The Gospel According to Matthew

In the absence of an established career (“freelance writer” doesn’t count–even if I could consider myself established), I have experienced some difficulty explaining my identity for much of my adult life. But this has recently been resolved. I now have a Master’s of Arts in Comparative Literature (don’t ask me what kind of prestigious profession comes with it), and, more significantly, I am a Mother (a recognized role, even if not a highly esteemed calling in certain circles).

But one of the points that impressed me during our most recent reading of Matthew is the difference between what God looks for in people and what I often look for. God is not interested in, for example, an advanced degree, my profession, how eloquently or wittily I express myself, how I look, how clean my house is, how many “constructive” tasks I have completed today, or how highly my peers regard me. Rather, God is more concerned with how I regard other people, whether I am willing to part with my money and possessions to meet a need, how ready I am to go out of my way for another, whether I am quick to forget an offense or whether I dwell on it for days.

Some good friends of ours talk about God’s “upside down kingdom.” What they mean, I think, is that while the human tendency is to look up to those who possess power, wealth, charisma, talent, genius, God honors those who are humble, are willing to serve others, are ready to sacrifice, and who don’t put themselves forward. This could be interpreted to mean that God is looking for those he can keep under his thumb. But Jesus exhibited these very qualities–to a degree unsurpassed by any other person. And, if we are to believe the Bible, he was himself God in human form. But he didn’t let others walk on him unchecked. He was quick to denounce oppressors, and he avoided arrest until he was ready to give himself up. It was almost as if he chose the day and time of his captivity. He was humble and compassionate, but he never let anyone get the best of him.

I was also impressed by the passages in Matthew that emphasize God’s concern with what we do. Perhaps because we were reading Mountains Beyond Mountains and The Barefoot Legend (see our reviews of those books) at the same time, I was reminded that God expects our faith and love to be manifested in action. Matthew contains the Sermon on the Mount (chapters five through seven) and the famous parable of the sheep and the goats (chapter 25, verses 31-46). In the latter, Jesus describes the final judgement in terms of a king judging his servants. The king commends one group because “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (v. 35-36). When the members of this group ask him when they did this, he replies, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me” (v. 40). Similarly, he turns to another group and says, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, and was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.” When they protest, he responds predictably: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (v. 45). Sobering words. We are held accountable not only for what we do but for what we don’t do. Even someone who doesn’t believe in God would be brought up short at possibility of turning him away hungry, supposing he did exist (and could be hungry).

The Sermon on the Mount addresses attitudes as well as actions. This is where Jesus makes his scandalous statement equating hatred with murder, lust with adultery. He also enjoins his listeners to love their enemies, to give to the poor, not to worry, not to seek revenge, and not to judge others. At the end of chapter five, after saying, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?” he delivers the ultimate injunction: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (5:48). Sets the bar high, doesn’t he?

Jesus’ disciples thought so. In chapter 19 the subject of divorce comes up, and Jesus reiterates a principle that appears in chapter five: “Anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery” (v. 9). I find the disciples’ response amusing–and revealing: “If this is the situation between a husband and his wife, it is better not to marry” (v. 10). (Some things haven’t changed much.)

Later in the same chapter a similar seeming impossibility arises. A rich young man asks Jesus how he can obtain eternal life. After the young man affirms that he has kept all the commandments since childhood, Jesus tells him, “If you want to be perfect,” (remember the 5:48 injunction?) “go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (v. 21). Matthew tells us that the young man “went away sad, because he had great wealth” (v. 22) and, apparently, could not part with it. Jesus then turns to his disciples and says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (v. 24). The disciples, justifiably, “were greatly astonished and asked, ‘Who then can be saved?'” (v. 26). Jesus’ answer? “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (v. 26).

Herein lies hope. None of us is perfect, as God is perfect. None–or at least very few–of us have what it takes to abandon life as we know it in order to follow Jesus. (That raises the question, of course, of what it means to follow Jesus. Sell everything and give the money to the poor? Probably not for all of us. But it’s an intriguing question. See our review of The Barefoot Legend for more thoughts on this.) Peter pointed out to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you!” (v. 27). Nevertheless, these same followers who had left everything for Jesus abandoned him when the heat was on (see chapter 26). And throughout much of the gospel stories we see them bumbling around, clueless as to what Jesus is really about. However, we learn in the Biblical book of Acts that these same disciples were transformed overnight into eloquent orators and stalwart conscientious objectors to the religious establishment, enduring beatings, imprisonment, and ultimately death. It seems reasonable to conclude that the spiritual, emotional, and intellectual effects of Jesus’ death and resurrection were sufficient to not only convince these men of Jesus’ divine mission but to light a blazing fire under them that precipitated a movement that literally changed the world.1

The good news (“gospel” in Greek) is that this same transforming power is still available. Jesus set the bar high not so his listeners would lose heart and not only so they would aim high, but so they would seek the source of the power to reach it–himself. The Lord’s Supper (see chapter 26), in which Jesus gives bread to his followers and says, “Take and eat; this is my body” (v. 26) is rich with spiritual and symbolic significance. At least part of Jesus’ message is that his spirit must inhabit us in order for us to live as God expects. Compare his enigmatic statement in John chapter six: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. …Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (v. 53 and 56). It really does seem a bit unfair of Jesus to put it this way, considering the response the statement was bound to provoke. His disciples responded, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). (Indeed!) Jesus answered, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life.”

Jesus had a way with words. Sometimes he made himself painfully clear, sometimes he employed hyperbole, and other times he intentionally veiled his message in obscure metaphors. But ultimately everything he said pointed back to him. Even the point of the obscurities seemed to be to find out who would come back and pursue the truth.2 Perhaps that is why God is not interested in the aspects of our identity that prove our worth. He is more interested in our awareness of the weaknesses that indicate our need for him. A good friend who is an agnostic would take issue with me, but I believe–and the message of the Bible seems to be–that only Jesus enables us to lead transformed lives. And I know myself well enough–and I think I am not unique–to know that I often rate very poorly according to God’s list of desirable attributes. I am in desperate need of transformation; thank God, it is under way.

1. This idea came from a book by a non-Christian historian that my husband read a couple of decades ago (approximately). He doesn’t remember the author or title of the book, but this statement impressed him deeply.

2. This thought, also, did not originate with me, but came my way during a recent discussion with some friends about Jesus’ parables. We were discussing the story of the four soils in chapter four of the Gospel of Mark.

*Footnotes added Aug 20, 2007.

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