|Mark’s concluding image of Jesus dead on the cross reminds us of the cost of discipleship, while Matthews final image of the risen Jesus invites us to learn of him and walk his way.|
Mary Rose D’Angelo teaches New Testament at St. Thomas Theological Seminary in Denver, Colorado. She writes and lectures in the areas of New Testament, women’s studies, spirituality, and liturgy.
TRADITIONAL Catholic discussion of the spiritual life has differentiated its ways under the names of the great teachers. To speak of Benedictine, Franciscan, Teresian spiritualities conveys to the hearer a kind of spiritual physiognomy, a face or shape of the life of the spirit that includes both an image of Christ and a path that is imitatio Christi, the following of Jesus. Less frequently, spiritual ways have been identified with one or another New Testament author. Paul and John in particular are seen as offering alternative spiritualities. In fact, all four Gospels present us with distinct visions of life in Christ, as well as with distinct understandings of Jesus’ person and message. Mark(1) depicts Jesus as the crucified messiah, the dead and risen Lord, and challenges the reader with the call to follow him to the cross. Matthew recasts Mark’s picture by viewing it through the experience of Jesus as teacher and messiah, God’s wisdom and God’s Son; the call that Matthew hears and transmits is the call to learn of Jesus. John also understands Jesus as God’s Son and wisdom, that is, God’s gift of life, the living bread, water, vine, light; for this author, Jesus’ call is to eat, drink, abide. Luke portrays Jesus as a prophet and hero of the spiritual life; the call to follow Jesus is a call to do good as he did, to exercise the spiritual gifts and the conventional practices of ascesis.
Unlike later developments, the New Testament spiritualities cannot be considered discrete alternatives. They are complementary, and each is essential to the Christian community and, to a lesser degree, to the individual Christian journey. But like the diversity of the later realizations of the Christian life, the four-Gospel canon offers options to believers, differing patterns and possibilities into which different people can grow most readily and most fully. These options emerge most clearly when we emphasize the differences in the ways the four Gospels depict Jesus and the spiritual life. This essay will attempt to cast into high relief the differing Christological pictures and calls to discipleship in Mark and Matthew and to suggest the spiritual ways which they offer to contemporary Christians, briefly noting in particular how far these ways are accessible to women.(2)
The Gospel of Mark, and particularly its final scene, offers the best entr e to our task. Mark’s Gospel is probably the earliest of the four gospels. More importantly, it seems to have been used by Matthew and Luke, and to have provided them, not only with a large portion of their material, but also with their outline for the life of Jesus. In any literary work, the last scene is of considerable dramatic importance. In the Gospels this importance is enhanced because the communities for which they were written believe Jesus to be the living Lord of the church, and the last pictures of Jesus seem always to present him as that community encounters him, or as the author wishes or expects the community to encounter him.
MARK’S IMAGE OF JESUS
The last scene of Mark is a startling one, for the Gospel ends at Mark 16:8: “[The women] came out and fled from the tomb, for they were possessed by fear and trembling, and they said nothing to anyone. For they were afraid.” Early Christian editors, as disturbed as we are at so cryptic a close, supplied two more conventional endings for the Gospel; the longer of these is printed in most bibles as Mark 16:9-20. The peculiarities of Mark’s ending, however, demand not revision but a close reflective reading.
The most striking peculiarity of Mark’s ending is that it never shows the reader the risen Jesus. Instead, we see an awe-inspiring, an almost spooky scene. In the dark of early morning, the women arrive at the tomb for a task they do not really know how to fulfill. They find it opened and empty, and are greeted by a heavenly figure who gives them a commission: “Go and tell his disciples and Peter that he goes before you into Galilee; there you will see him as he told you” (16:7). But the scene is a completely closed one; no resurrection appearances are ever narrated, and the women in fact tell no one. The message is really to the reader. The messenger points offstage to an event too numinous to be depicted: “He is risen, he is not here” (16:6).
The angel is a new figure in the Gospel of Mark. His appearance at the end of the story is like the deus-ex-machina endings in the plays of Bertold Brecht. When the tension in Brecht’s plays becomes unbearable, someone steps forward to proclaim a happy ending. The audience is relieved, but the tension is not dissipated; the questions that are resolved for the characters in the play remain to be applied to the lives of the spectators. Something similar is effected by Mark’s ending. The reader recalls the appearances of Jesus, but as foreseen from the cold dark dawn. The last time we see Jesus in this Gospel is not in the splendor of his resurrection, but in the bleak and terrifying picture of Jesus hanging dead upon the cross.
Mark’s depiction of Jesus’ death is by far the most stark of the four passion narratives. Mark’s Jesus dies in the ominous noontime darkness, mocked by the bystanders, the soldiers and high priests, and the other criminals, betrayed, denied, deserted by all his disciples, crying out his despair of God. From his condemnation by Pilate until his death on the cross, Jesus’ only words are “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” and once having uttered them, he never speaks again in the Gospel. The terrible question of Jesus’ death remains to be met in the life of the hearer, for Mark expects the community for which this Gospel is intended to encounter Jesus on the cross in a martyr’s death.
Mark’s narrative is constructed to unsettle the Christian reader, to undo the ease that makes us forget that the call to discipleship is the call to the cross. This is particularly clear in the treatment this author gives to Jesus’ disciples, especially the Twelve.
Their first appearance is reassuring enough. Jesus walks along the shore and collects the famous first four with the call “Come after me” (1:17); without evidence or explanation, they leave Livelihood (1:18) and family (1:20) to follow. Their faith is more striking in that they do not share with us the momentous revelation at Jesus’ baptism; in Mark, the vision and the voice come from heaven for Jesus and the reader alone (1:10-1 1). We recognize the call as addressed to us as well, and the response as our example. But as the narrative proceeds, we are constantly thrown off balance by the disciples’ failure to understand the events through which they move, or to perceive Jesus’ true identity. And yet Mark does indeed mean them to be the representatives of the church, the readers’ alter-ego in the narrative. They are the insiders; to them the secret is given (4:11). They see the miracles; they marvel at Jesus’ power over the wind and the sea (4:41); they assist in the distribution of the loaves (6:41; 8:6); they are granted private teaching (4:10; 7:17; 10:10). But they never understand: they cannot draw the conclusion to Jesus’ power (4:41); their hearts are hardened about the bread (6:52; 8:17); they cannot foresee the end of the drama that is so constantly present to the reader. The chosen three — Peter, James, and John — show an extreme of obtuseness: they attend the bed from which Jairus’ daughter is raised (5:37), and foresee the glory of Jesus’ resurrection on the mount of the transfiguration (9:2f .); yet even with the help of the passion and resurrection prediction (8:31), they cannot associate the resurrection of the dead with Jesus (9:10-11).
The disciples’ lack of understanding is only one aspect of the mysteriousness of Jesus in Mark; the authorities’ rejection of Jesus, the misunderstanding of his own (3:21; 6:1-6) and of the public (6:14-16; 8:28), and Jesus’ command to secrecy about his miracles and his identity (1:34, 44; 3:11-12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9) also serve the “messianic secret” in Mark. But it is in the disciples’ role that this device lays hold of the life of the church and of the reader. The character of their failure emerges in the same scene as the first, partial perception of Jesus’ reality, the crisis of the Gospel in 8:27-38.
We normally think of Mark 8:27-38 as Peter’s confession. This scene is central to Matthew and Luke also, and their versions tend to obscure Mark’s unique features in our recollection. In Mark, Jesus asks the disciples for the common interpretation of his person and for theirs. Peter replies, “You are the Christ.” But Jesus does not explicitly accept this title as he does in Matthew (“Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah . . .”, Matt. 16:17) but rebukes the disciples with a command to tell no one (Mark 8:30) and follows this rebuke with “open” teaching — teaching that is neither private nor in parables — about his coming passion and resurrection (8.31; cf. 4:33-34). A private scene ensues: Peter draws Jesus aside and rebukes him. Here also Matthew’s version tends to impose itself on our memories. Matthew has made Peter’s rebuke into that of the pious disciple: “By no means Lord; this will never happen to you” (Matt. 16:22). But Mark does not specify Peter’s objection; he may well think of it as the voice of prudence: “Don’t say such things, lest they happen.” And Jesus’ reply suggests this: “Get after me, Satan . . .” (8:33).
The command evokes the call to discipleship in 1:17. Peter’s human caution has caused him to leave off following Jesus and to attempt to lead him astray. At Peter’s failure Jesus at once reiterates the call to come after, this time making explicit the condition of following: “If you wish to come after me, take up the cross . . .” (8:34). The call is now not only for Peter and the disciples; it is addressed also to the crowd, and over their heads to the reader. “If anyone wishes to come after . . . .”
In this verse, Luke’s version tends to obtrude; Luke adds to “take up the cross” the word daily; thus the reader understands the invitation as to daily spiritual discipline. But for Mark, the invitation is ultimate, a warning of the literal martyrdom this author expects to visit the community for which the Gospel is destined. The self-denial of 8:34 is not a matter of denying anything to oneself, but of denying, losing, one’s life (8:35), in order to acknowledge and not deny Jesus and his word before human beings (8:38), before assemblies and synagogues, rulers and kings (13:9). For Mark, discipleship, the following of Jesus, is a once-for-all and undeviating march to the cross.
INCOMPREHENSION AND INSIGHT
The full irony of the disciples in Mark emerges in the last passage of the section begun by 8:27-38. This section is composed of teaching on the cost of discipleship and structured by the three passion predictions. But at its end the two sons of Zebedee have not learned that Jesus as Christ is always the crucified messiah. “Grant us to sit one on your right hand and one on your left in your glory,” they ask (10:37). Jesus tells them that these best places at the royal banquet have been allotted; instead, if they can, they may share in the royal cup, the royal bath (10:38-39). Although they do not know how they commit themselves in declaring their sufficiency for these privileges, the reader knows that the baptism is Jesus’ death, the cup God’s will (14:36). Their incomprehension now, their flight from the moment of trial later, do not mean their ultimate failure; these two will share Jesus’ fate, the fate that Mark foresees for the reader also. But when Jesus is enthroned as King of the Jews, two others take the places for which they have asked:. “And the inscription of the charge was inscribed, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left” (15:26-27).
While the disciples in Mark remain examples of non-perception throughout the narrative, Mark does give one striking example of faith’s insight. The anonymous gentile centurion who faces Jesus at his death gives him the title that no human being has so far pronounced. Twice, at the baptism and at the transfiguration, God’s voice has called Jesus “Son” (1:11; 9:6); the demons also know him as God’s Son (3:11; 5:7); at the trial, the high priest derisively asks if he is God’s messianic Son (14:62). But the centurion’s is the first human voice to make this climactic confession in faith, and his conviction is the more startling in that he has nothing to go on. As far as we know, he is less informed about Jesus than is Pilate, and the death scene gives him no help. There is no cosmic earthquake as in Matthew’s account, no noble words from the cross as in Luke’s, and the centurion cannot see the tearing of the temple veil as the reader does. On the evidence of the darkness and Jesus’ dark cry, the centurion responds to Jesus’ death as Mark wishes us to respond to it: with a recognition that is shared only by God and the spiritual powers; he meets God’s mighty Son where we also are to meet him — upon the cross.
That the centurion has companion aliens at the cross is worthy of special attention, for it points to a consequence of Mark’s single-minded focus on the cross. Because the privilege of the believer is to share Jesus’ death (10:39), and the first rank among disciples is to be servant of all (10:45), social distinctions do not apply to the call and it comes to women as well as to men. When Mark tells us that on her cure Peter’s mother-in-law “served” them (1:31), the comment not only proves the completeness of her healing but also suggests her entry into Christian ministry. The hemorrhaging woman exemplifies the faith that calls forth the spiritual power of Jesus even without his knowledge (5:25-34); the Greek woman wrests from Jesus favor for the gentiles (7:24-30); her bon mot is a message to him (7:29). A woman’s prophetic love anoints Jesus for burial when the disciples do not recognize the shortness of his sojourn among them (14:3-9). Finally, it is only the women followers of Jesus who follow him to the cross and tomb in Mark. Mark does not abandon his view of human incapacity in face of the cross for the sake of the women, or make Jesus less isolated at his death. The women only look on, watching from afar at his death (15:40), discovering the place of his burial (15:47), rather than attending to it, visiting the tomb for an impossible and inappropriate service (16:1), unequal to the message entrusted to them (16:8). The low social and religious status of women in Mark’s world is used to enhance the irony that they, and not the Twelve, show comprehension and, where that is lacking, persistence. But it does not make them less Jesus’ followers.
Thus Mark does not really provide us with a way. Not practice but insight flows from his vision. Only some few negative cautions are given as guidelines, nearly as assumptions, for the road. All must be left for the call (1:16-20; 10:17-31), but not a spouse (10:1-12); and children are not to be forbidden (10:13-16). Jealousy for the message (9:38-49) and ambition (9:33-37) have no place on this journey. But the only positive elaboration of the call to the cross and the unrelenting demand for faith is the counsel of prayer (9:29) and particularly the command: “Watch and pray, lest you come to the test” (14:38). Mark’s whole literary endeavor is the calculated dis-easing of the reader; it is impelled by the fear that our attention to the true nature of the call is as dormant as the disciples’ in the garden. The challenge this author puts to us is not to do otherwise than we do, or to do anything, but continually to view our life in the shadow of the cross.
Mark has never been a popular Christian work. The simplicity of the narrative is easily overridden by the communitarian interest of Matthew and the literary vigor of Luke. The starkness of the demand it makes is not readily translated into a lesson for everyday life. We can neither predict nor provoke the moment of confession or denial, and to most of us it comes only in some disguised and less ultimate form than the tribunal and execution Mark expects. But the message of the Cross is the center of faith, and every understanding of the Christian life must be judged by it.
MATTHEW’S IMAGE OF JESUS
If Mark’s career in the church’s life has been one of relative obscurity, the Gospel of Matthew has taken first place, not only in the canonical order, but also as “the Gospel” in people’s minds. Through the Sermon on the Mount, this work has come to represent the ideal of Christianity to Christians and to observers of Christianity alike. Until the recent revisions, readings from the Gospel of Matthew dominated the liturgical year in the Western lectionary. The prominence of Matthew in Christian liturgy and instruction results from the character of the Gospel; it offers precisely what is lacking in Mark: instruction in a way of discipleship, a following of Jesus.
Once again we begin with the end. In contrast to Mark, Matthew does present us with the risen Jesus. Matthew literally, as we shall see, makes him present. The last scene of Matthew, 28:16-20, is of the greatest import for the Gospel. Familiarity and the problems of translation tend to obscure for us its most striking features. Three traits in particular illumine this Gospel’s understanding of Jesus and the Christian life.
First, the setting is a very deliberate one. In the Revised Standard Version, Matt. 28:16 reads: “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain where Jesus directed them.” This translation, like most others, implies that Jesus had made an appointment with the disciples for a specific mountain. But no such appointment appears, although the Gospel does record a promise that Jesus will meet them in Galilee (Matt. 26:32; 28:7). And the verse can also be translated: “to the mountain where Jesus had commanded them,” that is, given them commandments: the mount of the sermon. Thus, at the end of the Gospel, the author points us back to the first programmatic sermon of Jesus (Matt. 5:1-7:21).
The second feature, the charge to the disciples (Matt. 28:18-19), also demonstrates the relation between the final scene and the Sermon on the Mount. “Go,” Jesus says, “make disciples of all the gentiles, baptizing them . . . teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” The command to baptize, with its Trinitarian formula that is unique in the New Testament and so important later on, usually overshadows the rest of the verse and the expression Matthew gives the mission. The more traditional charge to “preach the gospel” that the hearers may “repent and believe” (cf. Mark 13:10; 1:14-15; 6:12; Luke 9:2, 6; 24:47; Mark 16:15-16) has been translated through the experience of Christian life into “make disciples” who “learn” and “observe” Jesus’ commandments. Matthew understands the word disciple according to its etymology: a disciple is a learner, a student. To be Jesus’ disciple is to learn of him. As a rabbi’s disciple learns the master’s interpretation of the law, does and teaches it, so we, as disciples of Jesus, learn and do the teaching, the words of Jesus, preeminently the Sermon on the Mount.
The third feature, the ending of the Gospel, or rather its endlessness, underlines that it is Jesus of whom this community learns. Matt. 28:16-20 is sometimes identified with the ascension scene provided by Luke in Acts 1:6-11, but nothing could be less appropriate. This scene does not close the resurrection appearances for Matthew. Indeed, the scene itself can hardly be said to close at all, for the voice of the narrator never returns. The last voice that we hear is Jesus’, promising his continued, even unending, presence: “Lo, I am with you all the days until the consummation of the age.” It is Jesus to whom we are disciples, from whom we learn: “Do not be called ‘teacher’,” we are warned earlier in the Gospel, “for one is your teacher, the Christ” (23:10).
MATTHEW’S VISION OF DISCIPLESHIP
The experience of discipleship in Matthew is illumined by a threefold promise in another sermon of Jesus, which is frequently described as a “church order”:
Amen I say to you, whatever you bind upon earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose upon earth will be loosed in heaven.Again I say to you, if two of you agree upon earth in anything they ask, it will come to them from my Father in heaven.
For wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them. (Matt. 18:18-20)
These three promises are intimately connected. The context (18:10-17, 21-35) shows that their first application is to the community’s authority to exclude or forgive the errant member.(3) The promise of “binding and loosing” in Matt. 18:10 is explained in 18:19 by a second promise that the prayer on which two agree will be granted, which probably implies that their prayer is for the return of the one who is straying.(4) The third promise of Jesus’ presence to two or three guarantees both of the first two.(5) But forgiveness and excommunication cannot be the only reference for, while two or three may obtain forgiveness, only the church can expel the offender (18:17).
All three promises, however, also belong to another context, one that pertains directly to the role of disciple as learner. Both in Matthew and rabbinic uses, “binding and loosing” means making decisions about living out God’s will, “doing righteousness.” This emerges in Matt. 5:19: “Whoever looses one of these least commandments and teaches people so, will be least in the kingdom of heaven . . . .”(6) To “loose” here is to interpret and do in a less stringent fashion the commandments of the law and the words of the prophets, which in Matthew’s view stand until “they all come true” (5:18). The one who relaxes or suspends them and teaches that interpretation is not excluded from, but is diminished in, the Kingdom; however, the one who seeks to enter at all must be more stringent in pursuit of righteousness than are the scribes and Pharisees (5:20).
The sermon not only promulgates the greater righteousness that the Kingdom demands but also manifests the process by which author and community learn of Jesus. In Matt. 5:21-48, both of these are particularly clear. Here the author combines words of Jesus inherited from the tradition (for example, 5:23-26)(7) with the commandments of the law (5:21) in a fashion that makes clear the full import of Jesus’ demand: “Be perfect” — do completely, as God does. In this vein the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” is extended to “Do not be angry at all” (5:22) and even to “allow no one to be angry with you, lest when you come before the judge, there be someone to accuse you” (5:23-26). The boundaries of the commandment are extended to form a protective hedge around it, so that one never comes close enough to the law to break it. A similar technique sometimes is used by the rabbis, but with more caution. In Matthews application, the boundaries of the commandment are extended until our whole life falls under its demand, indeed until the limits of fulfillment disappear at the horizon of life. The law remains Torah, instruction in the will of God; the words of Jesus are shown to fulfill it and to radicalize its fulfillment until, despite the protest of 5:18, the details of the law seem to pass away in its fulfillment.
There are strong similarities between Matthew’s spirituality and the Pharisees’, yet the Gospel represents the Pharisees as evil, even as it approves their teaching (see Matt. 23, esp. 1-3). This suggests that the author’s rancor toward them results from a sort of family quarrel. For us, it is important not to ask what is wrong with the Pharisees, but to recognize our kinship with them and try to exorcise the rancor, as we appropriate the vision of discipleship that Matthew mediates to us.
For Matthew, discipleship is a kind of discipline of continual study of the law and the prophets in the light of the words of Jesus. The sermon is both Matthew’s composition and the words of Jesus. Matt. 5:22, for which we have no other source, may be the words of Jesus through the Christian prophets among this community or the author’s own inspiration. Matthews community can constantly relearn, reinterpret, even remake the words of the law and of Jesus together, because they continually study and pray in the presence of their teacher. Their experience is not unlike that expressed in Pirke Aboth: “Rabbi Hananiah b. Teradion said: ‘. . . if two sit together and words of the law are spoken between them, the divine Presence rests between them.'”(8)
THE IMAGE OF WISDOM
The conviction of Jesus’ continued presence is intimately related to Matthews understanding of Jesus, specifically to Jesus’ relation to God. Jesus as teacher in our midst is not just a teacher of wisdom, a sort of permanent resident rabbi, but wisdom’s substance, her very self. The invitation to follow him is spoken in her words:
Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened and I shall give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is kindly and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)
This invitation, which is peculiar to Matthew, is the culmination of many such invitations from wisdom, who appears in the Hebrew Bible and Greek Old Testament as a female manifestation of God, analogous to the divine Presence (Shekinah), or the glory of God. She is God’s image and offspring (Prov. 8:24-13, Wisd. 7:24-26). Her persona and function in the tradition help Matthew to explain how Jesus is the Son of God to whom the Father’s all is delivered, the unique revealer of God to the simple (cf. Matt. 11:25-27).
The paradoxical conjunction of “yoke” and “rest” in Matt. 11:28-30 also draws on the wisdom tradition: “Draw near to me, you who are untaught, and lodge in my school …. Put your neck under the yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. See with your eyes that I have labored little and have gained for myself much rest” (Sir. 51:23, 26-27). The invitation in Matt. 11:28-30 helps to explain Matthew’s treatment of the law which, on the one hand, insists on the validity not only of every letter of written law (5:17-18) but also of the Pharisees’ interpretation (23:1-4) and, on the other hand, seems willing to overturn some commandments entirely, as do the prohibition of oaths (5:33-37) and of divorce (5:31-33). “Yoke” in Matthews time is a standard metaphor for Torah, and to labor at Torah is to be instructed in God’s will. But wisdom is the source of Torah. Sirach comments on wisdom’s invitation to a sustenance sweeter than honey: “All this is the covenant of the most high God, the law that Moses commanded us” (Sir. 24:22). And Rabbi Abin declares: “The incomplete form of the heavenly light is the orb of the sun; the incomplete form of the heavenly wisdom is the Torah.”(9) For Matthew, Jesus is the perfect earthly form of the heavenly wisdom. Where wisdom is the teacher, the yoke of instruction offers rest and ease; and because wisdom is the laws substance, she offers also perfect fidelity and sovereign freedom toward the law. To learn of Jesus is to do perfectly the law. To study together the Scripture and his words is to learn in his presence.
“Learn of me,” Jesus invites, “for I am meek and humble of heart” (Matt. 11:29). Indeed, the meekness and humility inculcated by biblical wisdom transform the picture of Jesus that Matthew has inherited from Mark. Where in Mark Jesus commands silence about his miracles and his identity until the full mystery of the crucified messiah is made known, in Matthew this silence becomes a discipline of humility and obedience to the Scriptures:
. . . and he cured them all, and he rebuked them lest they make him manifest, in order that what was said through Isaiah the prophet be fulfilled:
‘Lo, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved in whom my soul delights.
He shall not quarrel nor cry out,
nor shall they hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smouldering wick he shall not quence . . . .’ (Matt. 12:15-21, citing Isa. 42:1-4)
The miracles are not only proclamations of the Kingdom (12:28; 11:2-6), the deeds of wisdom showing God’s plan (11:19-24), but also the exemplary labor of God’s servant on our behalf: “He cast out the spirit with a word, and healed all the sick, in order that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:’He took on our weaknesses and bore our diseases”‘ (Matt. 8:16-17, citing Isa. 53:4).
Matthew’s meek and humble Jesus is the teacher as well as the example of meekness and humility. Where Mark’s Jesus confounds the disciples who are contending for first place in the Kingdom by designating a little child as his representative (Mark 9:33-37), Matthew’s Jesus invites them to “turn” and use the little child as their teacher: “Whoever will become humble like this little child, that one is greater in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18: 3-4). The littleness of the child is a call to repentance and humility for Matthew, and “little one” becomes a synonym for disciple in this Gospel (10:42; 18:6, 10; 25:40, 45). So also the beatitudes of Matthew are not the fiery prophecies of justice for the oppressed that appear in Luke, but invitations to a wise way that joins the disciple to the poor of the world and the righteous of the Bible:
Blessed are the poor in spirit ….
Blessed are they that grieve, for they shall be comforted (cf. Isa. 61:2ff.).
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (cf. Sir. 24:21).
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth (Psalm 37:11).
Blessed are they, who, like the prophets, are persecuted for righteousness, for of such, says Matthew, is the reign of heaven. The sermon ceaselessly insists upon the Creator’s wise dominion and on human littleness: “Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black . . . . Do not multiply words . . . . Do not be concerned for the morrow …. For which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to your height? Your Father in heaven knows what you need” (5:36; 6:7, 34, 27; 6:32).
EQUALITY OF DISCIPLES
The humility and meekness which this Gospel inculcates should not be confused with submission to a human institution. While Matthew is sometimes interpreted as offering an institutionalized version of Christianity in which the Twelve represent community leaders and “the little ones” refers to “rank and file believers,” the invitation to turn and become little ones is addressed to all the disciples. Indeed, the continuing presence of Jesus in the community demands a radically egalitarian stance: “Do not be called rabbi …. Call no human being ‘father.’ . . . Do not be called teacher, for one is your teacher, the Christ” (2:8-10). Not only are the rabbinic titles “rabbi” and “abba” rejected as idolatrous, but the term adopted for a Christian teacher is also rejected as infringing upon the instruction of Christ. So too in rejecting ostentatious piety, the sermon demands a startlingly direct and unmediated relationship with God: fast, give, pray in secret for the sake of your Father who sees in secret (6:1-6).
Matthew’s Gospel is in many regards the least receptive toward women. Unlike Mark and Paul, this author does not envisage the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband (19:9; cf. Mark 10:11; 1 Cor 7:10); and the embarrassing question put by the sons of Zebedee in Mark 10:35 is put by their mother in Matt. 20:20. Even so, Matthew’s Jesus has been the beloved teacher of women throughout Christian experience. This may be due to the wisdom spirituality of the Gospel, with the tradition of female divinity and the radically egalitarian promise that accompanies it. Wherever women are able to read and interpret together the Scriptures and Jesus’ words, Jesus is present as unique and liberating teacher. This spirituality is reflected in the twelfth century hymn:
Jesus! sweet the memory,
giving the heart true joys,
but sweeter than honey and than all,
his sweet presence.(10)
Matthew, in revising Mark’s Gospel, deliberately completes the picture of Jesus and of the Christian life. The bleak image and invitation of the cross and Jesus dead upon it are filled out with a living and present Jesus, whose words, reflected upon the ancient Scriptures, offer a consoling and learnable “way.” But Matthew does not replace the cross with spiritual achievement. Rather, the call to learn of the meek and humble Jesus refracts the call to the cross into a discipline of practice and reflection, a schooling in the image of the dead and risen Lord. Matthews picture of the death of Jesus is essentially that of Mark, and it remains the center of the Gospel. For some believers, the simplicity of Mark’s call is the only appropriate one, and traditional discipline is an encumbrance. For most, something more is required. But for all believers, the severe Markan demand underlies and judges our every venture upon a spiritual way.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: In a future issue, the author will present the images of Jesus and the Christian vocation in the Gospels of Luke and John.)
- The authors of the Gospels are anonymous; the traditional names will be used here for convenience, but I shall avoid the pronoun he to refer to the authors.
- The reflections in this essay derive from the work of many others besides myself. Writings that have been particularly influential are: N.A. Dahl, “The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel,” Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), pp. 52-65; W.D. Davies, The Setting of the Sermon on the Mount (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1963); D.E. Nineham, The Gospel of St. Mark (Hammondsworth: Westminster, 1963); M. Jack Suggs, Wisdom, Christology and Law in Matthew’s Gospel (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970). This article owes much to the lectures and conversation of Rowan A. Greer of Yale Divinity School. Thanks is due to Margaret A. Farley, also of Yale Divinity School, for her interest and encouragement.
- Other parts of the New Testament confirm this. John 20:23, a saying very similar to Matt. 18:18, also promises authority to forgive and withhold forgiveness.
- Compare 1 John 5:14-16, a similar but more limited promise.
- Compare 1 Cor. 5:4, where Paul assumes the presence of the Lord when the community expels the offending member.
- Heaven in Matthew is usually a euphemism for God and does not mean a place.
- Matt. 5:23-24 is related to Mark 11:25; Matt. 5:25-26 appears also in Luke 12:58-59, and both versions probably come from a third, lost document (usually called Q).
- Pirke Aboth 3:2, cf. 3:6, trans. H. Danby, The Mishnah (London: Oxford University Press 1933), p. 450.
- Genesis Rabbah 17.5 Translated under the editorship of H. Freedman and M. Simon (London: Soncino Press 1939), p. 136.
- Jesu Dulcis Memoria. One of the manuscripts seems to have credited the hymn to a woman. See A. Wilmaert, “Le Jubilus sur le nom de Jesus dit de Saint Bernard,” Ephemerides Liturgica 57 (1943): 54-55.