Summary Matthew Chapter 25
The chapter is basically a series of parables: the faithful slave who is ready for the master’s return vs the slave who’s not paying attention. The Ten Virgins with their oil lamps, some of whom may or may not have extra oil. The big one is the Parable of the Talents, meant to promote an active ethos of spiritual capitalism. There are two important points to note about this series of parables. First, all of them deal with the theme of being ready when the master or lord returns. That is to say, they are all about the expected coming of the son of man; in Matthew, that is explicitly Jesus. These stories are meant to allay concern that the expected coming of the son of man, of the lord, as Paul said, had not happened yet. We’ve discussed this before, and more than once, so there is probably no point in going through it again. What we need to takeaway from this is Matthew very insistent that this event will happen, and it may happen soon, or it may happen a bit later. Either way, it is incumbent on us as followers of Jesus to be sure that we are ready when it does happen. A bit later in the narrative Matthew will tell us what happens to those who are caught unawares, but that will be dealt with in time.
The second point about these parables is that they are all unique to Matthew. I was not aware of that as I went through the commentary; in particular, I thought that the Parable of the Talents was certainly to be found in Luke. According to my Harmony of the Gospels, this is not true. Of course, none of them are in Mark, either, but that’s to be expected. Ergo, all of these are M material, stories that are unique to Matthew. That they are not in Mark should not surprise us, especially since these are dealing with the expected coming of the lord/son of man. That theme barely surfaces in Mark; he tells us it will happen, but not often and not very specifically. What is more significant, I believe, is that they are not in Luke. The theme of what has become known as the Second Coming (a great poem by WB Yeats, btw) is wholly absent from John. Does Luke’s omission of these parables indicate a diminished emphasis on the Parousia? Perhaps, or perhaps not. We will examine that more fully when we get to Luke.
Also missing from all the other gospels is the “least of my siblings” story. This is one of the most Christian of Christian ideas in my mind, to be ranked with the Beatitudes as fundamental Christian tenets. Yet, the Beatitudes are only in half the gospels, and the least of my brothers in only one. How is that possible? What does this tell us? The implication, it seems, is that there were many different sets of beliefs among the various communities, each with its own particular emphasis, perhaps. I think that Matthew and Luke having so much in common indicates not a common source, but that Luke had actually read Matthew, and John felt the need to put the finishing touches on the theology by fully elevating Jesus into an equality with God the Father. This touches on Q, of course, and I am still of the opinion that Q never existed. That being the case, the fruition of all these basic Christian ideas in Matthew indicate that there was a fluorescence of teachings attributed to Jesus that Matthew was the first to record. This, in turn, implies that many of these very Christian teachings–the Beatitudes, the Least of my Siblings–did not originate with Jesus, but were developed later. Perhaps James is responsible for some of them, or perhaps James only provided the themes, the actual stories then being created by people like Matthew. We are so used to the idea of the evangelists recording, but the idea of them creating makes us very uncomfortable. This is, however, a very real possibility–even a probability, I might add–and it must be faced and it must be considered.
The major lessons, or the most consequential theological points, or whatever they should be called, all arose in the very last verses of the chapter. Many of these points are also novel with Matthew, with one salient exception. Matthew repeats Mark’s prophecy about the coming of the son of man. And “repeats” is particularly noteworthy here because Matthew said much the same thing back in Chapter 24, where it correlated most closely to the context of the corresponding passage in Mark; this time, however, he goes a little further. The son of man will come in his glory, again with the angels, and will sit upon his throne. In this way, Matthew’s description more closely approaches the conception expressed by Paul, wherein it’s the lord (or Lord; upper vs. lower case L makes a big difference) who is coming. Of course the word Paul uses is Greek, but it would be really interesting to note whether it sits upon something in Hebrew. Is it a translation for Adonai? This was a word often used in Judaism as a surrogate for “God”, the replacement due to the Judaic aversion to using the name of God. If this is what Paul has in mind when he said the “lord” will come, that really puts a very different reading on this.
Beyond all that, however, we should note that, in all cases, it is never sad that the lord or the son of man will “return”; that word is never used in this context by Paul, Mark, or Matthew. It is always said that he will “come”, generally using the most generic, most vanilla verb possible for this. This should be noted. Of course, with Paul, Jesus was only the Lord after the resurrection; as such, he never came in the first place since his incarnation presence didn’t constitute the coming of the Lord. Jesus, at birth and right through his death on the cross, was a man. Only after being raised did he become the Lord. That Mark says that the son of man will come–not return–truly must make us consider that Jesus was not the son of man in the eyes of the early communities of Jesus. This distinction does not hold in or for Matthew. Nowhere in Matthew does Jesus unequivocally say “I am the son of man”, but the aggregation of the small clues, or hints makes this seem like the only way to understand Matthew’s conception of Jesus. This, in turn, suggests that the matter had not been entirely settled when Matthew wrote. He danced around the issue to the extent he does because he didn’t want to alienate that group of followers who saw Jesus and the son of man as separate individuals. But not even Matthew says that “the son of man will return”.
As for the status of the son of man, Matthew has made Jesus divine, but he does not make Jesus the equal of God the Father. In the passage under discussion, the son of man will come in his glory and sit upon his throne, but the kingdom was prepared by the father, said as if this is someone other than the son of man. The latter has become a king, but the king is not the equal of the father. After all, it was the latter who prepared the kingdom, from the foundations of the cosmos. On one hand, Matthew can seem very cagey, telling us things, but never quite committing himself to a particular point of view or factual reality. In such circumstances, one feels that he has chosen his words so very carefully, weighing each one out in its meaning and implications. Then there are times when he almost seems sloppy in his thinking, unable to put two and two together to tease out the implications of what he is saying. This is one of these latter instances. Does he not see that he’s making Jesus the lesser deity? Does he see this and not care? Does he see this and agree with it? I suspect Mark was deliberately straddling the fence; he had his two different traditions and really wasn’t about to get in the middle and craft a consistent theology.
As for Matthew, my suspicion is that he saw that he was making Jesus the lesser deity, but that he was OK with that because that fit his own world-view. Now, this comes dangerously close to begging the question: why did Matthew make Jesus the lesser? Because he was a pagan and this was normal. How do we know Matthew was a pagan? Because he made Jesus the lesser deity. At least, this would be circular if it were the only potential clue that we had, but it’s not. As such, I believe we are justified to infer that Matthew saw the distinction and agreed with it. And really, by doing this, he was really only following Mark’s lead. Mark saw Jesus as adopted at baptism. This is the Adoptionist heresy. Matthew saw Jesus as divine from birth, but not the equal of God. This is Arianism. Both were later to be judged heretical, but only after the writing of John’s gospel, which made the equation of the two. And while both were later considered heresies, note how Jesus is moving up in the scale: from purely human at birth, adopted by God, to divine from birth, a literal son of God much as Herakles was the son of Zeus (minus the actual physical contact present in the Greek myth). The process will continue until it concludes with John’s “in the beginning was the Logos…” (I refuse to translate that as “Word”, no matter what St Jerome thought. And even in Latin, “verbum” is much too limiting. The semantic field of “verbum” is much closer to “word” than it is to “logos”.)
The conclusion we need to draw, I believe, is that Matthew and his contemporaries were, more or less, Arians. But this is true only because the full Truth had not yet been revealed. That is, potentially at least, an explanation that could meet criteria of orthodoxy. Or maybe not.
In one notable passage, Matthew does actually make a definitive statement. This comes in the “least of my brothers” story. Those who did do for the least of the king’s (Jesus’) brothers will enter the kingdom that has been prepared for them, from the foundations of the world. Those who don’t will be consigned to the eternal fire created for the devil and his angels. There you are: specific behaviour will yield specific results. And your reward, or punishment, will be eternal. That is very clear. Also, and I totally missed this in the commentary, we are definitively told that the kingdom is something that “will come”. It has not arrived, and it won’t arrive until the End Times. This rather forces us to ask if this is entirely consistent with Jesus beginning his ministry by preaching that “the kingdom is nigh”. The two interpretations are not really mutually exclusive in any logical sense; Jesus could be teaching that the End Times are nigh, and these will soon be followed by the coming of the kingdom. Logically, this works. But does it feel right? Do we get the sense back in the early part of Mark that Jesus is preaching about the End Times? One could interpret in this way, but that’s my point: it requires an interpretation because that is not exactly what the words feel like. That isn’t entirely their natural meaning, because it requires that the kingdom be understood in a very specific way. For the coming of the one “like a son of man” in Daniel is not a foretelling of End Times, or the kingdom of God.
There are some additional implications to this, of course. That the kingdom has been prepared from the beginning of the universe implies that God foresaw that there would be people, that some of them would be righteous, and that these righteous would inherit the kingdom. That’s all fine and good. But then God also made the eternal fire for the devil and his angels. We are not told, however, that this was made from the beginning of the universe, and the normal sense of this is that it was not. Which means God didn’t foresee the fall of the angels, and he didn’t foresee that some of his human creation would not be righteous enough to inherit the kingdom. So God, apparently, is not omniscient. This works well as a story with the inherent drama of a rebellion and a War in Heaven, the angelic host led by Michael defeating the horde of Lucifer/Satan. It doesn’t work very well as theology, especially once we start to introduce the idea of absolutes into the definition of God. The problem is that the Hebrew God and the Greek concept of the ultimate god as The One, perfect in every way, don’t really mix all that well. The fact is, the Hebrew God was, and at heart always remained, a tribal god, one of many, powerful, but not omnipotent or omniscient. The Greeks, however, determined that God/The One had to be Perfect, which meant all the omnis and a few more things, too. When the later theologians tried to reconcile the two, they found the task impossible unless certain situations and biblical passages were overlooked or conveniently forgotten. This would be one of those. But, for our purposes, none of this really matters. What does matter is that we get the definitive association of behaviour in this world and reward or punishment when the son of man finally does come. For the first time.
One last bit on the Final Days. Since Mark was written shortly after the Destruction, there could easily have been the sense that the Destruction had begun the End Times, and that the time until the coming of the son of man was not long. That would explain the “some standing here shall not taste death” until the son of man arrives. Now, this becomes rather more problematic by the time of Matthew, when the Jewish War was half-a-generation removed. Does this explain the inclusion of the parables of watchfulness we find in this chapter? And why they are included in this chapter, which follows hard on the heels of Matthew’s telling of Mark 13? And why Matthew repeats the prophecy of the coming of the son of man, after he’s already told us that he would come in the clouds back in Chapter 24? Of course, these questions cannot be answered, but I have my suspicions that the answers are affirmative. Which leads to a final question: Is this how Matthew was trying soften the implications of Mark’s prophecy?
Postscript: Double Predestination
I have to walk some things back that I said about Double Predestination in the commentary. As stated above, the implication of the fires for the devil seem to be more about the Hebrew God not being omniscient than about an actual formulation of Double Predestination. As such, some of the statements I made in the commentary are probably insupportable. In particular, this passage does not imply Double Predestination. God did create the kingdom ab origine. But the fire came later. This implies that God was surprised at the rebellion of the devil, not that he foresaw it and created the future rebels anyway.
Posted on September 2, 2016, in Chapter 25, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, Matthew's Gospel, Summary and tagged Bible, Bible commentary, Bible scholarship, biblical scholarship, commenting, gospel commentary, gospels, Historical Jesus, mark's gospel, New Testament, New Testament Greek, New Testament Greek Translation, NT Translation, passion story, Q gospel, religion, St Mark, St Matthew, theology, Translate Greek NT. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.