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Preaching from Matthews Gospel: A Brief Introduction to the Gospel of Matthew

Posted 11.26.07
Scholarship on the Gospel of Matthew is on-going, just as one might expect. But some
things are generally agreed upon.
There is general agreement on the time and place of this gospel's composition. Assuming
Matthew's use of the Gospel of Mark and the hypothetical source called Q (from Quelle,
German for "source") and its apparent awareness of the destruction of Jerusalem (22:7),
which took place in A.D. 70, this gospel must have been composed in the last decades of
the first century A.D. Moreover, since it appears that this gospel was quoted by Ignatius of
Antioch and by the author of the Didache(both early second century), it must have been in
existence some time before the turn of the century. The usual estimate is that it was
composed somewhere about A.D. 80-90 in Syria (perhaps Antioch) or in nearby Palestine.
The Gospel of Matthew is an anonymous work, written by a Greek-speaking Jewish Christian
who was acquainted with scribal habits of composition. The scribes of his day--and their
rabbinic successors of the late first century and following--sought to preserve, systematize,
and apply the traditions of their masters in order to fashion Jewish life for a new era
following the destruction of the Temple. Eventually their work was preserved in written
collections that contain the rabbinic traditions, particularly the Mishnah and the Talmuds of
Babylonia and Jerusalem. So, too, Matthew sought to preserve, systematize, and apply the
traditions of Jesus in order to fashion Christian community in his time and place. His gospel
has often been called a handbook for parish life. If there is an author's "signature" within
this gospel, it may well be at 13:52: "Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of
heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and
what is old." This seems to coincide with Matthew's own way of working. He preserves the
old (often quoting from the Old Testament and using traditions about Jesus that he has
received), and he applies them, addressing his readers with the message of Jesus
concerning life together in community.
One of the most prominent features of this gospel is the way that the evangelist connects
the ministry of Jesus with the Old Testament. He sees the Old Testament as being fulfilled
on various occasions. Here he uses his famous "formula quotations," in which he says that a
given event took place to fulfill what was written in the Old Testament, sometimes naming
the book where the passage is found. The "formula quotations" appear at 1:22-23; 2:15,
17-18, 23; 4:14-16; 8:17; 12:17-21; 13:14-15, 35; 21:4-5; 27:9-10; cf. also 2:5-6.
Other features of the Gospel of Matthew are summarized in the essay called "Preaching
from Matthew's Gospel: Major Themes and Forms of Teaching."
One of the matters on which interpreters disagree is how the Gospel of Matthew should be
outlined. Some propose that it should be divided into three main portions: (1) 1:1-4:16 (on
the identity of Jesus); (2) 4:17-16:20 (on Jesus' ministry); and (3) 16:21-28:30 (on Jesus'
fate in suffering, death, and resurrection).
Others consider chapters 1-2 a preamble (section A below), chapters 26-28 an epilogue
(section C), and chapters 3-25 a central section containing five blocks of narrative and
discourse (section B). There is much to commend the latter. A feature that supports it in
particular is that each of the five parts in section B ends with a recurring refrain ("When
Jesus had finished saying these things" or the like). In this way, one can see how "Matthew
the scribe" has systematized the teachings of Jesus in discourses on ethics, discipleship,
parables, community discipline, and last things. The outline according to this view is as
follows:
A. Birth and Infancy Narrative, 1:1-2:23

B. Central Section, 3:1-25:46


Part 1, 3:1-7:29
Narrative: Galilean Ministry (John, Baptism, Temptation, Call of First Disciples, et al.),
3:1-4:25
Discourse: Sermon on the Mount, 5:1-7:29
Concluding formula, 7:28: "Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds
were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as
their scribes."
Part 2, 8:1-10:42
Narrative: Galilean Ministry (10 miracle stories), 8:1-9:38
Discourse: Instructing the Twelve on Discipleship and Mission, 10:1-42
Concluding formula, 11:1: "Now when Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples,
he went on from there to teach and proclaim his message in their cities."
Part 3, 11:1-13:53
Narrative: Galilean Ministry (John, Woes on Cities, Controversies with Pharisees, Beelzebul
Controversy, et al.), 11:1-12:50
Discourse: Seven Parables, 13:1-53
Concluding formula, 13:53: "When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place."
Part 4, 13:54-18:35
Narrative: Galilean Ministry (Rejection, John's Death, Miracles, Peter's Confession,
Transfiguration, Controversies with Pharisees, et al.), 13:54-17:27
Discourse: Community Discipline, 18:1-35
Concluding formula, 19:1: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee
and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan."
Part 5, 19:1-25:46
Narrative: Ministry in Judea and Jerusalem (Controversies with Pharisees and Sadducees,
Entry into Jerusalem, Cleansing of Temple, Woes upon Pharisees, Lament over Jerusalem, et
al.), 19:1-23:39
Discourse: On Last Things, 24:1-25:46
Concluding formula, 26:1-2: "When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to
his disciples, 'You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will
be handed over to be crucified.'"
C. Passion, Death, and Resurrection Narratives, 26:1-28:20
Regardless of how one outlines the Gospel of Matthew, it is evident that the teachings of
Jesus are the main interest of the evangelist. Although it might be oversimplifying to do so,
it is commonly said that while the evangelist who wrote the Gospel of Mark was especially
interested in the activities of Jesus, the author of the Gospel of Matthew was particularly
interested in his teaching. That feature makes the Gospel of Matthew an especially fruitful
source for preaching.
Preaching from Matthews Gospel: Major Themes and Forms of Teaching

The evangelist who wrote the Gospel of Matthew (whom we shall call "Matthew" in spite of
his anonymity) was very much interested in the teaching of Jesus.
For him, Jesus bears the usual Christological titles (Christ, Lord, Son of God, Son of man,
and Son of David), and there is a story to tell about him. But above all, Jesus is the teacher
of Israel in his earthly ministry and teacher of the church after his resurrection.
The Gospel of Matthew is rightly called the "ecclesiastical gospel." It is the only gospel in
which the word "church" appears (16:18; 18:17), and it is filled with teachings that gave
shape to the early church and that continue to do so in the present. It is only in this gospel,
for example, that we have the baptismal formula (28:19) and the familiar version of the
Lord's Prayer (6:9-13). Beyond that, this gospel provides an abundance of moral teaching
that is both personal and corporate in its effects.
Here we shall review some of the major themes in this gospel and one of the forms in which
themes appear (parables).
1. The Kingdom of Heaven. The phrase appears thirty-two times in the Gospel of Matthew.
Although like the other synoptic evangelists, Matthew uses the term "kingdom of God"
(12:28; 19:24; 21:31, 43), he obviously prefers to use "kingdom of heaven." The most
probable reason is that, for him, it is more reverential. In major Jewish traditions, if a
person can avoid using the word "God" and can make a substitute for it (such as "the Holy
One" or "heaven"), it is good to do so. There is a saying in the Mishnah, for example, "let
the fear of heaven be upon you" (Aboth 1.3), in which "the fear of heaven" clearly means
"the fear of God." Even many a Christian can easily utter "for heaven's sake," but to say "for
God's sake" borders on (or even crosses the boundary into) cursing.
By means of this expression, Jesus reached back into the scriptural tradition of Israel where
it is affirmed that God is king of the universe and reigns over all things, both nature and
human affairs (Psalms 22:28; 47:2, 7-8; 95:1-3; 103:19; Isaiah 43:15; 44:6). But God's
reign was not always evident in the history of Israel. In various eras of that history, God's
reign became a future hope (Psalms 102:12-22; 145:10-13; Daniel 7:18; Micah 4:6-8).
Jesus revitalized the concept of the reign of God, affirming that it is both a present reality
and a future hope. It is dawning already, so that its effects are made known in the healings
that Jesus performed; and the ethic that he taught was essentially a "kingdom ethic," that
is, a declaration of what life in God's kingdom (or under the rule of God) entails. As the
dawn precedes the rising of the sun, but its effects can be seen as lighting up the present,
so the ministry of Jesus was, in this way of thinking, a time in which the effects of the
kingdom could be seen, even if its coming in its fullness had to be awaited as a future
event. This theme, so prominent in Mark and Luke as well, is at the center of Jesus'
proclamation in the Gospel of Matthew. It is mentioned, for example, in nine of Jesus'
parables in that gospel.
2. Parables. Parables are a form of teaching, not a theme of it per se. There are about three
dozen parables in the Synoptic Gospels (depending on how one defines a parable). There
are twenty in the Gospel of Matthew. Of these, thirteen are assigned for reading in Year A.
In the year 2007-2008 they appear as follows:
The Sundays of July 13--July 27, 2008:
The Sower and Its Interpretation (Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23), Lectionary 10.
The Weeds in the Wheat and Its Interpretation (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), Lectionary
11.
The Treasure in the Field (Matthew 13:44), Lectionary 12, within 13:44-52.
The Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46), Lectionary 12, within 13:44-52.
The Dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50), Lectionary 12, within13:44-52.
The Sundays of September 14--October 12, 2008:
The Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18:23-35), Lectionary 19, within 18:21-35.
The Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16), Lectionary 20.
The Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32), Lectionary 21.

The Wicked Tenants (Matthew 21:33-43), Lectionary 22.


The Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14), Lectionary 23.
The Sundays of November 9--November 23, 2008:
The Ten Maidens (Matthew 25:1-13), Lectionary 27.
The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Lectionary 28.
The Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Lectionary 29 [Christ the King].
Eight of these parables begin with the phrase "the kingdom of heaven is like" or a similar
expression. That does not mean that the kingdom is like a man who sowed seed or
whatever the next phrase might portray. That to which a comparison is being made is the
story that is narrated as a whole. To paraphrase, one could say: "the kingdom of heaven is
like this," followed by the story. In any case, within these parables the meaning of God's
kingdom is explored in various dimensions that have to do with the character of God, the
ways that God works, and what God expects.
3. The Law and Righteousness. Because of his background in Judaism and his
understanding of the Christian movement as deeply attached to Jewish tradition, Matthew
could never for a moment consider the law of Moses other than having come as revelation
from God. The Mosaic law expresses the divine will for human life; it is the pathway to
righteousness. That way of thinking lurks in the background of this gospel. At 5:20 Jesus
declares to his disciples: "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the
scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."
But this demand for "righteousness" does not mean that the disciples of Jesus are to outdo
the scribes and Pharisees in living by the law of Moses in all its details--as interpreted by the
contemporaries of Jesus and Matthew. Just as for others within the Jewish tradition, the key
issue for Matthew in regard to the law is how to interpret it. According to the prevailing
views, the will of God is expressed in the law--as interpreted by leaders of the Pharisees or
some other sect. But according to Matthew, the will of God is expressed in the law--as
interpreted by Jesus.
The problem that Jesus faces continually, as portrayed by Matthew, is that the interpretive
traditions of his day are being employed in order to get around the plain meaning of the
Scriptures. That becomes evident in the sayings of Jesus: "Woe to you, scribes and
Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the
weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have
practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow
a camel!" (Matthew 23:23-24). Furthermore, in the six "Antitheses" within the Sermon on
the Mount (beginning with the clause "You have heard that it was said...." and then
concluding with "but I say unto you...."), Jesus gets at the deeper meaning and implications
of the law of Moses (5:21-48). All of this is to drive the hearer to a new reappraisal of what
God wills. Over against the interpretive traditions that had obscured the meaning of the law,
Jesus provides his own hermeneutic at 22:34-40, the Double Commandment of Love,
ending with a punch-line that appears only in the Gospel of Matthew: "On these two
commandments hang all the law and the prophets" (22:40). The command to love God and
the command to love one's neighbor are the "clothespins" on which all the teachings of the
law and the prophets hang (= are derived). When Jesus says that his disciples must be
"perfect" (5:48), that means that they should be mature and inclusive in their regard for
others. The parallel to this verse in Luke reads: "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful"
(Luke 6:36).
4. Love Ethic. The Double Commandment of Love is the prime ethical teaching of this
gospel. It is anticipated earlier at 7:12, the Golden Rule: "In everything do to others as you
would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets." This love ethic is to be
played out within the community of disciples, and so much in this gospel is designed to
promote it, such as in regarding the life of another as important as one's own (22:39),
serving one another (20:25-28), not putting one's own piety on display (6:1-8), and doing

acts of reconciliation (18:15-20) and forgiveness (18:21-35). But that love is not to be
practiced only in one's relationship to fellow believers. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus
declares to his disciples that the love ethic is to be extended to every person, even one's
enemies: "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that
you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on
the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (5:44-45).
5. Finally, the Gospel of Matthew is above all a story about Jesus. It portrays Jesus as the
Davidic Messiah, the Son of God; he is a regal figure, one who has authority on earth. But
he is a suffering Messiah, one who suffers for his people. In this gospel Jesus is both royal
and compassionate. He finally gives his life for the people. He came "to serve and to give his
life as a ransom for many" (20:28). That was intended from the beginning when the angel
announced to Joseph concerning Mary: "She will bear a son, and you are to name him
Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins" (1:21).

Preaching from Matthews Gospel: Some Issues to Anticipate in Sermon


Preparation
One of the potential problems that many a preacher faces when dealing with texts from the
Gospel of Matthew is that this gospel is decidedly moralistic, and some charge it with
"legalism."
Moreover, it is considered highly judgmental. The emphasis on the final judgment appears
frequently (above all in chapters 24 and 25), and the pronouncements of Jesus ring in the
ears. The warning that "there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" during or after the
final judgment for some is heard no less than six times (8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51;
25:30). Not being able to enter the (future) kingdom is a possibility even for those who
have the right assessment of Jesus as Lord: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will
enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven"
(7:21). And there are warnings concerning the coming of Christ as the Son of man who will
judge all of humanity (16:27-28; 24:27-31; 25:31-46). Many of these and other passages
appear in the readings assigned for Year A.
One possible response to the abundance of all this material is that the Gospel of Matthew is
too harsh for both the preacher and hearers alike, especially if one is trying to get across to
people that God is, when all is said and done, gracious. And many a preacher has
experienced the smiles on parishioners, or even heard snickering, when announcing "The
gospel of the Lord" at the conclusion of some readings, mostly from Matthew. If that was
good news, what must the bad news be?
But there are other ways of looking at the matter. Two things come to mind. First, words of
judgment can actually be good news. While they may be bad news to the powerful, and
particularly to those who exploit others, they can be good news to those who are weak and
exploited. So the preacher can ask, who is my audience? What needs to be said? What
needs not to be said?
Second, in the final analysis, the Gospel of Matthew seems so eminently wise and so
carefully balanced. It is in some ways very inclusive: God makes the sun rise and the rain to
fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous (5:45); the weeds are to grow along with the
wheat (13:29-30); the net is to embrace both bad and good (13:47); the wedding banquet
must have guests, and so the command is given to the slaves to go into the streets and
"invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet" (22:9); and the disciples of Jesus are not
to judge others and find fault in them (7:1-5). At the same time this gospel, though
inclusive in its scope, makes it clear that the disciples of Jesus must be accountable to God.
The weeds are finally cast away to be burned (13:30), the bad must finally be removed
from the good (13:48-50), the man without the proper wedding attire is cast out (22:11-

14), and the disciples of Jesus are to be salt and light in the world (5:13-16), exhibiting the
higher righteousness of the kingdom.
As the leader of a community, the evangelist seeks to impress on his hearers and readers
that the church must be open, mission-minded, seeking to reach all persons with the
gospel. On the other hand, once persons have become disciples of Jesus, there are
expectations. In this respect, the author of Matthew is not different from other writers of the
New Testament, including the apostle Paul. Although some would want to contrast Matthew
and Paul, it cannot finally be done across the board.
Other possible problems have to do with Christian-Jewish relationships. Here there are three
issues. First, Matthew's treatment of the Pharisees is one-sided, probably because of factors
in his own day, such as tensions between his church and the synagogues nearby. The
tension is exhibited most of all in chapter 23 where the Pharisees are branded as hypocrites.
But it is not only there. Generally whenever the term "Pharisee" appears, it is pejorative. It
seems that there is no point in the preacher of today attacking ancient straw men when
there is plenty of hypocrisy in our day to deal with. As often said, many an ancient Pharisee
criticized their contemporaries themselves for hypocrisy, so they too knew it when they saw
it.
The second issue comes up specifically on the Sunday of the Passion. During the trial scene,
says Matthew, after Pilate declared himself innocent of the death of Jesus, "the people as a
whole" responded to Pilate, saying "'His blood be on us and on our children!'" (27:25). That
verse has been used as a basis for assigning blame on Jews for all time for the death of
Jesus. Obviously that is an injustice not to be perpetuated or tolerated.
The third issue is that of supersessionism, the idea that the church is the true successor to
Israel and ancient Judaism, and that Judaism is no longer viable in the overall plan of God.
A prime text on this is the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (22:33-46), which is assigned for
October 26, 2008 (Lectionary 25). In that parable Jesus says to his hearers (later identified
as the chief priests and Pharisees, 22:45): "I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken
away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom" (21:43). In
the final analysis, however, the verse does not actually support supersessionism. It speaks
of the leadership of the Jewish people at that time, who have failed in their offices, not
about Judaism itself. To be sure, in its context the verse implies that the new leadership will
be made up of persons who are followers of Jesus. The question before the preacher then
becomes: How well are we doing in exercising the leadership expected of us?
Finally, the preacher has to ask the question of how relevant the passages assigned are for
today. One of the most helpful ways to proceed is to recall one of the insights of the formcritical movement. The idea there is that everything preserved in the gospels is there for a
churchly purpose, not simply out of biographical interest concerning Jesus. One asks then
about the life setting (Sitz im Leben) that would have caused a particular unit to have been
preserved in a gospel. Was it for catechesis, apologetics, worship, or proclamation? When
one tries to imagine the reason for which a unit has been preserved, it sometimes (not
always!) opens up a way to ask about its use for the present. Texts in antiquity had a
context, and the task for the preacher of today is to re-contextualize them.