This is the fifth (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.
With Peter’s confession, we have the second major narrative shift, where Jesus begins telling his disciples openly about his suffering and death that will take place when he reaches Jerusalem. The first major shift was at 4.17, when Jesus began his public ministry: “from that time (J Bap’s arrest) Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” Now, at 16.21, we have our second major shift: “from that time (Peter’s confession), Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…”
This narrative transition reveals that everything from 16.21-20.34 is about Jesus’ self-revelation as a messiah of suffering, an identity that subverts the traditional interpretation and (as we will see) this requires that the disciples once again move from blindness (not understanding Jesus’ messianic identity) to sight (understanding his identity). This entire section seems to be structured around four major geographical movements:
16.21-17.23: From Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum
17.24-18.35: From Capernaum to Judea beyond the Jordan
19.1-20.28: From Judea beyond the Jordan to Jericho
20.29-34: From Jericho to Bethpage (just outside of Jerusalem)
Right after Peter’s pivotal confession, Jesus begins revealing a messianic identity of suffering servanthood. This leads Peter to rebuke Jesus, to which Jesus responds with his own rebuke of Peter, calling him “the satan,” the accuser. In the desert wilderness (Mt 4.1-11), “the satan” tempted Jesus with other ways of being messiah, ways that were incompatible with the reign of God. What is Peter doing here? Tempting Jesus with a way of being the messiah that doesn’t involve suffering, which would cause Jesus to turn from the path of non-violent, self-giving love. It is the temptation to turn from the liberating truth of profligate mercy to the enslaving lie of violence.
Directly following Jesus’ first explicit revelation of his suffering (and the consequent suffering of his disciples), Jesus journeys up a mountain where he is transfigured (17.1-13), which connects Jesus’ message of salvation from violence to torah (Moses) and prophetic preaching (Elijah). This parallels the baptism scene in 3.13-17, which prepares Jesus for the first part of his ministry—the proclamation of the reign of God. The transfiguration prepares Jesus for the second part of his ministry—the arrival of the reign of God through humble, suffering, self-giving love.
In 17.24 Jesus begins the “second leg” of the journey to Jerusalem during which he goes from Capernaum to Judea beyond the Jordan, and here we encounter the fourth discourse most often referred to as “the Sermon on the Church.” That the sermon encompasses 17.24 through 18.35 (despite the chapter division after 17.27) is revealed by Jesus’ arrival at Capernaum in 17.24 (indicating where all of the following dialogue takes place) as well as Matthew’s transition phrase—“when Jesus had finished saying these things…”—and Jesus’ arrival at Judea beyond the Jordan in 19.1. The geographical framing references indicate the unity of 17.24-18.35 even though most of our Bible’s chapter divisions suggest otherwise.The Sermon on the Mount (5-7) reveals a character formation informed by mercy; the Sermon of Mission (10) reveals a mission informed by mercy; the Sermon in Parables (13) reveals the kingdoms arrival informed by mercy; and now the Sermon on the Church (17.24-18.35) reveals a community informed by mercy.
This fourth sermon provides guidance for the community of disciples regarding their internal relationships. There are three major movements in the discourse, all of which are about showing mercy and compassion within the context of the community of Jesus’ disciples (i.e. among all the “little children”). First, children are models of the humility necessary for kingdom participation (17.24-18.9); second, the community is to seek after and reconcile lost sheep (18.10-20); and finally, profligate forgiveness is necessary to become a kingdom community (18.21-35).
As soon as Jesus has finished his sermon, he leaves Galilee for the region of Judea beyond the Jordan, our third (of four) geographical shift in this journey toward Jerusalem (19.1-20.28). The theme of this entire section is largely about a reversal of behavioral standards—Jesus exhorts his disciples to put the needs and interests of other’s above one’s own, which is revealed in the refrains: “the last will be first and the first will be last” and “whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” The nature of God’s reign is most fully revealed (up to this point in the story, at least), by the so-called parable of the day laborers, which culminates in a hauntingly profound question: “are you envious because I am generous?” (20.15b). This reminds the reader that all are welcome to enter God’s kingdom—what matters is not when you join, but that you join. Profligate mercy is the message and practice of the kingdom, and this question recalls Jesus’ words to JBap: “Blessed are those who are not scandalized on account of such extravagant grace” (11.6). This whole section builds upon the sermon in chapter 13 where Jesus describes the growth of the kingdom as slow and humble. Seeds sown by a wasteful and profligate farmer now become more concrete actions by disciples who willingly “waste” their mercy on any and all people in order to bring them into the community of profligate mercy.
Finally, at 20.29, we have our last geographical shift, as Jesus and the disciples have journeyed from Judea beyond the Jordan to Jericho (19.1-28) and now they will journey from Jericho to Bethpage at the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem (19.29-20.1). Just as they arrive at Jerusalem for the so-called “triumphal entry,” Jesus encounters (and heals) two blind men. In 9.27-31, there was another story about Jesus healing two blind men who are commanded by Jesus not to say anything to anyone. In this healing, the two blind men immediately begin following Jesus—they become disciples who journey with Jesus to Jerusalem, the place where he has been telling his followers that he would suffer and die. I believe Jesus exhorts the first blind men to secrecy in 9.27-31 because he hasn’t yet revealed what it means to be a disciple of a messiah whose identity is bound up in suffering, in giving up oneself to the powers that be in order to live out an ethic of mercy, to live according to the standards of a kingdom that does not advance itself like the kingdoms of the world. By 20.29-34 Jesus has revealed what it truly means to call him messiah and to be his disciples, and now those who receive their sight are able to follow Jesus into Jerusalem and to the cross.
Thus, it should be pretty obvious that the blind men in 9.27-31 and 20.29-34 are metaphors for Jesus’ disciples. The first blind men receive sight, but must wait until they receive their sight again before they can journey with Jesus all the way to the cross. In other words, Jesus’ disciples receive their sight through the Sermon on the Mount (they see the kingdom ethic), but until they receive their sight through the revelation of the means of the kingdom’s coming through slow, seemingly insignificant and ineffective means (casting profligate mercy on all even upon those who persecute you), they don’t see well enough to follow Jesus all the way to Jerusalem and to the cross, they don’t see well enough to share his destiny. I don’t believe that it is coincidence that when Jesus arrives at the suburbs of Jerusalem two blind men reappear to receive their sight and follow Jesus to the cross.