Tuesday, July 29, 2008

What's Special -- and Challenging -- about Matthew

Over the past several weeks I've been working with the Gospel of Matthew more than I usually do. Two lectionary resources have invited me to write on passages from Matthew, and this has led me to think more deeply about that Gospel.

Matthew stands out for its insistence that Jesus' teachings set the agenda for discipleship. If you pull down one of those red-letter editions of the New Testament (where Jesus' speech appears in red type), you'll find five major clusters of red ink. Commentators have long noticed this pattern, in which the Gospel alternates between sections of Jesus' actions and conversations and his extended discourses. Jesus' words are especially important in Matthew.

The first of those discourses is the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus provides basic instruction for potential disciples. Almost all interpreters agree that 5:17-20 provides a thesis statement for the entire Sermon. There Jesus insists that his disciples are to keep the Law (as he interprets it), practicing righteousness that exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees. The Sermon ends in 7:21-29, with Jesus' insistence that mere confession of his name amounts to nothing, apart from obedience to God's will. The passage identifies that will of God with the teaching of Jesus himself: whoever hears -- and does -- what Jesus says is like one who builds their house upon a rock. Together, 5:17-20 and 7:21-29 interpret the content of the Sermon, demonstrating that Jesus' teachings provide the standards for his followers.

(Note: The literary audience for the Sermon is one of the most contested issues in the interpretation of Matthew, but I am convinced that the Sermon addresses both disciples and potential disciples.)

The ending of Matthew reinforces this program. Commissioned by the risen Jesus, disciples are to make disciples of all peoples, among other things "teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you" (20:20, NRSV).

Many Christians through the centuries have struggled with Matthew's emphasis on doing what Jesus says. After all, it is Matthew's Jesus who calls disciples to "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (5:48). Yikes. Some believers, taking Matthew seriously, have tried to live out its teachings to the letter. Extreme examples include believers who have castrated themselves to become "eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven" (19:12). Others soften Matthew's high demands by describing them as ideals rather than expectations. And still others suggest that the Gospel expounds such rigorous standards to reveal our helplessness as sinners, thus leading us to grace.

But Matthew's Gospel resists such rationalizations. It presents a distinctive call to faithful discipleship, even as we struggle with our inability -- or lack of will -- to follow through.