Hey, welcome back to BOOK!
This is BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I am Josh Way. This is the podcast that explores the content of the Judeo-Christian Bible with an emphasis on history and literature, and today’s show is Part 2 of our look at the Gospel of Matthew, the first book in the Greek “New Testament.” I’m going to assume you’ve read or listened to Part 1 at book.joshway.com.
Matthew’s is one of four “gospel” texts, interwoven collections of stories and traditions about the life of Jesus which were produced by four different communities of early Christian believers some decades after Jesus’ death. Each gospel tells the story in its own style and with its own emphases. Small details and large themes are often notably – even problematically – different from one gospel to the next. Matthew’s is considered by many to be the “most Jewish” of the gospels, and in Part 1 we saw how the author used the first four chapters to establish Jesus as Israel’s long-awaited Messiah even before the story had properly begun. Today we’ll look at Matthew’s account of the message, ministry, arrest, death and resurrection of the adult Jesus.
After all of the dense and complex introductory material, there is something refreshing about opening up Matthew Chapter 5 and meeting Jesus himself, by way of a three-chapter collection of saying, teachings and parables collectively known as the “Sermon on the Mount.” And before we even get to the content of the “sermon,” there’s something important and obvious to acknowledge about Jesus right away: he is presented here as a Jewish prophet. There’s nothing at all controversial about that statement, but given the many things people believe about Jesus and often intense ways in which they believe and defend them, it seems helpful to ground ourselves in the basic reality presented by Matthew. Jesus is a man from Nazareth, near Galilee, in First Century Judea, historically known as the land of Israel. He is, in this way, just like the great prophets of Israel and Judah whom we met in the Hebrew Bible, and in fact Jesus’ words and deeds bear a striking resemblance to those of the old prophets – especially Jeremiah. If you’re unsure what to do with Jesus historically, this is a good place to start. He’s a prophet with a message for Israel, a message that is every bit as politically and religiously charged as those of his forebearers.
What is that message? He announces it in Matthew 4:17:
“Repent,” he said, “for the kingdom of heaven is here!” (Matt 4:17)
A simple and straightforward statement, and yet one that has become overly familiar and infused with less-than-helpful modern religious assumptions. For modern American Christians in particular, “repenting” has to do with casting off personal mortal sins, and “the kingdom of heaven” is the place in the sky where you go when you die – if you’ve been good or forgiven enough to make the grade. But placed back in their original, First Century Jewish context, these words mean something very different. “Repent” literally means “to become pensive again,” or “re-pensive,” thinking in a new way. And the “kingdom of heaven” – called the “kingdom of God” in the other gospels – is not a medieval-style realm somewhere in the clouds where God lives, it’s the “kingSHIP” of God, the “reign” of God come to earth. We remember from Part 1 that this is exactly what Jesus’ fellow Jews have been waiting for for centuries – for God to return to their land and set up his kingdom. Jesus says that this is happening now, and that Israel must “repent,” or learn to think in a new way to get ready for the kingdom. That’s what the “Sermon on the Mount” is all about, the details of Jesus’ new way to think about being Israel.
The impressive thing about the “sermon” (which is probably not a real sermon, but rather a survey of sayings and traditions collected by the author or editor), is how well it functions as both a universal teaching on ethics and a very specific “critique from within” of Judaism from one of its own prophets. These are some of the most memorable and beloved words in the whole bible, and it’s easy to see why. In Chapter 5, Jesus describes what life in heaven’s kingdom come-to-earth looks like:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
4 “Blessed are the mourners! You’re going to be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice! You’re going to be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful! You’re going to receive mercy yourselves.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart! You’re going to see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers! You’ll be called God’s children.”
(Matthew 5, Kingdom New Testament)
The values of God’s kingdom, according to Jesus, are in fact the inverse of the values of earthly political regimes. In a kingdom run by God, the poor own everything, the meek inherit the earth, and purity and peace win the day over power and violence. These are beautiful thoughts, but they carry an implicit critique. Jesus is accusing his fellow children of Israel of embodying the politics of power and domination in their quest for the kingdom, instead of trusting in the way of God. If they’re not careful, they’ll turn into the very monster they’re trying to overcome (namely the Roman Empire).
Jesus goes on to talk about the Torah, the Jewish law, and what he has to say may surprise you. Jesus does NOT say, “I am here to found the true religion, so you must all become Christians and start going to church!” In fact, he says this:
17 “Do not suppose that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets [that’s Judaism]. I didn’t come to destroy them, I came to fulfill them!”
And then he says this:
20 “Yes, let me tell you: unless your law keeping is far superior to that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you will never get into the kingdom of heaven.”
In Matthew’s presentation, Jesus is not the founder of a new religion, but the true spokesperson for an ancient one. If his fellow Jews want to “enter the kingdom,” that is – if they want to participate in what God is doing to establish his reign on earth – they had better double down on their obedience to the Torah. But just as he subverted the meaning of political power in his statements of “blessings” above, Jesus also offers a new way to think about the Torah laws themselves. This is Chapter 5, Verse 21:
21 “You heard it was said, ‘You shall not murder,’ and anyone who commits murder will be liable to judgment. 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; anyone who uses abusive language will be liable to the lawcourt; and anyone who says ‘You idiot!’ will be liable to the fires of Gehenna.”
Jesus makes several statements with this format: “You heard it was said,” and a quote from the Torah law, followed by “But I say to you…” and his own new interpretation. In this case, he takes the classic commandment against murder and reorients it. It’s no longer a boundary marker, “do not cross this line!” It’s an orientation, it says that it’s how you treat your brother (or sister) that matters, not just that you manage not to murder them. Jesus tackles several other topics – sex, money, religion – in this same way, each time emphasizing the human relationships over the letter of the law. This, Jesus is saying, was always the point of the law, that we would love each other. (Side note: Jesus’ references to “Gehenna” are another element that has been brutally misunderstood over the centuries, but this is something I’ll address at length in a separate podcast supplement that will be out very soon.)
There are many more teachings of Jesus in these chapters: the “Lord’s Prayer” for the coming of the kingdom, commandments not to worry and not to judge others, and a final warning that very few will actually choose to follow Jesus on this “narrow way” he has been describing. And after three solid chapters of the words of the Messiah, Matthew changes gears and presents two chapters describing his deeds. Chapters 8 and 9 detail Jesus’ “miracles,” the healings and exorcisms he performed along with his message of the kingdom. These miracles – more appropriately called “signs” – are often assumed to be “proofs” of Jesus’ “divinity,” but that’s not precisely how this works. We should remember that – whatever we believe about such claims – it was not uncommon for prophets or teachers or holy men to perform healings and wonders in the ancient world, and that the “magic” or “divinity” of the acts was not the point, it was their specific meaning that mattered.
In this way, Jesus’ miraculous deeds make perfect sense in the context of his prophetic message: they are “signs” of the kingdom he is announcing. When Jesus heals the blind person or the leper, he isn’t just “proving” something extraordinary about himself, he is making these individuals whole again and – more important – returning them to the society and religion which would have excluded them for their maladies. If Jesus is proving anything, it’s that the kingdom is truly at hand – he is making Israel whole again one citizen at a time as a preview of what is to come.
Even the “casting out of demons” or “evil spirits,” a strange and foreign idea to most of us, makes a certain kind of contextual sense. This is particularly true in an episode in Chapter 9 where Jesus crosses over into Gentile territory and casts “demons” out of two men living among tombs, demons which enter into a herd of pigs, causing them to run off a cliff. A crazy episode to our eyes to be sure, but with at least two strands of clear symbolic meaning. First, Jesus is outside of the land of Israel, in a graveyard, surrounded by demons and pigs. This is the least Jewish environment in which a Jew could find himself. And yet, instead of becoming unclean or being destroyed, Jesus exerts authority, even in this unfriendly place, and casts out the demon. As for the demons taking control of the herd of pigs, you couldn’t write a more pointed political cartoon about what Jews thought of their Roman overlords. The account ends somewhat humorously with the Gentiles begging Jesus to just leave their region and go back home.
In addition to his many signs and deeds (more than we can catalog here), Matthew tells us that Jesus “calls” twelve men to be his followers. These include Matthew himself, a tax-collector, brothers called Peter and Andrew, fishermen, James and John the sons of Zebedee, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, James, Thaddeus, Simon, and Judas Iscariot. Again, there’s nothing odd in context about a prophet, rabbi or guru with a school of followers in the ancient world, but it’s the details that make Jesus’ crew extraordinary. Jesus calls twelve followers in keeping with his bid to personally embody Israel (with its twelve tribes named for twelve patriarchs), but it’s also the nature of his followers that is remarkable. Instead of surrounding himself with administrators, politicians, scribes, Pharisees, or other students of Jewish religion and law, Jesus calls a bunch of average, working-class Joes, with jobs as humble as fishing and as unpopular as tax-collecting. This is itself another symbolic act of how the “kingdom of God” would continue to thwart everyone’s expectations and turn human values and expectations inside out.
In Chapter 10 Jesus sends out these twelve disciples, granting them the authority to do what he has done: to announce the kingdom in words and miraculous deeds. Things are going great, and crowds of people respond to the message of Jesus and his followers, but some shadows begin to creep over the proceedings. Jesus routinely offends the religious authorities, who are threatened by his radical and authoritative teaching, and they accuse him of breaking the law and even of being in league with the devil. Jesus deflects their attacks but confides in his followers that he expects something drastic and even grave to befall him.
In Chapter 13 Matthew relates a series of Jesus’ short parables. Parables are little, self-contained symbolic fictions which illustrate something true about “real life.” Jesus’ parables are about the kingdom of heaven, and though they are often interpreted by modern Christians as teachings about the church as it waits for Jesus’ “Second Coming,” the texts themselves are better understood as stories of God’s return to Israel through his representative Jesus. For example, there are parables about farmers who sow seeds and reap harvests, who represent YHWH sowing the seeds of the kingdom through the prophets and returning through his agent the Messiah to collect the “fruit.” The kingdom is also compared to a treasure buried in a field, and a fisherman’s net bringing in a huge catch. In each parable, the product of some planting, hunting, or some type of work is harvested, counted, or cataloged. God has come back to Israel, and he’s looking for “good fruit.”
After some more miracles, parables, and tense encounters with religious leaders, climactic events begin to transpire and Matthew’s gospel moves into its final act. In Chapter 16, Jesus has an intense conversation with his disciple Peter:
15 “What about you?” he asked them. “Who do you say I am?”
16 Simon Peter answered.
“You’re the Messiah,” he said. “You’re the son of the living God!”
17 “God’s blessings on you, Simon, son of John!” answered Jesus.
But almost immediately, this happens:
21 From then on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he would have to go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and be raised on the third day.
22 Peter took him and began to tell him off. “That’s the last thing God would want, Master!” he said. “That’s never, ever going to happen to you!”
23 Jesus turned on Peter. “Get behind me, Satan!” he said. “You’re trying to trip me up! You’re not looking at things like God does! You’re looking at things like a mere mortal!”
Jesus’ followers are already convinced that he is the Messiah, the promised king of Israel. But for this same reason they cannot fathom his own premonitions that he will suffer and die at the hands of the authorities. And who can blame them? In their eyes Jesus is basically predicting his own failure. Then, in Chapter 17 Jesus takes a few of his closest followers up onto a mountain (another one) and is transformed before their eyes into a figure of blinding light and beauty. He is joined by Elijah and Moses who sort of mill around and chat with him. Suddenly a voice booms from above: “This is my dear son, and I’m delighted with him. Pay attention to him!” This is one of those sudden, stark, supernatural episodes that thwarts our understanding. For now, just hold the image in your mind. We’ll come back to this.
Chapter 21 begins the series of events we know as “Holy Week,” the final week of Jesus’ earthly life. It begins with the prophet riding into the capital city of Jerusalem on a donkey to shouts of “Hosanna” or “Save us!” from an ecstatic crowd. This event has at least a twofold meaning:
- This is another one of Matthew’s (somewhat clunky) “fulfilments” of Hebrew Bible prophecy. I say “clunky” because the passage Matthew wants to fulfill, from Zechariah 9, says that Zion’s king will come riding on “an ass, yes on a foal, its young.” Matthew isn’t quite sure how to make this work, so he actually has Jesus riding on an adult donkey and its foal at the same time. I’d love to see that painting.
- It’s also another symbolic prophetic action, a non-violent mirror to the Roman imperial procession that would have passed through the city gates around the same time. It was the time of Passover, and Rome always made a big show of their power during the religious festivals of their conquered peoples, lest they get too excited and decide to revolt. In his so-called “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, Jesus is affirmed symbolically as Israel’s Messiah, but he is also affirmed as the anti-Caesar, the true and humble lord of the world over against the power-hungry tyrant.
Once in Jerusalem, Jesus performs two final symbolic actions, one of which probably seals his fate. First, Jesus enters the Temple and throws out all the merchants selling sacrificial animals to the worshipers and tourists. He overturns their tables and quotes the Hebrew Bible: “My house will be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a brigands’ lair!” He then proceeds to perform some of his trademark healings inside the Temple courtyard. This throws the crowd of onlookers into a tizzy, and mobilizes the priests and scribes to finally do something about their Jesus problem. Outside of the Temple, Jesus comes upon a fig tree with no fruit. He curses it and it withers instantly. The second act is an interpretation of the first: the Temple is supposed to produce the “fruit” of justice, but it bears none, and so it must be shut down. Both acts are merely symbols of Jesus’ greater kingdom announcement, though the Temple action is real enough to set some dangerous gears into motion.
Before the events that we know as the “passion” of the Messiah, Jesus has a few more unpleasant run-ins with the scribes and Pharisees, and offers up a few more parables and teachings. In Chapter 24, he gives his final speech in the gospel of Matthew, and it is a doozy. Jesus climbs up yet another mountain, the “Mount of Olives,” and starts talking really funny, saying things like this:
29 … “After the suffering that those days will bring, the sun will turn to darkness, and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of heaven will shake.
30 “And then the sign of the son of man will appear in heaven, then all the tribes of the earth will mourn. They will see ‘the son of man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory.”
…and also this:
40 “On that day, there will be two people working in the field. One will be taken, the other will be left. 41 There will be two women grinding corn in the mill. One will be taken, the other will be left. 42 So be alert! You don’t know what day your master will come.”
Jesus uses apocalyptic language and imagery – borrowing liberally from the prophets of the Hebrew Bible – to describe what Christian culture has traditionally conceived as “the end times” or “the rapture,” the return of Jesus that is still in our future. However, it’s not quite that simple or clear, as we read this in verse 34:
34 “I’m telling you the truth: this generation won’t be gone before these things happen.”
Whatever it is that Jesus is describing, it’s something he expects to take place within his own generation. There’s much to say about Jesus’ “little apocalypse,” as it’s called, and perhaps I’ll devote a supplement or a future episode to that complicated discussion. But for now, I’ll just say that Jesus – like the great prophets of Israel before him – is offering up his ultimate prophecy, a warning to Jerusalem to change her ways or face destruction. And while that is not how this passage has been traditionally interpreted, it is worth acknowledging that Jerusalem was in fact flattened by Rome in 70 AD, within Jesus’ own generation. That may not mean a whole lot to modern westerners, but it was surely the “end of the world” for the Jews living at that time.
In Chapter 26 one of Jesus’ own followers, Judas Iscariot, goes to the chief priests and offers to hand Jesus over for the price of thirty pieces of silver. Soon after the whole gang celebrates Passover with Jesus, who takes the occasion to make one last cryptic prediction of his own death. He reappropriates already symbol-laden elements of the seder meal to make his point. He breaks the bread, a symbol of the manna, God’s life-sustaining provision for Israel in the desert, and announces, “this is my body, take it and eat it.” He then pours out a cup of wine, the “cup of blessing,” and says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This language comes from Jeremiah chapter 31, where the prophet imagines a day when God will perform a new act of salvation for Israel and establish a “new covenant” with her. Jesus announces that these things are happening now, in what will prove to be his final hours.
Judas slips out early and Jesus takes his eleven remaining followers to a public place called Gethsemane, where he goes off alone to pray that God might spare him from the fate which now seems inevitable. He comes back to find his followers asleep, and they wake up just in time to see Jesus arrested by a group of “chief priests and elders” led by Judas. Jesus is first interrogated by the high priest, Caiaphas, who accuses him of threatening to destroy the Temple and of claiming to be the Messiah. Jesus is mostly silent, offering only cryptic answers that neither affirm nor deny the charges. He does manage to quote the Daniel passage again, the one about “the son of man coming on the clouds,” a move which results in the high priest tearing his robe, and the elders condemning him to death. Meanwhile, his closest follower Peter, stunned and horrified at what is happening, denies even knowing Jesus. The prophet’s earthly family is abandoning him. And Judas, wracked with guilt, returns the “blood money” to the priests and runs off and hangs himself.
The Jewish officials agree that Jesus should die, but they lack the authority to execute criminals themselves, so they take Jesus before the local Roman governor, a man named Pilate. Rome isn’t interested in Messiahs or prophecies from Daniel, but they don’t like wannabe kings, so Jesus is presented as an insurgent who was trying to set himself up as the “King of the Jews.” Now Pilate’s wife is apparently aware of Jesus and sympathetic to his cause, and she pleads with her husband to spare this “innocent man.” Pilate is confused and conflicted, so he lets the crowd decide. He invokes a tradition whereby the people may request the release of a single prisoner, and the choice is between Jesus of Nazareth, the non-violent prophet, and Jesus Barabbas, a violent insurgent. The crowd chooses Barabbas, and he is released.
Jesus is stripped, mocked, beaten, scourged, and crucified between two brigands at a place called Golgotha, the “Skull Place.” Crucifixion was a brutal, slow, and public method of execution, and one Rome reserved for rebels and revolutionaries – anyone who represented a threat or challenge to the authority of the empire. At noon, darkness falls over the land, and a few hours later Jesus calls out “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani,” which is an Aramaic quote from Psalm 22, which translates “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Then Jesus dies, and as he does the earth shakes and a stunned Roman Centurion declares, “This man really was the son of God!”
Now, recall the “transfiguration” of Jesus back in Chapter 17? The crucifixion scene stands in stark contrast to that one, and the two images enhance and interpret one another. On that previous mountaintop, flanked by Moses and Elijah, Jesus was revealed in supernatural light and power, and something like the voice of God declared “this is my son!” Here at the end, on a grim hillside flanked by two criminals and shrouded in cold darkness, Jesus is “revealed” in sorrow and weakness, and it is the voice of a Roman soldier – his allegiance sworn to the Emperor, the “son of the divine Caesar” – that declares Jesus to be the “true son of God.” Matthew’s gospel has made a very powerful and artful juxtaposition: the power of organized violence versus the power of submission and love. Jesus practices what he preaches to its logical end, and it costs him his life. Jesus is buried in the tomb of a wealthy sympathizer named Joseph of Arimathea, a very unusual fate for a victim of crucifixion, but a necessary part of the story Matthew must tell.
Of course we know that each of the gospel accounts ends with the discovery by women, two days hence, of an empty tomb, vacated by the resurrected Jesus. What is interesting is the very different ways each gospel presents the event, and the different strands of meaning they assign to it. In none of the gospels do we actually have an account of Jesus being raised from death and walking out of the tomb. It is always “off screen,” and we discover the aftermath along with the first eyewitnesses.
In Matthew 28 the account is surprisingly brief, as Mary Magdalene (a female follower of Jesus) and a friend come to pay their respects at Jesus’ tomb. When they arrive, the earth shakes and an angel appears, rolls the sealed entrance of the tomb back, and shows them how very empty it is. He tells them that Jesus has been raised, and that they should return to the other followers and tell them to meet their Master back in Galilee. Matthew’s gospel ends with five short verses in which the risen Jesus – whose physical condition is not described here – appears to the eleven and gives them these instructions:
18 … “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me! 19 So you must go and make all the nations into disciples. Baptize them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. 20 Teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look: I am with you, every single day, to the very end of the age.”
These last words of Jesus sound so much like the teachings of the church in the centuries after Jesus, and so little like his words in the rest of the gospel, that some have suggested that they were a later addition, tacked on by editors. While we have every reason to believe that the manuscripts of all the Christian writings were redacted and tweaked as they were transmitted from one community to the next, we have no specific reason other than vague suspicion to make that sort of claim about a passage like this. It’s more helpful, I think, to try and cast off our modern assumptions as best we can and try to understand it in the context of everything that has come before.
If a prophet is killed by earthly powers and raised back to life by God, then it’s fair to say that he or she has been vindicated, and that “authority has been given unto” them. Jesus claims this authority and uses it to send out his followers to make more followers from “all the nations” (in their day, this probably meant the Near East and Asia Minor). He tells them to baptize these new followers, just as John baptized the Israelites and Jesus himself to signify repentance of an old way of life and commitment to a new way of life. And what is that new way? It’s the Jesus way – the way of kingdom of God, where peace, love and forgiveness rule instead of violence and fear.
And I think that’s the key to “getting” Jesus right, or at least “getting” Matthew’s presentation right. Too often the post-resurrection traditions about Jesus and these instructions to make new followers – called the “Great Commission” – are detached from the message of Jesus in his earthly life and prophetic campaign. If we keep the Sermon on the Mount fresh in our minds, then we realize that Jesus isn’t calling for the forced proliferation of cold, conforming religion, but the spread of the radical message of selfless love and reckless forgiveness. These are Jesus’ “commandments,” the rules by which his followers live. It is tragically ironic when his most devout followers seem to forget that love, faith and vulnerability are the true heart of Jesus, not domination and condemnation.
And that is the gospel of Matthew. Now that we’ve read a complete (and very long) gospel, we can look at the others in a more focused way, paying attention to differences, harmonies, and even discrepancies. The early Christian communities which produced these texts all had their own ways of interpreting Jesus’ message, death, and resurrection, and it will be our pleasure to discover these together.
But for now, this has been BOOK, a bible podcast for everybody, and I have been Josh Way. It is good to be back! If you enjoyed this podcast I encourage you to share it with your online friends and family. If you have any comments, questions or constructive feedback, email me at email@example.com. You can also leave a voicemail at 801-760-3013, and I’ll try to respond on the podcast. Read the BOOK blog and find lots more content at BOOK.JOSHWAY.COM. That’s it for me, Bible pals. I’ll catch you next time.