The gospel of Matthew repeats the remark in the gospel of Mark that Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist "raised from the dead" and then relates a shorter version of the story of John's death at the hands of Herod. Following the sequence of events in the gospel of Mark, the author of the gospel of Matthew then records the stories of the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water. He tells us that women and children were present at the feeding, along with the five thousand men reported by the gospel of Mark. And in the story about Jesus on the water, the author of the gospel of Matthew adds that Peter stepped out of the boat to walk to Jesus but then became afraid and began to sink. Jesus catches him by the hand, the gospel reports, and then says to Peter, "How little faith you have!"
This story ends in the gospel of Mark with a comment about how the disciples did not understand "because their hearts were hardened." (Mk. 7:52) But in the gospel of Matthew, the disciples fall at the feet of Jesus and exclaim: "You must be the Son of God." It is striking how freely the author of the gospel of Matthew uses the gospel of Mark. He does not hesitate to cut material out ― even statements attributed to Jesus. He rearranges some material, and he frequently adds his own explanations. It is hard for us to image anyone editing one of the gospels. We must remember, however, that when the author of Matthew was writing his gospel, what we know today as the gospel of Mark was not "scripture." It was one of several documents about Jesus that the author of the gospel of Matthew used to write his proclamation of the good news.
In this passage about Jesus and his disciples, the gospel of Matthew completely reverses the ending of the story in Mark. The author of the gospel of Matthew may have believed that the disciples could not credibly have failed to understand the real identity of Jesus, after Jesus feeds the five thousand and saves Peter on the Sea of Galilee. Therefore, he follows these reports with a confession of faith. Or, it may be that the author of the gospel of Matthew wants to emphasize more than the gospel of Mark does that Peter and the other disciples were faithful to Jesus, despite their slowness to understand and their fear at the time of the crucifixion.
It seems in the gospel of Matthew that the family of Jesus does not understand who Jesus is, but that the disciples finally do. This may be the way the author of the gospel of Matthew is supporting Peter, as the leading disciple and apostle, and undercutting traditions about James, the brother of Jesus, who had more power in the church in Jerusalem than Peter. We saw in Paul's letter to the Galatians that Peter and James did not always agree. The gospel of Matthew will have Jesus name Peter as his successor and will ignore James, the brother of Jesus, or simply criticize him along with the other members of the family of Jesus for not understanding. This may be because the author of the gospel of Matthew does not agree with what appear to be church initiatives directed by James to impose Jewish law on Gentile Christians.
In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus verifies his true identity by healing all those who come to him. Nonetheless, a group of Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem come only to criticize him for not enforcing the tenets of Jewish law. The gospel of Matthew omits the explanation about the law that the gospel of Mark adds as an aside in recording this story, which is again evidence that the gospel of Matthew is written for Jews who know the law of Moses. The gospel of Mark, as we saw, was written primarily for Gentiles, who would probably not have known much about Jewish dietary restrictions.
The gospel of Matthew revises somewhat the story related in the gospel of Mark that denounces the Pharisees for their hypocrisy but includes the question from the disciples asking that the teaching be explained. In the gospel of Matthew, Peter asks this question, and Jesus replies, "Are you still as dull as the rest?" before giving his explanation. But, more significantly, the gospel of Matthew also omits the comment of the author in the gospel of Mark: "By saying this he [Jesus] declared all foods clean." (Mk. 7:19) Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, affirms that immorality defiles a person, and that eating without first washing does not. But the author of the gospel of Matthew does not conclude from this teaching that Jesus repudiated all Jewish rules concerning clean and unclean foods.
Now the gospel reports the story of Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon, where he heals the daughter of a woman who, despite being a Gentile, is said to have great faith. Then, back in Galilee, he heals all those who are brought to him and amazes the people with his power. The gospel of Matthew omits some of the details in the gospel of Mark including a reference to the ten Greek cities known as the Decapolis and the description of how Jesus restores hearing and speech to a deaf and dumb man. Perhaps the account in the gospel of Mark of Jesus putting his fingers in the ears of the man and spitting and touching his tongue (Mk. 7:33) seemed too crude to the author of this gospel to be included in his story of Jesus.
The narrative proceeds in both gospels by the feeding of four thousand men, "not counting women and children," the gospel of Matthew again adds. And then the Pharisees come to ask for "a sign from heaven," as if there have not already been many signs. In the gospel of Mark Jesus answers: "no sign shall be given to this generation." In the gospel of Matthew Jesus answers: "the only sign that will be given it [this generation] is the sign of Jonah." As the gospel of Matthew has already reported Jesus mentioning this sign, it can hardly deny the sign now. The sign, however, is a prophecy that Jesus will fulfill. Jesus does not produce a miracle to please the Pharisees.
Both gospels then relate that the disciples of Jesus are worrying about bread, because they have forgotten to pack provisions in the boat that is taking them across the Sea of Galilee. The gospels report that Jesus admonishes his disciples for their lack of faith and understanding. The disciples seem so obtuse here that it is hard to see this as a factual account. Perhaps the story is intended as an attack on the authority of the church of Jerusalem, which was under the leadership of the disciples (as apostles) after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
The gospel of Matthew omits a healing story related in the gospel of Mark, which says that Jesus spit on a man's eyes to restore his vision. (Mk. 8:23) Then it reports the conversation between Jesus and his disciples about who he is. The gospel of Matthew adds, to the account in the gospel of Mark, praise for Peter. Jesus says, "Simon, son of Jonah, you are favored indeed!" This insight, Jesus exclaims, was revealed to him "by my heavenly Father." Then Jesus names him "Peter," which means "the rock," and says: "on this rock I will build my church." Jesus says he will give Peter "the keys of the kingdom of heaven" and, "what you forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven, and what you allow on earth shall be allowed in heaven."
The word in Greek for church does not appear in any other gospel, but the author of the gospel of Matthew uses it three times. In the first century there was no comparable word in Hebrew or Aramaic, so it is hard to imagine Jesus actually speaking about the church to his disciples. Here we see the author of the gospel of Matthew linking Jesus to the church that comes after him by naming Peter as the leader of the church. (The gospel of Mark contains no such confirmation of Peter's leadership. Moreover, the lack of even a resurrection appearance to the disciples in the gospel of Mark draws the reader's attention away from Peter and the other disciples―implying, perhaps, that the real leader of the church is the apostle Paul.)
In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter is the primary spokesperson for the church at the beginning, but even in Acts the preeminence of James, the brother of Jesus, is acknowledged when Paul comes to Jerusalem for the second time to meet with the leaders of the church. (Acts 21:18) By having Jesus name Peter to succeed him, the author of the gospel of Matthew may be covering up the fact that James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem during the ministry of Paul.
Faith and Life
The gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter resists the teaching of Jesus that the Son of Man has to die and is dismissed by Jesus for thinking as men think rather than as God thinks. As in the gospel of Mark, the author of the gospel of Matthew reports the teaching that "whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it." Then the gospel of Matthew repeats the prediction: "there are some of those standing here who will not taste death before they have seen the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Six days later, the gospel tells us, Jesus takes James, John, and Peter to a mountain where Elijah and Moses appear to them. The vision of his transfiguration in the gospel of Matthew is the same as in the gospel of Mark. This leads in both gospels to a discussion between Jesus and his disciples about Elijah coming (as John the Baptist) before the Son of Man. Jesus seems to be saying that the suffering and death of John the Baptist reveals what will happen to the Son of Man. Then, both gospels report, Jesus heals a boy that his disciples could not heal and upbraids them because their faith is "too small."
Once more Jesus tells the disciples that the Son of Man is to be killed and then raised on the third day. The gospel of Mark reports that the disciples do not understand him and are afraid to ask for an explanation. In an effort to support the teaching and ministry of Paul, the author of the gospel of Mark never deviates from his portrayal of the disciples as dimwitted and uninspired. But the gospel of Matthew has a different view. Here it reports that the disciples "were filled with grief." This is appropriate and implies they understand. A more favorable view of the disciples in the gospel of Matthew is part of the rehabilitation of Peter and the other disciples. Peter will deny Jesus at the time of his arrest, but he will express grief and remorse and be reinstated as the leader of the church after the resurrection of Jesus.
Like Paul, however, the author of the gospel of Matthew does not want to cause trouble for the Christians in the Roman Empire. Therefore, he tells a story about having Peter, his chosen successor, pay a temple tax by catching a fish that has a coin in its mouth. The story has Jesus saying, "we do not want to cause offense." This statement from one, who has caused great offense in his confrontations with Pharisees and scribes, is ironic and should be understood as protecting the Jewish Christians for whom the gospel of Matthew is written. In the story Peter says, as the spokesperson for Jesus, that the temple tax is to be paid and actually carries it out. This fish story allows him to pay the tax without using his own money, but the accommodation to the ruling authorities is nonetheless apparent.
When the disciples ask, in the gospel of Matthew, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus tells them to "become like children." Whoever "humbles himself and becomes like this child," he teaches, "will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." And anyone who causes the downfall of a child will be worse off than a man thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck. The images used here and in the gospel of Mark (9:42-48) are brutal. If your hand or foot causes your downfall, "cut it off." Or if your eye causes your downfall, "tear it out." It is tragic that these images are at times taken literally, as contemporary psychiatric records verify.
The gospel of Matthew then inserts a sermon into the account of the gospel of Mark. It begins with a story of a shepherd with one hundred sheep who leaves the ninety-nine to hunt for the one that is lost. Next Jesus instructs his disciples how to resolve their conflicts amicably. The authority given to Peter is now given to them all, as we are told that whatever they "forbid on earth shall be forbidden in heaven." And if any two or three of them agree about a request, it will be granted. In addition, Jesus seems to add in a more general sense, "where two or three meet together in my name, I am there among them."
The Severity of the Gospel
Peter asks how often he is to forgive a brother who has wronged him. It might be that he is asking only about being wronged by another disciple, as he uses the word "brother," but nonetheless the answer of Jesus is astounding: "I do not say seven times but seventy times seven."
Then Jesus tells a story to help his disciples understand the kingdom of heaven. It concerns a king who decides to settle accounts with those serving him. A servant with a large debt is ordered to sell everything including his wife and children in order to pay it off, but the king relents and even cancels the debts after the servant begs the king for more time. When this servant, however, has another servant who owes him a debt thrown into jail until the debt is paid, the king becomes so angry that he condemns the man to be tortured until he pays his debt in full. Then Jesus says, "That is how my heavenly Father will deal with you, unless you each forgive your brother from your heart."
We can only hope, at the end of this story, that the admonitions of Jesus are only for the disciples and will not be expected of others who accept that Jesus is the Messiah. There is a severity in the gospel of Matthew that is hard to bear. The Jesus who eats with sinners and tax collectors seems, in these teachings, to be much harder on his own disciples than on those considered to be public sinners. Of course, we may come to the conclusion that these teachings were not intended to be taken literally. Perhaps they are merely to scare the disciples in order to help them overcome temptation. But that, too, would not be very encouraging.
Here, as elsewhere in the New Testament, the author, and not God, has written what we are reading. We see clearly in the letters of Paul that he did not always live up to the standard of love and forgiveness that he preached, and he openly admitted that he was a sinner. It is harder in reading the gospels to sort out the author's view from the teaching of Jesus or the witness of the Christian community that we might trust to be inspired. But clearly the gospels are not simply the words of God. They are the words of church leaders who are witnessing to their faith in the midst of the conflicts and confusion of their time.
Can we expect the authors of the gospels to see so clearly the will of God in Jesus, when we know that Paul, who was inspired by the risen Christ, differed with Jesus' disciples, who as apostles were leading the church in Jerusalem? The gospel of Matthew, like the other gospels, is the witness of a man on behalf of his community of faith. If it is harsher in some of its judgments than other gospels, surely we may conclude that this is the view of the author and his community rather than the word of God.