Matthew 25-28

Chapter 25 of the gospel of Matthew has no parallel in the gospel of Mark, but begins with two parables that are also in the gospel of Luke. The story of the ten girls with lamps going out to meet the bridegroom at night illustrates that some are unprepared (those in the parable with insufficient oil) and thus will miss out. Similarly, the parable of the talents shows how servants given money by their master, as he leaves to go abroad, either invest or hoard it, and the judgments that follow the decisions they made. In the second parable the master refers to the two men who made interest on the money during the master's absence as "faithful servants," but the man who buried the money in the ground is thrown into the dark, "where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth."

Then the author of the gospel of Matthew tells a parable that is found only in this gospel. It is known in the church as the parable of the Great Judgment. The Son of Man, when he is sitting on his throne, will separate the peoples of the world into two groups, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Then the Son of Man will tell those on his right, "You have my Father's blessing; come and take possession of the kingdom that was been ready for you since the world was made." The Son of Man explains to those on his right that they have been chosen because: "when I was hungry, you gave me food; when thirsty, you gave me drink; when I was a stranger, you took me into your home; when naked, you clothed me, when I was ill, you came to my help; when in prison, you visited me."

When "the righteous" reply that they cannot recall serving him, the gospel tells us that "the king" answers, "anything you did for one of my brothers here, however insignificant, you did for me." And what will happen to those who did not do as the righteous did? "A curse is on you," the Son of Man says, and they are sent "to the eternal fire that is ready for the devil and his angels." In the gospel of Matthew eternity has two forms. Those who are judged and found wanting "will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous will enter eternal life."

This terrifying story is told only to the disciples in the gospel of Matthew, but it is written for the churches they serve as apostles. Remember that the disciples are being sent out with no provisions or spare clothes or food to preach the gospel and heal. With good reason the author of the gospel of Matthew is concerned about their care. Are the least among those who labor on behalf of the church receiving hospitality, care when they are sick, and visits when they are in prison for the sake of the gospel? To ensure that they are well received and cared for, the author of the gospel of Matthew describes what awaits those who support the church and those who do not. The people who help "the least among the brothers" will be saved, but those who do not see the spirit of the Messiah in these apostles and church workers will be damned.

And who might the author of the gospel have in mind for eternal punishment? Most likely the Pharisees, who teach that Jesus is not the Messiah and condemn the Jews who claim he is.

Passover

The gospel of Matthew once again takes up the story of the gospel of Mark. Now Jesus reminds his disciples that "in two days' time it will be Passover, when the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified." The chief priests are conspiring against Jesus but want to avoid arresting him during the festival, as the crowds there for the Passover might riot. Then we read about the woman who pours expensive oil on the hair of Jesus and the anger of his disciples because of the waste. Jesus says  her story will be told "wherever this gospel is proclaimed throughout the world." It is surprising, however, that neither the gospel of Mark nor the gospel of Matthew records her name.

Both gospels report that Judas goes to the chief priests to arrange for the arrest of Jesus. The gospel of Matthew relates the account in the gospel of Mark of the last supper that Jesus eats with his disciples, but adds a comment by Jesus that specifically identifies Judas as his betrayer. Once they finish with a Passover hymn, they go out to the Mount of Olives. Jesus tells his disciples, "you will all lose faith because of me" and says to Peter when he protests, "you will disown me three times" before the cock crows twice. Then he takes Peter and "the two sons of Zebedee" (James and John) with him while he prays.

As the gospel of Matthew follows almost exactly the account of the gospel of Mark, it is interesting that the gospel of Matthew removes the names of James and John from the story. And if we look closely in both gospels, we will see on four other occasions that the gospel of Matthew omits the names of James and John when they appear in the gospel of Mark. (Mk. 1:29, Mt. 8:14; Mk. 10:35 and 41, Mt. 20:20 and 24; Mk. 13:05, Mt. 24:3) The only time the gospel of Matthew refers to James and John by name is when the disciples are called, in the commissioning of the twelve disciples when all the disciples are named, and in the story of the transfiguration of Jesus. In these instances the gospel of Matthew is simply repeating the story of the gospel of Mark.

Is the author of the gospel of Matthew trying to play down the importance of James and John? If so, why? Peter, James, and John, who are always named in the gospels of Mark and Matthew in that order, seem to be the leaders of the disciples. It is interesting that Paul names James, Peter, and John as the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, in that order, although Paul is referring to James, the brother of Jesus, who had authority even over Peter. Might the author of the gospel of Mark have created the sons of Zebedee, James and John, to conceal that James, the brother of Jesus, was also a disciple of Jesus ― perhaps even the disciple closest to him? That would explain how James, the brother of Jesus, became the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Otherwise, it is hard to understand how the brother of Jesus, who plays no role in the New Testament gospels, becomes head of the church in Jerusalem.

The gospel of Matthew has Jesus give the keys to the kingdom to Peter, and has removed almost half the references to James and John by name that occur in the gospel of Mark. This can hardly be an accident. Perhaps the author of the gospel of Matthew is simply reducing the profile of James and John in his gospel and thereby giving greater prominence to Peter.

Arrest and Trial

As in the gospel of Mark, Judas comes with an armed crowd into Gethsemane to arrest Jesus. Judas calls Jesus "Rabbi," and the Jesus of the gospel of Matthew replies, "Friend, do what you are here to do." The gospel of Matthew reports that all the disciples fled, but it edits out of the account the reference in the gospel of Mark to a young man in a linen cloth who was seized but ran away naked. (Mk. 14:51-52) The gospel of Matthew adds to the account in the gospel of Mark that Jesus spoke to the crowd, saying that they did not need to come for him like a bandit, as he spoke openly in the temple. "But this," Jesus exclaims, "has all happened to fulfill what the prophets wrote," although it is not clear what scriptures in the Hebrew Bible are actually being fulfilled by his arrest.

Then the gospel reports the trial before Caiaphas and Peter's betrayal in almost the same words as the gospel of Mark, except that Jesus answers the high priest's question, "Are you the Messiah?" with the words, "You have said so." In the gospel of Mark, Jesus answers, "I am." As Jesus, in the gospel of Matthew, has not threatened to destroy the temple, this charge against him is certainly false. Moreover, it is not clear that Jesus has committed blasphemy, as he has merely told the chief priests that they will see the vision of Daniel come true. In this gospel the judgment against Jesus is presented as an act of jealousy and revenge.

While Jesus is being judged, Peter denies knowing him in the courtyard outside. In the gospel of Mark, Peter "bursts into tears" after the cock crows. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter "weeps bitterly." In the morning Jesus is taken to Pilate. The gospel of Matthew adds a story to the account in the gospel of Mark about Judas, who returns the thirty pieces of silver he has received from the chief priests and confesses that he has sinned by bringing "an innocent man to his death." When the priests respond that his problem is no concern of theirs, Judas throws the money down in the temple and goes out and hangs himself.

The chief priests take the money and use it to buy a burial field for foreigners. The author of the gospel of Matthew says this is to fulfill a saying in the prophet Jeremiah, but actually the reference is to Zechariah (11:12-13). It is hard to imagine why the author of the gospel makes an error like this or why it was not corrected in the second or third century.

The trial before Pilate in the gospel of Matthew follows the account in the gospel of Mark closely but relates that Pilate's wife sends a message to her husband saying Jesus is innocent. This seems to prompt Pilate to wash his hands before the crowd as he exclaims: "My hands are clean of this man's blood." Then the gospel of Matthew reports: "With one voice the people cried, 'His blood be on us and on our children.'" It is extremely unlikely that the crowd would have said this, even if they were calling for the crucifixion of Jesus. And certainly they could not have said anything "with one voice." These words are the judgment of the author of the gospel of Matthew. Just as the Pharisees are to bear the guilt of their fathers' sins in the past against the prophets, so the synagogues (the "children" of this crowd) are held responsible for the death of Jesus.

This statement by the author of the gospel of Matthew has rung like a death knell throughout European history and led Christians to seek revenge for the death of Jesus by persecuting Jews. These acts of hatred are not the word of God, but rather the shame of the church. This passage in scripture must be understood as the invective of Jewish Christians against the Jews who refused to recognize Jesus as the Messiah. It is also a way of blaming Jews, rather than Romans, for the crucifixion of Jesus.

The author of the gospel of Matthew, like Paul, does not want the Roman authorities to believe that the Christian church is subversive. The gospel of Matthew presents a gospel story in which Jesus is killed because of his interpretation of Jewish law and his claim to be the fulfillment of the promise of a coming Messiah. The author portrays the conflict as entirely a quarrel among Jews. When the Roman governor orders the crucifixion of Jesus, the gospel of Matthew reports that the governor is merely performing a necessary legal function at the request of the Jewish authorities.

The account of the flogging and tormenting of Jesus and his crucifixion is almost identical to the gospel of Mark. But at the moment of the death of Jesus, the gospel of Matthew adds that graves opened: "many of God's saints were raised from sleep, and coming out of their graves after his resurrection entered the Holy City, where many saw them. 

Then, not only the centurion, but all his soldiers keeping watch exclaim, "This must have been a son of God." Unlike the gospel of Mark, here there are many Gentile witnesses.

The gospel of Matthew records that the women watching from a distance, who "had followed Jesus from Galilee and looked after him," include "Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee." In the gospel of Mark these women are named as "Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome," and the gospel of Mark says they "all followed him and looked after him when he was in Galilee." The differences between these two versions are striking, especially as the crucifixion accounts are otherwise so similar.

The gospel of Mark tells us that these women followed and cared for Jesus in Galilee, meaning they not only came to Jerusalem but were with him all along. This means that the mother of Jesus (of James and Joseph in Matthew’s gospel and James and Joses in Mark’s gospel) was also a follower of Jesus.

When we heard about the family of Jesus in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, four brothers were named: James, Joses (Joseph), Simon, and Judas. Why do the gospels only mention two of these sons, when they identify Mary as a witness to the death of Jesus? It is hard not to conclude that these two sons also followed Jesus along with their Mother, in Galilee (the gospel of Mark says) and from Galilee to Jerusalem (both gospels say). That means that James, the brother of Jesus, who is mentioned first in all four references to these brothers, was a disciple of Jesus. It is less surprising, then, that he was chosen as the leader of the church in Jerusalem (this is verified in Acts).

In the gospels it may be that James and John, the sons of Zebedee, conceal the fact that James, the brother of Jesus, was a disciple. The fact that the gospel of Matthew inserts a reference to their mother in his gospel account, in place of Salome, suggests that the author of the gospel of Matthew wanted to give the sons of Zebedee, rather than "James the younger," greater prominence. Moreover, we know that the gospel of Matthew did not agree with the imposition of Jewish law on Gentiles that was supported by James, the brother of Jesus, when he was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. The author of the gospel of Mark also wanted to undercut the authority of James, the brother of Jesus. Instead of favoring Peter, however, he end his gospel without having Jesus give any of his disciples authority. The gospel of Mark was written to support the churches organized by Paul.

Joseph of Arimathea asks for the body of Jesus, takes and wraps it in a linen sheet, puts it in his own unused tomb, and rolls a large stone over the entrance. The gospel of Mark tells us that Joseph of Arimathea was a "member of the Council" who was looking forward to the kingdom of God, whereas the gospel of Matthew deletes the fact that he sat on the Jewish Council and reports "he had become a disciple of Jesus." The gospels of Luke and John will each have a slightly different description of this man, who does not appear in the gospel story while Jesus is alive but steps forward after the crucifixion to claim his body.

The gospel of Matthew relates that the chief priests were worried that the disciples might steal his body from the tomb and claim he was raised from the dead, because Jesus had predicted his resurrection. When they inform Pilate of their concern, he gives them permission to seal the tomb and post a guard. On the morning after the sabbath, the gospel of Matthew tells us, Mary of Magdala and "the other Mary" came to look at the grave. Then there was an earthquake and an angel of the Lord descended and rolled away the stone. After the terrified guards fall to the ground, the angel tells the women that Jesus has been raised and will meet them in Galilee.

The two Marys and Salome, in the gospel of Mark, find an open tomb with the stone rolled away and, inside the tomb, a young man, who gives them a similar message. But in the gospel of Mark, the women flee and, because they are afraid, say "nothing to anyone." In the gospel of Matthew, however, the message by the angel who opened the tomb fills the women with "awe and great joy." And, the gospel records, "they ran to bring the news to the disciples. Suddenly, "Jesus was there in their path, greeting them." They kneel before him and clasp his feet, as Jesus tells them to "take word to my brothers" that they are to go to Galilee to meet him there.

The gospel of Matthew finishes the resurrection account with a comment on the story that the chief priests spread about the disciples stealing the body of Jesus, which is "current in Jewish circles to this day," the author tells us. Once again we see the author writing into the gospel an argument that his Jewish Christian colleagues can use against the Jews of their time who oppose them. 

Then the gospel concludes with a meeting of the disciples on a mountain in Galilee. There "they knelt in worship, though some were doubtful.” This is a fascinating admission. There must have been Christians in the church at the time this gospel was written who doubted the resurrection, as Paul admitted in his first letter to the church at Corinth. (1 Cor. 15) 

Paul argued strenuously against a denial of the resurrection, but here the gospel of Matthew seems to accept those who are "doubtful." Perhaps in the church of the author of the gospel of Matthew it was important to be tolerant of different views about the resurrection in order to keep the Jewish Christians united against the attacks by Pharisees.

Finally, Jesus comes near and gives the disciples full authority, as he did before his death. But now he tells the disciples not simply to minister to Jews but to go to "all the nations and make them my disciples." And he instructs these men, whom he has chosen and trained, to "baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe all that I have commanded you." The torch has been passed to the eleven disciples (Judas is dead), most of whom seem to have faith. But they will not be alone. The last words of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew are comforting to us all: "I will be with you always, to the end of time."

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016