much longer than the short year or so depicted in Mark.
Today, annual Christmas pageants, cards, and nativity scenes can obscure the fact that we actually have two quite different versions of Jesus’ birth story in the New Testament: one account in Matthew 2:1-23, and a separate one in Luke 2:1-20. Christmas celebrations conflate the two, with depictions of shepherds and wise men visiting Jesus, Mary, and Joseph together in a barn, star and angels high overhead. But in the New Testament, the only major details the Matthean and Lukan accounts share are the characters in the Holy Family (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), the location (Jesus was born in Bethlehem), and the miraculous nature of Jesus’ conception (both refer to Mary’s virginity).
Matthew focuses on Joseph’s experience (as opposed to Mary’s perspective, which predominates in Luke’s version). Joseph is extolled as righteous (1:19) and receptive to divine guidance (immediately obeying the angel’s instructions in 1:24-25; 2:13-15, 19-21). Repeatedly, Joseph protects Jesus and Mary: he takes them to Egypt to avoid Herod’s massacre of all the boys two years old and under (2:16-18; another event not narrated in Luke), and then even after returning to Judea after Herod’s death (2:15, 19-20), he takes them to Galilee to keep them safe from Herod’s son, Archelaus, who ruled over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea from 4 BCE-6 CE (2:22-23).
Another unique Matthean element is the visit of wise men, or magi, from the East (2:1-12). Extensive traditions arose around these figures over the centuries; they were numbered (usually to three due to the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh mentioned in 2:11), given names (traditionally Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), and honored in annual festivals (Epiphany). What matters to Matthew, however, is that these visitors, who rightly recognize the importance of Jesus’ birth, are Gentiles. The irony is that the Jewish priests and scribes know exactly where the Messiah is to be born (they can even quote the relevant Scripture to Herod in 2:5-6), but they fail to follow what the Scripture teaches. Instead, Gentiles who do not know the Jewish Scriptures at all are the ones to recognize rightly the newborn king. As was the case with the genealogy, this small narrative detail points ahead to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20).
Magi were astrologers in antiquity, interpreting the stars; their recognition of Jesus’ star and desire to pay him homage (2:2) has added political significance in Matthew’s world, where celestial events like comets or the appearance of stars were commonly associated with the birth or death of great heroes, such as the emperors. Thus, Matthew sets Jesus up as a rival ruler, not only threatening the Jewish King, Herod, but also potentially threatening the Roman emperor himself.
Matthew paints Jesus’ story as the story of Israel in miniature: just as the firstborn sons of the people of Israel are spared at the first Passover (see Exod. 12), Jesus is passed over – spared – in Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (an event that also echoes Pharaoh’s ruling at Moses’ birth in Exod. 1:15-22). In Matthew’s narrative, Herod becomes a new Pharaoh, which is especially significant in light of the fact that Herod rules on behalf of the Roman Empire. Just as Israel was called out of Egypt in the exodus, so too is Jesus called out of Egypt into the land of Israel (Matt. 2:19-21). The people of Israel were tested for forty years in the wilderness before entering the promised land (Deut. 8:2); similarly, once Jesus is grown, he spends forty days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan (4:1-17). All of this indicates that for Matthew, embracing the story of Jesus is synonymous with embracing the story of the people of Israel.
If embracing the story of Jesus is embracing Israel’s story, then conversely, Matthew also takes care to show that the story of Israel prefigures Jesus. He frequently stops the action to use formulas, or “fulfillment citations,” to make explicit that: “This happened to fulfill the prophecy . . .” In fact, fourteen quotations begin with this introductory formula. For example, Matthew establishes that Jesus is the Messiah because he is born of a virgin, citing the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:22-23). The prophet Micah (Micah 5:2-3) had predicted that a ruler of Israel would be born in Bethlehem, so Matthew points out that Jesus fulfills this prediction (Matt. 2:5-6).
The Appearance of John the Baptist (3:1-12)
Chapter three jumps ahead in the chronology of the tale to Jesus’ adulthood, with Jesus’ forerunner John the Baptist proclaiming a message of repentance in the wilderness (3:1-12). The description of John wearing camel hair and eating locusts and honey recalls the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament (2 Kgs. 1:8). Elijah had ascended into heaven (2 Kgs. 2:1, 11) and was expected by many to return, a detail that reappears later in Matthew’s story, when Jesus explicitly equates John with Elijah (11:13-14).
John’s mission is to prepare people for the coming of God’s kingdom, partly through repentance and partly through purifying them through the symbolic act of baptism. Several themes of this passage will prove crucial for the rest of the story. First, only Matthew has John preaching what ultimately becomes Jesus’ message throughout the Gospel: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (3:2; see 4:17). Matthew also adds the Sadducees and Pharisees as opposition: these two Jewish parties, usually rivals, unite “against” John’s baptism (3:7; some translations have “for”), provoking John’s strong apocalyptic indictment: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (3:7) Here already judgment is imminent: the fire that will burn fruitless trees (3:10), and the one who comes to separate the good from the bad (3:11-12) become recurrent motifs throughout the Gospel.
Jesus’ Baptism (3:13-17)
Whereas John prevents the baptism of the Pharisees and Sadducees because they are not genuinely repentant, he tries to prevent Jesus’ baptism for a different reason: John knows Jesus should be baptizing him (3:14). Jesus insists that his baptism will fulfill all righteousness, by which he means it is God’s will (3:15). This exchange between John and Jesus is another Matthean addition to his Markan source, and it might reflect embarrassment in Matthew’s community over the implication that if Jesus was baptized, he must have needed forgiveness. No, Jesus’ baptism was simply God’s will.
Another detail distinguishes Matthew’s telling of the baptism account with the parallels in Mark 1:2-6 and Luke 3:1-6. Matthew says Jesus is the one who sees the heavens open, but then he has the voice from heaven say in the third person, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). In Mark and Luke, the voice speaks directly to Jesus: “You are my Son.” In Matthew, then, the voice speaks to onlookers, not principally to Jesus, as a kind of public endorsement.
The identification of Jesus as the “Son of God” is a common Messianic title in Matthew (Matt. 2:15; 4:3, 6; 8:29; 11:27; 14:33; 16:16; 26:63; 28:19). Many people today read this Christologically, as though it is equivalent to Jesus being called God, but the language of sonship in the Old Testament typically refers to the people of God, and to kings as God’s representatives on earth (see 2 Sam. 7:14). The “Son of God” was also a common claim made about the Roman emperors, who were themselves divinized only after their deaths; typically, during their lifetimes, they were not yet called a god, but the son of a god. In that context, an emperor’s divine sonship was mostly about legitimating his rule, establishing that he was the actual, legitimate heir of the previous ruler. Thus, in both the Jewish and Roman contexts, Jesus being God’s son means he is chosen and commissioned to carry out God’s will, to enact God’s kingdom on earth.
Warren Carter, “Matthew 1—2 and Roman Political Power,” New Perspectives on the Nativity. J. Corley (ed.) London and New York: T. & T. Clark, 2009, 77-90.
J. Nolland, “The Four (Five) Women and Other Annotations in Matthew’s Genealogy,” NTS 43 (1997): 527-539.
Mark Allen Powell, “The Magi as Kings: An Adventure in Reader-Response Criticism,” CBQ 62 (2000): 459-480
Questions for Discussion:
- How do the unique aspects of Matthew’s version of the nativity story reflect Matthew’s unique message? Do you find it useful to distinguish between Matthew’s version and the one found in Luke?
- In Genealogy and birth story, Matthew emphasizes Jesus’ Jewishness, but he also includes key examples of Gentiles who are incorporated into God’s plan. What are the implications of these features of Matthew’s story for today’s world?
- John the Baptist preached a message of repentance and chastised the Pharisees and Sadducees for not bearing fruit “worthy of repentance” (3:8). He warned of the coming judgment and eternal punishment for the unrepentant, who are destined for destruction. How is repentance a part of the “good news” of the gospel?
- A voice from heaven says Jesus is “my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (3:17). Is this a description that applies only to Jesus, or do you think it also applies today?
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
II. Matthew 4-8: The Sermon on the Mount
With a Focus on Chapter 5
Matthew’s account moves quickly from the story of the beginning of the ministry of Jesus (ch. 4) to the first great block of teaching (ch. 5-7), which is followed by stories of miraculous healing.
Withdrawal and Engagement
Prior to his public ministry, Jesus withdraws to the desert for forty days where he is tempted by Satan. Mark reports that action (Mark 1:12-13), but Matthew, like Luke (4:1-13), has a longer version of the encounter, with dialogue between Jesus and Satan, conducted with the aid of dueling scriptural texts. Satan’s efforts to tempt Jesus to betray his mission lend themselves to more sermonic application. He suggests that Jesus seek to fill his physical needs (4:3-4); to force God’s hand to protect him from any harm (4:5-7); and to gain wealth and power by worshiping him. After Jesus deftly responds, the devil departs.
After his experience, which echoes the experience of the wandering Israelites, Jesus, learning that John the Baptist has been arrested, goes to Galilee (4:12). Matthew marks that movement by one of his characteristic citations of scripture (4:15-16), construed as prophecy “fulfilled” in the events of Jesus’ life. The text that Matthew cites, from Isaiah 9:1, addresses the northern Israelite tribes of Zabulon and Naphthali, in “Galilee of the Gentiles,” on whom light has shone. The quotation from Isaiah does not reflect the situation in Galilee in the time of Jesus, when adherence to Jewish traditions was strong. Like the story of the gentile Magi, it does serve Matthew’s purpose in hinting at the universal implications of the message of Jesus.
The Sermon on the Mount
Teaching is for Matthew an essential dimension of who Jesus is and what his followers do. The cornerstone of that teaching is found in the great sermon that extends from 5:1 to 7:29. The sermon begins with an introductory section in three parts: a series of beatitudes (5:3–11), exhortations to be “light” and “salt” (5:13-14), and an explanation of the relationship of this teaching to the Mosaic Law or Torah, ending in a call to “higher righteousness” (5:17-20). The rest of the sermon also falls into three major sections. The first (5:21–48) consists of a series of “antitheses,” contrasting what was said in the Torah with what Jesus teaches. The second (6:1–18) focuses on practices of piety. Then follows a series of ethical teachings reminiscent of the book of Proverbs and other traditional Jewish wisdom teaching (6:19–7:29).
The Introduction to the Sermon (5:3-19)
Beatitudes are words of praise and congratulations, declaring someone to be “blessed” or “happy” for some reason. The grounds for such positive declarations might be situations or conditions over which one has no control, or they might be habits or virtues that one might cultivate. Examples of both types of congratulatory formulas are found in Israel’s sacred writings. Ps 127:4-5 congratulates a man on having a large number of sons:
“Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the sons of one’s youth.
Happy the man who has his quiver full of them.
He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”
The implication of this Psalm is “Lucky you, man with many sons!” The beginning of the Psalter (Ps 1:1), exemplifies the other, more hortatory, type of “beatitude”:
“Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked
or take the path that sinners tread or sit in the seat of scoffers;
but their delight is in the law of the Lord
and on his law they meditate day and night.”
The implication of this latter beatitude is “Go meditate on the Law and abide by it!”
The beatitudes in Luke’s gospel (Luke 6:20-22) are more like the first type, congratulating those who are actually poor, hungry, or in mourning, because their condition will soon be changed, no doubt as the kingdom of God comes into being. Luke’s beatitudes are also paralleled by “woes” (Luke 6:24-26), which function as words of judgment on those who are wealthy, well fed, and prosperous by earthly standards. The beatitudes in Matthew, which do not have any corresponding woes, generally work like the beatitude in Ps 1:1. They encourage certain virtues or forms of behavior, poverty “in spirit,” meekness, thirst “for righteousness,” mercy, purity of heart, peacemaking. The virtues and actions encouraged here will be paralleled in the “antitheses,” which will give them further definition. The final two (Matt 5:10-11) depart from the pattern in offering words of congratulation on those who are persecuted, either “for righteousness” (v 10) or “because of me” (v 11).
Two vivid images continue the exhortation. Both “salt” (v 13) and “light” (vv 14-16) encourage disciples not simply to cultivate personal virtue, but to reach out and have an effect on others. Here as elsewhere in the gospel, mission is essential to the life well lived.
The introduction to the sermon concludes with a comment about how Jesus’ teaching relates to the Jewish Torah. This saying, found only in Matthew, probably reflects the concern of this evangelist to define himself and his community in relationship to his Jewish contemporaries. It strikes a note similar to the saying attributed to Jesus only in Matthew, at 23:2-3, which admonishes his disciples to do as the scribes and Pharisees teach, but not to do as they do. Matthew’s recollection of Jesus, in other words, encourages disciples to be good observant Jews. Matt 5:17-19 makes the same point. Jesus did not come to abolish Torah but to “fulfill” it (v 17). The verb used here is the same as the one Matthew regularly uses to introduce scriptural texts that serve as prophecies “fulfilled” in the life of Jesus, but here “fulfillment” has a different sense. The requirements of Torah are, in effect, intensified, in the teaching of the rest of this chapter. As v 20 states, the “righteousness” required of followers of Jesus is greater than that of the “scribes and Pharisees.”
Before engaging in that teaching, Matthew has Jesus offer a word of criticism of anyone who “breaks” one of the least commandments of the Torah and teaches others to do so (v 19). It is interesting that such a person is not condemned or expelled from the fellowship of disciples, but is only to be “called least in the kingdom of heaven” (v 19). It is possible that the evangelist, writing sometime late in the first century, has in mind here teachers such as the apostle Paul, who famously taught that gentiles did not need to become circumcised in order to become part of God’s new people.
The principle defined in this passage raises an interesting historical problem. How is it that Matthew’s gospel, whose message seems to reaffirm traditional Jewish observances, became a gospel respected and valued by a Church that by the second century was composed predominantly by Gentiles who did not observe laws of kashrut or circumcise their children? We shall have to consider that question again as we learn more about Matthew’s understanding of the Church.
One answer to the question of what practices followers of Jesus should observe might be provided by the next section of the Sermon, which opposes a series of verses from scripture and teachings of Jesus. The opposition seems at first sight to contradict the principle of v 17 that Jesus came to “fulfill” the law or that of v 20 that a “greater righteousness” is required of his disciples. Yet the opposition does not generally deny the validity of the requirement of Torah. It instead enacts a principle of rabbinic teaching, enshrined in the Mishnah, a compilation of rabbinic teaching from the first centuries of the common era, produced in the early third century. Mishnah, Tractate Pirqe ’Avot (“Sayings of the Fathers”) 1:1 reads:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it down to the men of the Great Assembly. They said three things: Be deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Torah.
The teachings of Jesus in this section of the Sermon “make a fence around the Torah.” Abide by his teachings and one will never transgress the Torah. One will never murder (Exod 20:13, cited in v 21) if one does not get angry or speak ill of another (v 22). One will not commit adultery (Exod 20:14, cited in v 27) if there is not lust in the heart (v 28). One will not swear falsely (Lev 19:12, cited in v 33) if one does not swear at all (vv 34-37).
Each of these first three antitheses is expanded with other sayings that enlarge on the basic principle. So the prohibition on anger is expanded with a call to reconciliation, which must take precedence over cultic observance (vv 23-26). Here too, Matthew presents Jesus teaching a principle enshrined in the Mishnah, in its reflection on what should happen on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Mishnah, Tractate Yoma 5:9, reports the opinion of R. Eleazar ben Azariah:
“From all your sins you shall be clean before the Lord” (Lev 16:30). – for transgressions that are between man and God, the Day of Atonement effects atonement; for transgressions that are between a man and his fellow, the Day of Atonement effects atonement only if he has appeased his fellow.
Similarly the prohibition on lust, which will prevent adultery, is expanded with two other more general principles, an arresting saying that one should “cut off” a part of the body that causes offence (v 27–30). The second is a prohibition on divorce (vv 31–32).
The sayings that are added to the basic principle of the “fence” all probably enshrine traditional teachings that in some form go back to Jesus himself. The highly provocative, even hyperbolic saying about the offending member displays a characteristic feature of the teaching of Jesus and has an intriguing parallel in the saying about eunuchs in Matt 19:10–12. That Jesus prohibited divorce is attested in all the synoptic gospels (Matt 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18), and is a principle known to Paul as well (1 Cor 7:10–11). All of those who passed along Jesus’ strict saying wrestled with it in some way. Paul does so most explicitly, when in direct contravention to Jesus, he allows divorce in the case of the failed marriage of a believer and an unbeliever (1 Cor 7:12–16). Matthew, here and in ch 19, provides an exception clause; divorce is allowed in the case of “unchastity,” whatever precisely that means.
The last two antitheses seem to work in a slightly different way from the first three. Against the principle of retaliation, an “eye for an eye” (Exod 21:24–25), Jesus teaches that one should “turn the other cheek” and “walk the extra mile” (vv 38–42). The antithesis seems to be stronger here than in the first three cases, but the difference is more apparent than real. The principle articulated in Exodus is one of limited retaliation. One can only demand an “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth.” Any danger of surpassing that limit is avoided if one follows the advice of Jesus.
Unlike the others, the final antithesis does not involve a prohibition or a limit not to be exceeded. The command to “love your neighbor” (Lev 19:18, cited in v 43) from the Holiness Code of Leviticus, is connected with a command not found in scripture to “hate your enemy.” While that is not a part of the teaching of Torah, it may reflect the long history of Israel and its struggles against its various hostile neighbors. Furthermore, the command to love the neighbor in Leviticus is focused on the people of Israel (Lev 19:18). The response attributed to Jesus is a command to love even enemies and pray for them (v 44), imitating the divine beneficence (v 45). The final line of the chapter also evokes the opening summons of the Holiness Code (Lev 19:2), which called on Israelites to be holy as God is holy. Matthew, perhaps also echoing the call to be perfectly loyal to God in Deuteronomy 18:13, has Jesus challenge his disciples to be “perfect,” that is to live by the “higher righteousness” that the Sermon enshrines. Luke reports a similar saying (Luke 6:36), but understands it as a call to be “merciful.”
The Practices of Piety
The admonitions about pious practices are framed by a concern to avoid ostentation. One must give alms, but in secret (6:1–4). One must pray, but in private (6:5–6). One should fast, but not with a clean face (6:16–18). The central admonition is expanded with a model prayer, the Lord’s prayer, in the form widely used in Christian worship today (6:9–13), which appears in a shorter form at Luke 11:2–4. Luke’s version of the wording of the petition in v 12, “forgive us our sins (or trespasses)” is often substituted for the Matthean “forgive us our debts,” which uses an image for sin common in Jewish tradition.
The rest of the sermon consists of proverbial sayings and evocative images, many of them with parallels in Luke, but not in his Sermon on the Plain. Many call on disciples to keep their priorities right, to amass “treasures in heaven” (6:19-21 // Luke 12:33-34), or to choose which master to serve (6:24 // Luke 16:13). The image of the lilies of the field grounds the admonition not to worry about earthly matters (6:25-34 // Luke 12:22-31). Somewhat more mysterious is the image of the eye as the “lamp” of the body (6:22-23 // Luke 11:34-36), but the admonition to keep the eye sound resonates with the overall theme of keeping proper values.
The teaching continues with more explicit admonitions, not to be judgmental, with its image of the mote and the beam (7:1-5 // Luke 6:37-42); to pray, with the imagery of the knock that opens the door (7:7-11 // Luke 11:9-13). At the heart of this list stands the golden rule (7:12 // Luke 6:31), expressed in the positive terms of doing to others as you would have them do you.
Warnings balance the positive admonitions. Disciples should not cast “pearls before swine” (7:6). If Jesus or the evangelist had an identifiable group in mind, he does not say so. Disciples should beware of false prophets, trees that do not bear fruit (7:15-20). Matthew may have in mind the messianic revolutionaries who emerged during the years before the revolt of the Jews against Rome, who are probably in view in Matt 24:4-7. Yet the lack of specificity in these warnings has enabled various applications throughout the history of the church. Disciples should also avoid simply bearing lip service to the principles of Jesus. As is generally true for Matthew, actions speak louder than words (7:21-23).
The sermon ends with a reassuring image of the obedient disciple as a house on a solid foundation (7:24-27 // Luke 6:47-49).
L. Allen, “The Sermon on the Mount in the History of the Church,” RevExp 89 (1992): 245-62.
Dale C. Allison, The Sermon on the Mount: Inspiring the Moral Imagination. Companions to the New Testament; New York: Herder and Herder, 1999), 1-40.
Jerome Neyrey, “Vacating the Playing Field,” Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 212-28.
Francois P. Viljoen, “Jesus’ Teaching on the ‘Torah’ in the Sermon on the Mount,” Neotestamentica 40 (2006): 135-155
Questions for Discussion:
- What are the fundamental values or virtues that you take from the Sermon on the Mount?
- What is the force of the imagery that appears throughout the Sermon? Does it reinforce or distract from the ethical teaching?
- What are the most challenging teachings of Jesus in the Sermon?
- How do you understand the relationship of Jesus’ teachings in Matthew to the ethical teachings found in the Old Testament?
- What is the image of Jesus that emerges from this summary of his teaching?
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The Gospel of Matthew
III. Matthew 9-11: The Mighty Deeds of Jesus
The Healing of a Paralytic (9:1-8)
Matthew 9 continues the string of miracles from chapter 8, beginning with the famous story of the healing of the paralytic in Jesus’ hometown, Capernaum. The scribes charge Jesus with blasphemy, which usually referred to dishonoring the name of God (see Exod. 20:7), but here refers to Jesus’ claim to be able to forgive the man’s sins (9:2; Mark 2:7 makes this explicit). An overlooked detail in this story is that Jesus “knows their thoughts” (9:4). Here (and again in Matthew 12:25), Jesus has the privileged knowledge of what others are thinking. This knowledge reflects a prominent theme in ancient Jewish literature: what one says in/to one’s soul conditions and reflects one’s relationship with God, especially indicating wisdom or foolishness. Inner speech in the Old Testament commonly appears in Wisdom literature, where self-talk often characterizes the wicked. For example, the fool says “in his heart” that there is no God (Ps. 14:1), and the one who turns away from God blesses himself “in his heart” (Deut. 29:19). Jesus’ knowledge of the teachers’ thoughts in Matthew 9:4 picks up on this important theme, and practically speaking, puts him in the right position to be able to ask his pointed question: “Why do you think evil in your hearts?” (9:4), and later to insist that what is in our heart makes us clean or unclean (15:19-20).
The Call of Matthew (9:9-13)
In Matthew 9:9-13, Jesus calls Matthew the tax collector, traditionally the author of this Gospel, to be his disciple. Tax collectors in the Roman Empire were typically viewed as morally suspect; they collected taxes on behalf of the imperial government, but often took more than required and pocketed some for themselves. Despite this negative stereotype (see Matt. 5:46), Matthew responds to Jesus by immediately rising from his tax booth to follow him (9:9).
Lest Matthew’s readers suspect that Matthew is an exception – the one good tax collector in Capernaum – Matthew extends Jesus’ association with tax collectors into the next scene, where “many tax collectors and sinners” join him for dinner (9:10). In the story about the healing of the paralytic, the scribes are upset that Jesus is “blaspheming” (9:3). Here, Jesus’ willingness to associate with “tax collectors and sinners” (a stock expression in the Gospel for social and moral outcasts) leads the Pharisees to question him merely for the company he keeps (9:11). Jesus responds with a familiar saying: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (9:12), and then a quote from Hosea 6:6, which reads, “For it is loyalty that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
It is important to remember that Jesus makes the comment about the sick needing a physician in a context of urban life; many were living in squalor, with a high prevalence of disease, poor nutrition, and limited knowledge about health and illness. At that time, many associated these kinds of conditions with sinfulness, or with some error on the part of the sick person. But in Matthew, God blesses the poor and the sick. Jesus’ healing miracles point toward God’s power and transformation, in both a somatic, material sense, and in terms of forgiveness and the spiritual life.
A Question about Fasting (9:14-17)
When John’s disciples approach Jesus with the question about fasting, Jesus responds with three brief parables, all emphasizing how inappropriate it is to combine the old and the new. Fasting is associated with mourning, which Jesus contrasts with the new age that he has inaugurated. It is time now to leave behind the old and embrace the new – the in-breaking of the kingdom of heaven – even as a time of mourning will return when Jesus is no longer physically with them, the time of Matthew’s church.
The Official’s Daughter and the Woman with a Hemorrhage (9:18-26)
The next section relates a series of miracles, beginning with the healings of the official’s daughter and the hemorrhaging woman. Following his Markan source, Matthew has kept these stories intercalated, or sandwiched, one within the other. The official, or ruler (Mark has “synagogue official,” Mk. 5:22) comes to Jesus because his daughter has just died (Matt. 9:18). Matthew intensifies the situation from what we find in Mark, since in the latter, the official says only, “My daughter is at the point of death” (Mk. 5:23).
As Jesus is following the official, that story is put on pause, as a woman who has suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years touches the tassel on Jesus’ cloak, hoping that she will be cured. The tassel (possibly “fringe”) on Jesus’ cloak might be one of those prescribed in Mosaic law, which stipulated that tassels were to be worn on the corners of a garment as a reminder to keep the commandments (see Numbers 15:37-39; Deut. 22:12). Jesus’ power passes through the tassel, for the woman is healed “that very hour,” and Jesus commends her for her faith (9:22).
Jesus then continues on his way, as the story returns to the case of the official’s daughter. The crowd at the official’s home is mourning the girl’s death, likely as paid mourners in the normal ancient custom. In a narrative illustration of Jesus’ earlier teaching that the time for mourning has ceased (9:14-17), Jesus tells them to leave, provoking their ridicule (9:24). Of course, their ridicule, as with all opposition to Jesus in the Gospel, is unfounded. Jesus takes the girl by the hand and raises her to life (9:25).
The Healings of Two Blind Men and a Mute Person (9:27-34)
Whereas Mark tells of the healing of one blind man, Bartimaeus, just before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (Mk. 10:46-52), Matthew has two separate accounts in which Jesus gives sight to the blind; and in each case, there are two blind men rather than one (see also Matt. 20:29-34). The following scene, in which Jesus heals a person who has been rendered mute by a demon (9:32-34), appears again in 12:22-24 (see also Lk. 11:14-15). In both Matthean versions, the Pharisees who witness the exorcism conclude that Jesus’ power must come from the “prince of demons,” i.e., Satan (9:34, also called Beelzebul in 12:24).
The doubling tendency is common in Matthew (he also describes two demoniacs being healed in 8:28-34, and two animals at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in 21:2). Notice that the blind men of chapter 9 call out to Jesus using the messianic title, “Son of David,” which Matthew repeatedly associates with Jesus’ healings (see also Matt. 12:23; 15:22; 20:30-31).
Jesus’ Compassion (9:35-38)
Jesus looks on the crowds with compassion because they are “harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd” (9:36), a common image in the Old Testament for people without godly leadership. Numbers 27:17, for example, asks:
who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd?
Matthew implies what John 10:11 makes explicit: Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the one God has chosen to tend and care for his flock (see Ezek. 34:23). The elite Jewish leadership, on the other hand, are depicted as illegitimate leaders of God’s people. They oppose Jesus, and they perpetuate structural violence and oppressive systems.
In Matthew 9:37, Jesus switches metaphors. Instead of sheep and shepherd imagery, he uses another common image from the Old Testament: the harvest. In Matthew, the harvest holds both hope and threat: hope for abundance and restoration, but also the threat of judgment for those who deserve it (see also Matthew 13:40). The reference to laborers anticipates Jesus’ upcoming missionary discourse.
The Commissioning of the Disciples (10:1-42)
Chapter 10 relates Jesus’ second major discourse in Matthew: the commissioning of his disciples. Matthew begins by identifying the Twelve (10:1-4), and then describes Jesus’ instructions regarding the nature of their mission (10:5-15), the persecutions that will inevitably result from their actions (10:16-25), exhortations to have courage and endure the costs of discipleship (10:26-39), and a promise that they will be rewarded (10:40-42). Though the speech begins with the Twelve, Jesus’ teachings for most of the discourse are applicable to later disciples, as well. In fact, some think this section of Matthew may have been part of an early missionary handbook.
Introduction and the Nature of the Mission (10:1-15)
This is the only place in Matthew where the disciples are called “apostles” (literally, “the sent-out ones”). Jesus sends them out “to the lost sheep of Israel” (10:6), explicitly forbidding them from going to Gentiles or Samaritans (10:5). This seems somewhat strange, given Jesus’ own recent travels into Gentile territory in 8:28 and his later Great Commission to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The injunction might reflect Jesus’ limited sense of his own mission (see 15:24), or Matthew may be challenging a reticence to embrace the Gentile mission that remained amongst his own community.
Jesus sends the disciples out to “proclaim the good news that the kingdom of heaven has come near” (10:7), and to continue Jesus’ manifestation of the Kingdom of Heaven through exorcisms and healings – precisely what we have just seen Jesus doing in chapters 8-9. They are called to imitate Jesus and continue caring for the needy and powerless, embracing humility and vulnerability themselves. Jesus gives them authority, empowering them to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and drive out demons. Essentially, he says: “Go, do the work of the Messiah yourselves.”
Jesus’ instructions in 10:8-11 not to take money or unnecessary clothing with them on the journey paints a picture of voluntary poverty, which was already well-established by the Cynic philosophers, who wandered around from village to village; some scholars think that Jesus’ instructions not to bring a bag might refer to the Cynics’ practice of carrying a bag for begging. Certainly, Jesus’ commands require the disciples to be vulnerable, to rely on and trust the hospitality of the ones who receive them. If those recipients are not worthy, however, the disciples are told to “shake the dust from your feet,” a gesture that indicates disassociation and coming judgment (10:14).
Jesus warns that pursuing the mission of the Gospel is risky; they will be as “sheep among wolves,” which means they will need to be “shrewd as serpents, innocent as doves” (10:16). Still, they will not face persecution alone. Jesus promises that the Spirit of God will speak through them (10:19-20).
How to understand Jesus’ assertion in 10:23 that the disciples “may not finish going to all the cities of Israel until the Son of Man comes” is a matter of debate. Most scholars take this to be a reference to the second coming of Christ (called the parousia), which would mean Jesus is prophesying his own imminent return. And yet, this reading is hard to reconcile with Jesus’ claims elsewhere that he does not know when the end will come (24:36), and that the time of the parousia will be delayed (24:48; 25:5, 19). Another possibility that fits with the Matthean literary context is that Jesus is promising that the Twelve (the “you” of 10:16 and 10:23) will not complete their mission to Israel (the mission begun in 10:1) until Jesus comes to help them.
Courage and the Costs of Discipleship (10:26-39)
Jesus’ promise to assist the Twelve applies to discipleship more broadly, as well. Matthew 10:26-39 gives three reasons not to fear persecution: 1) Public vindication is coming (10:26-27); 2) Jesus’ disciples are precious to God (28-31); 3) Jesus will intercede on their behalf (10:32-33). Despite the anticipated dangers and hardships, Jesus assures his disciples that if they endure, even to the point of martyrdom (10:28), they will be vindicated. God’s Spirit will sustain them during persecution; they can stand without fear because God is in control, and Jesus will return.
The next section returns to warnings. Jesus’ language about division in families strikes us as harsh, but it is best understood as hyperbole. Jesus is demanding ultimate loyalty. In fact, Matthew’s Jesus often pushes back against the ancient priority of kinship and family ties, repeatedly discounting biological families in order to emphasize spiritual kinship (Matt. 10:21, 35, 37; 12:46-50; 19:29; 23:8). Notice how often he refers to disciples as his “children,” reorienting their kinship ties toward himself and toward God (Matt. 5:9, 45; 10:42; 13:38; 15:26; 18:6, 10, 14; 19:14; 23:37).
Using the metaphorical language of “little ones” (see also Matt. 18:6, 10), Jesus again returns from warnings to promises. In a strong expression of solidarity, Jesus insists that welcoming his disciples is the same as welcoming Jesus himself. In Mediterranean antiquity, this emphasis on hospitality would have been heard as a way to honor the one(s) received, as well as a reflection of the honor of the host.
Responses to Jesus (11:1-30)
Shifting from discourse (10:1-42) to narrative, this section begins to depict some of the responses to Jesus’ ministry that Jesus has just described to his disciples, starting with the one who first proclaimed his coming: John the Baptist, who has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas (see 14:1-3). Just a few years earlier, John had proclaimed that Jesus was the expected Messiah (Matt. 3:1-3). By this point in the story, John seems to have lost his confidence in Jesus’ Messiahship. Perhaps John’s doubt stems from the fact that the Jewish prophets had taught that the Messiah would set the prisoners free, but Jesus was not breaking John out of prison. Whatever the reason, John sends his disciples to ask whether Jesus truly is the “one who is to come” (11:3).
In 11:4-5, Jesus responds by summarizing the miraculous deeds described throughout chapters 8-9, using language from Isaiah 35:5-6: “Go and tell John what you hear and see: The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them.” By appealing to his deeds, Jesus implicitly associates himself with Old Testament prophets like Elijah and Elisha, who had performed similar miracles (see 1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 5:1-14).
Once Jesus has sent John’s disciples to testify to his identity, he speaks to the crowd about John’s identity, this time making his allusion to the prophet Elijah explicit: “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John came . . . he is Elijah who is to come” (Matt. 11:13-14). Both John and Jesus are prophets; both are more than prophets. Both face unjustified rejection. Both suffer violence. This section illustrates the solidarity in suffering that Jesus has promised his disciples in the preceding speech.
Carl Holladay, “Jesus’ Ministry in Galilee in Matthew 8-10,” Gospel images of Jesus Christ in church tradition and in biblical scholarship: Fifth International East-West Symposium of New Testament Scholars, Minsk, September 2 to 9, 2010 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012), 337-347.
Patricia Sharbaugh, “The New Moses and the Wisdom of God: A Convergence of Themes in Matthew 11:25–30,” Horizons 40 (2013): 199 – 217.
Joel Willitts, “Matthew’s Messianic Shepherd-king: In search of “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” HTS Teologiese Studies 63 (2007): 365-382.
Questions for Discussion:
- Who gets Jesus’ attention in the healing miracles of chapters 8-9? There is an emerging discipline in New Testament scholarship – disability studies – that focuses on honoring the challenges of those who struggle with physical impairments, and recognizing Jesus’ call for compassion and justice (9:13). Who might be comparable in our society, and what can we offer them?
- The Greek word for compassion in 9:36 (“Jesus had compassion for them”) actually means “well-boweled.” Compassion is supposed to come from our deepest, most inward places, from our guts. How do you understand compassion?
- Jesus’ instruction to his disciples not to rely on material things (10:9-10) is an important corrective for many of us in today’s society, where status, power, and comfort are paramount. The Jesuit priest Henri Nouwen called this the “path of downward mobility”: Jesus chooses pain, rejection, persecution and death rather than the “path of upward mobility” toward power, authority, influence, and wealth. What are your reactions?
- John the Baptist needed his disciples to tell him about what they saw Jesus doing. This is the gift of Christian community: we don’t have to look for God’s work in the world alone. Just before German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was thrown into a Nazi prison after conspiring to assassinate Hitler, he wrote, “The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged.” When have you experienced this in your life?
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The Gospel of Matthew
IV. Matthew 12-13: Controversies and Parables
In the previous section, containing the second great Matthean discourse, Jesus commissioned his disciples to go out and preach the Gospel. In this section the ministry of Jesus in Galilee continues and frames the third great discourse, highlighting the parables of Jesus.
Matthew bases this part of his account on Mark 2:23–3:6, which describes Jesus or his disciples doing two controversial things on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1–16): plucking grain to eat, and healing a man’s withered hand. The Markan frame resurfaces twice later in the chapter. In 12:22–32, a story based on Mark 3:19–30 (= Luke 11:14-23) appears, about the healing of a man possessed by a demon. That event stirs more controversy about the authority of Jesus. The story in both Matthew and Mark concludes with a dramatic saying about an unforgiveable sin (12:31–32). The Markan frame appears finally in the story about the true kindred of Jesus (Matt 12:46–50 = Mark 3:31–35).
The stories derived from Mark all have an air of tension. They depict Jesus evoking a critical response by his actions, saying challenging things about sin, and redefining kinship ties in a provocative way. Matthew adds stories to this frame that reinforce the tension but that also frame it within a prophetic and eschatological context. His first addition reinforces his earlier comments about how the ministry of Jesus fulfills prophecy (12:15–17). The passage, unparalleled in Mark, bears hallmarks of Matthew’s theological concerns and style such as the distinctive introductory formula of v 17. After the pronouncement about the sin against the Holy Spirit, Matthew adds three passages. The first is a saying about good and bad trees (12:33-36); the second a pronouncement story in which Jesus responds to a request for a “sign”; the third a comment about how unclean spirits tend to behave.
The Sabbath Controversies (12:1–14)
A number of stories in all the gospels tell of activity by Jesus on the Sabbath that was controversial in the eyes of some contemporaries (see the parallels to these stories in Mark 2 and 3; Luke 13:10–17, 14:1–6; John 5:1–18, 9:1–17). Many of these stories contain a defense of Jesus. Here the defense includes a Biblical precedent (vv 4–5), the citation of a scriptural principle (v 7), and an argument a fortiori (vv 11–12). The saying in verse 8 is ambiguous. If “son of man” is the simple Semitic expression for “human being,” Jesus would be arguing that general human needs trump the need to observe the Sabbath, a somewhat more liberal version of a principle found in Rabbinic literature. If “Son of Man” is understood as a reference to Jesus himself, evoking the figure described in Daniel 7:14, the verse stakes out a claim that he has authority over the Sabbath. It is likely that the ambiguity was part of the saying from its first use.
Prophecy Fulfilled (12:15–21)
After an introduction reminiscent of the Markan theme of the “Messianic Secret,” in which Jesus tries to keep his identity quiet, the narrator intervenes by citing Isaiah 42:1–4. This passage is one of Isaiah’s “servant songs,” which celebrate a prophetic figure, perhaps Isaiah himself; but they were understood by many early Christians to be prophecies about Jesus.
Matthew’s citation serves several purposes. Here in the middle of the gospel, while Jesus is active in Galilee, and after telling his disciples only to go to Israel’s lost sheep (Matt 10:6), the prophetic text reminds the reader of the ultimate scope of Jesus’ mission, as Matthew understands it, to “proclaim justice to the Gentiles.” The last verse (v 21) of the citation sounds a similar note in declaring that “in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
The prophetic text also makes a comment about the behavior of Jesus. Matthew probably understood the remark that the servant “will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets” as a reference to Mark’s theme of the “secrecy” of Jesus. Matthew apparently found the prophetic text helpful in making sense of the somewhat mysterious Markan element.
Jesus and Beelzebul (12:22-31)
All the gospels except John report that Jesus was, among other things, an exorcist. The saying recorded in v 28 may well express a conviction of Jesus himself that the effectiveness of his exorcisms was a ground for belief that the reign of God was being realized in and through him. The actions of Jesus, like his Sabbath behavior, were a source of controversy, both in his own day and in the debates between his disciples and their critics. The accusation lodged here that Jesus was a minion of “Beelzebul,” the “ruler of the demons” (v 24), was one of the charges made against him. The response initially appeals to common sense. If Jesus is expelling demons he cannot be an instrument of the demonic realm. Another saying bolsters the defense (v 29). In it, Jesus compares himself to a burglar who, in order to be successful, must tie up the “strong man” who owns the house he is invading. The familiarity of the saying mutes its very provocative character (Jesus is like a thief!). This is true of Jesus’ teachings elsewhere, as well.
Concluding the defense, an unrelated saying (v 30–32) distinguishes between insults to Jesus, such as the claim that he served Beelzebul, and insults to the Spirit of God at work in the life of the community of Jesus and his followers. The suggestion that the latter are unforgivable stands in tension with the message of the gospels proclaiming abundant forgiveness (e.g., Matt 18:22). The notion that there is an “unforgivable sin” appears elsewhere in the New Testament, e.g., in the Epistle to the Hebrews 6:4–6, where the sin seems to be apostasy, understood by many interpreters as the obstinate refusal to accept divine forgiveness. Perhaps something similar is involved here, although interpreters have long wrestled with the saying.
Good and Bad Fruit and Trees (12:33–37)
The note of judgment in the saying about the sin against the spirit prompts another similar saying. The contrast between good and bad trees and their fruit already appeared in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 7:17–19), and the threat that bad trees would be cut down and burned appeared in the preaching of John (Matt 3:10). The application of the imagery is immediately made clear. The “bad trees” are the “brood of vipers” who have challenged Jesus (v 34). The harsh condemnation is followed by further evocations of eschatological judgment (vv 36–37).
The Sign of Jonah (12:38–42)
Controversy continues in a story that Matthew shares with Luke 11:29–32. In response to a challenge for a “sign” authorizing Jesus to do what he does, he responds with another harsh reproof of the “wicked and adulterous generation.” He proceeds to tell them about an unexpected sign, the return of the Son of Man from the earth after three days and three nights, an event likened to the return of Jonah from the belly of the great fish. The allusion to the resurrection of Jesus, here clearly equated with the “Son of Man,” is Matthew’s interpretation of the saying about Jonah. The Lukan version of the story simply refers to the prophetic activity of Jonah as the “sign.” That version is probably the more original, reinterpreted by Matthew in the light of his belief in the resurrection of Jesus. A further parallel, to Jesus as a teacher wiser than Solomon, reinforces the comparison to the prophet (v 42).
Unclean Spirits (12:43–45)
The observation about how difficult it is to get rid of “evil spirits,” paralleled in Luke 11:24-26, is likely to be a saying that stems from Jesus himself. Later disciples are unlikely to have suggested that Jesus’ power was so limited.
True Kin (12:46–50)
Matthew inherits the saying about redefining kinship from Mark 3:31–35. This is another case where long familiarity with a saying of Jesus blunts its highly provocative character. In a society that highly valued kinship ties, the preference for the intentional community of disciples is highly subversive.
The Parables of Jesus (13:1–58)
Matthew’s third major block of teaching, almost as well known as the Sermon on the Mount, consists primarily of parables: the Sower (13:1–9), the Tares (vv 24–30), the Mustard Seed (vv 32–33), the Leaven (v 33), the Treasure (v 44), the Pearl (v 45), and the Fishnet (vv 47–48). Interspersed with the parables are interpretations: of the Sower (vv 18–22), the Tares (vv 36–43), and the Fishnet (vv 49–50). Following the last interpretation, Jesus comments on those who understand his teaching (vv 51–53). In one other block of material Jesus explains why he speaks in parables (vv 10–17). The chapter ends with a brief story about the reaction to Jesus’ teaching in Galilee (vv 54–58).
The parables in this chapter are of two different types. Most are best described as similitudes, brief comparisons of a reality, the Kingdom or Reign of God, and some illustrative image. Two, the Sower and the Tares, are short narratives. Matthew inherited several things from Mark, the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4:1–12), its interpretation (Mark 4:13–20), the parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven (Mark 4:30–32), as well as the concluding story about the reaction to Jesus (Mark 6:1–6). For other stories he drew on other sources.
Matthew’s interpretations of the parables are straightforward. Following Mark, he understands the Sower as an allegory of how the teaching of Jesus is or is not received. The same principle provides an interpretation of the Tares. That story is taken to be an allegory that illustrates one of Matthew’s favorite themes, the expected eschatological judgment. The same allegorical meaning is read out of the parable of the Fishnet.
The interpretation of each of the parables is given privately to the disciples, in accord with the theory that Matthew outlines in vv 10–15. Parables are a vehicle of teaching, but only for insiders. Matthew understands the fact that outsiders do not understand to be the “fulfillment” of a prophecy of Isaiah 6:9–10, a passage in which Isaiah castigates the failure of Israelites of his generation to understand his prophetic message.
Although Matthew derives this passage from Mark, he has made a subtle change. In Mark’s version, the prophetic text explained the purpose of Jesus’ teaching with such stories and similitudes. He was preventing the people from understanding (Mark 4:12). For Matthew, the prophecy does not point to the aim of Jesus’ story-telling strategy, but the problem that he was confronting, a people who refused to understand. In Matthew’s eyes that refusal was the grounds for the negative judgment that awaits the allegorical equivalent of the tares and the bad fish. Their destiny is the fiery furnace and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (v 50), one of Matthew’s favorite expressions.
Modern interpreters of the parables have noted that the allegorical interpretations of Mark and Matthew seem to be secondary and are lacking in the case of many of the similitudes. Many scholars suspect that Jesus himself often used parables as a form of provocative teaching, rather than as illustrative allegories. So, for example, the parable of the treasure hidden in the field (vv 44–45) succinctly describes the action of a man who secures his own future in an ethically questionable way. As many moralists of the day would have agreed, he had an obligation to try to find the proper owner of the treasure, rather than lay claim to it himself. How, one might ask, is such an action an illustration of the Reign of God? Perhaps the question is not unrelated to the saying encountered in 12:29, where Jesus compared himself to a burglar!
Similarly thought provoking are the images of leaven, a substance that is perhaps necessary for ordinary daily life, but one that has to be cleaned out at the Passover season, the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Does the image have a positive or a negative valence?
Divorced from their allegorical interpretations, the longer stories may also take on new meaning. Is the main character in the Sower a careful farmer or a careless profligate? Is the farmer in the Tares an image of a patient, prudent steward of the land, or is he taking a big risk with his crop? A clever preacher or storyteller could no doubt find more than one way to use these little tales. The true potential of the parables gives added significance to the comparison made in v 52 with a householder who can bring out both the new and the old from his storeroom.
A prophet without honor (13:54–58)
To conclude his account of this stage of the Galilean ministry Matthew uses Mark 6:1–6. Galileans who knew Jesus and his family (v 55) would not accept him either as a powerful exorcist or a teacher of wise tales. What was probably a traditional proverb summarizes the situation: A prophet is not without honor except in his own country (v 57).
Donald Hagner, “Matthew’s Parables of the Kingdom (13:1-52).” In The Challenge of Jesus’ Parables. Richard Longenecker (ed.) Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000. 102-24.
Jonathan Pennington, “Matthew 13 and the Function of the Parables in the First Gospel,” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 13 (2009): 12-20.
Questions for Discussion:
- The notion that Jesus was a source of controversy runs through these chapters. What were the major reasons, as Matthew understands them, for that situation?
- How provocative do you find the sayings of Jesus, such as his comparison of his own activity to that of a burglar or his similitudes that are not always making edifying points? Are these sayings and stories a challenge to contemporary Christians?
- How have you come to understand the parables of Jesus? Do you read them in more than one way? Do you have a favorite?
- How have you come to understand Matthew’s role in framing the story of Jesus and his teaching? What are his major concerns? Are you in sympathy with them?
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
V. Matthew 14-16: Feeding the Hungry, Building the Church
Chapter 14 inaugurates a new section of the Gospel. Prior to this, Jesus’ activities have taken place mainly in and around Galilee. With chapter 14, Jesus begins the journey through neighboring regions and ultimately, to Jerusalem. The chapter begins with a brief flashback reporting the gruesome beheading of John the Baptist (14:1-12), and then moves into the well-known miracle stories of the feeding of the 5,000 (14:13-21) and Jesus walking on water (14:22-33). The chapter ends with a brief account of Jesus’ healings in Gennesaret, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (14:34-36).
Chapter 15 revives the debate between Jesus and the Pharisees over the Jewish law, particularly traditions about what defiles (15:1-20). After the dialogue, Matthew returns to recounting Jesus’ miracles: first, of healings (the Canaanite Woman in 15:21-28, and “many others” in 15:29-31), and then, of another feeding (15:32-39). Matthew then shifts yet again to focus on the Jewish leaders’ hostility toward Jesus. The Pharisees and Sadducees come “to test” Jesus by asking for a sign from heaven (16:1-4), and Jesus warns his disciples about the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ dangerous teaching (16:5-12). Chapter 16 ends with a climactic exchange between Jesus and Peter, in which Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah and Jesus declares that Peter is the “rock” upon which his church will be built (16:13-20), Jesus’ first passion prediction (16:21-23), and a description of the suffering (cross-bearing) required for discipleship (16:24-28).
The Death of John the Baptist (14:1-12)
After a chapter devoted to parables, ch. 14 starts by recounting the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee (Matt. 14:1). This Herod was son of Herod the Great, who reigned when Jesus was born. “Tetrarch” literally refers to one who governs ¼ of a kingdom, though it appears that when Herod the Great died (see Matt. 2:19-22), his kingdom was divided into sections and distributed amongst his three sons: Archelaus ruled Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (4 BCE-6 CE), Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea during the public ministry of Jesus (4 BCE-39 CE), and Philip ruled the area northeast of the Sea of Galilee (4 BCE-39 CE). Herod Antipas was famous for “urbanizing” Galilee, at cities such as Tiberias and Sepphoris, and, now, he is infamous for having beheaded John the Baptist.
The grotesque image of John’s head presented on a platter has been a popular subject for Christian artists through the centuries. The story turns on Herodias’ wish for retribution; John had been arrested and imprisoned (previously mentioned in Matt. 4:12 and 11:2) because he had denounced Herod’s liaison with Herodias as unlawful, since she had been married to her half-uncle (see Lev. 18:6-16; 20:21). Interestingly, though Matthew’s text says Herodias had been married to Herod’s brother Philip, she actually had been married to the other brother, Herod Antipas (some ancient manuscripts simply say she was “his brother’s wife” without naming him). What matters here is that John’s prophetic message angered Herod and Herodias by declaring their union unlawful. In Matthew, royal retribution initially is forestalled because of Herod’s fear of the crowds (14:5), though the ancient historian, Josephus, writes that Herod executed John because he feared John would lead a rebellion (Antiquities 18.118-19). Matthew targets Herodias – via her unnamed dancing daughter – as responsible for John’s death.
The ruling elites’ violent opposition to John in this scene embodies the negative reactions to God that Jesus has just depicted in the parables of chapter 13. Their response also fits well within Matthew’s broader depictions of this world’s rulers as ungodly and violent (see 1:6-11; 2:7-12, 16-18, 22; 10:18; 27:11-26) and of prophets as rejected by the people of Israel (see 5:12; 13:57; 23:31, 37; for the latter, Matthew picks up an Old Testament motif: see, e.g., 2 Chron. 24:21; 36:16; Jer. 11:19-21; 37:15).
The Feeding of the 5,000 (14:13-21)
The contrasts between the Herod scene and the feeding miracle that follows it are striking: John’s beheading, fueled by a desire for revenge, happens at a private, elite banquet that ends with death and tragedy. The feeding miracle, fueled by compassion, happens in public, with common people who do not have enough food, and ends with abundance. The miraculous feeding satisfies their literal hunger, which is itself a mark of the inauguration of the kingdom of heaven, a glimpse of the coming messianic banquet.
In the larger scope of Matthew’s narrative, this scene foreshadows – provides a foretaste of – the Eucharistic meal at the end of the Gospel (26:26-29). In both scenes, Jesus breaks bread and gives thanks, and both scenes depict a taking and giving. In each case, the shared meal, and Jesus as host, is a communal act, a mark of their unity (in addition to Gospel parallels, other references to the early Christian sacred meal include Acts 2:42; 27:35 and 1 Cor. 11:17-26).
There is also a theological point to this story: the disciples assume that the desert is a wasteland, a place where one cannot find sustenance. Thus, they protest to Jesus’ command to feed the people by saying, “This is a desolate place . . . send the crowds to the villages” (14:15). Jesus’ response, however, challenges that assumption: “They need not go away” (14:16). Just as God fed the Israelites in the desert with manna (Exod. 16, Num. 11), so does God provide what people need in other “deserted places” (Matt. 14:13).
Many Jews of Matthew’s day expected that the manna would return. Thus, although Matthew does not make the connection to Moses and manna explicit (cf. John 6:30-35), many would likely have made that association. Matthew’s Jesus is the new Moses, greater than any of the ancient prophets (see also the depiction of the prophet Elisha’s multiplication of loaves in 2 Kgs 4).
We might also detect here allusions to the Old Testament concept of ideal kingship. Ezek. 34 indicts the shepherds (leaders) of Israel for feeding themselves instead of their flock. In contrast, David is portrayed as the ideal shepherd/king, who will feed the flock and provide abundant food. Matthew’s Jesus is also a new David in this regard (also see Matt. 21:14-15, which appears only in Matthew).
In addition to allusions to the Old Testament, this scene resonates with themes that have preceded it in Matthew’s own narrative as well. For example, Jesus has been inviting his disciples into his ministry all along; the most obvious example is in chapter 10, when Jesus explicitly sends his disciples out to continue the work he has been doing. In the story of the feeding of the five thousand, Matthew stresses the inclusion of the disciples in Jesus’ provision of food for the people. Unlike John’s Gospel, where a young boy provides the loaves and fish (Jn. 6:9), in Matthew, Jesus performs a miracle out of the disciples’ resources. They provide the five loaves and two fish (14:17), and they gather the leftover baskets (14:20).
The detail that there are twelve baskets of food left over has been a matter of some debate. Some say this simply indicates an historical fact: practically speaking, each disciple had one basket, and there were twelve disciples; hence, twelve baskets. Other readers have taken this as symbolic for the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The feeding in this case would be more broadly representative of Jesus’ mission to go first to the “lost sheep of Israel.”
Jesus Walks on Water (14:22-33)
After spending time alone in prayer (14:23), Jesus miraculously walks on the rough, stormy waters of the Sea of Galilee to meet his disciples in their boat. The note that he goes out during the “fourth watch” is simply a Roman way of referring to the time period between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. This indicates two things: 1) Jesus has spent most of the night in prayer, and 2) it is most likely dark, which explains why the disciples do not recognize him at first and conclude instead that he is a ghost (14:26).
Jesus’ response to his disciples’ fear – “Take courage!” – is a frequent divine command in the Old Testament (Deut. 31:6; 1 Chron. 28:20; Isa. 41:10, 13; 54:4). Jesus then says “Ego eimi,” which could be translated “it is I,” or “I am.” Some scholars see here an allusion to Exodus, where (in the Greek version, the Septuagint) ego eimi is the divine name God reveals to Moses at the burning bush. On the other hand, this is a common phrase used often throughout the New Testament. Jesus may simply be saying, “I’m not a ghost. It’s just me, Jesus.” John 8:58 makes a more explicit allusion to Exodus.
In the first of three Matthean passages focusing especially on Peter, Matthew adds to the plot of this story found in his source, Mark (Mk. 6:45-52). Jesus invites Peter to come out to him on the water. Initially, Peter is successful. Only when he takes his eyes off of Jesus and looks at the frightening circumstances around him does Peter start to sink and Jesus saves him (14:30-31). Mark’s version of the story also differs from Matthew in that Mark ends by drawing attention to the disciples’ failure to understand (Mark 6:52), whereas in Matthew, they worship Jesus and call him the Son of God (14:33).
Jesus’ Healings in Gennesaret (14:34-36)
The chapter ends with a brief summary of Jesus’ and his disciples’ arrival in Gennesaret, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, and the many healing miracles Jesus performs there.
On Tradition and What Defiles (15:1-20)
The Pharisees’ traditions of interpretation of the Law circulated orally; they believed these traditions were given with the written law on Mt. Sinai and were therefore similarly binding. Thus, when Jesus’ disciples fail to wash their hands before eating, they are breaking the Pharisaic oral tradition (Matthew calls this the “tradition of the elders”), not the written law. Jesus’ response to the Pharisees’ objections is to draw their attention to the written law (Exod. 20:12 and Deut. 5:16 in Matt. 15:4a, and Lev. 20:9 in Matt. 15:4b), and to declare that what actually defiles a person is what comes from the heart (15:18-20). Still, this is not a total disavowal of Jewish Law or cultic practices. Matthew omits the note that appears in Mark’s version of this scene, namely that Jesus “made all things clean” (Mk. 7:19), perhaps reflecting Matthew’s conviction that Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill its true purpose (Matt. 5:17).
Jesus and the Canaanite Woman (15:21-28), More Healings (15:29-31), and the Feeding of the 4,000 (15:32-39)
The second half of chapter 15 recounts another series of miracles. As Jesus moves into the Gentile territory of Tyre and Sidon, a “Canaanite” woman asks Jesus to cure her demon-possessed daughter. The label “Canaanite,” drawn from Old Testament depictions of ancient Israel’s enemies (Deut. 7:1), indicates that she is a Gentile (cf. Mark, where she is described as “Syrophoenician”). This story has troubled interpreters, since the response to the woman by Jesus and his disciples seems less than compassionate. When turning her away does not silence her (15:23), Jesus insists again that he has come “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24; cf. 9:36; 10:6), and calls the woman a dog (15:26). The woman, courageously refusing to be rebuffed, reinterprets Jesus’ demeaning metaphor and ultimately changes his mind (15:27-28).
A second miraculous multiplication of loaves (Matt. 15:32-39) represents another case of Matthean doubling. The repetition reinforces the themes established in the previous feeding episode: Jesus’ provision, the abundance of God’s kingdom, the promise that God satisfies the hungry, etc. However, the differences are also instructive. The major variation from the previous story is that the disciples pick up seven, rather than twelve, baskets of leftovers. Some interpreters argue that if twelve in the earlier version symbolizes the people of Israel, then seven here stands for Gentiles. Based on ancient associations of the number seven with wholeness and completion, such interpreters conclude that the seven baskets suggest that when Gentiles are included, the kingdom of God will be complete.
Seeking Signs (16:1-4) and the Yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:5-12)
Conflict continues as the Pharisees and Sadducees confront Jesus yet again. Matthew clearly indicates their hostility, using the same verb for their intention “to test” him (16:1) found in the devil’s “testing” of Jesus in 4:1, 3. They are acting as the devil does. This image is further reinforced by Jesus’ polemical rebuke, in which he calls them “evil” (16:4), the same term used to refer to the devil in 6:13. The juxtaposition of Jesus’ miracles in chapters 14-15 with the Jewish leaders’ request for a sign from heaven ironically underscores their hard-hearted inability to discern the signs that are right before their eyes. This negative portrayal makes it unsurprising that Jesus then launches into a strong warning against the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ teachings, which spread like yeast spreads through dough.
Peter’s Confession and Jesus’ Prediction About the Church (16:13-20)
Matthew has been dubbed the “Gospel of the Church,” partly because only here in the canonical Gospels do we find explicit reference to the “church.” The term that we translate “church” (ekklēsia) literally means “the called out ones,” from ek (out) + klesis (call). (Hence also “ecclesiastical.”) In the ancient Greek political arena, ekklēsia referred to a democratic assembly of citizens; in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament), the word ekklēsia is used to refer to the people of God (Deut. 31:20; Judg. 20:2; Ps. 22:22, etc.). Early Christians appear to have adopted this term to refer to the local and global “assembly” of the faithful.
In Matthew, the concept of this assembly of God’s people corresponds closely to the kingdom of heaven. The two times the term ekklēsia is used (16:18 and 18:17) both concern the governance of God’s people. In this instance, following Peter’s climactic confession that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16:16), Jesus blesses him and declares, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (16:18).
There are several interpretive difficulties here. First, does “the rock” refer to Peter, or to Christ? On the one hand, some point out that Jesus’ new name for Simon –Peter – means “rock” in Greek, creating a word play in 16:18, and indicating that Peter is that solid foundation. On the other hand, others (like Augustine in the 4th century) have argued that the rock is Christ (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 3:11; 10:4), and Peter simply represents all believers. Second, to what do the “keys” and the language of binding and loosing refer in 16:19? Is this the power to forgive sins (26:28; see also John 20:23)? The power to teach authoritatively (28:20)? The ability to control entry into heaven (see Isa. 22:22 and Rev. 3:7) and/or entry into the church on earth (18:17-18)?
Jesus’ First Passion Prediction (16:21-23) and Taking Up Your Cross (16:24-28)
Jesus’ prediction about his church is followed by the first prediction of his impending death and resurrection (16:21-23) and a sobering claim that discipleship entails similar self-sacrifice. In Matthew 16.24, the verbs Jesus uses for “take up” and “follow” can sound in English like a one-time experience, as though the decision to follow Jesus is made in a moment. In Greek, however, the verbs signify continuous, ongoing motion. Jesus is saying, “You must take up your cross and follow me continuously.”
Jeannine K. Brown, “The rhetoric of hearing: the use of the Isaianic hearing motif in Matthew 11:2-16:20,” Built upon the rock: studies in the Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 248-269.
Tucker S. Ferda, “The Seventy Faces of Peter’s Confession: Matt. 16:16-17 in the History of Interpretation,” Biblical Interpretation 20 (2012): 421-457
Paul A. Tanner, “The Cost of Discipleship: Losing One’s Life for Jesus’ Sake,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 56 (2013): 43-61.
Questions for Discussion:
- Many people find Jesus’ response to the Canaanite woman offensive. Do you find it disturbing? Why or why not?
- Jesus changing his mind in 15:27-28 has been described as a “teachable moment,” in which Jesus learned from the woman. Yet, for some, the idea that Jesus would have anything to learn is troublesome. What is your reaction to this depiction of Jesus?
- Matthew 16:13-20 has led to centuries of debate over the organization of Christ’s church, from the establishment of the Pope in Rome, through the Protestant Reformation, and into today. How is your church structured, and why?
- What does it mean to you to “take up your cross and follow Jesus continuously”?
- What does “bearing our cross” mean today? What is the role of suffering in discipleship?
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
VI. Matthew 17-20: Creating the Beloved Community
With a Focus on Chapter 18.
Two significant events frame the next section of Matthew, the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1–13) and the entry into Jerusalem for the final events of Jesus’ public ministry (21:1-11). Within this framework, Jesus teaches in three major blocks. The first block of teaching focuses on his own mission (17:14–20) and its relations with civil authority (17:24–27). The second, central section, delineates what is expected of members of the community of disciples (18:1-35). This chapter forms the fourth large segment of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel, which concludes with the formulaic expression at 19:1 that concludes all the major blocks of teaching. There follows a series of exchanges between Jesus and various interlocutors treating the demands that Jesus makes of his disciples (19:3–20:34). Each of these sections merits attention, but the focal point of this segment of the study will be the discourse on the life of the Church in ch. 18.
Transfiguration and Healing (17:1–23)
Matthew begins this segment of his gospel with three pericopes derived from Mark 9:1-32. Whether the story of the transfiguration reflects some historical experience or not, its narrative role is clear. At its core the story reports that the disciples had an experience of the divinely ordained character of the person and mission of Jesus, who was on a level with Moses and Elijah (17:3). Yet the disciples did not fully understand that this divine mission had to involve suffering and death (17:22–23). The second part of the story (17:9–13 = Mark 9:9–13) offers a clarification about the relationship of Jesus to the prophet Elijah, whom some contemporaries expected to return before the coming of the Messiah. Jesus now says that Elijah had already come. Matthew (17:13) makes clear what is simply implied in Mark, that the expected Elijah was in fact John the Baptist. Through this identification followers of Jesus made sense of the relationship between Jesus and John. Although Jesus had been baptized by John (Matt 3:13–17), he was not a disciple of John. Instead John was Jesus’ prophetic forerunner.
The account of the healing of a demon-possessed boy (17:14–20) offers an abbreviated form of the Markan story (Mark 9:14-29), omitting the details of the boy’s illness and the difficulties in healing. The story fits into the current context primarily because it illustrates the lack of robust faith on the part of the disciples (17:20), who could not effect a cure.
The Mission of Jesus and Civil Authority (17:14-27)
Matthew adds here a story not found elsewhere in the gospels, no doubt reflecting a particular concern of his community. The question is whether the disciples should be paying the “Temple tax” of two drachmas, roughly the equivalent of two days’ wages for an ordinary worker. Although Jews paid taxes to support the Temple while it was standing, the situation envisioned here was what probably was in place after the destruction of the Temple by Roman forces in 70 CE at the climax of the Jewish revolt against the empire. The Matthean community, which attempted to abide by Torah as observed by pious Jews (Matt 5:17–20; 23:3), would probably have been subject to this tax. Gentiles in the community may, however, have objected to paying it. The story offers the action of Jesus as a precedent. Like the children of the ruler (17:25), Jesus’ followers are not liable to the tax, but they will pay it so as not to cause scandal (17:27).
The Discourse on the Church (18:1–35)
The discourse on life in the Church (the “ecclesia,” or “assembly,” mentioned in 18:17) combines some sayings of Jesus found in Mark (18:1–9 = Mark 9:33-48) about humility and avoiding scandal; a parable found also in Luke (18:10–14 = Luke 15:3–7); sayings about reconciliation and forgiveness (18:15–18), reinforced by a parable about an unforgiving servant (18:21–35). The concerns of the discourse reflect a community of disciples who have tried to live by the teaching and follow the example of Jesus, but have been confronted with the realities of human frailty. The situation of Matthew’s “church” is not that far removed from the many communities of disciples that have followed in its footsteps.
Humble as a Child (18:1–5)
All the Synoptic gospels have a version of the saying about children (Mark 9:33–37; Luke 9:46–48), though with slightly different nuances. A core element in the tradition is the injunction to “receive a child in the name of Jesus” (Matt 18:5, Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48), an admonition to disciples to care for those who need it most. The saying then acquires an ethical dimension in which disciples are urged to become like children in some way. In Mark the connection between caring for children and being a servant to others (Mark 9:35) is only implicit. Luke makes the connection more explicit by saying the “least” among the disciples is the greatest (Luke 9:48). Matthew makes the most explicit ethical appeal, by saying that disciples need to become childlike (18:3) and interpreting that injunction in terms of humility (18:4).
Avoiding Scandal (18:6–9)
In Mark the sayings about scandals or “stumbling blocks” (Mark 9:42–48) are separated from the command to receive children (Mark 9:37) by a brief story of a rival who casts out demons in Jesus’ name. Matthew connects the two sayings directly. In Luke the sayings about scandal come in a totally different context (Luke 17:1–4).
This block of sayings in Matthew and Mark has two parts. One is the warning not to cause “little ones” to stumble, with its chilling threat that it would be better to go swimming with a millstone around one’s neck (18:6). The “little ones” here are not confined to the children mentioned in v 5. They are ones “who believe in me,” that is, members of the community of disciples on which the chapter focuses.
The second part focuses on how a believer might cause oneself to stumble (18:8–9). With the hyperbole that was characteristic of his sayings, Jesus admonishes, if it causes offense, cut it off! This set of sayings seems to focus more on individual commitment and the need to take decisive action to keep on the straight and narrow; but in the context of this discourse about life in community, the evangelist may have in mind the need to keep the community itself pure. Other early Christian leaders, such as Paul, similarly recommended that community members who were bad examples be cut off from the fellowship (1 Cor 5:1–13), and the evangelist will soon describe a process for doing the same thing in his community.
The Lost Sheep (18:10–14)
Matthew relates a parable of a shepherd who goes in search of one lost sheep, which also appears in Luke (15:3–7). The contrast between the two passages illustrates how parables of Jesus could take on different meanings in different contexts. Luke’s is an illustration of compassionate forgiveness, as indicated by the punch line (Luke 15:7) comparing the joy of finding the sheep to the joy in heaven over the repentance of a single sinner. For Matthew, the story illustrates God’s desire not to lose one of the “little ones” in his ecclesial flock (18:14). That reference to little ones picks up the theme of vv 5 and 6. The saying thus balances the implied threat of the saying on cutting off the scandalizing member (18:8–9). The goal is not to lose anyone!
Dealing with Sin (18:15-20)
The concern to preserve community continues with some practical advice about dealing with a “brother who sins” (18:15). One must first try direct conversation (18:15), then intervention with other members of the community (18:16), and only then is the matter to be brought to the whole assembly, which may take the radical step of expulsion, labeling the offender as a “gentile and tax-collector” (18:17).
A series of sayings reinforces the community’s authority to take such drastic action; the decisions of the community on earth are binding in heaven (18:18). The verse focuses more on the community’s authority than on that of a singular leader, as at 16:13–20. Much of the history of the Christian church, especially since the Reformation, has revolved around the tension between the principles of governance articulated in these two texts.
Grounding the saying about communal authority, Jesus affirms the importance of community solidarity. When two disciples agree on something, they will be heard in heaven (18:19) and where two or three are gathered in his name, he is with them (18:20).
A Parable (18:21-35)
The previous parts of the chapter dealt in various ways with the difficulties of life in a religious community, balancing the ideals of humility and forgiveness with the need for some disciplinary mechanisms. The parable of the lost sheep in the center of the chapter put the emphasis on the need for forgiveness. The concluding section, consisting of a command to forgive “seventy times seven” (18:22) and a parable, makes the same point.
The parable works through an antithetical image of one who does not show compassion. Some details of the story may sound fantastic to modern ears, including a “servant” who had a debt of 10,000 talents, an enormous sum of money (= 60,000,000 drachmae). While there is no doubt some exaggeration, people in the status of “slaves” in antiquity were often given significant managerial responsibilities and could in fact become very wealthy. In this parable, a servant with such a level of debt was himself the recipient of his master’s leniency when he could not pay it, but he failed to show compassion to his fellow servants, who owed him a piddling amount. At the end he receives his just desserts as the master subjects him to torture till he pays his debts. The application to the way in which divine judgment works is direct and clear (18:35).
A Series of Disputes (19:3–20:34)
After the discourse on the Church, Matthew returns to his Markan source and portrays Jesus engaged in controversies. The Pharisees first challenge him about his teaching on marriage (19:3–9, cf. Mark 10:2–12). Jesus responds with his prohibition of divorce, echoing Matt 5:31–32, with the Matthean exception clause. The saying on divorce leads to his proclamation of a radical call to devotion and sexual restraint (19:10–12), invoking the image of the voluntary eunuch, one who gives up sex and family life for the sake of the kingdom of God.
The image of children, prominent in ch. 18, surfaces again as Jesus calls his disciples to childlike simplicity (19:13–15, cf. Mark 10:13–16). A rich young man asks what he must to do have eternal life, to which Jesus responds with a challenge to radical poverty (19:16-22, cf. Mark 10:17–31), which leads to further reflection (19:24–26), including the famous saying that it is easier for a camel to go through the “eye of a needle” (a gate in the walls of Jerusalem) than for a rich man to enter the kingdom (19:24). Jesus assures Peter and his other disciples that they will receive a reward for their sacrifice (19:27–30).
Jesus goes on to tell a parable that makes the simple assurance of heavenly reward more complicated. The story, unique to Matthew, describes the varied recompense received by laborers in the vineyard hired at different times of day (20:1–16). The parable, which may simply reflect economic reality — scarce labor is more expensive — makes the point that rewards are ultimately in God’s hands.
After Jesus reminds his disciples once again that he must suffer and die (20:17–19, cf. Mark 10:32–34), the subsequent narrative illustration introduces a dramatic example of the ways in which disciples might miss the point of Jesus’ promises, as the mother of the sons of Zebedee tries to assure her sons’ future status (20:20-28, cf. Mark 10:35–45). The section ends with Jesus curing two blind beggars (20:29–34, cf. Mark 10:46–52).
Bridget Illian, “Church Discipline and Forgiveness in Matthew 18:15-35,” Currents in Theology and Mission 37 (2010): 444-450.
Armand Puig i Tàrrech, “The Glory on the Mountain: The Episode of the Transfiguration of Jesus,” New Testament Studies 58 (2012): 151 – 172.
F. Scott Spencer, “Scripture, Hermeneutics, and Matthew’s Jesus,” Interpretation 64 (2010): 368-378.
Questions for Reflection:
- Matthew’s treatment of life in the “Church” balances advice and guidelines for discipline. How does the discourse of ch. 18 relate to the life of Christian community as you have experienced it?
- Several parables appear at key points in this part of the gospel. How do they compare with the parables that appear elsewhere in Matthew? What do you make of the differences between Matthew’s version of the parable of the Lost Sheep (18:10–14) and the Lukan version of the story?
- The teaching about divorce and sexual restraint (Matt 19:1–12) is striking, and in some ways distinctive within the gospels. What value does it have for today?
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
VII. Matthew 21-25: Stories of the End
This next section of the Gospel focuses on the center of Jewish faith and practice – Jerusalem – and the fatal climactic conflict that occurs there. Finally, the culmination of Jesus’ three passion predictions (16:21; 17:22-23; 20:17-19) begins to take place. After Jesus’ so-called “Triumphal Entry” into Jerusalem (21:1-11), he immediately enters the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers and condemning those who have turned this holy place into a “den of robbers” (21:12-17). Jesus’ incendiary actions in the Temple and his harsh judgments proclaimed in a series of parables (21:18-22:14), verbal duels (22:15-46), and woes (23:1-39) incite the rage of the Jewish leaders. Chapters 24-25 focus on eschatology (what will happen in the end times) and comprise Jesus’ fifth and last major discourse in Matthew.
The “Triumphal Entry” (21:1-17)
Before Jesus enters Jerusalem, he sends two disciples on ahead to procure a donkey and a colt (another Matthean doubling that fulfills Isa. 62:11 and Zech. 9:9, but also produces the odd picture of Jesus straddling two animals in 21:7). There is some debate over whether this is a case of instance of angaria, the practice whereby rulers could “impress” (commandeer) transportation from the general public (see, similarly, 1 Sam. 8:17); some argue that Jesus is enacting angaria as a royal right. Still, Matthew 21:4 indicates that Jesus will “return” animals, a note missing from the Lukan version of this story (19:31).
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem has been compared to an ancient “triumph,” the common Greco-Roman entrance processions welcoming important Roman leaders and war heroes into a city. At such events, city inhabitants would go out to meet the conqueror/ruler and escort him into the city, accompanied by celebratory acclamations. Frequently, the entrance was followed by a ritual of appropriation, such as a sacrifice, in one of the city’s holy places, like a temple. If this process was not followed, inhabitants risked the destruction of their city (as Judas Maccabeus destroyed the city of Ephron when they refused to welcome him; 1 Macc. 5:45-51).
Some take these similarities as a straightforward depiction of Jesus as quintessential rival to Caesar. Many commentators have emphasized that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is politically and religiously radical, ultimately contributing to his death. Some hold the diametrically opposed view – that Jesus is portrayed as a misunderstood humble servant marching resolutely, not toward the seat of power, but toward the cross. After all, he does not ride a warhorse like a conquering hero; he rides a donkey, which is often touted as a poor person’s beast of servitude (though Solomon rides a donkey in 1 Kgs. 1:32-40). Neither does Jesus sacrifice in the Temple, as would have been the protocol at the end of a typical Greco-Roman triumphal entry, and ultimately, he does not stage a violent political/military revolution.
There are Jewish resonances as well. During the Jewish Feast of Booths, participants would carry palm and willow branches (Lev. 23:39-43); at times, these were spread across the road in celebration (as when Simon liberated Jerusalem in 1 Macc. 13:42, 51 and when Judas rededicated the Temple in 2 Macc. 10:7-9). The crowd’s acclamation, “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord” echoes Psalm 118:26, part of the Hallel Psalms that often were chanted at Jewish festivals. Overall, this passage ties together both Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions and functions as a turning point in the narrative as Jesus willingly moves closer to his own suffering and death.
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ ride down from the Mount of Olives paints the picture of an explosive, exuberant scene: a horde of people throng around Jesus, and shouts of praise fill the air. Matthew does not include the detail found in Luke 19:39, where the Pharisees tell Jesus to silence his disciples. Instead, the praises and crowds reverberate into the next scene.
The Cleansing of the Temple (21:12-17) and the Cursing of the Fig Tree (21:18-22)
After entering the city, Jesus immediately goes to the Temple. The atmosphere is still loud and explosive, but the tone changes from joy to judgment. Jesus attacks the economic practices operative in the Temple, overturning the tables of the money changers and the seats of those selling doves, which the poor bought to sacrifice (21:12). Citing Old Testament passages that condemn injustice (Isa. 56:6-7; Jer. 7:11), Jesus pronounces judgment against the exploitative commercialism that drives the Temple’s sacrificial system. The prophetic symbolism of both his dramatic actions in the Temple and his cursing of a fig tree outside the city (21:18-22) point toward the judgment of Israel, and retroactively explain the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., of which Matthew’s readers certainly would have been aware.
Three Parables: Stimulus for Confrontation (21:23–22:14)
Jesus’ pronouncement of judgment on the Jerusalem leaders continues into three parables that foreshadow the destruction of the Temple: the Parable of the Two Sons (21:28-32); the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (21:33-46); and the Parable of the Wedding Banquet (22:1-14), each of which creates a polemical contrast between those in power (the Jewish leaders, working with Rome) who challenge Jesus’ authority, and those who do not have worldly power, but nevertheless, accept Jesus’ authority and bear godly fruit. For Matthew’s Jesus, the people of God are not those who consider themselves worthy of entering the kingdom, but a community of both Jews and Gentiles who accept God’s invitation through Jesus in faith.
Confrontation and Controversy (22:15-46)
Following these parables of judgment, Jesus faces direct challenges from different factions of Jewish leaders, all of whom try to entrap him (22:15) with controversial questions: the Pharisees and Herodians ask him about paying taxes to Caesar (22:15-22); the Sadducees inquire about marriage at the resurrection – a tricky question because Sadducees did not believe in resurrection from the dead (22:23-33); and the Pharisees return with a question about which is the greatest commandment (22:34-40). In each case, Jesus’ response is brilliantly creative. Traditionally, scholars have labeled such scenes “challenge-riposte” scenarios, or “controversy dialogues,” in which interlocutors vie for honor through conversational combat. These exchanges are more than mere dialogues; they are duels: the speakers thrust, deflect, counterthrust. This is a war of words.
At 22:41, Jesus shifts from a defensive position, responding to their questions, to an offensive position, asking his own: “What do you [Pharisees] think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” (22:42) Their response, “The son of David,” opens the door for Jesus to quote Psalm 110:1 and pose his own interpretive conundrum: if, as tradition had it, David penned the Psalms, then how could he call his son, the Messiah, “Lord”? (22:45) With this, Jesus effectively silences his opposition, who do not “dare to ask him any more questions” (22:46). From this point on, the Jewish leaders seek to attack Jesus on a physical, rather than verbal, level.
Warnings About the Pharisees (23:1-12) and Woes Against Them (23:13-36)
Jesus’ verbal attacks on the Jewish leaders, however, continue. In this highly vituperative section, Jesus uses language derived from conventional ancient polemic – snakes, blind guides, deceivers who say one thing but do another, etc. – to highlight the Pharisees’ self-serving hypocrisy and lack of integrity. He contrasts their duplicity regarding what they do and do not do (23:1-7) with what disciples should do and should not do (23:8-12), with the latter recalling the humility extolled earlier in the Gospel (e.g., 18:1-4; 20:25-28). Jesus’ seven woes against the scribes and Pharisees (23:13-36) fit well with the woes found in conventional prophetic traditions (see Isa. 3:9-11; 5:8-23); these seven woes progressively address the Jewish leaders’ negative effect on others (23:13-15), their erroneous prioritizing of minor issues over “weightier” matters like justice and mercy (23:16-24), their focus on exterior cleanliness rather than interior purity (23:25-28), and their murderous reception of God’s emissaries (23:29-36). Together, these condemnations justify the divine judgment that Jesus insists is coming on his opponents. These “woes” reflect the intense polemic between Matthew’s Christian community and their more traditional Jewish neighbors. They should not be construed as an objective assessment of all Pharisees.
Lamentation over Jerusalem (23:37-39)
The ending of chapter 23 contrasts starkly with the polemical tone of the preceding verses. Jesus’ audience has expanded from the scribes and Pharisees to the whole city of Jerusalem, and he expresses his deep sorrow over their rejection using images of divine protection (Exod. 19:4; Deut. 32:11; Ps. 17:8; 36:7).
The Destruction of the Temple Foretold and the Mount of Olives Discourse (24:1–25:46)
At the end of his second day in the Jerusalem Temple, Jesus exits the Temple for the last time. Again, Jesus refers to the Temple’s destruction by the Romans in 70 C.E. (24:1-2). Some scholars see in this moment an allusion to the ancient belief (attested in both Jewish and Roman sources) that a city’s destruction would be preceded by the departure of its protective deity. From this perspective, 23:38 (“Your house is abandoned”) refers to God’s departure, which leaves the Temple and the whole city of Jerusalem vulnerable to defeat by its enemies.
Jesus goes east of the Jerusalem Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives, where tradition said the glory of God went after departing the Temple (Ezek. 10:18; 11:23), and where the Messiah would appear to establish God’s reign (Zech. 14:1-9). There, Jesus delivers the so-called Olivet Discourse, the last of the five great discourses in Matthew (note the typical ending, “when Jesus had finished all these sayings” in 26:1). In an expansion of his source, Matthew both preserves the obscure apocalyptic language of Mark’s “little apocalypse” (see Mk. 13) and periodically adds more specific language. For example, whereas Mark 13:14 refers obliquely to “the desolating sacrilege set up where it ought not to be,” Matthew explicitly refers to Daniel, locating the “desolating sacrilege” in the Temple (24:15); in Daniel 9:27; 11:31; 12:11, we read about the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, who desecrated the Jerusalem Temple in 167 C.E. by instead worshipping the Greek god Zeus inside its walls.
In this long eschatological speech, Jesus offers his disciples a confidential briefing about what is going to happen (24:3–25:46): he describes the signs of the end of the age using images that would have been familiar to most of Matthew’s readers, including predictions of tribulation on the earth (24:3-28) and chaos in heaven (24:29). It was commonly thought that in the end times, cosmic chaos would reflect the suffering and persecution of the faithful on the earth. The parousia – the coming of the Son of Man “on the clouds of heaven” (see Dan. 7:13) – will be public, dramatic, and evident to all (24:30-31), though Jesus uses the object lesson of the fig tree’s summertime blossoms to underscore the importance of recognizing the signs (24:32-35). Jesus also emphasizes that the timeline is unknown; thus, vigilant watchfulness is required (24:36-51).
Three successive parables reinforce the theme of watchfulness: the Parable of the Ten Virgins (25:1-13); the Parable of the Talents (25:14-30); and the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (25:31-46). The overarching message of these brief stories is twofold: be ready at all times for Christ’s return, and remain faithful in the tasks you have been given in the interim. In true Matthean fashion, the parables emphasize that failure to do this will have dire consequences in the final judgment: like the foolish bridesmaids, the unprepared will be turned away (25:11-12); like the “lazy” slave, those who do not invest what they have been given will be “thrown into outer darkness” (25:30); like the goats, those who fail to care for those in need will be sent “into the eternal fire” (25:41, 46). In contrast, “the righteous” will share the Messiah’s joy (25:23) and enter “into eternal life” (25:46).
Gordon Leah, “Lifting the Curse: Reflections on Retribution and Restoration,” European Journal of Theology 22 (2013): 19-27.
Paul W. Meyer, “Matthew 21:1-11,” Interpretation 40 (1986): 180-185
Questions for Discussion:
- Jesus’ double-love commandment (combining Deut. 6:5 and Lev. 19:18) is an important guiding principle for Christians today. How does this play out in practical terms in your life? What does it mean to you to “love God and love neighbor” simultaneously?
- Jesus’ condemnations of the Jewish leadership in chapter 23 is troublesome for many today, not least because the history of interpretation of this passage has fueled so much anti-Judaism over the centuries. Does this contradict the teaching in 5:44 to love one’s enemies? How does Jesus’ animosity in 23:1-36 cohere with the loving images and hope expressed in 23:37-39? Should we read these passages as critiques of established churches and/or Christian leaders today?
- Contemporary readers often wonder how we ought to understand the eschatological language in the Olivet Discourse. The parousia no longer seems imminent, as Jesus insists it is in this speech. What does it mean for Christians today to remain vigilant and watchful?
- What do you make of the harsh language of judgment in chapter 25? To what do you think the “eternal fire” (25:41) and “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30) refer? Are these literal or metaphorical? Does God decide beforehand who will be “sheep” and who will be “goats” or does this depend on how we treat those in need (25:31-46)?
Yale Bible Study
The Gospel of Matthew
VIII. Matthew 26-28: The Death and Resurrection of Jesus
The final three chapters of Matthew’s gospel follow Mark’s lead in telling of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus. At each stage Matthew adds to Mark’s story material that addresses concerns of his community. The overall story will be familiar to most readers. We shall focus on the features that are distinctive of Matthew’s version, while keeping the historical situation of Jesus’ condemnation in view.
Last Supper, Gethsemane, Arrest and Trial (26:1–75)
The story of Jesus’ last day begins with the plot of the priestly leadership to do away with Jesus (26:1–5). As in Mark 14:1-2 they are portrayed as acting with caution, fearing that an execution on the feast of Passover would upset the people (v 5). Like other early Christians, Matthew held the priestly leadership responsible for Jesus’ death and makes a special effort to show that Pilate was a reluctant participant. Matthew’s apologetic concerns probably color this aspect of the narrative. While there was close collaboration between the Jewish priestly elite and the officials of the empire like Pilate, the punishment meted out to Jesus was a distinctly Roman one. His activity, particularly in the Temple when he arrived in Jerusalem, however he understood it, was no doubt perceived as a threat to the political order and it was for such seditious activity that he was executed.
Mark (14:3–9) and John (12:1–8) as well as Matthew (26:6–13) report a dramatic story of the anointing of Jesus by a repentant sinful woman, which Jesus interprets as a preparation for his burial (v. 12). The story came to serve many purposes. John takes it as an opportunity to cast Judas in a negative light. Matthew does not have that focus, but simply notes that the disciples generally complained about the woman’s extravagance. The woman in the Markan and Matthean story is anonymous. John identifies her as Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha. Later tradition will conflate this Mary with Mary Magdalene, who was clearly one of the supporters of Jesus’ ministry. That conflation was no doubt aided by the version of the story told by Luke in another context (Luke 7:36–50). The woman in that story is also anonymous, but it is closely followed by a reference to Mary Magdalene in Luke 8:2, which served as the basis for the identification. Mary Magdalene will appear in a cameo role at the resurrection in this gospel (Matt 28:1).
Matthew reports the betrayal of Judas (26:14–16) adding to Mark the reference to the thirty pieces of silver (v 15), an allusion to Zechariah 11:12. As usual, Matthew tries to see the events of Jesus’ life as foreshadowed or predicted in Biblical prophecy.
Matthew condenses the next part of the story from what he found in Mark 14:12–26, focusing on the key elements. Jesus gives instructions for the celebration of the Passover meal (16:17–18), suggesting that he has supporters in the city. At dinner Jesus predicts his betrayal (26:21–25) before going on to symbolize his coming death through broken bread and poured wine (26:26–30). There is no command here to continue to do these actions in memory of Jesus, as in Luke 22:19 and 1 Cor 11:25. It is unclear whether the Matthean community celebrated a ritual meal, a “Lord’s Supper” or “Eucharist”; Christian ritual practices remained fluid in the first century of the movement.
After his last supper, Jesus moves to Gethsemane, where he fervently prays for deliverance (Matt 26:36–46, cf. Mark 14:32–42), a story closely following Mark’s. The story of the arrest (26:47–56) also echoes Mark (14:43–50), with the omission of the curious episode of the youth who runs away naked (Mark 14:51–52), which Matthew may have found as mysterious as many modern readers.
The chapter ends with the interwoven stories of Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (26:59–68) and Peter’s betrayal (26:57-58, 69–75), all largely following the Markan account. The climax of the trial scene is the declaration by Jesus that those who accuse him will soon see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven (Matt 26:64), an allusion to Daniel 7:13, which echoes Matt 24:30. For Matthew, as for Mark, the title Son of Man, which was probably used by Jesus in various ways, clearly alludes to the image of the human being installed in royal array and is understood as a prophecy of the role of Jesus as coming judge, an image fully developed at Matt 25:31–46.
As in all the Synoptic accounts of the passion, the denial by Peter “before the cock crowed” (Matt 26:74) contrasts this apostle both with his exalted status among the twelve (Matt 16:13–20) and with the other intimate of Jesus, Judas, whose act of betrayal is not followed by tearful repentance as Peter’s is in v 75.
Pilate’s Judgment, the Crucifixion Death and Burial of Jesus (27:1–66)
For the heart of the passion narrative, the trial before Pilate and the crucifixion, Matthew follows Mark, with some characteristic modifications focusing on the issue of divine justice and judgment manifest in human affairs. The first scene, of Pilate interrogating Jesus (Matt 27:1-2, 11-26), is interrupted by the story of the suicide of Judas (27:3–10). Another story by Luke (Acts 1:18–19) also tells of the end of Judas, but describes his death not as a suicide, but as an accident in which his blood is spilled on the field. For Matthew, Judas, finally remorseful for betraying innocent blood, hangs himself (v 5). With the thirty pieces of silver (cf. 26:15), the priests buy a field to bury foreigners. Both stories show the imagination of the early community at work, providing an etymology for the name of a particular burial place outside of Jerusalem. Both stories also show a sinner getting his just desserts, a theme very much at home in Matthew.
The rest of the story of Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus generally resembles Mark’s account (Mark 15:1–15). When asked about his claims, Jesus acknowledges what Pilate says, but then stands silent (v 11-12) and he eventually accedes to the will of the Jerusalem leaders. Matthew strengthens the picture of Pilate as a reluctant participant in the condemnation of Jesus with two details. Pilate receives a warning from his wife (v 19) who had a dream urging her, and by implication, her husband, not to have anything to do with an innocent man. This is not the first time that dreams convey an important message in Matthew (cf. 1:20; 2:12, 13, 19). Perhaps acting on his wife’s advice, Pilate takes another famous action, only found in Matthew, and washes his hands, declaring himself innocent of the blood of an innocent man (v 24).
Matthew’s portrait of Pilate, which contradicts the picture of Pilate’s administrative style found in the Jewish historian Josephus, strongly suggests that Jesus was not executed by Roman authorities as a threat to the political order. Matthew places the responsibility for Jesus’ death squarely on the shoulders of the priestly leadership in Jerusalem and the people who supported them. He makes one more serious change to his Markan source that drives the point home. After Pilate washes his hands of the blood of Jesus, “the people as a whole” cry out, “his blood be on us and our children” (v 25). This verse has played a tragic role in the history of relations between Jews and Christians and the history of anti-Semitic rhetoric that has used the verse must be rejected by any thoughtful Christian today. Matthew’s goal in creating this dramatic account was probably more limited. Writing after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Matthew sought an explanation of why God abandoned the place chosen for the Divine Name to dwell. His solution echoed that of the Deuteronomic historians who had to explain the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C.E. Their logic was that if Israel suffered; it must have sinned. Matthew applies that logic to his situation, finding Israel’s sin in the rejection of the one whom he believed to be the prophesied Messiah.
The mocking, torture, and crucifixion of Jesus (Matt 27:27–53) generally follows the Markan account (Mark 15:16–41). The story echoes verses of key psalms. The wine mixed with gall (v 33) recalls Ps 69:21. Casting lots for Jesus’ garments (v 35) evokes Ps 22:18. The taunt of the bystanders, “He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now” was inspired by Ps 22:8. The last word of Jesus on the cross (Matt 27:46), as in Mark, is ambiguous. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” expresses at the same time desolation and a profound sense of abandonment; but it is, nonetheless, a prayer, from the first verse of Psalm 22. For those who know the Psalm, that first verse would also evoke a cry for deliverance (Ps 22:19-20) and the confident declaration that all nations will worship God (Ps 22:27–28). The account of the Passion in both Mark and Matthew blends confident hope with the moment of darkest despair.
After Jesus has breathed his last Matthew adds to the Markan account a brief notice that indicates a momentous event has taken place. Mark had noted that the veil of the Temple, shrouding the Holy of Holies in sacred mystery, was torn from top to bottom (Mark 15:38). Matthew adds that the earth was shaken and graves emptied (Matt 27:52–53). Within the narrative these events provide a motive for the judgment of the centurion that Jesus was indeed God’s Son (Matt 27:54), an assertion that seems somewhat unjustified in Mark 15:39. Matthew’s assertion that the dead were raised also signals that the death of Jesus inaugurates the eschaton, the time when God’s promised rectification of affairs on earth would commence.
Matthew’s account of the crucifixion thus adds to the drama of the moment, but his final addition to this part of the story also serves apologetic ends. To the account of the burial of Jesus (Mark 15:42–47) Matthew adds (27:62–66) an account that guards were placed at the tomb to prevent the theft of Jesus’ body. This detail, lacking in all the other accounts of Jesus’ burial, was probably a response to claims by opponents of the Christian movement that Jesus was not resurrected; his disciples had just removed his corpse. No, says Matthew, they could not have done so.
The Resurrection (28:1–20)
The version of the Gospel of Mark on which Matthew depended probably ended at Mark 16:8 with an empty tomb and the proclamation that Jesus had arisen from the dead, but no account of appearances to his disciples. The other evangelists, and eventually scribes who copied Mark, remedied that situation and provided accounts of the appearances. Before he tells that story, Matthew recounts the discovery of the empty tomb with some slight variations to the Markan story. Here (Matt 28:1) it is two women, Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” who come to the tomb, not the three of Mark’s account (Mark 16:1). In Mark the women found that the stone that blocked the entrance to the cave-shaped tomb had already been moved. Here in Matthew an angel appears and does the job (Matt 28:2). In Mark a young man in a white robe greeted the women (Mark 16:5). Here the interlocutor is definitely a heavenly being, shining like lightning with clothing as white as snow (Matt 28:3). In both cases, the messenger brings the same good news. He tells the women that Jesus has been raised and commissions them to bring the glad tidings to his other disciples, who are to meet him in Galilee (Matt 28:7).
There were apparently different traditions in the early community about where Jesus first appeared to his disciples. Luke and John both report appearances in Jerusalem, although John 21 also reports an appearance in Galilee. Mark and Matthew focus on Galilee, but Matthew adds a touch that probably gestures toward the tradition about Jerusalem. In case the women missed the angel’s message, Jesus himself appears to them and tells them the same thing as the angel had. Jesus, raised from the dead, was going to meet his disciples in Galilee. Matthew’s version acknowledges the priority of women in the chain of appearances, and allows for at least one appearance in Jerusalem, but the decisive appearance will be in Galilee.
Before the account of that appearance, Matthew concludes the story of the guards at the tomb (Matt 28:11–15), providing an explanation for the opponents’ story that Jesus’ body had been stolen.
The story of the appearance of Jesus in Galilee concludes the Gospel. Like most stories of the appearance of the resurrected Jesus, he commissions the disciples to do something. Here the content, often referred to as the “Great Commission,” is to “make disciples of all nations,” to “baptize them,” “teaching them to obey everything I have commanded” (Matt 28:19–20). The commission neatly summarizes the whole of Matthew’s gospel. It rounds out the promise of a universal mission that was suggested by the appearance of the Magi in chapter 1. It also insists that being a disciple is about doing what Jesus commanded, including the admonitions of the various sermons throughout the gospel as the way Torah is now to be understood.
Ben Cooper, “Matthew 28.16-20: Go Therefore and Make Disciples,” Incorporated Servanthood: Commitment and Discipleship in the Gospel of Matthew (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), 221-39.
Wendy Cotter, “Greco-Roman Apotheosis Traditions and the Resurrection Appearances in Matthew,” The Gospel of Matthew in Current Study, David Aune (ed) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 127-53.
Judy Yates Siker, “Matthew 26:47-56,” Interpretation 58 (2004): 386-389.
Questions for Discussion:
- What do you find to be the distinctive features of Matthew’s account of the passion and resurrection of Jesus? Do they enhance or trouble your understanding of those events?
- Do Matthew’s concerns about just rewards and punishments enhance his account of the ministry and teaching of Jesus or detract from it?
- Do you understand the “great commission” to be an invitation to you? If so, how do you respond to it?