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The Gospel Of Matthew by William R. Cannon


Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Gospel Of Matthew was published by The Upper Room, Nashville, 1982.This material prepared by Paul R. Mobley.


Chapter 2: The Teacher And His Pupils


First Matthew uses the testimony of God, through the virgin birth, the baptism, and the temptations, to establish the identity of Jesus.

Now Jesus offers his own testimony to those about him concerning the purpose of his mission and how it is to be accomplished. If he is the true king, then he must possess a kingdom and have subjects over whom to rule. His subjects constitute his kingdom, and they abide by his edicts and live according to his directives. Matthew portrays Jesus as the sublime teacher. Before the multitudes can be brought into the kingdom, however, the Master must teach his own disciples, who later will teach others and give organization to the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Matthew, in this section of his Gospel, portrays Jesus as he trains his disciples. He recounts both the content of Jesus' teaching and the method of its presentation.

1. The Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:1-7:29) Just as Moses received the Ten Commandments from the top of a high mountain, gives his gospel in a discourse on a mountain. Matthew is always eager to relate his account of Jesus to the Old Testament. He constantly draws parallels between the old dispensation and the new. The Jews are the children of the law. The followers of Jesus will be the recipients of the gospel. The Sermon on the Mount was delivered to the disciples. John Wesley says that in this instance the disciples not just the Twelve but all who desired to learn from him. Wesley's view is dubious. Since Jesus sat down on the mountainside, there must have been only a small group of people gathered around him to hear what he said. Probably it was only the Twelve.

The Sermon on the Mount, from the literary homiletical point of view, is a perfect document impossible to rearrange it in any way to improve on it. It contains only one hundred nine verses. A little more than half of these verses are peculiar Matthew's Gospel. They cannot be found anywhere else. The others are in Luke's as well, many in so-called Sermon on the Plain. Some modern scholars discount the fact that Jesus delivered the message as we have it and attribute the Sermon on the to Matthew's arrangement of Jesus' thoughts gleaned from many different occasions. But it is difficult to conceive of a perfect document such as this apart from an author who is perfection itself. To attribute it to Matthew is almost to make the disciple greater than his Master. No doubt Jesus did repeat his ideas under various circumstances. This is demonstrated in Luke's account where Jesus' many sayings in the Sermon on the Mount are preached in a different setting altogether. But repetitions like these do not preclude a full discourse such as the Sermon on the Mount, where the essence of the Master's teachings is set forth. The Sermon on the Mount is a gorgeous mosaic of the mind of Christ.

The sermon achieves its unity by means of an orderly transition from one section to the next, where each major division carries its special message but needs the others in order for the sermon to make its full impact. The discourse resembles a pyramid with a broad base of specificity. The picture of the two houses is the climax as well as the conclusion of the sermon.

The base of the sermon is the Beatitudes (Matt. 5:3-12), together with their enforcement in terms of Jesus' expectations of his disciples (Matt. 5:13-20). There are eight beatitudes. They have in common the characteristic of the unlikely and unexpected. How can one who is poor in spirit be happy? The opinion of society then, as now, might be that a person who is not motivated to acquire wealth is lazy. Added to this in Jesus' time was the religious interpretation that the good prospered, while the wicked suffered adversity. Not so, Jesus affirms. Those who possess the wealth of heaven cannot be encumbered with the material things of this world. The reward in the first beatitude is the same as that in the last, for those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake as well as the poor in spirit have heaven as their reward.

How do the meek possess the earth? By refusing to contend with others for it, they enjoy their lot in life to the extent that they believe they have everything Those who moan because of sorrow and pain and untoward circumstances receive divine comfort which more than compensates for anything that distresses them. Likewise, those who are righteous above everything else, who constantly pray for righteousness, will have their prayers answered. We become, Jesus says, what we most desire. The heart was to the Israelites of Jesus' day the center of understanding and the seat of the will. Therefore, if one's mind was clear of wicked thoughts and one's will anchored in the will of God, there would be no obstruction to spiritual vision. A person could not fail to see God. God loves peacemakers more than any other people; therefore, those who promote peace are called God's own children. What God calls anything, that something invariably is, because in God there is no distinction between appearance and reality.

Secular society has a different set of values. Therefore, Jesus tells his disciples that they shall be happy when society persecutes them, for such persecution only increases their rewards from God. He tells them they are like light, and they shine as examples of goodness to humankind. They are a preservative like salt. When people see genuinely good works, good deeds, they respond by acknowledging God whom those doing such good deeds worship and praise.

The Beatitudes are Jesus' transvaluation of all merely human values. They are the hallmarks of his kingdom. They are the basic characteristics of his subjects, of those who become true citizens of the kingdom of heaven, even though they continue to dwell on earth.

There is a decided contrast between the gospel of the kingdom of heaven and the law of the old dispensation (Matt. 5:21-48). The latter regulates behavior and conduct, while the former has to do with the riches of the mind, the feelings of the heart, and the disposition of the will. Consequently Moses forbade murder and manslaughter, while Jesus warns against anger out of which such misdeeds emerge. Moses outlawed adultery. Jesus will not even tolerate lust. He equates the inward craving with the external act. The Old Testament abounds in oaths and swearing, but Jesus says one's whole disposition shall be so oriented to honesty that swearing or taking an oath is unnecessary. A person's character is sufficient bond. Moses taught retaliation and retribution-"An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a life for a life -- but Jesus teaches his disciples to practice nonresistance by enduring wrongs that others inflict on them rather than defending themselves against evildoers. Love in the kingdom of heaven reaches beyond affection for those who have affection for us. We must love even our enemies. Our standard is not goals we set for ourselves. Our standard is the perfection of God. "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect" (Mart. 5:48).

The only important requirement for a citizen of the kingdom of heaven is that the person please God. One's reward is inward and spiritual with no concern for the recognition and praise of others here on earth. The outward display of piety is distasteful, as it is also counterproductive. People who engage in such acts are insincere. The purpose of almsgiving is to help the unfortunate. It is not to let the general public know one’s worth and generosity. Giving a fifth of one's income to charity instead of the prescribed tenth should bring satisfaction in the greater good it does, not in the reputation it establishes. Both prayer and fasting which accompanies prayer are to be done in secret and not openly to advertise one's piety to the world. Only the treasures accumulated in heaven abide. No matter how extensive one's possessions, nor their guarantee by government, nothing is secure here, not even Social Security. Therefore, it does not pay to worry over gains and losses. It is enough to realize that God loves and cares for us. Trust in God is the only cure for anxiety.

The section of the Sermon on the Mount in which these teachings are set forth (Matt. 6:1-34) is among the noblest passages in all literature. The imagery of Jesus in this passage is exquisite. The Lord's Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13), as Matthew gives it, is the one we repeat collectively in our services of worship. The description of the fowls of the air, the lilies of the field, the grass which today is and tomorrow is cast into the oven, and Solomon in all his glory, has etched itself forever on the memory of humanity in most of the languages of the world.

The last segment of the teachings in the Sermon on the Mount is a collection of admonitions (Matt. 7:1-23). Our Lord admonishes his disciples to refrain from judging others, censuring their deeds and

scrutinizing their attitudes and behavior in order to find fault with them. Such people are so busy criticizing others that they do not take time to observe their own faults, which generally are more grievous than the faults of those they condemn. Jesus also cautions his followers against assuming good of everyone and wasting their efforts on those who are too indifferent to appreciate them. Do not throw away the pearls of the gospel on a bunch of hogs who cannot recognize their value.

Jesus promises that what we ask of God is what God will give to us. God rewards in keeping with God's own character and is incapable of giving anything less than the best to us.

Everyone on this earthly pilgrimage is presented, sooner or later, with two ways: the easy way of indifference and self-indulgence which leads inevitably to death and destruction and the more difficult way of hard choices and self-denying experiences, the end of which is life. On the journey we will run into false teachings and dishonest advisors. These people must be tested by the effects of their work. Jesus does not want only verbal assent from his followers but a life of obedience where his disciples actually perform in deeds the will of God.

The sermon concludes with the foolish person who builds his house without foundations, and it collapses. In contrast, the wise man sets his house on a rock foundation which enables it to withstand all calamities.

Here before our eyes in the Sermon on the Mount is the picture of the kingdom of heaven, the means of entering it, the rigorous demands of maintaining one s citizenship in it, and the guarantee of its certain rewards.

2. Miracles Around the Sea of Galilee (Mat 8:1-9:38)-The three chapters in Matthew devote to the Sermon on the Mount are followed by two chapters describing the miracles of Jesus. These miracles were not, strictly speaking, all performed in Galilee. At least one was done in the Hellenized region of the Decapolis. We do not know precisely where either the centurion's house was or where the ruler lived, so Jesus may have performed a miracle in the Tetrarchy of Philip as well. But we can be certain that all these miracles took place around the Sea o Galilee, a small body of water only seven miles wide and twelve miles long. Unless the weather conditions are unfavorable, one can see all round it from most any vantage point along the shore. So when Jesus was on the mount with his disciples, he had perspective of all the places where he would perform these miracles.

Matthew, as we will see, alternates his Gospel between teaching and narrative, between the words of Jesus and his deeds. Indeed, Matthew has a little rubric for ending a section of Jesus' teachings and beginning a section of narrative. ''And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings. . .(Matt 7:28). It would appear, therefore, that Matthew intentionally uses the miracles to illustrate and enforce the teaching, and likewise uses the teaching to explain the miracles.

There are ten specific miracles in the two chapters of Matthew under consideration. These ten miracles are divided into three groups, and the groups are separated from one another by further narrative, but these interspersed bits of narrative present incidents that are not miraculous.

When Jesus first comes down from the mount, he is confronted by a leper who tells him that if he wants to, he can cure him of leprosy. Immediately Jesus replies, "I want to; so you are clean." He touches the leper and tells him to report to the priest and receive from him certification that he is entirely well. Leprosy, a skin disease, during the last stages of which members of the body rot away, was considered a communicable disease in ancient society. Lepers were forbidden to associate with other people. There was a stigma attached to the disease. The person was called "unclean." (Leprosy was looked on then the way our society looks on venereal disease.) It was a disgrace to have it. A leper could not mix again in society until a priest assured the public that the leper was ritually clean (Matt. 8:1-4).

In Capernaum Jesus received an appeal from a centurion to heal his servant. When Jesus volunteered to go with the centurion to see the sick servant, the centurion told him that would not be necessary. This Gentile did not want to contaminate Jesus by taking him into his home. "Just say the word," he said, "and I know my servant will be healed." Jesus was amazed and complimented him by saying that he, a Gentile, had more faith than any Jew Jesus knew (Matt. 8:5-13).

The third miracle in the first group is Jesus' curing of the mother-in-law of Peter, who had a persistent fever that would not break. He touched her as he had the leper, and she was cured. Indeed, she immediately resumed her household chores and entertained their guests.

Why do these three miracles form one group? They do not seem to have anything in common. They are put together, it seems to me, to show the catholicity of Jesus' work. He heals a Jew, a fellow countryman -- the leper. He heals a foreigner, a Roman, one who belonged to the nation which had subjugated and now ruled Jesus' land -- the centurion's servant. Finally Jesus heals a close personal friend -- the mother-in-law of his disciple, Peter. This was like curing a member of the family. Jesus no doubt stayed in the home of Simon Peter when he was in Capernaum (Matt. 8:14-17).

This first group of miracles is separated from the second group by two unusual incidents (Matt. 8:18-22). One is Jesus' discouragement of the scribe who wanted to follow him. He tells the scribe that he has no place to take him. Animals and birds have habitations, but Jesus has no home of his own, no place to lay his head. The other is the rebuke he administers to one of the disciples who gives what appears to us to be the most primary of all reasons to be excused temporarily from Jesus' company. He wants to go home to bury his father. Our Lord appears heartless. He does not excuse him. The miracles show the Master's dispersal of power in behalf of all types of people in need. He cures the incurable and does not limit his service just to his own. The two incidents show the expectations

of discipleship. The catholicity of Jesus' deeds is matched by the exactitude of his demands. A disciple must give up every-thing if he is to have Jesus for his Master. And anyone less than a fully committed disciple, such as the scribe, has no place in his company. Totality of power carries with it totality of obedience from those who will benefit from that power.

The second group of three miracles consists of the calming of the storm, the only nature miracle in this section; the expulsion of devils from two demented persons; and the healing of the paralytic. The storm was calmed for the disciples who were in the boat with Jesus and thought that he and they were about to drown (Matt. 8:23-27). In the second miracle, Jesus exorcised a company of demons residing in two helpless men. The demons had made the men so ferocious that travelers could not safely pass near them. Jesus destroys the demons. Matthew does not tell us anything more about the two men whom the demons controlled and misused. Presumably they got well (Matt. 8:28-34). Jesus performed the third miracle for the friends of the paralytic who carried him on a pallet into our Lord's presence. At the same time, he did it to display his ability to forgive sins. He tells the paralytic, to the horror of the scribes, "Thy sins be forgiven" (Matt. 9:1-8).

These three miracles are all of a class. What they have in common is the element of demonstration. Jesus, the man, demonstrates his divine power -- power to control nature, destroy evil, forgive sins, and relieve the ill effects of sin.

The narrative that follows is in support of these demonstrations (Matt. 9:9-17). Jesus calls a tax collector, a hated and despised publican who raises revenue for the Roman oppressors, and causes him to give up his job in order to be a disciple (Matt. 9:9). He eats with publicans and sinners because they need him. It is his disposition to be merciful. His mission is not to the righteous but to sinners whom he has come to save (Matt. 9:10-13). And finally he answers the disciples of John, saying that there is no need for his disciples to fast for there is nothing for them to fast over (Matt. 9:14-17). What they have fasted for and prayed for has now come about. The Messiah is their Master and Lord. The king resides in the presence of his subjects. God is at home with the people. The old order that John represents has passed away. A new order has taken its place.

The last group of miracles seems almost anticlimactic compared with this middle group. The last group is not followed by any specific incidents from the career of Jesus but only by a general observation. There are in this last group four miracles: the raising of the ruler's daughter from the dead, the healing of the woman with a continuous menstrual hemorrhage, the restoration of sight to two blind men, and the enabling of a dumb man to speak (Matt. 9:18-34). The very order of these miracles is on a descending scale. Matthew starts with the dead daughter to whom Jesus restores life and ends with the casting out of a little devil who had tied a man's tongue so he could not speak until the devil was removed. The last group is made to correspond with the first group, except in the first group each person cured came from a different category: fellow countryman, foreigner, friend. There are not any such categories in the last group. This group just represents all sorts and conditions of people. Therefore, the narrative that follows supports the same by saying that Jesus went about everywhere in the region teaching and preaching and healing all manner of disease. These four cures are typical examples of all the misery that flesh is heir to. But Jesus is capable of meeting any human demand; he can cope with any and all infirmities.

Now Jesus does all this in company with his disciples. He says that the needs of people are so great that there are not enough disciples to cope with these needs. "The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few" (Matt. 9:37).

3. The Formation of the Apostolate (Matt.1O:.1-42) Though Jesus has done a lot for many individuals through these ten miracles and though the general public has been greatly impressed by his wonderful works, everything that he has said and done around the Sea of Galilee has been in the presence of his disciples and, from Matthew's viewpoint, principally for their benefit. The Sermon on the Mount was preached to them. They, too, were spectators at all his miracles.

At this juncture Matthew makes clear that Jesus has been preparing his disciples for their mission in the world. By precept and example he has been developing them to do the work he has called them to do. The plenteous harvest, which heretofore has had too few laborers to pluck it, will soon have more than enough to gather its crops. The Master will not have to work alone. There will be other laborers to assist him.

Note carefully the chief characteristic of the newly formed apostolate. Jesus first gives his disciples power to cast out unclean spirits and to cure all types of sickness and disease. He does not mention here having given them the gifts either of preaching or of pastoral visitation, regardless of how important these seem to be to us. The first disciples are given by their Master the power to cure diseases and also the power to cope with sin. No matter how strong and vigorous a person is, without a transformed soul that person is little more than an animal.

Matthew is prepared only now to present the roster of the disciples. This roster contains the names of those who are later to constitute the apostolate and govern the church. At the head of the list is the name Simon called Peter. At the bottom of the list is Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus.

Matthew's roster contains twelve names. Here again his Old Testament predilections are manifested. He is most careful to note this. There were twelve tribes in ancient Israel. There will be an apostle for every tribe. The new Israel of the church will be ruled by them and later by their successors.

This is the first time Matthew enters their names collectively in his Gospel, though he has already mentioned five of them. When Jesus begins his vocation, he calls Andrew and Peter first and shortly thereafter James and John (Matt. 4:18-22). The fifth disciple Matthew mentions prior to this complete list is not one of the greats. He is the publican Matthew, whom Jesus called from his seat at the receipt of custom (Matt. 9:9). If the two Matthews are one and the same person, it is obvious why this fifth disciple would have been named. Matthew just could not resist this allusion to himself and the circumstances that characterized his call.

When we get the list of the names of all the disciples, it is no more than a list. It does not provide us with any information about any of them, not even the so-called greats at the top of the list. The only one about whom Matthew gives any information beyond family identity and vocation is the one whose name is last on the list, and the information given about him is such that he should not have been a disciple at all. Matthew says that Judas Iscariot is the disciple who betrayed Jesus.

More important than who the disciples were is what the disciples became. The means of their becoming, what enabled them to be what they later were, is the content of this section of Matthew.

Jesus at first delimited their mission. They were to work only as Israelites. Evidently our Lord wanted to be sure they could succeed at home before he was willing to risk sending them abroad. A person who tries to function at the general church level when that person is not influential in his or her local congregation has very little to commend him or her to anybody. Many people feel that a person who is not respected at home does not deserve a heating abroad.

At this point the apostles are admonished to preach, and their theme is that the kingdom of God is at hand. Consequently, their message is one of urgency. The demonstration they give of its authenticity and validity as well as of their own credibility is that in preaching they at the same time "heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils'' (Mart. 10:8). As they have received their call and its gifts without compensation, so they will give what they have to others without price. All they are to expect is hospitality: housing, food, raiment from time to time, and, above all else, receptive minds and hearts from those to whom they minister. When they do not get this, they are to leave immediately, and God will condemn all who do not receive and heed them. Judgment and punishment are emphasized here. Those who are inhospitable to a minister of Jesus Christ and indifferent to Christ's message jeopardize their own salvation and imperil their own souls.

Nonetheless, people do not know what is conducive to their own welfare, and the prospects for the apostles in the hands of those to whom they are sent are not the best. The chances are that they will be mistreated, maligned, persecuted, misunderstood, and condemned. Feuds will break out within families. Siblings will be against siblings, parents against children, and children against parents even to the point of death. The apostles will be hated simply because they are apostles. All this evil will befall them simply because of their allegiance to Jesus. But if they can stand such abuse and remain loyal through out it all, they will be saved. When they are rejected in one place, they must hasten to another. Their consolation lies in the fact that this cannot last too long, for the Son of man will soon return. Matthew quotes Jesus as saying: "Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come" (Matt. 10:23). The nearness of Jesus and the effectiveness of his presence are more than enough to offset the most adverse of all conditions.

The disciples must realize that they cannot expect better treatment than their Master received. A servant has no right to more than his lord. Jesus warns that if society has labeled him the prince of devils, those who belong to him cannot expect any higher label for themselves.

The worst enemies of the apostles are not those who declare themselves to be enemies. The worst enemy of the apostles is fear. It is only natural for them to fear those who hurt them. But there is a limit to any damage a mere human can inflict on another human. If one goes so far as to take a human life, even then that person has not taken everything from the person who has been killed. One person cannot take another person's immortal soul. Jesus says: "And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell" (Matt. 10:28). The most important thing in life is for a person to acknowledge Jesus. If a person does, Jesus will acknowledge that person before his Father n heaven. But if a person denies him, Jesus will deny that person before his Father in heaven. Fear is relative. Our real concern should be our relationship with God rather than fearing mortals who are bent on inflicting evil.

The very nature of Christianity is divisive. The claims of the Gospel are total; there can be no compromise. There is no way to divide loyalty between Christ and another. The ones who accept Jesus within a family will by that act be set at odds with those who do not accept him. Jesus will tolerate no loyalty above loyalty to him. "He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Mart. 10:37).

The prediction Jesus makes here that a person's enemies "shall be they of his own household" (Matt. 10:36) was literally fulfilled time and time again in the days of the early church. Take the family of Augustine, for example; his mother was a devout Christian, but his father was originally a pagan. Roman slaves became Christian. Some slaves were en-trusted as nurses in pagan families. Often they won the children to Christ. The children would then try to win their fathers to Christ, but not always with success. "For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law" (Matt 10:35).

The cross is the emblem of Christianity because sooner or later every Christian has to bear it. The glory of discipleship is that the person who receives the disciple and the message at the same time receives the disciple's Master and Lord.


Personal Reflection

 1. Many people in Jesus' day believed that the good prospered while the wicked suffered adversity. Do good things happen only to good people and bad things happen only to bad people?

2. Why is it hard to feel good about being poor in spirit or even being called poor in spirit? What character traits that are valued in our culture (for instance, the qualities that make a good executive) work at cross purposes to being poor in spirit?

3. Does being meek mean refusing to contend with others? Did Jesus refuse to confront and oppose others?

4. Matthew reports Jesus' teachings and miracles as schooling to prepare the disciples for their own ministries. Look back on your own life and name three or four things that you now see as preparation for your life today.

5 Why was the decision to follow Christ divisive in Jesus' time? Is it still divisive? Is that good or bad?

 

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