A well-trained scribe: Matthew and the call to perfection

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

This will be the first of two posts on Matthew’s gospel. As he tells the story, Matthew showcases both his admiration for, and frustration with, Mark’s version of Jesus’s life. We see his admiration, because he adopts Mark’s basic idea, and often follows him almost word for word. We see his frustration because while Mark describes Jesus as a teacher, he includes very little of Jesus’ teaching. Matthew, by way of contrast, has gathered together a wide range of Jesus’ teaching, which he often presents in extended teaching sessions, beginning with the collection we now know as the sermon on the mount.1

St Matthew and the Angel, attr. Karel van der Pluym (c.1660) via Wikimedia Commons

However, Matthew does not begin there, but with an introduction skipped over by most modern readers, which is also omitted from the lectionary. Matthew begins with that Old Testament standby, a stylised genealogy. Jesus, who do you think you are – a potted family history. This neatly divides Jewish history into three equal periods of fourteen generations, Abraham to David, David to the exile, and the exile to the birth of Jesus. It is not just a royal Davidic pedigree for the Messiah, but a way of emphasising the completeness of God’s plan. Jesus is presented as the fulfilment of Israel’s history. He is David’s true royal heir, but also something more: as the hymn puts it, “great David’s greater son.”2 This is the first of Matthew’s themes to be introduced, and it is picked up in the birth story which follows.

The second of Matthew’s major themes is Jesus as a new Moses. Just as Moses went up the mountain to receive the Law from God, so Jesus goes up a mountain to sit down and give a new interpretation of the Law. This is most obvious in the series of antitheses contained in the sermon on the mount.3 Jesus intensifies some of the ten commandments, correcting Moses’ version of God’s words. The biblical commandment is introduced by a phrase like “You have heard that it was said …”. Jesus takes the commandment and authoritatively improves on it: “… but I say to you … .” It is no longer simply enough to avoid killing or adultery, people must also avoid calling people names and looking lustfully at others.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sets out the standard of perfection which is meant to mark the life of God’s kingdom, beginning with the beatitudes: the blessings which will mark the age to come. Matthew, with a typically Jewish euphemism, wanting to avoid saying “God” too often, usually replaces Mark’s phrase “the kingdom of God” with “the kingdom of heaven”.

There is an implicit contrast in Matthew with the traditional approach to the Torah followed by the early rabbis.4 The rabbis’ practical teaching of Torah is largely concerned with making it observable by ordinary people. Jesus offers a counsel of perfection that goes beyond the humanly achievable (and thereby creating some significant ethical and theological problems for the church later on). At its most extreme it is summed up in the command to “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48)

Despite this emphasis, Matthew became the favoured gospel in the church, precsiely because he showed more of Jesus legislating for a new community. Once expectations of Jesus’ immediate return died down, the church needed to get organised. Matthew seemed to lend itself to that purpose more than the other gospels.

Let’s take a very specific example: Jesus’s teaching about divorce. This is one of those incidents in the gospels where we see Jesus being invited, as a teacher, to offer his opinion in an area where there was considerable controversy and disagreement between leading schools of thought.5 In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’s answer to the question is presented as an absolute prohibition of divorce.6

Matthew, while largely using Mark’s words and continuing to uphold the ideal, clearly assumes Jesus didn’t mean anything quite as extreme. To him, if not to us, it seemed obvious that Jesus’s prohibition did not include the circumstances where a wife had been unfaithful. “And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (Matthew 10:9). Even with the get-out clause of “unchastity” the disciples still think this is an impossibly high standard.

The church has argued about what Jesus really meant, and how to apply his teaching to daily life ever since his teaching was first heard. Yet even within the gospel story, we see the church working out how to proclaim and adapt the call to perfection for ordinary human beings living out their faith very imperfectly.

In tomorrow’s post on Matthew, I will look at one of the biggest difficulties in reading Matthew: the complicated relationship his community has with their Jewish neighbours.


  1. The sermon on the mount is chapters 5–7. The other main teaching sections are chapter 10 (Jesus instructs his disciples on how to be missionaries), chapter 13 (a whole series of parables about the kingdom), chapter 18 (how disciples should behave towards one another) and chapters 24-25 (the future and the last judgement).
  2. The hymn “Hail to the Lord’s anointed” by James Montgomery.
  3. These begin at Matthew 5:21.
  4. Rabbi is an honorific title meaning “my master” which a disciple might use as a sign if respect for their teacher. It seems to have been in use well before there was an identifiable class of people labelled “rabbis”. Exactly when it stopped being simply a polite form of address, and became a classification of a particular group of people – “the rabbis” is rather hard to tell but almost certainly after the time of Jesus. It nonetheless marks a convenient way of referring to early Jewish teachers of Torah.
  5. There was a well-known disagreement on the question of divorce between two leading schools of thought in first-century Palestine: the strict school of Shammai (divorce permissible only for adultery) and the lenient school of Hillel (divorce for almost any reason including a burnt dinner). The story is referred to in the Mishnah (collected teachings and interpreations of Torah published early in the third century AD.)
  6. See Mark 10:9-11. Mark also customises Jesus’ teaching for a Roman audience by interpreting it apply to women divorcing husbands as well. Jewish law did not allow a woman to initiate divorce, Roman law did.

One thought on “A well-trained scribe: Matthew and the call to perfection

  1. Pingback: Anti-semitic? The Pharisees and the Jewish people in Matthew's gospel – Liturgica

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