This is the fourth (of seven) brief overviews from a study I’m leading at my church on Matthew’s gospel. It is a literary analysis that focuses on how the story is put together, while still touching on individual passages at times. This is a little longer (less abbreviated) than the previous summaries.
Jesus’ ministry is summarized in 4.23 and 9.35 as teaching and healing. The teaching is expounded in chaps. 5-7 while the healing is expounded in chaps. 8-10. Once we are given details about Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing, John the Baptist reappears.
If we look to the narrative structure, the observant reader will notice that Jesus’ role as messiah (“child of God”)—the one who represents God’s will for the world—is the primary topic of this section. This is made clear by two questions that frame or bracket Matthew 11.1-16.21. The section begins with John’s confusion about Jesus that leads him to ask about Jesus’ identity to which Jesus responds (11.2-6). The section ends with Jesus’ question to the disciples about Jesus’ identity to which Peter responds (16.13-20). Up to this point, there has been little reported opposition to Jesus—only a brief concern voiced by the religious leaders about the company Jesus keeps (9.10-13) and about how his disciples practice piety (9.14-17). Now, in a section that focuses on Jesus’ identity as messiah, the opposition increases.
John’s question about Jesus is about how the kingdom (reign) of God advances. John imagined the kingdom coming by swift, observable, decisive action tinged with violent imagery and imagination: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (3.7b, 10). According to Jesus, this is not the means and manner by which the kingdom comes (cf. Mt 13). Thus, the literary purpose of the character of John the Baptist is to represent those who hopes and dreams are partially realized and partially unrealized in Jesus. John illustrates the tension that all must wrestle with in following a Jesus who brings both hope and disappointment, comfort and critique.
The “sermon in parables” (Mt 13) is about how the kingdom comes and what it looks like when it arrives. These issues were at the heart of John the Baptist’s questions, and these issues are the basis for the growing opposition to Jesus’ ministry. In terms of the overall structure of the gospel, this sermon is at the center and is also the middle of the five discourses (2 preceding and 2 following). It seems to me that there are three distinct units: vv 1-23 (the varied responses to the kingdom and the profligate farmer who keeps broadcasting good seed); vv 24-43 (the presence of the kingdom (God) in the midst of other kingdoms); vv 44-53 (the priceless nature of the kingdom that is worth any amount of devotion and cost to be a part of it).
If the first sermon revealed the character-shaping righteousness that embodies the reign of God and the second sermon was an exhortation to share the character-shaping righteousness, then the third sermon reveals the slow and easily dismissed progress of the kingdom of heaven. The reign of God doesn’t come by dramatic, decisive actions (as JBap and others had envisioned). Rather, it comes through small, easily overlooked, seemingly insignificant ways. It’s like seed being sown in the soil, which takes a long time to grow and doesn’t look like much is going on for awhile. Thus, all those who imagined the Messiah bringing the reign of God through quick, decisive action will misunderstand God’s rule and will not be able to see it in the person of Jesus.
After the sermon (Mt 13) about the varied responses to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, the narrative (13.54-16.20) alternates between positive and negative responses to Jesus who is the profligate farmer who throws seeds everywhere in the hopes that they will find good soil and produce good fruit. In this section, we encounter the two feeding miracles in Matthew’s gospel that frame a unit of thought about the expansive, compassionate, reconciling nature of the kingdom of God.
Feeding of the 5000 (14.13-21)—Jesus’ provision in Jewish lands
The disciples’ response to Jesus (14.22-33)—“you of little faith…”
Summary of healings (14.34-36)—trust in Jesus’ healing power
Religious leaders’ response to Jesus (15.1-2)—torah interpretation
Jesus’ response to religious leaders (15.3-20)—bearing fruit alone matters
The Canaanite woman’s response to Jesus (15.21-28)—“great is your faith…”
Summary of healings (15.29-31)—trust in Jesus’ healing power
Feeding of the 4000 (15.32-39)—Jesus’ provision in Gentile lands
In between the two feeding narratives there is an important encounter with a “Canaanite” woman (what follows is based on Grant LeMarquand’s article, “The Canaanite Conquest of Jesus”). To appreciate it’s significance, we need to notice at least three things. First, we need to remember that Jesus’ last excursion into Gentile territory was a failure. He healed a demon-possessed man, but then he was driven out of town for doing so. So, perhaps this story of the Canaanite woman is, in part, about overcoming Jesus’ frustration and/or reluctance to reach out to Gentiles based on the first failed effort. Second, we need to notice what takes place right before this section framed by feeding narratives. Jesus is rejected in his hometown and his mentor, JBap, is executed. This is important because if anything was going to incite Jesus to choose a different course, to choose a way that rejected his earlier teachings on non-violence, this would have been it. His own friends have rejected him, his mentor has been killed, and the opposition to his ministry is growing. Jesus was likely starting to fear for his life, and he has a perfect opportunity to change tactics—no one would have blamed him for wanting vengeance for those who killed his mentor. And yet his path doesn’t change—non-violence, compassion and mercy to all remain at the center of Jesus’ life and teachings. Finally, we need to notice the change Matthew makes regarding this woman’s identity. In Mark 7.26 (the parallel account of this scene), the woman is a Syro-Phoenecian woman, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman. This is an intentional change made by the writers of this gospel.
Why is this significant? There were no more Canaanites by the time of Jesus, so labeling this woman a Canaanite recalls the OT narrative of the Hebrews entrance into the land of promise by force and violence. Therefore, this is a story that critiques the hostility found in the OT toward the Canaanites (the archetypal enemy of Israel in the OT narrative). This is a story that condemns the OT assumption that YHWH was behind the violent entrance into the land of promise. The location of the story between two “wilderness feedings” makes this clear, because it recalls the wilderness wandering on the way to the promised land, and thus it raises the question, what does it look like to enter into the “promised land,” which, in Matthew’s gospel is the equivalent of “the kingdom or reign of heaven”?
This is a subversive narrative that Matthew is telling, because it is challenging the unquestioned assumptions of the Jewish people by criticizing one of their most important stories—the entrance into the land of promise. Through this story, Matthew condemns the OT narratives that seek to justify the use violence to enter into the land of promise by placing under the garb of so-called righteous or divinely ordained violence, and instead proclaims that the way to enter into the land of promise, into the kingdom of heaven, into the reign and rule of God, is to show mercy, to show compassion, to show grace to all people.
The means by which these two conquests happen is very significant. In the OT story, the Jews conquered the Canaanites by violence and claimed divine approval for their violence (like all humans tend to do). In Matthew’s story, the lie of divinely ordained violence is exposed as the Canaanites conquer the Jews by compassion and mercy. The way into the promised land, into the kingdom of God, is not by violence but through compassion and mercy. In fact, this story that critiques such a significant event in Hebrew history suggests that only by renouncing the lie of divinely ordained violence is one able to enter into the kingdom of heaven, because only by rejecting this destructive ideology can one follow Jesus all the way to the cross and thus find liberation from the violence contagion that enslaves us and threatens to destroy us.
The section culminates in Peter’s confession (on behalf of all the disciples) at Caesarea Philippi, which contrasts JBap’s question with which we began. This leads to second (of three) major narrative shifts. At 4.17 there is a temporal transition—“from that time Jesus began to proclaim the good news of the reign of God.” Now, at 16.21 there is a second temporal transition—“from that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…” The narrative now darkens as we approach Jesus’ final days.