The Gospel According to Matthew is both a report of Jesus' life and teachings and a description of the kingdom of heaven which Jesus' life makes available to us. The kingdom of heaven is the ordering of life in accordance with God's will.
The events reported in this godpel follow Jesus' life in a general way, beginning with his conception adn birth and neding with his death and resurretion. More importatn for organizing both events and teaching is the development of the idea of the kingdom of heaven. Matthew uses six major sections to address different aspects of the kingdom.
In each major section, Matthew begins with an emphasis on Jesus' actions and ends with a focus on what Jesus taught. Thus action and instruction complement each other in each section.
Matthew's first major section introduces Jesus and the kingdom of heaven which he proclaimed. This section is divided into two stylistically distainct parts. The first takes a generally historical view, althrough this is myxticalhistory rather than secular history. The second part consists of those teachings of Jesus which are known as the Sermon on the Mount. Despite the difference in style, both parts tell about the blessing which God offers to human beings.
Matthew describes Jesus' ancestry in two ways. In the first 17 verses, the generations of Israel since Abraham are listed. This represents the child's legal pedigree through his putative father, Joseph. Its real significance is defined in verse 17, where we see that Hebrew history is punctuated with great events at intervals of twice seven generations. On the basis of this theological or mystical reading of history, Christ's birth marked the turning of the age.
In the rest of the chapter, Matthew truns to the miraculous conception. The action of the Holy Spirit (along with Joseph's lack of action) define Jesus as the child of God; the name, interpretive etymology, and citation of scripture introduce Christ's mission.
For Matthew, neither the geneology nor the holy conception are important apart from the interpretation which makes them into signs of the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is recognized as king by wise men from the east. his birth has been accompanied by signs in the heavens. These signs can be read by pagans. These pagans participate in the process of founding the kingsom on earth not only by observing the sky but by offering worship to Jesus. Afterward, God sends them a message in a dream. thus the particiaption of the whole world is established immediately after Jesus' birth. In addition, Matthew is making a comment on the blindness of the Jewish wisdom by showing that non-Jews from the east could see what the Jews did not see.
[It is possible, since this is mystical history, to suggest that these astrologers come "from the direction of Eden." But Matthew himself makes nothing of this.]
The response of the secular power is fear and murder. That Herod's response is fear tells us about the nature of worldly power. That Herod feared these reports of a child king is backhanded testimony to the power which was breaking into the world.
John, the Baptist, announces that th kingdom is at hand. He gives an advance summary of the demands of the kingdom: repentence, a good life, a lack of presumption. When Jesus comes to John, John testifies to who jesus is. However, John's testimony and that of the Spirit (which follows immediately) are substantially private communications to Jesus. Jesus himself desires to follow all the mandates of conventional righteousness - at least for now.
The Spirit lead Jesus to face temptation in the desert. This facing of possibilities is the first step in bringing in the kingdom, for it allows Jesus to define his role and to eliminate doubt about his loyalty and his motives. Jesus' response to temptation is to affirm his own obedience to God and to God's will as revealed in scripture.
When John is arrested, Jesus steps in. Jesus moves from his home town and takes up the message which John had been proclaiming. Jesus calls his own disciples and travels in his own territory. (Jesus doesn't take over John's organization.) He teaches and heals and attracts followerer from a wide area. Jesus thus sets the pattern from his ministry in the first months.
Jesus bring the blessing of God's rule to people. The first problem is to explain just what this blessing really is. Jesus begins by truning the disciples' expectaations upsidedown. The essence of the beatitudes is to declare the value of some qualities and experiences which are not properly valued. Jesus then applies these values specifically to the gaathered disciples. Finally, Jesus places these valued disciples in the priorities of the kingdom by ointing out that they are valuable only as they fulfill the purposes of God.
Jesus then shatters the possibility of complacency by demanding that the disciples continues their own journeys toward perfection. In seven saying, jesus demands that the disciples exceed in everything the mininmum rules of righteousness laid out in scripture. perfection is the requirement of blessing.
Having balanced the assurance of reward with the demand for unremitting striving, Jesus turns to some specifics of religious duty. To begin with, religion is shown to be a private duty to God. God is shown to be interested in the substance of giving, praying, forgiving, and repenting - not with the pagentry of a religious show.
Jesus then enjoins the disciples to align their own interests with those of God. Those things which typically worry and occupy us are not the things which have lasting value. The real religious duty is to seek the rule of God.
How then should we judge what is right? Jesus provides a series of guidelines by which we may train our moral judgement. First, we are not called to pass judgement beyond our knowledge (which would only make us witnesses against our own false judgement), although that doesn't mean we should thorw away the things of real value. We should recognize that God's gifts are good gifts. our emphathy with others is a reliable method for judging ouw own actions. The apth that seems too good to be true probably is; only those works which further God's will are truly good.
"When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded." (7:28)
The next section demonstrates how God's rule becomes visible and effective in the world which we experience. The section begins with conderful demonstrations that there is more power in the universe than we are accustomed to notice; it ends with a discussion of how we as disciples can help make this power available.
The leper and the centurian received the benefits of God's power after demonstrating their faith, and many other also ere brought to health. But Jesus tempers this taste of wholeness wit warning about the loneliness and isolation of faithfulness. Jesus' own disciples lack faith during the storm - and, when Jesus shows the power of God over the physical world, they fall back in awe of him. Similarly, the demons believe, but they are no more afraid than are the people of the region. Jesus exhibits so much power that (like Samuel or Elijah) his coming is met with fear.
Jesus begins to turn the discussion from the deeds themselves to the new order which they herald. Jesus does not only heal the paralysis but also the soly of the paralytic. In the questions about whom he ate with, and whether to eat at all, jesus replies in such a way as to declare that he is on a mission from the king of heaven. Afterward, Jesus continues his healings for those who believe. Not all believe, but Jesus sees people ripe for the kingdom.
It is now clear that the kingdom is breaking into the world, not only n Jesus but also in all those who hear and belive him. Jesus therefore instrcts the twelve on their role in advancing the kingdom - but this is clearly a message for all the disciples, including ourselves.
Jesus sends his followers to serve. Theya re not to make the mission into a business. neither should they carry their livelihood with them. The power they have will not allow them charmed lives, but they will find themselves at the center of dangerous controversy. Nevertheless, these who are loyal are sure of their reward.
"When Jesus had finished instructing the twelve, he went on." (11:1)
In this section, Jesus teaches that the kingdom is still hidden. Many people have trouble seeing it at all or believing that the kingdom willamount to anything. But Jesus shows that the kingdom is real, is present, is growing stronger even while it remains invisible to many.
John's disciples come with uncertainty about who jesus is; Jesus replies by citing the results of his work. Then he cites John himself as a sign of what is happening before the eyes of all the people. Whether the message comes through an ascetic John or a celebrative Jesus or in deeds of power, the people will not understand. Yet some do accept Jesus, and these are in touch with the power of God.
The kingdom comes, but who is Jesus? jesus is the nterpreter of scripture, the lord of the sabbath, greater than the temple. Thus jesus manifests the will of God in the world. Jesus is the one who binds devils and the prince of devils, and so manifests the power of God. Jesus points out the confusion of human prejudice; his is greater than Solomon; he manifest the wisdom of God in the world. Jesus is of the household of God. Thee claims that Jesus makes in this chapter are made subtly, but they are enormous claims. The Pharises, at least, hear and recognize what these claims mean.
In this "sermon by the sea" Jesus uses parables to explain the paradox of the kingdom being present and yet unrecognized. First, not every foray needs to be triumph in order to conquer. Second, good policy does not require total purity all at once. Third, even a tiny beginning may grow to a glorious end. Fourth, growth does not have to be obvious in order to be real. Even the parables themselves form a parable of the hidden power of the kingdom.
On the other hand, once the kingdom is discovered it is not to be let go.
"When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place." (13:53)
Where the kingdom is not recognized, as in Nazareth, unbelief hinders its advance.
Jesus now begins teaching his disciples to understand what God's rule means. In the first section (14-15) he opens their view of the kingdom. Afterward (16-18) Jesus provides specific teachings about the significance of living under God's rule.
John is dead. jesus desires to retreat and mourn, but the people are hungry for healing. So Jesus gives them health and then he gives them food as well. Matthew does not really tell us how Jesus fed these people, but even the most prosaic explanation open participation in the kingdom to all. Then Jesus resumes his retreat.
Afterward, the disciples receive another glimpse as Jesus walks over the water. They are terrified, but still willing to consider that this new view may be more true. Again Jesus open the miracle to his followers - specifically to peter, who requests this (although we see that his is not quite ready to accept it fully).
[The miracles of healing, which were already presented (in chapter 9 especially), also fit under this heading. They, too, serve to open a window to te kingdom.]
Jesus has opened the window to the kingdom. In its light, the dark corners of people's lives are shown clearly. Jesus attacks those who use regulations to justify their selfish actions, and he declares plainly that it is not the rules which determine holiness but the underlying intentions. (This is so true that Jesus tells his discples to leave the "blind guides" alone; even the truth Jesus taught is not a rule to be enforced on others.) Similarly, customs and prejudices which exclude people from the kingdom can no longer be accepted.
Jesus now invites his disciples to act in the light of this new vision which he has been opening for them. The disciples, however, are still caught in the old thinking. As a result, Jesus ends the section having to repeat the wonder with which it began.
Jesus can open the window, but it is clear that the disciples have not learned to see. In this chapter, Jesus leads them toward a new way of thinking. The Pharisees and Sadducees open the lesson by ignoring the signs of the kingdom which Jesus has shown and asking for a sign to their own liking. Jesus refuses. Afterward he warns the disciples that bad teaching can spread secretly, too. But, until Jesus calls them on it, the disciples are just as blind to the meaning of the signs.
The disciples, Peter especially, show that they are not completely dull-witted when they recognize Jesus as Christ. Even here, Peter cannot accept what this means. The followers of Christ need to give their entire mind and loyalty to Christ's kingdom; the kingdom will not be shaped to fit human habits.
In this chapter, Jesus presents three lessons about himself to the slowly awakening understanding of the disciples. First is the overwhelming experience on the mountain, which places Jesus firmly within the history of salvation and in the glory of God. Then Jesus shows that he does not especially want to be where he is - and that he is going to leave. Finally, jesus shows that he will not use his true power and glory for personal honor but on the contrary uses it quietly to avoid offense.
If Jesus shares in the glory of God, yet tries to avoid provoking the tax colector, what kinds of choices is he asking us to make? First of all, we are to be humble enough to welcome anyone. We should take care not to be a stumbling block to anyone on the way to Jesus. And anything which becomes an obstacle to our own journey is to be left behind.
God does not want to lose anyone. We too should try to hold on to each fellow believer. We are also obligated to take action to restore fellowship when the bonds are broken and whenever reconcilation is possible, we - who have been accepted by God - must accept each other.
"When Jesus finished what he wanted to say, he left Galilee." (19:1)
The last two sections are set in Judea, rather thatn Galilee. The change of place helps to emphasize the confrontation between jesus' message and the religious and political power centered in Jerusalem. In adiition, it emphasizes tha the time of Jesus' death (already foretold twice) is drawing near.
In this section, Jesus engages in a variety of discussions and debates with people of recognized standing. Gradually he moves from responding to question about the kingdom to expounding its inevitable triumph.
Jesus first addresses questions about our relations to other which are base on visible reality. In doing so, he draws a distinction between people and things - echoing the organization fo the previous chapter. Marriage is a commitment to another person from whom one ought not just walk away. (This teaching clearly frightens the disciples, but Jesus' reply hints that the alternative is an equal commitment to the kingdom as a whole.) Jesus also refuses to exclude children. In effect, the teaching is tat human status - as woman, wife, child - cannot be used to exclude anyone from the kingdom.
On the other side, human status can't be used to get into the kingdom. If ppossessions are an obstacle (and they often are), they should be discarded. Sacrifice for Jesus' sake will bring a better return than financial prudence.
Even so, the rewards of the kingdom will not follow the rules of earthly fairness. Being fair would mean much less than is offered; the rule of grace means generousity eyond fairness to everyone. jesus himself is giving his life, and everyone who follows him is likewise called not to rewards but to service.
The blind men of Jericho whose eyes are opened get up and follow Jesus to Jerusalem. In this they symbolize the response of all who have heard and understood Jesus' message.
This chapter sets forth Jesus' claim to authority. In the opening scenes, Jesus enters Jerusalem and accepts the allocades of the people. (This is not accidental; Jesus has invited this, almost orchestrated it.) The established authoritie were not pleased and took pains to expres their doubt. Jesus is confident in his own authority (even to showing the way for his followeres to join him) but the religious leaders were no confident of themselves. This give Jesus an opening to show that the established leaders had abrogated their right to lead. Jesusd does this two stories, the first about the difference between words and action and the other about falsely assuming authority which belongs to another.
Jesus continues the theme of authority by addressing the question of what obedience is owed to God. In the first parable, Jesus shows that the invitation which is extended carries with it an obligation to resond - and that the resonse must be from the heart, with proper respect. on thte other hand, humanly devised obligations shold not be turned into theological issues. not only the material but even the social relationships by which we set so much store may be insiginificant from God's point of view. God's requirement is that we love God and that we love whom God loves. in view of this, it is silly to try to derive the human descet of the Messiah from scripture. (And here, is Jesus himself not saying that scripture ought not be interpreted in a literalistic fashion?)
In contrast to the true loyalty (described in the previous chapter) Jesus cites the example of scholars and religious teachers. They are driven more by a love of degrees and nonors than by a desire to follow God's will. They even make hard demands on others in order to look better themselves, but the rules they themselvesfollow are irrelevant to true religion and are for show alone. They follow the example of those who opposed the prophets. Despite the message of prophets, wise people, and scholars, and against the desire of Christ, they are running toward destruction.
The kingdom will come in power, bit its coming will be accompanied by destruction, deceit, and desolation. Only after this can Christ triumph. These are signs of the kingdom's coming, but there is no simple timetable to make it predictable.
Since the time can't be known, it follows that Christ's followers need to keep themselves ready. That doesn't only mean that we should be expectant; we should be working on God's business. God's business is to help and befriend those whom God cares about.
"Jesus had finished teaching all these things." (26;1)
Jesus has finished not only another section, but all the things he wanted to say. The next step is to act to fulfill his mission on earth.
The final section is unique because it is focused completely on the passion and resurrection of Jesus. The time for teaching and illustration is superceded by the time for final action. Accordingly, the narrative aspect of the text is more prominent than in previous sections.
Jesus open this chapter with the bald reminder that he is going to die. The religous leaders, meanwhile, are conspiring to bring this about. Next, an unidentified woman annoints Jesus' head; Jesus interprets this honor in terms of imminent dath and burial. Judas - perhaps in response to this incident - joins the conspiracy against Jesus.
[That a woman annoints Jesus, and that he accepts this, is in itself a parable of the changed relationships in the kingdom.]
At the Passover supper, Jesus continually reminds his disciples of the upcoming betrayal and death, a seeming morbidity which is very disturbing to the others. The disciples want to be loyal, but Jesus knows that they cannot. Jesus' words seem to be defeatist, but events show that simply saw clearly what must occur: While Jesus prayed, even his closest associates could not share the moment. As the arrest took place, one of them tried to act but in way counter to Jesus' desire. After that they all ran away. Even peter, who tried to follow, could not admit his loyalty.
Meanwhile, Jesus is before the high priest. After failing to contrive a case against jesus, it finally occurs to the high priest to ask Jesus directly. Jesus answers, but when they have their answer, they reject it violently.
This chapter is filled with strange and troubling turns in which we see everything stood upsidedown and confusion ascendent. First of all, the leaders of God's chosen people confer aout jesus - and hand him over to the pagan power. Then Judas, the betrayer, repents and is rejected by the conspirators. Pilate, the foreign governor, makes a show of supporting justice while the crowds who had hailed Jesus clamor for his blood. the representative of Roman military power yields to a mob, after which the Roman soldiers bow before their prisoner. Jesus is crucified and dies - but at his death the temple is opened, the earth shakes, and his executioners repent and declare him a son of God. At the end, the religious leaders are again before Pilate, seeking secular power against Jesus even after his death.
The resurrection of Jesus is not itself reported, but an angel bears the power and message of God to the women (and the guard). These women, who witnessed Jesus' death, now see him raised to life and they are sent as witnesses to the disciples. The other potential witnesses are suborned by the priests. (Apparently the priests continue to believe that these are ordinary events which can be suppressed by worldy means, despite the repeated failure of their past attempts.)
The gospel ends in Galilee with the great commission. previous sections ended with Jesus teaching his disciples. This final section ends with Jesus' charge to the disciples to teach the whole world.