Matthew is one of the four “Gospels” found at the beginning of the New Testament. These four books, describe the life of Jesus and his work. The Gospel according to Luke has a second volume called the Acts of the Apostles which follows the Gospels.
In terms of the writing of these books, the first three are called the Synoptics, because they have a lot of material in common. The Gospel of Mark is the shortest of the three synoptic Gospels, and his work was used as a basis for the writing of both Matthew and Luke, with those two authors adding in unique material that they had access to as well. Mark tends to be pretty basic, and he sticks pretty much to “Jesus went here, went there, said this, said that”, with very little extra reflection, and few details. Matthew and Luke enrich this account with other material.
One of the thrilling things is I did a few years ago was read through the New Testament in Greek, and I was amazed at how different each of the authors were in terms of their command of the language. Matthew, the author here, came across as being quite academic, very much like a teacher researcher. Mark, spoke what I would call second-language Greek – quite basic and somewhat stilted. Luke, who was a doctor that looked after Paul on his travels, wrote in beautifully fluent Greek – an absolute delight to read in its original language, because it flowed so well. John, whom I hunch was of perceiver, is very cryptic and terse, with a very exact command of Greek.
The Gospel of John was written after the three other Gospels were finished, John being the apostle who lived the longest – many of the others died young. John was concerned about the fact that the first three Gospels covered all the basics, but failed to explain the meaning of what was happening in the Gospels. He is the writer who explains as he goes. This may well reflect the fact that the original people had known Jesus were rapidly dying off towards the end of his life, and he was concerned about the fact that much of his understanding was going to be lost as well.
The passage which appears in the list as part of the “happy conclusions” section, is a short line out of the part of Matthews gospel called “The Sermon on the Mount”. This block of teaching, whether actually a single sermon, or a collection of material assembled in one place, constitutes the teaching Jesus did early in his ministry, while he still had only four of his 12 apostles. Luke has a similar collection of teaching from a later period in Jesus work where he had by that time 12 apostles.
Jesus style of teaching was to be intensively working with a small group of people within a larger group of “disciples/followers”. We have accounts of him going back home with this smaller group and debriefing them privately – answering their questions and so forth.
The Sermon on the Mount, of which this line is a part, falls into several sections (how it is divided up depends on who’s making the observation, but it does have some logical subsections).
- Chapter 5:1-16 – he answers the question “is anybody ever really happy?” by giving them a series of word pictures of people he knew who were happy, based on a variety of perspectives on life. He then goes on to comment that people such as these are like salt that flavors the porridge, and light which brightens up a room – that is they enrich our communities because of their attitudes in life.
- Chapter 1:17-48 – Jesus answers the question of the relationship of his teaching to the larger Jewish revelation we have contained in the Old Testament. He pulls out several examples, and not only describes them, but raises the bar by saying that what is important is not just our behavior, but the attitudes which inform our behavior, and he encourages us to look deeper into ourselves and our approach to life. He talks about killing and its basis in anger; adultery and its basis in lust; divorce and its basis in unfaithfulness; giving false evidence under oath and its basis in untruthfulness; excessive revenge and the need for her courageous kindness; and restrictive limits on our care and concern for others; and the need for largeness of heart if community life is to thrive. He sums up his attitude as not relaxing the guidance they had received in earlier times, but rather using the opportunity of their own maturity to dig down deeper and start considering not just behavior but motivation – commenting that God will help them to change their attitudes.
- Chapter 6:1-18 – he talks about the necessity of privacy in our religious observance, rather than flaunting our practices for personal advantage – focusing on giving, prayer, and fasting.
- Chapter 6:19-34 – he deals with different aspects of “material need” which we all face – and the relationship that we have with God as opposed to the things that God had created. The emphasis of this section is on getting our priorities straight, and he comments that if we don’t get our priorities straight in this area of our life, all kinds of problems ensue. He addresses the need for saving, and yet not being obsessed with the activity. He deals with the matter of envy and covetousness, by which we get sidetracked in life, chasing after silly things and forgetting the most important parts of life like relationships to the people around us and to God. He addresses the issue of ultimate priorities – commenting that we seem to be hardwired to have one master or another, and this will show itself in both our sentiments and actions. He then shifts to talking about the issues of worry, and excessive anxiety about life in what’s required for sustaining life. It’s in this passage that he makes the comment which we are focused on in this section of these readings.
- Chapter 7:1-12 – before concluding this block of teaching, he makes some comments on our critical nature when we relate to other people, encouraging us to ease up on our neighbors, and may be a little more attention on dealing with our own inadequacies. He comments that we need to also watch that we don’t put the things which are valuable in terms of our own insight and perspective on life, in front of people who are excessively critical because they might well turn and attack us. He encourages us to ask for what we need, seek for what we are after, and knock on a few doors when we need to increase our relationships with other people as we go on with our lives. The last line of this section is the line which is the basis of the Wish List – quote whatever you wish that somebody would do for you – do so to them – for this is the law and the prophets (i.e. this is a summary of everything in the Old Testament/Jewish revelation).
- Chapter 7:13-29 – he summarizes this block of teaching with three comments – two doors, two trees, and two houses. He says that most people are on a pretty broad road with very low standards and recommends that we find a somewhat more refined approach to life/narrower pathway. He says that you can tell the quality of what people recommend as an approach to life by the quality of their lives – just like we can assess the quality of a fruit tree by the quality of the fruit that grows on it. And finally he says that none of his advice is going to do people any good unless they actually put it into practice – a person who doesn’t put into practice is like an idiot who built his house on sand beach – it all fell apart when a storm blew up.
So going back to the passage that is referred to in this section of “happy conclusions”, it’s pretty easy to see why the verse was included. “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you as well.” That’s a statement of priority – the imagery of a kingdom is God is the King, and in the olden days people did what the King wanted, just like in today’s democracies, we do what the government wants in terms of regulating our life. The kingdom of God, from Jesus point of view, is allowing the best of life to rule our lives so that our lives show themselves in righteousness or right living – and then the other things in life will follow, as the quality of our lives both individually and as a community improve. Happy conclusions indeed.