Now the author of the gospel of Matthew deals with questions concerning the identity of Jesus. John the Baptist, who is in prison, sends his own disciples to ask "if Jesus is the one who is to come?" Given the dialogue reported in this gospel at the time Jesus was baptized, the question seems odd. Yet, it serves a purpose in the story, for it enables the author to present additional teachings. Jesus tells the messengers to report back to John what they see and hear: "the blind recover their sight, the lame walk, lepers are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, the poor are brought good news ― and blessed are those who do not find me an obstacle to faith."
Then Jesus tells the crowds that John is more than a prophet and quotes from the prophet Malachi in the Hebrew Bible that "he will prepare your way before you." (Mal. 3:1) Among all those who have lived, Jesus says, "no one has been greater than John the Baptist." Nonetheless, Jesus claims, "the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he." As Jesus is preaching about the kingdom of heaven and bringing it into being, these comments help to clarify for the people that his message is far more important than John's call to repentance.
The author of the gospel of Matthew has Jesus pay his respects to John the Baptist before putting John behind him. John must have been a formidable person, not only during his life, but also among those who remembered him after his death. We have a story in Acts that suggests followers of John were actively pursuing his ministry at the same time the early church was developing. (Acts 19:1-7) It may be that for some time after the death of John, the disciples of John and the disciples of Jesus were competing for followers.
Jesus concludes his teaching about John in the gospel of Matthew with an enigmatic statement: "Since the time of John the Baptist the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence and violent men are taking it by force." He explains that before John the prophets "foretold things to come," but with John the fulfillment of prophecy has begun. Then he contrasts John and his own ministry but says the people are rejecting them both.
This seems to imply, at least, that the kingdom of heaven is coming with violence. It may even mean that violent men are bringing in the kingdom of heaven. As this passage follows the statements about persecution, it might refer to violence inflicted on the followers of Jesus. But perhaps this teaching acknowledges that violent men who oppose the hypocritical rule of the Jewish elite and their Roman protectors are bringing about the kingdom of heaven. In 66 it is these men who revolt against the Romans and bring about a crisis for Jews in the Roman Empire.
With the destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans in 70 the situation for both Jews and Christians was dramatically changed. The fledgling Christian movement that started in the synagogues of Palestine and quickly spread through Samaria to the Greek cities of the Roman Empire was freed from the control of the church in Jerusalem. This meant, to use Paul's language, more freedom "in Christ" than ever before. The author of the gospel of Matthew seems to be saying that, from the perspective of the Jewish authorities, John the Baptist was too ascetic and Jesus too committed to forgiving sinners. Perhaps the gospel is also implying that the violence of the revolt against Rome and the crushing of Jewish resistance by Rome were both necessary to bring about the kingdom of heaven, which John prepared and Jesus proclaimed.
The gospel goes on to pronounce judgment on Jewish towns in Galilee near Capernaum that failed to repent, and to assert that the Gentile cities of Tyre and Sidon will be better off on "the day of judgment." Capernaum, too, will be "brought down to Hades (Hell)." Then Jesus prays, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and wise, and revealing them to the simple." (This reminds us of Paul's comments in 1 Corinthians 1.) And Jesus goes on to teach that: "Everything is entrusted to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son, and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." (This passage sounds like the gospel of John.)
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus affirms obedience to Jewish law, but also teaches that his words and life are the lens through which the law given by the Father to Moses is to be understood.
And so Jesus calls to "all who are weary and whose load is heavy" and offers to "give them rest," if they will learn from him. "For my yoke is easy to wear," he says," and my load is light." The image of wearing the yoke of an ox may not seem very appealing to us, but Jesus in the gospel of Matthew is proclaiming that the burden of following him will prove far lighter than the judgment that will come upon the synagogues and towns that reject his followers. For proof, the Jewish Christians of the community for which the gospel was written need only have pointed to the destruction of Jerusalem and to the plight of Jews who revolted against the Roman Empire.
The gospel of Matthew then takes up the accounts that we found in the gospel of Mark about Jesus breaking sabbath restrictions. In the story about eating corn in the fields, the author of the gospel of Matthew omits the name of the high priest included in the gospel of Mark, perhaps because it is factually incorrect. (Ahimelech, the father of Abiathar, was high priest at the time David ate the bread that only the priests were supposed to eat.) The gospel of Matthew also adds a quote from Hosea 6:6 to emphasize that the law is about mercy and not sacrifice. But the author of the gospel of Matthew omits the statement by Jesus in the gospel of Mark that, "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." Probably, he felt this statement, which undercuts the Jewish sabbath, would not be acceptable to his community of Jewish Christians and also could not have been the teaching of Jesus.
The author of the gospel of Matthew does, however, have Jesus say, as he says in the gospel of Mark, that: "the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath." Jesus, not the law, is saving. Here the two gospel accounts agree with Paul.
Then on the sabbath Jesus heals the man with the withered arm. The gospel of Matthew again expands the story presented in the gospel of Mark. Next the gospel of Matthew reports that the Pharisees began to plot to bring about the death of Jesus. The gospel of Mark says that supporters of Herod (Herodians) were part of this plot, but the author of the gospel of Matthew edits this statement out of the story. Because Herod's family is implicated in the attempt to slay the baby Jesus, it is hard to see why the author makes this change in the story told by the gospel of Mark.
Son of David
Jesus continues to heal and to "give strict instructions that they were not to make him known." The gospel of Matthew reiterates the call for secrecy that is repeated throughout the gospel of Mark, but also offers an explanation by saying this "was to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy" (Isaiah 42:14). The prophet, who is speaking for God, refers to "my servant" and "my beloved" who will receive "my Spirit" and "proclaim justice among the nations." (This prophecy foresees the reign of God over Gentiles as well as Jews.) Then, the prophet adds, "he will not shout, nor will his voice be heard in the streets." As this passage does not seem to explain the secrecy demanded by Jesus, perhaps the author of the gospel of Matthew is merely using the call for silence as an opportunity to reinforce his message that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy.
When Jesus heals a blind and dumb man by casting the demon out of him, the bystanders ask: "Can this be the Son of David?" The question is rhetorical. The gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as the Son of David, who is the rightful king of the Jews. But the question allows the author to dispel a rumor apparently spread by Pharisees that Jesus is casting out demons by the power of Beelzebul, the name of the one of the manifestations of Baal, who is the rival to the God of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures (2 Kings 1:2). Jesus asserts that it is by the "Spirit of God" that he drives out devils, and then says that this shows "the kingdom of God has already come upon you."
This is the first of three times in the gospel of Matthew that the phrase "kingdom of God" is used rather than "kingdom of heaven." As the gospel author has taken the trouble to change the phrase used in the gospel of Mark in other places, it is surprising that he does not do so here. Perhaps a later editor of this gospel added the story and comment.
"He who is not with me is against me," Jesus says. We may recall in the gospel of Mark that Jesus told his disciples that a man healing in his name, but without his permission, was with him. In this saying Jesus seems to be drawing a sharper distinction. Then Jesus distinguishes speaking against the Son of Man, which can be forgiven, from speaking against the Holy Spirit, for which there is no forgiveness "either in this age or in the age to come." As Jesus has said he is driving out devils by the power of the "Spirit of God," the gospel of Matthew seems to be asserting that the slander of the Pharisees against him will not be forgiven.
When Jesus tells the Pharisees that they will be condemned by their own words, they ask for a sign. Jesus answers by referring to the story of Jonah and claiming that, as Jonah was in the belly of a sea monster for three days, so the Son of Man will be in the bowels of the earth for three days. Then he says that the people of Nineveh, who repented when they heard the preaching of Jonah, will be saved, whereas "this wicked generation" will be judged and condemned. As the people of Nineveh were Gentiles, in this story the gospel of Matthew makes it clear that the kingdom of heaven has been opened for them as well as for Jews who confess in Jesus as the Messiah.
Now, at the end of chapter 12, the gospel of Matthew relates the response of Jesus to the appeal of his family that we find in chapter 3 of the gospel of Mark, which is a measure of how much teaching is included in the gospel of Matthew. In this case the author of the gospel of Matthew makes only slight changes in the story, which ends with Jesus affirming that "whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother and sister and mother." He does, however, change the phrase in the gospel of Mark about "the will of God" to "the will of my heavenly Father." Generally, the author of the gospel of Matthew is wary of Jewish sensibilities and avoids using the Greek word for God.
The gospel of Matthew now relates the parable of the sower and the explanation that Jesus gives to his disciples. The author follows the account in the gospel of Mark, but for the benefit of his Jewish readers he inserts a reference to Isaiah 6:9-10 to show that by teaching in parables, which the people do not understand, Jesus is fulfilling Hebrew prophecy. Those, we are told, who hear the word of the kingdom of heaven and understand it, will bear fruit.
Then Jesus tells them three more parables about the kingdom of heaven. The first concerns weeds that grow up in a field of wheat. At the time of harvest the weeds and wheat will be cut together and the weeds burned. The second parable is about the mustard seed that grows to be so large that birds nest in it. The third parable is about yeast, which a woman mixes in flour until it is leavened. This last parable does not appear in the gospel of Mark, but we will find it in the gospel of Luke. Then he quotes from Psalm 78:2, which he refers to as a "saying of the prophet." This verse reads: "I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things kept secret since the world was made." That explains the use of parables, but it does not explain why Jesus explains the parables only to his disciples and not to the other people who follow him.
Unlike the gospel of Mark, the gospel of Matthew has Jesus give his disciples an explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds. Then the gospel of Matthew relates three more parables about the kingdom of heaven. It is like a treasure in a field that prompted the man who found it to sell everything in order to buy the field. It is also like a pearl that a merchant found, who then sold all he had to buy the pearl. And it is like a net cast into the sea that is drawn in full of fish, which are then sorted out. The author adds to this parable: "That is how it will be at the end of time." The angels will "separate the wicked from the good" and throw the wicked into "the blazing furnace, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." This phrase, which is translated "weep and gnash their teeth" in many translations of the Bible, appears six times in the gospel of Matthew, but none of the other New Testament gospels include these words attributed to Jesus.
The gospels of Mark and Matthew begin with Jesus in Galilee proclaiming: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is upon you." (Mt. 4:17) Certainly, the final day of the Lord had not yet arrived, but in the letters of Paul we find him resisting the teaching of the Jewish apostles from Jerusalem that the kingdom has come. Therefore, Paul says very little about the kingdom of God, but rather calls Gentiles and Jews to live "in Christ" until the Lord comes again.
A New Understanding of the Law
In the gospel of Matthew, when Jesus asks the disciples if they have understood his teachings, they answer, "Yes." Then Jesus replies: "When, therefore, a teacher of the law has become a learner in the kingdom of heaven, he is like a householder who can produce from his store things new and old." This simple statement sums up the message of the gospel of Matthew. The disciples, and those who join them in repentance and living righteously, will have to understand the Jewish law in new ways.
The gospel then reports that Jesus returned to his hometown, but there he is challenged rather than welcomed. The account is similar to that in the gospel of Mark, except that the brother of Jesus named "Joses" in Mark 6:3 is named "Joseph" in Matthew 13:55. There is no way to reconcile these two accounts and no way to know which is correct. But, more importantly, the story of the rejection of Jesus by the people of his own community is a criticism not only of Jews in general but even of his own friends and family. When we recall from Paul's letters that James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, this passage is particularly harsh. The author of the gospel of Matthew had to know that James had been the head of the Jerusalem church. By telling this story about the family of Jesus, the author of the gospel of Matthew undermines the authority of James in the early church.