Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Matthews Five Sermons to Live By
At a time when there is so much uncertainty and violence, when so much of
what we knew to be true is shifting, we search for pillars of truth, sure ways to move
toward a hopeful future and to work toward the fuller coming of God's peaceable realm.
This assertion, which is apt for our day, would well describe the experience
of Matthews community. Like us, they were living in a turbulent time. The first revolt
against Rome, some 15 years before the writing of the Gospel, saw the destruction of the
Temple in Jerusalem, bringing a profound shift in Jewish life and identity. Those in Matthews
community were struggling to define themselves in relation to their Jewish brothers and
sisters who had not accepted Jesus. In addition, they faced difficult decisions about what
to preserve from their Jewish traditions as the Christian communities were becoming increasingly
Gentile. They needed answers to questions about how to live peaceably in a violent world,
both in dealing with Roman imperial occupiers and in resolving tensions within the community.
As Matthew wove together the traditions about Jesus for his community, he
created a masterful portrait of Jesus as Teacher, giving ethical direction for believers
in a troubled time.
It has long been recognized that there are five major blocks of teaching
by the Matthean Jesus, each marked off by the phrase, When Jesus finished these words (7:28;
11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1). It may have been Matthews intent to depict Jesus as the
New Moses, with five units of teaching, evocative of the five books of the Mosaic
Law, the Pentateuch. Examination of a few highlights reveals powerful teaching that gives
direction and hope to contemporary disciples.
The Sermon on the Mount
This is one of the best known and most beloved portions of the Gospeland
one of the most difficult! Matthew presents Jesus as authoritative teacher. He goes up
a mountain, much as Moses ascended Mount Sinai. He then takes a sitting position, typical
of teachers (5:1; Ezekiel 8:1) and of rulers (Mt 27:19). First he pronounces the beatitudes and
parabolic sayings about publicly living and proclaiming them. Then follow six examples
of how the demands of discipleship are even more stringent than the Law (5:17-48). Next
are teachings about various attitudes and actions required of disciples (6:1—7:12). Rounding
out the sermon are final exhortations and warnings (7:13-28).
One of the most quoted parts of this sermon is the passage on love of enemies
(5:38-48). It occurs in the context of six antithetical statements (5:17-48) in which Jesus
first cites a teaching from the Mosaic Law. He then shows his disciples a way to go deepera
way to right relation that is even more demanding than that of the scribes and Pharisees
(5:20). In 5:38 he cites Lev 24:20, the law of retaliation, which limited retribution so
as to curtail violence. Rather than respond in kind to an offender, Jesus teaches his disciples
not to retaliate with violence against an evildoer (5:39a). The verb for retaliate carries
the connotation resist violently
or armed resistance in military encounters (e.g., Eph 6:13). Jesus does not
command his disciples not to resist evil; rather, the issue is how the disciple is to confront
evil. He gives three examples that illustrate how a strategy of nonviolent action breaks
cycles of violence in confrontations between persons of unequal power and status. The person
addressed is a victim of an injustice inflicted by a more powerful person. The injured
party is expected to respond with submission, since retaliation in kind is not a realistic
option. But Jesus offers an alternate way to respond by actively confronting the injustice
with a positive and provocative act that can break the cycle of violence and begin a new
cycle in which gestures of reconciliation can be reciprocated. In this way the intent of
the Law is fulfilled.
Such actions constitute love toward one who acts as enemy. Jesus
thus re-defines enemy and neighbor, so that Leviticus 19:18, the
command to love the neighbor, applies to all persons. Love, in biblical parlance refers
not to feelings, but to concrete deeds, such as praying for persecutors (5:44) and welcoming
outsiders (5:47). The reason why Jesus disciples must do this is because God acts
this way, treating both the just and the unjust with the same gratuitous bounty (5:45).
Verse 48 sums up: There must be no limits to your goodness, as your heavenly Fathers
goodness knows no bounds. This translation of the Revised English Bible captures
better the meaning of the word teleios, usually translated perfect. It
connotes not so much moral perfection, as completeness, full maturity, as the Hebrew tamem (Deuteronomy
Called for Mission
The mission discourse (Mt 10:1—11:1) begins with the call and sending of
the twelve disciples (10:1-15), followed by sober warnings about coming persecutions. Then
come reassurances about God's protection, and further sayings about repercussions, conditions,
and rewards of discipleship.
The instructions on mission are not meant for a select few; all discipleship
has a missionary dimension to it. The number twelve recalls the twelve tribes that constituted
the people of the covenant. Just so, twelve disciples symbolize the whole of the new Israel. Disciples designates
a wide group of followers (73 times in Matthew). The term apostle means one
sent, and is used only here in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus bestows his authority
on his disciples to bring healing wherever there is illness, death, or manifestations of
evil. There are similarities to the way Moses imparted his spirit to the elders of Israel
Jesus tells his envoys where and how to travel, how to approach people in
new places, what to say and do, and how to handle rejection. Missionaries are to present
themselves as completely vulnerablewithout money, baggage, extra clothing, footwear,
or weapons (walking sticks could be used to fend off beasts). They are to rely totally
on Gods providence, by depending on the hospitality of others. While missionaries
deserve to be paid, Jesus teaches them to minister without charge, since they have received
freely. Thus, the poor can benefit from their ministry and the rich cannot influence them
to preach what they want to hear. Missionaries are not to move around seeking better accommodations,
but to remain in the same house, as a visible sign of God-with-us (1:23; 28:20),
offering peace to all within.
Matthew is unique in stressing the mission to Israel (10:5-6). A few episodes
foreshadow a mission to Gentiles (2:1-12; 8:5-13, 28-33; 15:21-28), but this does not become
explicit until the final commissioning of the disciples by the risen Christ (28:16-20).
It is likely that Jesus himself understood his mission to be only for the renewal of his
own people, while his followers subsequently understood it as intended for Gentiles as
Disciples on mission, like Jesus, are accepted by some and rejected by others.
When spurned or reviled they are not to respond in kind. Sometimes they must symbolically
disengage from the encounter by shaking the dust off their feet. As they follow in the
footsteps of their teacher, persecution should come as no surprise. When possible, they
are to flee it. When brought before the authorities, they can rely on the Spirit to help
them bear witness. They must endure to the end, that is until Christs
The third major block of teaching (13:1-53) comprises seven parables, two
allegorical explanations, and a theory on Jesus' use of parables. These puzzling stories
use figurative language to speak in everyday terms about the realm of God. Yet there is
usually a twist, so that they do not simply tell how life is, but they challenge one toward
conversion. They are usually open-ended, allowing for a variety of interpretations.
The familiar parable in 13:1-8 has at least four different meanings, depending
on which character one focuses upon. Looking at the sower, a figure for God
or for Jesus, what draws attention is the profligate way in which he wastes the
seed. There is no pre-judgment about which soil is most apt to produce the highest yield.
So too, preachers, teachers, evangelizers are to cast their seed on all. From another angle,
the parable can speak about the efficaciousness of the word. To a discouraged community
who does not see immediate results from their evangelizing, it assures that the "seed" is
good and will bear fruit eventually. Yet again, the parable can be heard as an exhortation
to those who have grown lax in their observance. Are they doing everything possible to
make themselves receptive to the word? Finally, we might focus on the harvest and the astronomical
yield—up to a hundredfold! The incredulous amounts push the perspective into the end times,
assuring the hearer of a transcendent future of hope, far exceeding anything we know here.
Whichever way the parable is heard it brings both challenge and hope.
In the parable of the leaven we find one of the few female images of God
in the Gospel of Matthew. The work of a woman hiding yeast in a huge batch of dough is
like what God does in molding the reign of God. Through Jesus ministry to those at
the margins, he has put these corrupt ones right at the heart of God's project.
In every instance in Scripture in which leaven occurs, it represents evil or corruption:
Exodus 12:15-20, 34; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 1 Corinthians 5:6-7; Galatians 5:9. The startling
message is that the reign of God is like a batch of dough into which God has purposely
placed corrosive agents to be the agitating life-force at its center. This
parable offers both hope to those who have been on the margins and a challenge to those
who are in a privileged position.
Church Life and Order
The fourth block of teaching (18:1-35) concerns life in the Christian community.
The first section focuses on the need for humility and the care of the most vulnerable.
The second outlines a procedure for reconciling aggrieved members of the community, followed
by a parable about unlimited forgiveness. While these teachings are addressed to the
disciples, the instruction is to those with leadership responsibility, not to the little
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught his disciples how not to reciprocate
violence toward an evildoer. In the parable of the unforgiving servant we have the flip
side of the coin, as Jesus teaches how disciples must reciprocate grace and forgiveness.
Like the king in the parable, God, through Jesus, has graciously forgiven all debt of sin.
The necessary response to such mercy is to let it transform ones heart so as to be
able to act with the same kind of graciousness toward others. The disturbing reversal of
the kings magnanimity at the end depicts vividly how those who do not learn to imitate
godly ways in their dealings with one another short-circuit the mercy extended to them,
and call upon themselves the very treatment they have extended to others.
In the last segment of Jesus teaching (24:1—25:46), he speaks to his
disciples of the calamities that are portents of the end time, and tells three parables
that emphasize the need for watchfulness. The climactic parable of the final judgment brings
this last block of teaching to a climax.
In this uniquely Matthean parable, the time of judgment has arrived as the
Human One comes in his glory. This scene is intimately linked with 28:16-20, where Jesus
commissions his followers to make disciples of all nations (28:19), a command that this
parable presumes has been fulfilled. All the nations are assembled to render account. Like
Moses, who laid out before the Israelites the choice of blessing or curse (Deut 11:26),
Jesus separates those blessed by my Father
from those accursed. This is not predestined; Gods invitation has gone
out to all (5:45; 13:3-9), and the choice to accept or reject it rests with each. For those
who accept the invitation, which is visible in their deeds, blessing and inheritance in
Gods realm awaits.
Hope for Turbulent Times
From these five powerful sermons, disciples in turbulent times draw courage
and hope. Jesus teaching gives concrete steps toward ethical living in challenging
circumstances. Building on the Mosaic Law, he shows his disciples how to go deeper yet,
in their commitment to living and building Gods peaceable reign. He illustrates how
to short-circuit cycles of violence and victimization with actions that embody love, flowing
from covenant fidelity. He equips disciples for mission to a hostile world with his power
to heal, with provocative parabolic preaching, and with concrete strategies for peacebuilding,
both inside the community and out. For those who have struggled to be faithful, the final
sorting out brings blessing and joy, and the fulfillment of the promise given at 1:23 and
18:20: that despite their little faith and their failures, Jesus remains always
with the community that gathers and ministers in his name (28:20).
Next: Social Justice in the New Testament (by Virginia Smith)
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