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 form-critical 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.