Matthew 8-11:1

After teaching his disciples, Jesus returns to his ministry among the people. He heals a leper and tells him to keep quiet, as he does in the gospel of Mark. In the gospel of Mark, the man who was healed make "the whole story public." (Mk. 1:45) But in the gospel of Matthew, we hear nothing about what the healed man does. 

Then Jesus heals the servant of a Roman centurion, who has acknowledged the authority of Jesus to be like that of a military commander. "Many," Jesus says, "will come from east and west to sit with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the kingdom of heaven. But those who were born to the kingdom will be thrown out into the dark, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth." This seems to imply that Jews who refuse to accept Jesus as the Messiah will be judged, while Gentiles who respond to Jesus by following his teachings will be saved

The gospel of Luke also tells the story of the healing of the centurion's servant. Again, we see that the authors of these two gospels seem to have material that the author of the gospel of Mark either did not have or chose not to use. The gospel of Luke, however, does not add the conclusion to the story that we find in the gospel of Matthew. Images of judgment may be found in all the New Testament gospels but are most prominent in the gospel of Matthew. The Jesus of this gospel not only sees Jewish and Gentile Christians in the kingdom of heaven, but he also sternly warns Jews that their rejection of Jesus will land them in hell.

The story of the centurion who comes to Jesus to ask for healing for his son is a particularly interesting story because Jesus remarks that "nowhere in Israel have I found such faith." We might suppose that the disciples, who have left their homes and work to follow Jesus, would be credited with having great faith. Nonetheless, in the story of the storm on the lake as reported in the first three gospels, Jesus rebukes his disciples for their lack of faith.

Faith

It may be helpful to recall at this point that the word faith in the New Testament translates the Greek word pistis, which is at the heart of Paul's teachings for Greek-speaking Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ. The gospel of Mark emphasizes faith and, in addition, reports that the Galilean peasants following Jesus were men of "little faith." This theme is carried through the narrative of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, as all his disciples go into hiding to save themselves. In the first three gospels the disciples generally seem not to understand what Jesus expects of them. 

The story of the centurion, therefore, may have been included in the gospels of Matthew and Luke to emphasize that Gentiles can (and do!) have faith. The centurion is not educated in Jewish law, but he recognizes authority and has faith in the authority of Jesus. This, Paul has already written, is what is required, and the success of Paul's ministry among the Gentiles has verified his claim. 

If these two gospels had been written during Paul's ministry and were circulating among the churches, it seems likely that Paul would have referred to the story of the centurion as a way of supporting his teaching. The words of Jesus, after all, would have been his strongest argument. Because Paul seems not to be aware of this event in the life of Jesus, nor of the gospels that relate the tale, it is probable that the story of the centurion comes from the life of the Gentile churches. It is iis a way of affirming that Jesus came to call Gentiles as well as Jews to eternal life through repentance and faith.

Healing and Miracles

Jesus then visits Peter's house and heals his mother-in-law. Moreover, he drives out demons and heals all those who are sick, the gospel of Matthew tells us, "to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah" (53:4). Then he presents a stark choice to a scribe who pledges to follow him: "Foxes have holes and birds their roosts; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." And to one of his disciples who asks leave to bury his father, Jesus replies, "Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead." These two harsh statements in the New Testament are only in the gospel of Matthew. 

Next the gospel relates the story of Jesus quieting the storm on the Sea of Galilee and his comment to the disciples: "How little faith you have!” In this gospel the place Jesus visits on the other side of the Sea is called the "country of the Gadarenes," although the gospel of Mark calls it "the country of the Gerasenes." (Gadara was one of the ten Greek cities of the Decapolis. Geresea is another Decapolis city. Each is a Gentile, Greek-speaking community.) 

Now two men possessed by demons come to meet him (rather than just one, as in the gospel of Mark). The demons address Jesus as "Son of God" and ask to be sent into the pigs. The gospel of Matthew omits many of the details of this story that are recorded in the gospel of Mark, but the conclusion is the same. The men are freed of the demons, the pigs plunge to their death, and the people out of fear ask Jesus to leave.

Jesus comes back across the Sea of Galilee and then heals a paralyzed man. The gospel of Matthew does not report that the man was lowered through a roof that had been opened, as in the gospel of Mark, but simply says the man is brought to Jesus on a bed. Then Jesus calls Matthew (who is named Levi in the gospel of Luke), eats with tax collectors and sinners, and tells the Pharisees who are complaining about him that he has come for sinners. 

Some of the disciples of John the Baptist come to Jesus and ask why his disciples do not fast. Jesus answers, as he did to the anonymous persons who raised the question in the gospel of Mark, that the disciples will fast "when the bridegroom will be taken away from them." Then he teaches that old garments cannot be mended with new patches and that new wine requires new wineskins.

In the gospel of Matthew now Jesus goes to the house of an official to raise his daughter from the dead, and on the way a woman, who suffers from bleeding, is healed by touching his cloak. Jesus heals two blind men, who are shouting, "Have pity on us, Son of David!" And, as in the gospel of Mark, they disregard his command not to tell anyone. He cures a dumb man, who then speaks, and continues to go around in the towns and villages of Galilee "teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every kind of illness and infirmity."

To extend his expanding ministry, Jesus commissions his twelve disciples. To the brief instructions that Jesus in the gospel of Mark gives his disciples, the author of the gospel of Matthew adds a whole sermon. Jesus tells his disciples: "Do not take the road to Gentile lands, and do not enter any Samaritan town; but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." In the gospel of Matthew we have already seen Jesus healing the slave of a Roman centurion, casting out demons from two men near Gadarene, a Gentile city, and proclaiming that people will come from around the world to join in the kingdom that Israel has rejected. Nonetheless, in this passage Jesus instructs his disciples to minister only to Jews.

Ministry to Jews

In the gospel of Matthew the disciples are taught a new interpretation of Jewish law that they are to take to their own people. It may be that the community of Christians for which this gospel is written believes that Jewish Christians should keep the law of Moses, but that the Jewish law should not be required of Gentile converts. At times Paul appears to express this view, but he also attacks Jewish law itself. 

Jesus in the gospel of Matthew tells the disciples not to take a stick with them on their journey. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus instructs the disciples to take a stick with them. (Mk. 6:8) We encounter here a contradiction. One of these versions of the commission that Jesus gives his disciples is factually incorrect, or both might be. The gospels do not relate historical facts, but narrate a teaching.

In the gospel of Matthew the disciples are told to "wish a house peace" as they enter a house. If they are welcomed, they are to leave their peace there. If they are not welcomed, then Jesus says, "let your peace come back to you." This is an interesting instruction that is unique to the gospel of Matthew. In Hebrew the word for peace is "shalom" and is a form of greeting. (Paul includes this word generally in his greeting to the churches, along with the word grace, which is the English translation of a Greek word.) Once again, we see that this gospel has a more Jewish cast than the gospel of Mark.

Persecution

Then the gospel of Matthew says the Jesus prepares his disciples for their persecution, telling them: "You will be handed over to the courts, they will flog you in their synagogues, and you will be brought before governors and kings on my account, to testify before them and the Gentiles." The Jews will be divided over their testimony to Jesus. "Brother will hand over brother to death, and a father his child; children will turn against their parents and send them to their death." But, Jesus says, before they have gone through all the towns of Israel, "the Son of Man will have come."

The author of the gospel is well aware of the division among Jews over the claim that Jesus is the Messiah. (Furthermore, it seems likely that the author of the gospel of Matthew knows at least some of the letters of Paul, which also warn of persecution and predict the end of the world within the lifetime of Paul's colleagues.) The gospel offers words of encouragement for those who will face persecution because they embrace Jesus as the Messiah. "Do not fear those who kill the body, but cannot kill the soul," Jesus says. Rather the disciples should fear the Father, "who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell."

The disciples are reassured that the "Father in heaven" cares for them, but they must accept that those who follow Jesus do so to the cross. Moreover, Jesus says he has come not "to bring peace, but a sword," and "to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man will find his enemies under his own roof." This is terribly harsh language, particularly in a society that treasures family ties. "No one is worthy of me," Jesus says, "who cares more for father or mother than for me" or "for a son or daughter." No one is worthy of Jesus "who does not take up his cross and follow" him.

Perhaps these are Jesus' words, which offer solace to disciples who have been rejected by their families. But it may be that the author of the gospel of Matthew is putting these words into the mouth of Jesus to offer encouragement to Jewish Christians who are being persecuted by members of the synagogues that have expelled them. If the latter, we need not think of this as misrepresenting Jesus. The author of the gospel of Matthew would surely have been convinced he was representing Jesus, as the risen Christ, by writing these words into his gospel to encourage struggling Christians in his own time.

After 70

The destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans in 70 ended the power of the priests, and soon the leading Jewish rabbis who survived began to organize what we now think of as Judaism. As we see in Paul's letters, Greek-speaking synagogues had been places for a free exchange of ideas. Gentiles often attended with Jews, and this is where Paul first met the Gentiles who embraced his teachings about the risen Christ. In the latter part of the first century such assimilation into Greek culture was seen by leading rabbis as a threat to the distinctive traditions of Jews. Therefore, to clarify what it means to be a faithful Jew, the rabbis began to impose restrictions on the synagogues that further separated Jews and Gentiles.

In the struggle to control the synagogues and, therefore, the life of the Jewish people, Pharisees became more powerful than they seem to have been during the time of Jesus. Jews, who believed that Jesus is the Messiah, had at first been listened to and tolerated within the synagogues; but as Pharisees gained control over the synagogues, Jews believing Jesus was the Messiah were forced out. This expulsion from the synagogues may explain why Pharisees are so strongly condemned in the gospels of the New Testament. As we encounter the harsh language of the gospel of Matthew, we need to recall that the author wrote his testimony for a Greek-speaking, largely Jewish community under considerable pressure from reforming Jewish Pharisees.

There is a phrase in the gospel of Matthew in this second sermon of Jesus that seems very similar to a teaching in the gospel of John. Jesus says, "when you are arrested, do not worry about what you are to say, for when the time comes, the words you need will be given you; it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking in you." (Mt. 10:19-20) The instructions that Jesus gives his disciples in the gospel of John (14-16) include a promise that the Spirit will be present with them and will speak through them. Both gospels also refer to God as Father and contain harsh condemnation of Jews.

In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to his disciples, "To receive you is to receive me, and to receive me is to receive the One who sent me." He thus authorizes them to represent him and, because he has been sent by the Father, Jesus promises that anyone who assists the ministry of his disciples "will certainly not go unrewarded." Then the sermon ends, as we noted earlier, with a transitional phrase: "When Jesus had finished giving instructions to his twelve disciples, he went from there to teach and preach in the neighboring towns."

 Bob@rtraer.com © Robert Traer 2016