Summary Matthew Chapter 20

This has been a long time coming, and my apologies for that. Real life has a way of forcing its way to the top of the priorities list.

As presented, the chapter falls into two separate sections. The first is the tale of the Workers in the Vineyard. The purpose of the story, I believe, is to present us with the difference between the concepts of justice and mercy. This is a significant development in proto-Christian theology; it represents something new, a concept or doctrine or point of view that was not in Mark. The overwhelming number of experts/scholars believe that Mark was the first gospel written, but there is a minority opinion that says otherwise. I believe that it should be taken as “settled” that Mark wrote first, and situations like this are the best evidence of why I believe this. Introducing mercy is a development, an addition to the basic message provided by Mark. This shows a higher level of compassion, one that actually goes against the grain of many “righteous” people. A couple of years ago I would have smugly, but erroneously, suggested this as a big step in the transition from Judaism to Christianity, but that would have been an artifact of bad religious education as a kid. Now, thanks to an opening of my learning boundaries, I understand the importance of social justice issues in Judaism, and understand that these are not Christian innovations in the least. Indeed, how many times did the Israelites “do evil in the sight of the Lord”, and yet the Lord did not smite them as they deserved? Countless times. Time and again the Lord forgave his difficult children and accepted them back as “his” people. And that is certainly mercy as opposed to justice; in fact, it’s pretty much the definition of “mercy”. Justice is receiving good things when we deserve them; mercy is receiving them when we don’t.

Now, here’s a radical take on this. What if this emphasis on mercy originated, not with the more famous brother, but with James, brother of the Lord? One of my contentions, or suspicions, is that the message of James permeated the various communities more thoroughly in the period between Mark and Matthew. As such, we get a much more vanilla Jesus in Mark, one focused on the kingdom, but in Matthew we get a Jesus who is more concerned with how we treat others. This is not absent in Mark; far from it. But it doesn’t get the emphasis that it does in Matthew. In fact, the greater part of the message of the so-called “Q” is largely concerned with social justice; think of the Beatitudes. Granted. as with my Matthew-as-pagan contention, this idea that much of “Christianity” derives ultimately from James is far from being proven. In fact, I haven’t really worked it into anything resembling a decent argument; as such, there is no need, or even reason, that either of these ideas have to be taken seriously. But they do have to be considered, I believe. And I need compile the evidence I can find for such contentions and see if they deserve to be given the status of theory.

Along with this is my “have-it-both-ways” position on Q. While I deny the existence of Q, I’m often admitting that there were multiple sources, or even demanding that there were multiple sources available to Matthew. This story of the Workers in the Vineyard is a terrific example. It’s not in Luke, so it can’t be from Q; ergo, it’s ascribed to M material: sources available to Matthew and not to Luke. My question is why Matthew could not be the author of the tale? Along with James, I think the evangelists are often overlooked in their role of contributing to their material. Why? The easy answer is that no one wants to consider this because of what this implies about the material. If everyone agrees that Matthew had a special source, we can all agree that the material in the source could actually trace back to Jesus. If, OTOH, we accept that Matthew and Luke and John also contributed to the material themselves, then that possibility vanishes. That is, if Matthew wrote this parable, then Jesus never said it.

This grates across our modern sensibilities that insist that, to attribute words to someone, we have to be sure that the originator of the words actually wrote or spoke them. Anything else is deliberately misleading the reader. The ancients did not feel this way. No doubt I’ve mentioned it, but Thucydides explicitly tell us that he did not hear many of the speeches that he records. So, he tells us, he is recreating them according to his judgement of what would have been said at the time and under those circumstances. And Thucydides was in a position to know; he had been one of the ten strategoi who ran Athens, until he was ostracized by his political opponents. Interestingly, this is pretty much what Paul tells us about how he learned the gospel. We would say that he was “inspired”. In the same way, Thucydides could say he was “inspired” to report the “proper” words. So we could say that Matthew was “inspired” to know what Jesus said–or, at least, the sort of things that Jesus would have said under the circumstances. But that’s not enough. It’s not good enough. We have to maintain that there was a direct pipeline to Jesus through which his word could flow, unimpeded, to Matthew.

The point? If pressed, I would suggest that this story was the creation of Matthew himself. Why could not the man who so “masterfully” organized the “Q” material into the Sermon on the Mount have created a parable that’s not so different from those Jesus told.  Except, it’s not like the parables Jesus told. Think of the Sower: a straight narrative. This one has multiple characters, dialogue, and overall a more literary feel. It reads more like a story; one could say it reads more like fiction, but that would carry some additional implications that are unwarranted. Perhaps. But the idea that Matthew composed this, rather than that it came through some anonymous source from Jesus, would also explain how and why the new theme of mercy vs justice crept into the narrative. That is, it helps explain how and why the message of Jesus evolved.

Evolution of message is also a big part of the rest of the chapter. All the stories in the second part were in Mark; but Matthew’s treatment of these stories also demonstrates considerable evolution of message, attitude, and the conception of Jesus. To demonstrate this, consider the following examples. All represent slight changes to the story as told by Mark. First, when Jesus is predicting that he will be scourged and mocked and executed, Matthew chose to leave out  the “be spat upon” that Mark included. Surely, this is because while Jesus may be killed, being spat upon is much too unseemly. Second, it is no longer James and John who ask to be seated at Jesus’ right and left, it is their mother who more or less comes out of nowhere to ask her question. Just as it is unseemly for Jesus to be spat upon, so it’s unseemly for the Sons of Thunder to be asking for such preferential treatment. Both of these show that Jesus is much less of the rough-and-tumble sort depicted by Mark. The ragged human edges are being smoothed out, he’s lost the crest of anger that was often shown in Mark, he’s become rather more elevated by being less human. And so have James and John, and the disciples in general. This is the process of deification taking hold, where Jesus’ divinity is unquestioned, and even the disciples are becoming somewhat more heroic.

Finally, there is the story of the blind men. Here, Matthew essentially conflates what are two separate stories in Mark. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus heals a blind man in Bethsaida, and then Bar Timaeus outside Jericho. Matthew neglects the latter’s name and puts them together outside Jericho. In the story of the man in Bethsaida, Mark tells us how Jesus spat into the man’s eyes. Rather undignified. More, it’s one of a number of such episodes in which Mark describes what I call “magical practices”.  The two best examples are the Bethsaida episode described and the one where Jesus makes mud from his saliva. Matthew omits both. I suspect this is because, while we think of the healings as miraculous proof of Jesus’ divinity. Oddly, in the ancient Near East, such miracles were produced by wonder-workers, who were not particularly uncommon. As noted, Paul mentions this as one of the gifts that members of the community might have, and it was fourth or fifth on the list. So, in Matthew’s eyes, what we call Jesus’ miracles are not especially something to brag about. They are, if not exactly disreputable, then sort of a minor sideshow to the main event. This certainly demonstrates how the legend of Jesus had grown, how the perception of him had evolved and developed.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on February 16, 2016, in Chapter 20, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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