Preaching from Matthew’s 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).