Matthew as an Advocate in a Divided Community

David Balch—5th Sunday after Epiphany, 2011

Isaiah 58:1-9a, Psalm 112, 1 Corinthians 2:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20

The last time I preached in chapel, the Worship Committee structured the service around laments. That service and my sermon were intensely emotional. This, however, is a teaching sermon. If you are not paying close attention, I may lose you. When I first saw the Matthean lectionary text, I was not glad to be the preacher. Hans Dieter Betz, an internationally renowned German NT scholar, first wrote a commentary on Galatians, and then second, he wrote a commentary on Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount (SM, including our lectionary text for today), because the “adversarial relationship of…Galatians and the SM continued to force itself on me.” (n. 1)

Benedict Viviano, OP, is another writer on Matt whom I value (n. 2). He observes (p. 281) that while Lutherans value Paul’s epistles most, the Roman Catholic church tends to venerate the four gospels as more normative than the epistles or the OT: one stands while reading the gospel, not for the reading of the OT or the epistle. “They are the principal witness of the life and teaching of the incarnate Word, our Savior” (Viviano, p. 281 citing Vatican II, Dei Verbum, no. 18).

Viviano discusses a book by a Lutheran, Martin Hengel, The Four Gospels and the One Gospel (2000), the one gospel as interpreted by Paul, of course, in Galatians and Romans, the one gospel formulated in 1 Cor 15.1-11 and the Nicene Creed. Hengel emphasizes sola fide, sola scriptura, and sola gratia. Among the four canonical gospels, however, Hengel is fascinated by Matthew, the Roman Catholic Viviano observes (p. 285): “as the great menace to Lutheran soteriology, Matthew draws Hengel as a candle draws a moth.” Hengel gives primacy to Paul, so as Viviano (p. 285) puts it, “the Lutheran fortress is safe and secure.”

This, of course, does not satisfy Viviano. He rather returns to the gospels, and to the two gospels most influential in the history of the church, Matthew and John. But there is a problem with John’s popularity, a problem that Viviano labels (p. 288) John’s “ethical poverty.” John’s interpretation of Jesus’ command to love is so narrow, love for the “brethren” (Jn 13.34; 14.21, 23; 15.9, 12; 17.26; 1 Jn 2.10; 3.10, 11 14, 18; 3.23; 4.7, 10, 19, 20; 5.2; 2 Jn 5). John’s ethical vagueness has its advantages; it does not tie believers’ hand for the future, for example, he says (p. 288), by an opposition to divorce.

Viviano writes (p. 288), “I would like to make a pleas for an unvarnished reception of Matthew in the church. Let Matthew and the other evangelists speak with their own voice, without Johannine [or Pauline] censorship.” Then he states the problem this would generate:

For example, if we took Matt 5.17-20 literally [the lectionary text for today’s sermon!], we would have to observe all 613 Mosaic precepts and that is not a realistic option. To that extent, the Pauline-Johannine revolution is indispensable. Yet to denounce forcefully the great crimes of humanity, e.g. genocides, we need the strong, detailed, eschatologically enforced ethics contained in Matthew…Please then, no varnish, or just a touch. (p. 288)

So I conclude a long preface, necessary when preaching on Matthean law to Lutherans! Let me turn to an interpretation of our Matthean text, guided by a great Swiss Lutheran scholar, Ulrich Luz (n. 3) and our own Robert Smith (n. 4), whose successor at PLTS I am proud to be.

“There is a break between [Matt] 10.5-6 and 28.16-20, but the consequences for the understanding of the law are hardly yet reflected [by Matt]” (Luz, p. 213). Matt 10:5, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans.” Contrast Matt 28:19, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Let me be clear: this is not a break between an old, outdated Jewish point of view and a new Christian one. These are views held concurrently within Matthean Jewish Christianity.

I am a reader of Reinhold Niebuhr, and such tensions are normal. (n. 5) Matthean Jewish Christians are in high tension with other Jews. Jews and Christians are siblings; we have never really separated. (n. 6) One source of this tension was that Matthean Jewish Christians, decades after Paul, have only recently undertaken a mission to Gentiles (Luz, p. 212-13), which means that they have begun to admit uncircumcised pagans into the people of God. Matthean Jews are not insisting on both circumcision and baptism (Matt 28.19), but simply baptism. Matthew never mentions Gen 17.10-14, “this is my covenant, which you shall keep….Every male among you shall be circumcised. …Any uncircumcised male…shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” This is an enormous change, which would indeed generate tensions, not just between Matthean Jewish Christians and rabbinic Jews, but also within Matthean churches.

In the ELCA we too have changed. In the 1970s the change involved gender: our predecessor bodies began ordaining women, which the Missouri Synod Lutheran Church refused and still refuses to do. That change generated conflict, which we quickly forget. Last August as the ELCA Church Wide Assembly, we voted to allow those bishops and synods, who choose to do so, to ordain qualified gay and lesbian candidates for the ministry. It has generated significant tensions, which have generated a new Lutheran body, CORE. The last figures I have seen (The Lutheran, Nov 2010) are that of 10,348 congregations in the ELCA, 258 congregations have taken second votes to leave.

On the Lutheran CORE web home page (n. 7), the 5th “talking point” about their vision is as follows:

5. We are not leaving the ELCA. The ELCA has left us. —Lutheran CORE and the NALC [North American Lutheran Church] are continuing in the Christian faith as it has been passed down to us by generations of Christians. The ELCA is the one that has departed from the teaching of the Bible as understood by Christians for 2,000 years…The actions of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly have been seen by many ELCA members as evidence that Bible no longer functions as the ultimate norm for the faith and life of the ELCA.

When significant change happens, it raises the question of identity. When Matthean Jews dropped the scriptural requirement of circumcision, some others charged: you are no longer Jews, no longer faithful to Moses! And our gospel author responded by insisting, We are more Mosaic than you are! The ELCA has changed again, as we did when our predecessor bodies ordained women, and some within our churches are saying, You are no longer faithful Lutherans, no longer faithful to the Bible!

Matthew was and now we in the ELCA are legislating for the church after significant change. Let me make a simple observation: God grants us salvation sola gratia, but ecclesiastically, we in the ELCA have laws, however much we Lutherans hate to mention the word law. In this Lutheran seminary, we are most familiar with rules about ordination. The question is, how now do we now live together? That is a familiar question for new roommates, when two people marry, when we work together at a seminary. I go to many faculty meetings, and we debate about laws, guidelines, for courses, for Greek, sabbaticals, etc. All human institutions, even including Lutherans, have guidelines, laws.

In a Lutheran setting, Matthew takes a lot of introduction! I come finally to three or four comments on the lectionary text itself. Again, if you do not pay attention, I may lose you! First, “do not think that I have come to abolish (Greek root: kataluo) the law or the prophets” (Matt 5.17). This is in direct tension with Paul, as H. D. Betz observed, with Galatians. Peter has been eating with unclean Gentile believers, but when the orthopraxic James people arrive from Jerusalem, Peter separates himself from the “unclean” Gentile believers. Paul demands, ”but if I build up again the things that I once tore down (kataluo, the same verbal root as in Matt 5.17), then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor” (Gal 2.18). Peter had changed, that is, “abolished” the purity laws of Leviticus 11-15, but then he wanted to deny it, and Paul, the proclaimer of justification by faith, called him a hypocrite!

Paul did not die a martyr’s death because he proclaimed an abstract doctrine of justification by faith. Since all are saved by faith alone, he invited pork-eating Corinthians into the people of God (1 Cor 10.25), which resulted in the catalogues of suffering in his epistles (1 Cor 4; 2 Cor 12) and in riots in the cities where he preached (Acts). Jesus got into trouble not because he preached an abstract doctrine of creation, “Your Father in heaven…makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and send rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (Matt 5.45). Jesus walked across the border into the foreign country of Samaria, healed a Samaritan leper (Luke 17, not Matt) and accepted a Samaritan woman as a disciple (John 4, not Matt). Those stories are in Luke and John; Matthew does not yet dare to tell them.

A second exegetical observation: Luz (pp. 191, 194) comes to what he calls an “unfortunate” exegetical conclusion: Matt 5.17 is not pre-Matthean tradition, but Matthean. This means that for our gospel writer him or herself, “until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law…” (Matt 5.18ab) The Mosaic law is immutable until the end of the world. This is the voice of a rigorist Jewish Christianity, although not of Jesus (Luz, p. 196). Within Matthean Christianity, which is changing, some insist that the law is immutable. Claims that “we have not changed” sometimes are loudest precisely when significant change has and is occurring.

Third, Matt 5.20 is also Matthean redaction, and functions as a summary or title of the following antitheses (Luz, pp. 199, 207). Luz translates pointedly, “if your righteousness is not measurably more plentiful than that of the Pharisees…” For Lutherans, that is very hard to hear, but let me make some comments.

Today’s sermon on Matt has not been about individuals, as important as our individual ethical decisions are, but about social ethics, specifically in Matthew’s case, ethnic, national inclusivity, and in the case of the ELCA, inclusivity with respect to sexual orientation. In this new epic of salvation history, God challenges the Matthean Jewish believers to become multi-ethnic, not only in attitude, but in practice. Peter waffled, and Paul challenged him, not over sola gratia, but over his refusal to loosen his kosher eating habits. Matthew is reinterpreting Mosaic law to mean, “love your neighbor,” and the neighbors are unclean, uncircumcised, pork-eating pagans. For Matthew, this is “the law and the prophets,” and in Luz’s translation,—however hard this is for Lutherans to hear—this is a righteousness that is measurably more plentiful than Matthew’s Christian opponents. As a Lutheran, I agree: the church must be measurably multiethnic.

To draw the parallel, the ELCA has just obeyed the will of God. God called us to love those neighbors whom we had been excluding, which for some in the ELCA is unthinkable, to call gay and lesbian persons to celebrate the eucharist among us. The result is that one week ago, at our inaugural PLTS chapel this semester, President Anderson preached, which would not have been possible in 1960, and is still not possible in the Missouri Synod. Further, the Rev. Ross Merkel, whom our own Northern California Synod expelled from the ministry twenty years ago because he is a partnered gay man, celebrated the eucharist, here, among us, in our PLTS chapel. That may have seemed like an everyday event, but it was not. Those actions, the woman preaching, and the gay man celebrating eucharist, are, to use Luz’s word, “measurable.” Both are visible; they are actions. If you allow me to use the Pauline term “righteous,” but in a Matthean sense, both actions are “more righteous” than if we had rejected the woman preaching and/or the gay man celebrating eucharist. This is not righteousness before God in Paul’s sense, but ecclesiastical, institutional righteousness, to which God called the Matthean Jews and to which God called the ELCA, into a different, more inclusive future.

Last week our worship was not another weekly event for me. President Anderson observed that we experience God in very different ways. When the Rev Ross Merkel, newly restored to the ELCA roster of ordained clergy, pronounced, “This is the body of Christ given for you,” I experienced God’s presence. We saw God’s act with our own eyes; we heard those words with our own ears. The action was not our own, of course, but the result of Matthew’s rereading of Moses. Love your neighbor in Leviticus 19.18 means, “love your enemies,” (Matt 5.43-44, the SM), including those who are not circumcised, including those who are gay/lesbian. This is the law and the prophets! And the gospel of Matthew.

One more thought. We may sometimes think of ethics as drudgery, a list of do’s and don’ts. Let me give a contrary example. Last year President Anderson and others organized a day of “Honoring Our Foremothers” (Mar 10, 2010, PLTS chapel); one of the four women honored was Marty Stortz. She has revised her remarks and published them in Dialog. (n. 8) One of the three questions she leaves to her After-Daughters is, “How do we restore advocacy to its rightful place in church life?” She narrates hearing a Brazilian woman speaking at the World Federation of feminist theologians. She received scathing critique, because she was supposed to speak for Latin America, and she was advocating for someone else. Marty responds, “I worry about a state of affairs where one cannot speak for anyone but oneself.” Matthew, a Jewish author, spoke for Gentiles. The ELCA, a predominantly straight church, spoke out for those among us of a minority sexual orientation. We loved our neighbor. These ethical, ecclesiastical debates have not been drudgery. Many including myself have experienced these actions as God’s will, not as drudgery, but as enlivening!

These verses in Matthew, “love your neighbor,” from Leviticus, urge you to find your own calling, to experience the joy of responding to God’s move into the future, to join Matthew and Marty Stortz in advocating for others. This takes courage, it takes energy, it takes knowing scripture better than your Christian opponents, whom we are also to love. It also comes with our Lord Jesus’s promise: “Blessed / Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Matt 5.6) (n. 9)


1. H. D. Betz, Essays on the Sermon on the Mount (Philadelphia, 1985) x.
2. Benedict T. Viviano, Matthew and His World. The Gospel of the Open Jewish Christians: Studies in Biblical Theology (NTOA 61; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2007), chap. 19: “Matthew’s Place in the NT Canon and in the Lectionary of the Church Year.”
3. Ulrich Luz, Studies in Matthew (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), chap. 10: “The Fulfillment of the Law in Matthew (Matt. 5.17-20).”
4. Robert H. Smith, Matthew (Augsburg Commentary; Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989).
5. Compare ethical options outlined by E. L. Long, Jr., A Survey of Christian Ethics (1967), the second half of his book, “Implementation of Ethical Decisions.”
6. See e.g. Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford: Sanford University, 1999), “Introduction: When Christians Were Jews: On Judeo-Christian Origins.”
7. Lutheran CORE home page (, “talking points,” accessed February 8, 2011.
8. Martha E. Stortz, “The Questions We Left Behind: Reflections from a Teaching Theologian,” Dialog: A Journal of Theology 49/4 (Winter 2010) 349-53.
9. See Martha E. Stortz, Blessed to Follow: The Beatitudes As a Compass for Discipleship (Lutheran Voices; Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008), based on studies she wrote for The Lutheran Woman Today Bible Study.