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Learn about Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as Teacher through the five units of teaching that build on Mosaic Law. These include Jesus’ sermon on Mount Sinai and his teachings on missionary work, the seven parables, Christian community and final judgment.


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Matthew’s Five Sermons to Live By

by Barbara E. Reid, O.P.

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 Matthew’s 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 Matthew’s 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 Matthew’s 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.

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The Sermon on the Mount

This is one of the best known and most beloved portions of the Gospel—and 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 deeper—a 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 Father’s 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 18:13).

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 (Numbers 11:24-25).

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 vulnerable—without money, baggage, extra clothing, footwear, or weapons (walking sticks could be used to fend off beasts). They are to rely totally on God’s 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 well.

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 Christ’s eschatological coming.

Parables

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 ones.”

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 one’s heart so as to be able to act with the same kind of graciousness toward others. The disturbing reversal of the king’s 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.

Last Judgment

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; God’s 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 God’s 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 God’s 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).

Barbara E. Reid, O.P. is a Dominican Sister of Grand Rapids, Michigan. She holds a Ph.D. in biblical studies from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and is professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is the author of Parables for Preachers (3 vols.; The Liturgical Press, 1999, 2000, 2001), Retreat With St. Luke (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2000).

Next: Social Justice in the New Testament (by Virginia Smith)

Living the Scriptures
How do you live out the missionary dimension of your discipleship? If you were to deepen your way of sharing your time, talent, and treasure toward proclaiming the gospel, what would that be?
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