Matthew 19-21

As we begin chapter 19 of the gospel of Matthew, we are at the beginning of chapter 10 in the gospel of Mark. We will soon see that Jesus has begun his journey to Jerusalem. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus adds to the discussion with some Pharisees about divorce a teaching given to his disciples, who have suggested that if divorce is not permitted, it is better not to marry. Jesus says not everyone can do without marriage, but he affirms that God has called some to renounce marriage "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."

This reminds us of Paul's statement to the church in Corinth, for he urged those who are able to abstain from marriage in order to devote themselves completely to God in the short time before the end comes. (1 Cor. 7) Both Paul and the author of the gospel of Matthew are arguing against the view that is represented by the disciples' question. Is someone promoting that all Christians remain unmarried? It would seem so. But who? We know that Peter is married, because we read that Jesus healed his mother-in-law. But Jesus does not marry in any of the gospels, and perhaps many of his disciples were not married. If James, the brother of Jesus, was not married, then we might expect that the injunction not to marry came from the church in Jerusalem.

Both the gospels of Mark and Matthew follow this teaching with an account about bringing children to Jesus so he could lay his hands on them and pray for them. Jesus rebukes those who keep the children from him and says, "the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." This statement reinforces an earlier teaching about being like a child to enter the kingdom, but it also blesses married life and the importance of raising children. 

It seems clear that both Paul and the authors of the gospels of Mark and Matthew want to affirm the families that are in churches. Paul does this by telling the Corinthians that marriage is fine, and the gospel of Mark confirms Paul's teaching with this story and teaching attributed to Jesus. In reporting the two feeding miracles by Jesus, the gospel of Matthew adds that women and children were also present. Now, by responding to the statement of the disciples about remaining unmarried, the author of the gospel of Matthew makes the confirmation of marriage and family life even more explicit.

High Expectations

Then the gospel of Matthew reports that a young man comes to Jesus and asks, "Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?" In the gospel of Mark the man asks, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" The author of the gospel of Matthew has slightly edited the gospel of Mark to clarify that the story concerns doing good and not whether Jesus is a good teacher. The remainder of chapter 19 in the gospel of Matthew follows the account in the gospel of Mark. Jesus asks the man if he has kept the moral commandments of the Jewish law, and he says he has. Then Jesus tells him to sell his goods and give the money to the poor so that he "will have treasure in heaven" and will be free to follow Jesus.

Both gospels report a discussion between Jesus and his disciples and the saying, "a rich man will find it hard to enter the kingdom of heaven ["kingdom of God" in the gospel of Mark]." When the disciples exclaim, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus tells them, "Everything is possible for God." Nevertheless, Peter asks the obvious question: "What about us?" And Jesus answers that they, and all those who have left "houses, or brothers or sisters, or father or mother, or children, or land for the sake of my name will be repaid many times over, and gain eternal life."

Earlier the gospel of Matthew affirmed family life, but here Jesus seems to call individuals out of their families to follow him. We need to realize, however, that this teaching would be comforting for Jews reading the gospel, if they had been rejected by family members or expelled from their synagogues because of their faith that Jesus was the Messiah. In the context of a bitter struggle among Jews that is even dividing families, the gospel of Matthew affirms that those who are faithful will be rewarded.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus also says, "in the world that is to be, when the Son of Man is seated on his glorious throne, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." For the author of the gospel of Matthew the kingdom of heaven not only means rewards for the disciples of Jesus but also judgment for Israel, because the synagogues have rejected the Messiah. This is even clearer in chapter 25.

The gospel of Matthew then inserts into the account in the gospel of Mark a parable about a landowner who hires men at different times during the day to work in his vineyard. When the laborers are all paid the same wage at the end of the day, those who began work earlier complain. But the landowner tells them they have no grounds to be unhappy, because they have received what he promised. Jesus concludes this parable with the famous saying, "So the last will be first, and the first last." These are the same words he used to finish his discussion with his disciples about their place in the "world that is to be," which suggests the parable has been added to emphasize the earlier teaching.

Redeeming the Disciples

Immediately, the gospel of Matthew returns to the account in the gospel of Mark and, in a few words, Jesus sums up the rest of the story. "We are now going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes; they will condemn him to death and hand him over to the Gentiles, to be mocked and flogged and crucified; and on the third day he will be raised to life again." 

This is followed in both gospels by a story about James and John and their hope to be seated at the right and left hand of Jesus, when he comes to reign in glory. Both gospels follow this story with an account of dissension among the disciples and with a teaching by Jesus that "whoever wants to be first [among the disciples] must be the slave of all." 

Is this a story about conflict among the disciples? Or is it about conflict in the early church among the apostles, the former disciples of Jesus? (We know from Paul's letter to the Galatians that Peter and James, at least, did not always agree.) It may be a memory passed on from the time of Jesus, but the two different versions in the gospels of Mark and Matthew verify that the author of the gospel of Matthew felt free to change the story. He has the mother of James and John ask that Jesus favor her sons, whereas in the gospel of Mark the two disciples ask Jesus for the favor. Why does the author of Matthew change the account in the gospel of Mark? The most likely answer is that it makes the disciples appear less selfish.

The gospel of Matthew has already had Jesus give authority to all the disciples to lead his church. This never happens in the gospel of Mark, where the story of James and John seeking a favor is just another example of their lack of faith. In the gospel of Mark the disciples are not rehabilitated in the lifetime of Jesus, nor does the gospel relate any resurrection experiences to them that would give them authority after the death of Jesus. In this way the gospel of Mark does not explain who is to succeed Jesus, which makes it easy to conclude that Paul has been given this authority by the risen Christ. In the gospel of Matthew, however, the disciples may have little faith and understanding for much of the story; nonetheless, they are at the end entrusted with the care of the church. The author of the gospel of Matthew is not happy with the conclusion of the gospel of Mark and changes it to clarify that the disciples are the true apostles of Jesus.

Before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, both gospels tell a healing story. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus heals Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus heals two blind men without naming either. It is not clear why the author of the gospel of Matthew has doubled the miracle but, apart from this detail, the stories are the same. Those who are healed now follow Jesus toward Jerusalem. We are past the time of secrecy. All those who now see, the stories imply, will follow Jesus.

At the Mount of Olives Jesus sends disciples off to find a donkey and a foal (in the gospel of Mark only a colt). The gospel of Matthew adds to the account in Mark that this is to fulfill a prophecy in Zechariah 9:9. Furthermore, Jesus in the gospel of Matthew rides into Jerusalem on the backs of both the donkey and the foal, and we are told that the crowds preceding and following him into the city "went wild with excitement." In the gospel of Mark, Jesus rides a colt into the city and is not greeted by a crowd. The author of the gospel of Matthew seems to have added the foal to the story, because of the lines quoted from Zechariah. But these lines are best read as simply poetic repetition, not as identifying two different animals.

In the Temple

A more striking difference between the accounts of the two gospels follows. The gospel of Mark relates that Jesus looks around the city and then goes to Bethany for the night. He returns the next day to drive the moneychangers out of the temple. In the gospel of Matthew, however, once in the city Jesus immediately goes to the temple. After upsetting the tables of the moneychangers, he heals the blind and the crippled. The point seems to be that healing and compassion for the poor, rather than sacrifices and payments to those who serve the temple, are the marks of the kingdom of heaven. When the Pharisees challenge him, Jesus quotes from the psalms to justify the praise he is receiving from the people (Ps. 8:2). Then he leaves to spend the night in Bethany.

It is hard to know why the author of the gospel of Matthew has Jesus immediately cleanse the temple, but it does separate his attack on the temple from the teaching Jesus gives in the temple the following day. Perhaps the author of the gospel of Matthew simply believed this was a more effective presentation of the materials than in the gospel of Mark.

The next day on his way into Jerusalem Jesus curses the fig tree, which has no fruit, and the fig tree immediately withers. In the gospel of Mark the cleansing of the temple is inserted into the account of the fig tree. In both gospels the story serves to prompt Jesus to teach about faith. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says, "Whatever you pray for in faith you will receive."

In the temple Jesus begins to teach and is confronted by the chief priests and elders who question his authority. In both gospels Jesus replies by asking them whether the baptism of John was from God or men. When they refuse to answer, Jesus tells two parables. The second concerning the vineyard let to tenants who kill the son of the landowner sent to collect the rent is in the gospel of Mark, but the first parable is not. It tells of a man who asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first agrees but does not, whereas the second refuses but does. Then Jesus tells the chief priests and elders that "tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you," because they accepted the baptism of John for repentance of their sins.

As we read in the gospel of Mark, the chief priests and elders want to arrest Jesus but are afraid of the people. The gospel of Matthew adds that the crowds "looked on Jesus as a prophet." The author of the gospel of Matthew identifies Jesus more closely with biblical prophecy and the prophecy of John than is the case in the gospel of Mark. This is consistent with our interpretation that the gospel of Matthew was written for a largely Jewish church. The prophets of ancient Israel challenged the established leaders and accused them of putting their own prestige and power above the welfare of the people. Jesus is understood to be continuing and completing that tradition. © Robert Traer 2016