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FOUNDATIONS - 3. Speaking Frankly with Matthew

Posted on: March 21, 2017

If I were to carry on a conversation with Matthew, at least as I imagine this ancient theologian, I believe I would accuse him (or her, for we don’t really know) of many wrong-headed things.

1. You make scripture far too authoritative.
2. You do not really know what the ancient prophets of Israel were about.
3. You relate Jesus’ death to awe-inspiring events and end-time judgement, which is exactly the kind of theology held by modern anti-humanist and anti-science Christians.

In other words, I would have a hard time seeing how Matthew’s version of the gospel is “good news.”

Early Christians understood Jesus to be God’s Anointed (Christ), which means chosen for a task. Since Jesus is not anointed by a King or another political figure but God, his has a divine task. This basic Christian conviction meant two things for Matthew: 1) Jesus is to fulfill the scripture, and 2) Jesus is to choose a new people. This second task is issued in the commissioning words of the resurrected Jesus at Matthew 28:18.

The life of Jesus in Matthew is set against the background of fulfilling Jewish prophecy, but in truth Matthew does not really know anything about the life of Jesus. Because he assumes it is a divine task, he assumes that prophetic books will guide him, but sometimes Matthew gets a bit ridiculous with this idea. He makes up the story about Jesus and his family going down to Egypt just to claim the fulfillment of the words, “out of Egypt I called my son” (2:15). Never mind that the saying actually refers to the exodus, but such a contrived biography reveals forced theology. Matthew does the same with John the Baptist, forcing the words of Isaiah 40:3 - about Israel being released from captivity - to be about John announcing the appearance of Jesus.

Matthew also takes “prophecy” to mean prediction, but a biblical prophet is not a diviner. The prophets of Israel were the great political critics. The rhetoric of the prophets is largely about naming injustice and occasionally about announcing a sign of the times. When Isaiah refers to a young woman who will conceive a child (7:14), Isaiah is referring to sign about changing times during the reign of Ahaz (approximately 730 BCE); he was not referring to Mary, the mother of Jesus, who would live some 700 years later.

The troubles in Matthew’s gospel get deeper when we look at miracles. Matthew wants Jesus to be powerful, and, unlike Mark, avoids the image of a poor and humiliated Jesus. Matthew reduces the length of miracle narratives found in Mark to make them more spectacular. In Mark, Jairus’s daughter is close to death and cured (5:23) but in Matthew she is dead and then raised (9:18). Mark’s Gospel ends at 16:8 with the fear and silence of the women. Matthew, by contrast, has a spectacular death and resurrection. Not only is Jesus raised from the dead, but when he dies there is a dramatic earthquake, several bodies rise from the dead, and a Roman centurion with other guards confesses that Jesus is the Son of God (27:51-54). In Matthew’s gospel the Jewish leaders are criticized for not recognizing Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and for not seeing him as the Son of God like the gentile soldiers did. Only those who Matthew thinks do the will of God will enter heaven. Others will not, but the list of the excluded starts to get long: Sadducees, Pharisees, Priests, scribes, and even other Christians (7:22-23).

Matthew’s emphasis on judgement day and getting to heaven slips into our time with such themes as climate change denial and creationism. Both these anti-science and anti-humanist ideas come from the emphasis on getting to heaven and on believing in the authority of scripture. Getting to heaven denies the importance of life now; upholding the authority of scripture silences science and reason as sources of knowledge. But is this Matthew’s only legacy?

Only in Matthew are sheep are separated from goats at the last judgement and only in Matthew is the difference between the two their acts of compassion. What counts in Matthew at the end is doing rather than believing. Feeding the poor, giving drink to the thirsty, and welcoming the stranger is what counts. Belief is less important. Matthew certainly likes to emphasize the spectacular, but in the end even Matthew admits that unless the gospel is fulfilled in act of compassion, the fulfillment of scripture does not really matter.

Notes for Discussion
For Matthew (and for all the first Christians), the “scripture” is the Torah and some of the prophets. It is still quite a flexible scripture not yet set as canon. Still, it has much authority. Why is this authority so significant for Matthew?

In this attempt to fulfill scripture, Matthew engages a circular argument. That Jesus is the anointed is proven through scripture, but scripture must be relied upon as the source of the proof. Matthew assumes the authority of scripture when using it. He uses scripture to prove scripture. Think about and discuss the many ways this happens not only in relation to the Bible but other sources of authority.

Contrast Matthew’s understanding of the disciples with Mark’s understanding. The positive portrayal of the disciples in Matthew contributes to a different theology. What is the difference in the theology between Matthew and Mark?

Matthew’s story of Jesus is founded on the authority of scripture, miracles, and the movement of God to the gentiles. If you were to debate with Matthew, what points would you challenge?

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