At the very center of Matthew’s gospel we find parables on the kingdom of Heaven. It is the third of five sections of Jesus’ teaching which end with the phrase, “When Jesus had finished saying these things” (We will return to this momentarily). At the conclusion of the parables, Jesus asks the disciples if they have understood what he has said. Unlike Mark, where the disciples are full of misunderstanding, in Matthew they reply that they have understood. Jesus responds with what I take to be the pastoral intention of the gospel: I tell you the truth, a scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven is one who brings from his storehouse both treasure old and treasure new.” Reading Matthew, we are looking for scribes trained for the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew’s community is a scribal community. That is, they are a people of the book. Let me see if I can demonstrate this claim a few ways. First, Jesus’ opponents in Matthew are limited to the scribes and do not include Pharisees, nor the Sadducees or Herodians, or any other opponents that appear in the other gospels. This may indicate a date after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD, when Jewish groups like the Sadducees, Zealots, and Essenes are no longer viable, leaving only Christians and Pharisees. At the very least we can say that Matthew arranges the story as a conflict between Pharisees and Jesus, the Pharisees a group that defines itself around a certain performance of Torah. They too, are a people of the book. In many ways, Jesus is presented in Matthew as a more faithful interpreter of Torah.
In Matthew, Jesus is Israel’s prophet and teacher. He is like Moses, but greater. Matthew tells the story of Jesus in ways that call to mind Moses’ story. Like Moses, the infant Jesus is threatened by a king who kills all male children of a certain age. Like Moses, Jesus comes up out of Egypt. Jesus’ first act in his public ministry is to bring God’s word from a mountain. There are five teaching discourses in Matthew, all ending with the phrase, “after Jesus finished saying these things…” (8:1, 11:1, 13:53, 19:1, 26:1), reminding us of the five books of Moses. In Matthew 23, Jesus describes the scribes and Pharisees as “those who sit on Moses’ seat,” but there is little doubt that Jesus is a greater teacher of Israel than Moses.
Remember, right off the bat, Jesus declares that he has come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. He claims that unless “your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you can not enter the kingdom of God.” A deliberate echo of these texts is found in the final discourse in Mt 23. While Jesus’ disciples are not to imitate what those “who sit on Moses’ seat do,” they are to pay attention to what they teach. Unlike Jesus, these teachers lock people out of the kingdom of God and do not enter themselves. While Jesus’ burden is light and his yoke is easy, those who sit on Moses’ seat tie on heavy burdens and don’t lift a finger to help people bear them.
This is the where the battle line is drawn in Matthew, and, at its core, the difference between Jesus and the Pharisees is how they perform Scripture.
Two stories demonstrate the difference in how the Scriptures are being performed differently by Jesus and the Pharisees. Both stories are carried over from Mark nearly verbatim, highlighting Matthew’s editorial hand. In the first (9:9-13), the calling of Levi, Matthew departs from a verbatim use of the same story in Mark at only one point, adding a quotation from the prophets, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'” (9:13). The second is the story of the disciples plucking grain on the sabbath (12:1-8), immediately following Jesus’ saying about his burden being easy and his yoke light. Again, this is a story that follows Mark’s version closely, but here we have three new elements. First, only Matthew tells us that the disciples were hungry, highlighting there need. Second, in Mark, Jesus refutes the Pharisees’ understanding using one scriptural citation. In Matthew there are two, highlighting that Jesus is a better interpreter of Scripture. Third, we have the repeat of the prophetic refrain, “had you known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless” (12:7).
This impulse, “mercy, not sacrifice,” is something of a hermeneutical lens for Jesus that produces a very different performance of Scripture. The story of plucking grain on the sabbath seems to function as a kind of case study in “binding and loosing,” a theme unique to Matthew. The scene of Peter’s confession of Jesus in Matthew 16 includes the saying, “whatever you bind on earth is bound in heaven, and whatever is loosed on earth is loosed in heaven.” This saying occurs again in chapter 18 in the context of going to your brother who has sinned against you. The authority to bind and loose is Jesus’ own, “for where two or three of you are gathered in my name, I am there with you” (18:20). This is an echo of the beginning of the gospel and the birth of Emmanuel, God with us, and a foreshadowing of the end, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me…I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The significance of binding and loosing rests in the need to apply Scripture authoritatively in circumstances other than those in which it was written. How much of Scripture is binding? How much is not? How do we determine the difference? The answer in Matthew seems to be found in the prophetic utterance, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.”
The space of a blog keeps me from fully exploring this theme here, but suffice it to say it runs throughout the gospel. (You can find more here: https://digitalcommons.pepperdine.edu/leaven/vol16/iss4/6/)
The issue for a textually inscribed people is aversion to the world, and, therefore, a defensive view of mission. Scripture can become an alternative and ideal world that gives us permission to disengage from the less than ideal in which we live. Yet, Matthew seems to avoid this temptation. We’ll examine why in the next post.