Matthew Week 6
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 14:1–17:13
In today’s reading, the division of Israel caused by the rejection of Jesus’ ministry leads to the emergence of a new, messianic community of Israel called “church” (16:18; 18:17) [see Author’s Note 1]. Accordingly, you’ll notice that Peter starts to assume leadership; though he was listed first among the disciples at 10:2, it isn’t until now that he takes the stage as the “rock” upon which Jesus will build his church (16:13–20; see also 14:22–33; 15:15; 16:22–23; 17:4, 24–25). All of this, in turn, prepares the way for the next major sermon, Jesus’ teaching on community (Chapter 18).
A Prophet, Yet More Than a Prophet: Chapter 14
Since Jesus has just referred to himself as a prophet (13:57), Chapter 14 seeks to compare and contrast Jesus with the other prophet of the gospel, John the Baptist. Though we’d heard of John’s arrest (4:12) and imprisonment (11:2), this is the first we’ve heard of his death, so Matthew pauses to explain what happened.
Like so many of the prophets of old who spoke God’s word of judgment against the kings of their day, so now John condemns the Jewish ruler Herod as a transgressor of the law for marrying his brother’s wife while his brother was still alive (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). For this, like the prophets of old, John is put to death.
But this story isn’t simply about John. His role in the gospel is to prepare the way for Jesus in life, and apparently also in death (Matthew 17:12), for we find a number of intriguing parallels between the stories of their executions. Their arrest is sought by people who “feared the crowds, because they regarded [John/Jesus] as a prophet” (14:5/21:46); both are eventually “arrested” (14:3/26:50) and “bound” (14:3/27:2); both are killed by worldly rulers (Herod/Pilate) who are persuaded to go forward with the execution by others (Herodias/chief priests) even though neither wanted to (14:6–11/27:11–26); both are buried by their disciples (14:12/27:57–61).
So Jesus is indeed to be understood as a prophet of God, in continuity with the prophets of old, speaking God’s powerful word of truth to the fickle and unstable worldly powers who do not want to hear the message.
But the subsequent stories reveal that Prophet Jesus is more than just a prophet. Jesus’ feeding of the 5,000 (14:13–21) does this by recalling scenes from earlier in the biblical story and pointing forward to scenes yet to come. Looking back, it most clearly evokes the story of the prophet Elisha multiplying a handful of loaves and grain to feed a host of hungry prophets (2 Kings 4:42–44).
But the location of the feeding — an eremos, a “wilderness” — brings to mind God’s miraculous provision of manna for Israel as it wandered in the wilderness of Sinai (Exodus 16). Looking forward, we see that what Jesus does with the bread (took, blessed, broke, gave) (Matthew 14:19) clearly foreshadows the Last Supper, where Jesus identifies the broken bread with his body (26:26) and invites his followers to a future heavenly banquet in the Kingdom of God (26:29). The Bible’s past, present, and future all combine in the feeding of the 5,000, providing us with a multifaceted Scripture-image of a compassionate God who reaches down to deliver physical and spiritual food to those in need.
In the next story, Jesus makes the disciples get into a boat to cross the Sea of Galilee. After a night of prayer on the mountain he walks out to meet them, striding on top of the waves that are “tormenting” their boat (14:22–25). Recall the earlier scene when Jesus stilled a storm on that same lake (8:23–27); there we noted that Israel had often spoken of God’s power in terms of having the ability to control the sea. Sometimes Israel spoke explicitly of God walking on the waves, just as Jesus is doing here (e.g., Psalm 77:16–19; Job 9:8, 38:16).
When the anxious disciples cry out in fear, Jesus’ calls out to them, “Take courage! Ego eimi! Do not be afraid!” He isn’t just saying “Hey, it’s me!” Given the scriptural backdrop of a God walking on water, the Greek ego eimi should be taken to mean “I AM,” the divine name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3:14. Once again, the story communicates that Jesus is more than a prophet; he is “God with us” in human form [see Author’s Note 2].
The story isn’t finished, however. For, again, discipleship is never out of step with Christology in Matthew’s gospel. What Jesus does, disciples must do as well. After Jesus says “I AM,” Peter says, “Master, if YOU ARE, command me to come to you on the waves” (14:28). If you are indeed God with us, Peter says, your presence will empower me to do what you are able to do.
And so Peter is enabled by Jesus to imitate his miraculous deed — until, of course, the fearsome wind leads Peter to take his eyes off the Lord. Sinking amidst the storm of life, he cries out “Lord, save me!” and immediately Jesus’ hand is there to lift him back up out of the waves. This third appearance of the phrase “you of little faith” (14:31; compare 6:30 and 8:26) helps us understand the phrase to refer to individuals who believe in Jesus but do not trust him fully. The message is clear: only trust in the presence of Jesus will enable believers to imitate him.
EnlargeClean and Unclean in the Kingdom of God: Chapter 15
The separating out of Jesus’ disciples continues in Chapter 15. The first scene shows the Pharisees confronting Jesus over the fact that his disciples “break with the tradition of the elders” in not washing their hands before they eat (15:1–2). The disciples have not broken God’s law here; while God’s people were often called to wash their hands as a ritual act of purification (Exodus 30:17–21; Leviticus 15:11; Deuteronomy 21:6), it was Pharisaic tradition that extended this to include ceremonial washing prior to eating.
Rather than defend his disciples or debate the particular tradition under consideration, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for worrying more about their tradition than God’s law itself (note the contrast: “For God said [15:4] … but you say [15:5] ….”).
The issue appears to involve a promised financial gift to God’s service; apparently the Pharisees insisted that such a promise could not be revoked (Deuteronomy 23:21–23), even if it meant the giver would be unable to care for needy parents if she kept it.
As we saw in 12:1–8, Jesus once again seems to insist that there are lighter and weightier laws, and human need takes precedence in determining which to observe, when. Jesus quotes Isaiah 29:13 against them: though their words make them sound religious, their actions indicate their hearts are far from God. If their hearts were resting in God, they would have found it unthinkable to allow elderly parents to suffer from want. Jesus insists that their practice of faith was not “planted” by God (15:13) and will eventually be weeded out.
The “clean/unclean” distinction just made leads us into Jesus’ interaction with an “unclean” Gentile woman (15:21–28), whom Matthew deliberately calls a “Canaanite” (compare Mark 7:26). The term recalls Israel’s ancient wars with the inhabitants of the Promised Land, but this woman is no enemy; she calls out as though she herself were a faithful Jew, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” Amazingly, Jesus resists her request for healing three times: after first ignoring her (15:23), he underscores the limited scope of his mission (15:24), and then we are alarmed to hear him say, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs” (15:26). What could possibly account for Jesus’ attitude here?
The story has to do with Matthew’s interest in the place of Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation. Jesus’ reference to “children” and “dogs” (common terms in Jesus’ day for Jews and Gentiles) is not meant to sound as awful as it does to modern ears, for it is the order of things that is at stake: the nations of the world are of course invited to God’s banquet table, but, biblically speaking, that invitation comes through God’s people Israel. Children eat first, and then dogs eat the leftovers; so also Paul is quick to remind us that salvation is to “the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16; 2:9–10; 10:12).
This story seems to be pointed at a Gentile church that may forget that they are branches grafted on to the tree of God’s people by the kindness of God (Romans 11:13–24). Gentile believers are called to take up a persistent and yet humble faith, recognizing the distinction between Israel and the nations in God’s plan. The woman’s faith is “great,” and she is rewarded accordingly, because she recognizes her place as an undeserving recipient of God’s salvation.
After a brief transitional scene wherein Jesus pours out healing on the crowds who have come to him (15:29–31; Matthew’s claim that “they praised the God of Israel” suggests that these people are Gentiles as well (15:32–39). Why does Matthew include a second feeding story, so similar to the first? Mark also includes two feedings (Mark 6:30–44; 8:1–10), but Luke and John only describe one (Luke 9:10–17; John 6:1–14). Did the same event happen twice, or has one event been recorded in two different ways?
In Matthew’s case it is instructive to notice the differences between this story and the one that came before. First, notice how Jesus sets it up for the disciples this time around: this time Jesus initiates things by asking the disciples what ought to be done for the hungry crowd (compare 15:32 with 14:15). Their response (15:33) makes it plain they didn’t get the point the last time around, so they need another demonstration. Second, this story is set up by 15:21–31, which shows Jesus’ mercy extended to Gentiles; the earlier feeding took place in Jewish territory, so the inclusion of this second story might also underscore the “salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek” theme [see Author’s Note 3].
The Dividing Line is Drawn: Chapter 16
The distinction between the followers of Jesus and the followers of the Pharisees intensifies in Chapter 16 by means of three important scenes. In the first (16:1–12), the Jewish leadership once again “test” Jesus, asking him to perform a sign to authenticate himself. The scene repeats much of what we saw in 12:38–42 (you’ll want to revisit last week’s comments on that scene). This time Jesus goes on to explicitly warn his confused disciples to avoid their “yeast,” later identified as their teaching (16:12).
After this call to be separate from the dominant religiousness of the day, the next scene (16:13–20), arguably the most important in the section, firmly establishes the distinction between those who follow Jesus and those who do not. While readers have known Jesus’ identity since the first chapter of this gospel, the characters within the narrative have had to figure it out for themselves.
Now Jesus asks two point-blank questions to discover where the disciples stand: “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is? … But who do you say that I am?” Though most think of Jesus as a prophet, Simon Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” (16:16). Jesus is not just one prophet in a line of prophets; he is the Son of God, God’s singular representative, the one true King of Israel.
Matthew alone among the gospels follows Peter’s confession of Jesus with Jesus’ own confession of blessing upon Peter (16:17–19). Much needs to be said about this long-debated passage. First, Jesus asserts that Peter’s knowledge is not a “flesh and blood” understanding that can be had by normal means of human knowledge, but a spiritual understanding that can be had only by revelation from God. Peter is thus celebrated as being “open” to receive the secrets of God’s Kingdom in a way that the religious authorities and Jesus’ own kin were not.
Second, Simon’s name is affirmed to be Petros, “Peter” (a common name), and Jesus says “on this petra [‘rock’] I will build my church” (16:18). Roman Catholic tradition has insisted that Peter is here singled out as the foundation upon which papal succession proceeds. Protestants have typically responded against this by arguing that Peter is simply being singled out as a “representative disciple,” and that the rock on which the church is built is not Peter himself but the faithful confession of Christ that Peter has just uttered. Though the text continues to be debated, it seems that a majority of scholars (Protestant and Catholic alike) now affirm the plain sense meaning of the text, that Petros is himself to be considered the petra on which the church is built.
This does not mean, however, that we have to accept the tradition of strict apostolic succession from Peter to the present. Some have noted the possibility that Jesus intended to draw a connection between Peter and other Old Testament figures that were likewise “blessed” with a name change from God. Abram was renamed Abraham, meaning “father of a multitude,” to signify his new role as the “father” of the Jewish people (Genesis 17:1–8). Likewise, Jacob was renamed “Israel” as it was from him that the 12 tribes were brought into being (Genesis 32:22–32).
Regarding Abraham, note also Isaiah 51:1–2:
Listen to me, you that pursue righteousness, you that seek the LORD. Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.
Recall also that John the Baptist said,
Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham (Matthew 3:9).
Rather than inflate Peter to the role of “the first Pope” or deflate him to the status of a mere “representative disciple,” Matthew 16:17–19 suggests that, like Abraham, Peter’s “blessing” signifies the start of a new people of God, an eternal community called “church” that even death itself will not be able to destroy [see Author’s Note 4].
Despite the conferral of all this power and authority on Peter and the church, at this point in the gospel story, Peter’s right confession obviously does not lead to a complete grasp on the nature of Jesus’ mission. When Jesus takes the opportunity to clarify precisely what it means to be the Messiah on his terms (16:21–28), Peter’s “God forbid!” makes it plain that his concept of kingship is still too worldly.
Indeed, Jesus’ calling him “Satan” once again draws our minds back to the wilderness temptation to embrace a worldly, self-serving model of kingship (4:1–11). Since this kind of “flesh and blood” human understanding will not do, Jesus offers up a loud, shocking clarification: following him leads not to the glory of worldly power but to the shame of a powerless death on a cross.
Paradoxically, “saving” the kind of life Jesus offers requires us to give up the task of “saving” our flesh-and-blood worldly lives (16:25). This is partly the case because no amount of worldly gain can equal the value of our individual lives (16:26); but, more importantly, as Jesus insisted in the sermon on discipleship, the reward for being a disciple of Jesus comes not now but at the end, when Jesus comes with the Kingdom to repay people for how they conducted their lives (16:27). One cannot understate the shock the disciples must have experienced upon hearing these words, for no one in Jesus’ day expected that the Messiah of Israel would suffer rejection and execution.
This crucially important chapter is capped off with a final enigmatic claim: some of the disciples standing around Jesus will “see the Son of Man coming in his Kingdom before they die” (16:28); that is, they will see him in his role as enthroned king within their lifetimes. Was Jesus mistaken, thinking perhaps that he would return in glory soon after his crucifixion and resurrection? Or did he have something else in mind? Though quite a few options are set forth by scholars, many now agree that the answer has something to do with the transfiguration story that follows immediately, and the resurrection story, which draws Matthew’s Gospel to a close with Jesus making the kingly claim, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (28:18).
The Glory of the Crucified King: Chapter 17:1–14
The story of Jesus’ transfiguration (17:1–8) is well known but hard to make sense of without a good bit of explanation. The story is richly woven together with biblical imagery. First, the entire scene recalls images from the exodus of Israel from Egypt. Remember that, to receive the law, Moses went up a mountain that was covered with a fiery cloud for six days (Exodus 24:15–18), and, after seeing the LORD, his face shone with the glory of God (Exodus 34:29–35). So now also the “old” Moses is in a similar scene giving witness to his superior, the “new” Moses, who is also God with us. Elijah is there as well, for he too met with God on a mountain (1 Kings 19:4–18), and was expected to return before the day of God’s judgment (Malachi 4:5).
The two of them standing together likely also signify the law (Moses) and the prophets (Elijah) giving witness to the promised Messiah. Peter’s strange suggestion that they make three “dwellings” (NRSV) or “shelters” (NIV) might make more sense if we translated the word as “booths” or “tabernacles”; Peter sees Moses, the mountain, and the shining glory of God and is inspired to re-enact the Jewish feast of booths, the annual celebration wherein Israel lived in tents for seven days to celebrate the presence of God in the tabernacle (Leviticus 23:39–43). After hearing such a dire prediction of a future involving death on a cross, Peter would rather cherish his mountaintop experience!
But the disconnection reasserts itself immediately: Jesus is not the same as the old Moses, and Peter cannot cling to the mountaintop experience of God’s glory, for the cross awaits them in Jerusalem. So God envelops them in a cloud and once again pronounces Jesus’ identity (Matthew 17:5). The pronouncement closely parallels the one given at Jesus’ baptism (3:17), except for the addition of the last clause (“Listen to him!”), which appears to allude to Deuteronomy 18:15–19. There Moses tells the people of Israel,
The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own people; you shall heed such a prophet. [The LORD said,] “I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command… Anyone who does not heed the words that the prophet shall speak in my name, I myself will hold accountable.”
After this, Moses and Elijah disappear and the disciples look up to see “no one except Jesus himself alone” (17:8). Jesus is indeed the prophet like Moses, but he stands alone among the authoritative figures of Israel’s past.
So the transfiguration scene provides the disciples with a brief a glimpse of what Jesus will be like “coming in his Kingdom.” But one further, crucial point must be made before we close for today. Notice the amazing parallels between this scene and Jesus’ crucifixion and death at 27:32–54.
The two scenes are mirror images of one another, the first providing a glimpse of Jesus’ kingly glory on the way to his suffering, the second displaying his suffering on the way to his glorification. The parallels are intentional, for the cross of Christ the King reveals the divine truth that glory is expressed through humility, and God’s power is revealed through human weakness.
As Paul reminds us, Christ broken and crucified is “the power and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24); therefore, we are to live our lives in the knowledge that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). The new, messianic community of Israel called “church” is to be characterized by this fundamental reversal of human logic, where the servant is the one who reigns supreme.
Questions for Further Reflection:
- Discipleship is never out of step with Christology in Matthew’s gospel— what Jesus does, a disciple must do as well. But acting like Jesus isn’t simply a matter of the will; Peter is only able to walk on the water because his eyes are focused on Jesus’ empowering presence. Apparently the imitation of Jesus involves a combination of trust and action. What is the relationship between these two? How does trust enable obedience? What happens when you have one without the other?
- How do you react to Jesus’ statement to the “Canaanite” woman, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs”? Was the explanation given in the Lectio satisfactory for you? Why or why not?
- “Who do the people say that the Son of Man is? … But who do you say that I am?” How would you respond if Jesus asked you this same question? How does it correspond to the picture of Jesus being cast by Matthew in this gospel?
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