Editor’s note: this essay also appears in the Fall 2016 issue of Concordia Journal. It is an experiment in providing something a little different from our typical Homiletical Helps, which are still available online. Rather than commenting on individual texts, it gives a longer view of preaching for the upcoming church year. We invite your feedback in the comments below, not only in response to our experiment, but also to Professor Gibbs’ insights into the Gospel according to Matthew.
For pastors who follow the LSB three-year lectionary cycle, Series A begins again with the Advent season at the end of calendar year 2016. Series A offers a prominent place to readings from the Gospel according to Matthew, and in this reflection I’ll try to offer considerations that might, in the gracious will of God, be helpful to preachers of these Gospel texts. There are too many, of course, to comment on all of them, and that is really the function of something like Concordia Seminary’s “Lectionary at Lunch Plus.” (If the reader is not familiar with this resource, I encourage you to check it out: http://concordiatheology.org/lalp/index.php.) I will organize my own comments here under two headings: formal considerations and material concerns.
Formal Considerations (Method, Genre, etc.)
I have three suggestions here. The first is that as you consider the assigned Gospel text for any given Sunday, you should feel free to expand it or reduce it, that is, to take in hand either more or fewer verses. The second encouragement is that in preaching texts from Matthew, you make it your goal to preach the particular message of the text itself and not be distracted by some related theological meaning. The third consideration has to do with parables. The lectionary schedule guides us into preaching from parables fairly often, and I encourage you to take seriously some basic hermeneutical principles. Let me comment on each one of these suggestions in turn.
Far be it from me to criticize the good people who decided the limits (that is, the beginnings and the endings) of the Gospel readings for Series A, Matthew texts. Let the one who is without pericopal sin cast the first stone! Just on the face of it, however, it’s a reasonable thought that some of the divisions into units will be more faithful to the flow of Matthew’s Gospel, and some of the divisions will be less helpful. Working carefully and humbly and with as many helps as you need, you should feel free to use either more verses or fewer verses than the ones assigned. A glance at the lectionary listing of texts, for instance, shows that the following are offered: Matthew 5:13–20, 10:21–33, and 13:44–52. None of these, in my opinion, are helpfully delimited units. Matthew 5:13–16 is clearly a unit, offering Jesus’s “salt and light” sayings that naturally follow as the “now what?” after the blessings bestowed in 5:3–12. On the other hand, Matthew 5:17–20 presents a noteworthy and somewhat abrupt change in subject matter; in my judgment, it is the most exegetically challenging unit in the entire Gospel. One or the other would do—it would be impossible to try to treat them together. It would be a mistake to try to preach one sermon based on Matthew 5:13–20.
When it comes to Matthew 10:21–33, I can begin by noting that scholars have struggled long and hard over how to perceive the structural parts of Matthew’s missionary discourse (10:5–42). I am not aware, however, of anyone who would run verses 21–33 together as a coherent unit. I would argue, to the contrary, that there is a major break in thought between the difficult saying in 10:23, and 10:24–42. Part of the difficulty in preaching the verses leading up to and including 10:23 is that they bear the unmistakable stamp of historical particularity—their meaning is strongly connected to unique features of the apostles’ first-century mission. With verse 24, however, Jesus’s words become more general, and so therefore more generally applicable to believers in all ages, including our own.
Finally, Matthew 13:44–52 (however one interprets these parables) takes two small parables that are pretty clearly parallel in meaning (the Treasure and the Pearl) and joins them with the Dragnet that has strong affinities with the Wheat and the Weeds earlier in the chapter—but not with the two parables that precede. On the assumption that sermons ought to have a unified message, it’s hard to imagine preaching on all of these verses in one sermon. My first point, then, is simple enough. Do your homework, stay humble, but realize that you don’t have to follow the limits of the texts as assigned in the lectionary.
My second somewhat formal (or procedural) suggestion is that you strive to preach the message of the text, and not to use the text as a vehicle for something else. It might seem as though I’m saying something that doesn’t need to be said, and when said out loud and in public, that might be true. But there are all sorts of forces at work—some of them theological and some of them merely human—that can militate mightily against doing what I, at least, was exhorted and trained to do by the sainted Gerhard Aho. That is, in this sense every sermon—unless otherwise consciously intended, as in a topical or doctrinal or catechetical sermon—should be an exposition of what the text says, its particular message.
On the human level, this is difficult to do for at least two reasons. First, it’s hard to study texts carefully and calmly and to postpone trying to apply a text until I know what it actually says. The demands on parish pastors are endless, and it is easy (I know, because I’ve done it plenty of times) to engage in “drive-by exegesis.” That is, you make a quick approach at the text, passing it by at high speed on your way to a hospital or an appointment or a meeting, and then leaving it behind on the assumption that you’ve understood what it is about and you’re ready to apply the text to Christian existence today.
The second human reason that makes it difficult to preach the message of a given text is what James Voelz (and many others) calls our own “second text.”  That is, my experiences and my memories and my predilections of all kinds are constantly at work to guide (or perhaps mis-guide) how I read a text. This is always the case, and so every preacher should be aware of just how difficult in practice it can be to preach the message of the text.
In terms of theological distractions that might prevent me from preaching the message of a text, in our Lutheran circles perhaps the most common mistake is to make the proper distinction of law and gospel into either an interpretive lens through which to discern a text’s meaning on the one hand, or else (and worse) to assume that “law and gospel” should function as the outline of the sermon itself. Not every text in Matthew contains law. Not every text in Matthew contains gospel. To be sure, every text in Matthew (and the rest of the Scripture) must be understood in light of the proper distinction of law and gospel.
But “where is the law?” or “where is the gospel?” are not the first questions to ask when studying a text with the goal of preaching on the basis of that text. The first question is simply this: what is this text about? What is the message of this text? Once that has been discerned, then all our Lutheran distinctives can and should be active and never be left behind. And I realize that it is easier to say what I am saying than it is to actually do it. Nevertheless, when preaching a sermon that is supposed to be based on a given text, what is to be preached is the message of that text in such a way that properly distinguishes law and gospel.
Other prior theological commitments can also interfere with appropriately reading a pericope, in Matthew or anywhere in Scripture. I might mention briefly here one particular example, simply because over the years I have had the chance gently to re-direct the focus on students in the process of studying it. I’m referring to the account of Jesus’s baptism (Mt 3:13–17). Here the danger is that the powerfully developed (and correct!) Lutheran doctrine of Christian baptism will lead to an abuse or (at times) an almost complete neglect of the message of the text. To state the matter bluntly, these verses recount a shockingly unexpected turn of events, namely that Jesus, the perfect Son of God, was baptized by John the Baptist who was administering a baptism of repentance to sinners. John himself objected to this possibility, and tried to prevent it from happening. Jesus then speaks to John (3:15), teaching and redirecting him and winning his acceptance.
The text does not, however, say anything directly about Christian baptism; not one thing directly. We are invited to ponder the reasons and the possible results of Jesus’s baptism—why John found it surprising (to say the least) when the Father clearly approved, what it means for Jesus to be God’s Son down there in the Jordan River, what it meant for John and Jesus (note “us,” not “me”) to “fulfill all righteousness,” what the Father’s approval and the Spirit’s descent say about the fact that Jesus was baptized. The text is a rich source of good news about the Lord Jesus. Often, however, it becomes a launching point for a perfectly orthodox sermon about Christian baptism—except that’s not what the text is about.
My third formal or methodological suggestion has to do with parables. No one, of course, can completely articulate the intricacies of parable interpretations. For that matter, there is no absolute agreement on how to interpret the parables of Jesus, or even what precisely counts as a parable. (If you want to know what I think, I can refer you to the discussion in Matthew 11:2–20:34 [CPH, 2006], 659–673.) By way of a small and fairly obvious suggestion, the old claim that a parable only has one point of comparison has a very dubious pedigree, and is scarcely helpful in any way. It comes from the work of Adolf Jülicher, a classic European liberal scholar who denied the authenticity of the dominical interpretation of the parables! To be sure, in a way a parable is chiefly about one thing—every text is chiefly about one thing. But some of the parables are very complex, with smaller aspects of the story bearing theological significance—as Christ’s own interpretations make plain enough. The challenge consists in trying to cautiously figure out how much of the parable, or how many of its features, bears a theological meaning that contributes to the one thing the parable is chiefly about.
I do have one larger suggestion, however, and it pertains to virtually all of the parables in Matthew. The parables of Jesus concerning the reign of God (more on that phrase below) function as divine revelation. Their primary purpose is to disclose or reveal what it is like, or what it will be like when God comes into Israel and the world to establish his rule in Christ Jesus. So, for example, the parable of the Sower in Matthew 13 reveals something of what the earthly ministry of Jesus, that is, the reign of God, is like. The parable of the Ten Maidens reveals something of what the final consummation of the reign of God in Jesus will be like. Before trying or thinking to apply the parables “to our lives today,” ask, “What does this tell me about Jesus and his ministry, and what difference does that make?”
Along these lines, then, as far as I can tell every one of the reign-of-God-parables reveals that that kingly rule comes (especially in the present time) in an unexpected or exaggerated or shocking sort of way; it is not like anything people ordinarily expect. Farmers, for instance, do not sow seed on all of those kinds of soil. Nobody does that because it is profligate and wasteful and (especially) inefficient—but that’s what God’s reign in Jesus is like and it explains why so many people opposed Jesus in his earthly ministry, as Matthew 12 powerfully narrates. No one really would sell all of his possessions in order to own a single pearl—but that’s what God’s reign in Jesus is like. It’s almost impossible to imagine a master forgiving a debt of ten-thousand talents, and equally difficult to imagine a servant forgiven such a debt and not being willing to forgive a fellow servant. No farmer in his right mind lets weeds grow up with wheat—but that’s what God’s reign in Jesus is like. The parables of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel must first be read as revealing what God’s reign in Jesus is like—and then that is the thing to be applied and proclaimed in a Lutheran, properly-distinguishing-law-and-gospel sort of way.
Material Considerations for Preaching Matthew
The brief comments above on the genre of parables inevitably brought up “the reign of God,” and that is a natural segue into comments on three material or theological aspects of preaching from the Gospel according to Matthew.
The Βασιλεία of God
Let me begin by saying that although in Matthew’s Gospel the Lord Jesus most often is reported as teaching on or about “the reign of the heavens” (ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν), there are four instances where he explicitly speaks of “the reign of God” (ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ). For all practical purposes (and in light of many parallels in Mark and Luke where “reign of God” is parallel to Matthew’s “reign of the heavens”), the two phrases in Matthew mean the same thing. But that is precisely the question which, in my judgment, needs a careful articulation and understanding for preaching.
Sometimes I am asked what the Gospel of Matthew is about. The basic answer, of course, is the predictable one: Jesus. But the next answer, which elaborates on the first, comes quickly to mind; the Gospel of Matthew is about the reign of heaven, the reign of God, the βασιλεία. Not only does Jesus speak and teach in dozens of places about it. Matthew, the evangelist whom we hold to be inspired and fully reliable in every way, chooses to summarize the content of Jesus’s public preaching and teaching like this:
From then, Jesus began to preach and to say, “Repent, for the βασιλεία of heaven stands near!” (4:17)
And [Jesus] began going around in the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Good News of the βασιλεία and healing every disease and every sickness in the people. (4:23)
And Jesus continued to go around all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the Good News of the βασιλεία and healing every disease and every sickness. (9:35)
These Twelve Jesus sent, commanding them and saying, “as you go, preach saying, ‘The βασιλεία of heaven stands near.’” (10:5, 7)
Think of it this way. Ask Matthew the question, “What was Jesus all about?” He would say, “The βασιλεία of God.” Every part and every text in Matthew’s Gospel has to be understood as it relates to this reality, namely, that in Jesus, God’s βασιλεία has begun to manifest itself in the world. A new thing, long foretold, has now begun. It will last until the Day when it is consummated, when the Son of Man returns as Judge of the living and the dead.
If the βασιλεία is that important in Matthew, then it behooves us to be as clear as we can about what it refers to. Here I would strongly encourage my readers to develop a new way of speaking. The English word “kingdom,” I fear, evokes in the minds of most listeners (if they are listening to such a churchy word at all) connotations of territory and space, a place. Not a few people hear “the kingdom of heaven” and they think this refers to “being in heaven,” that is, to the interim state of the soul with Christ between the moment of death and Christ’ return in glory. This is completely wrong; the “reign of heaven/God” never refers to this promised rest.
Individual texts emphasize, of course, now one aspect of God’s βασιλεία, now another. I would argue, however, that the phrase always refers to God’s activity, God’s deeds in Christ that have begun now in Israel and the world. The “kingdom” refers to God’s royal ruling in Jesus to reclaim people (and create a new community) and ultimately to restore the entire creation. This is why Jesus’s miracles can be regarded as “signs of the reign of God.” Sin, demonic possession, sickness, chaos, and death are all manifestations of the world’s sinful brokenness; they are prime examples of the reign of Satan. This is why Jesus, bringer of reign of God, forgives, exorcises, heals, calms, and resurrects. He shows, in proleptic or anticipatory fashion (more on that in a second), what God’s reign is for and what God’s reign ultimately will be like. Creation restored. Satan’s dominion broken and shattered. People—body-and-soul people—forgiven and healed and raised up.
Two more suggestions about understanding (and preaching) the reign of God. The first is that, like the truth of Jesus’s authority in Matthew, the reign of God can mean good news and salvation—and it can also mean judgment. With regard to Jesus’s authority, one might say that if you approach him with needs and helplessness and faith, then his authority is for you to forgive and heal and restore. If, however, you approach his authority in opposition, in hatred, in unbelief, then his authority will confront and rebuke and ultimately condemn you. For all authority has been given to him.
So it is with the reign of God in Jesus. It encompasses both (as we might say) law and gospel, judgment and salvation. God is re-establishing his reign in Israel and in the world. He will do that. Many of Jesus’s parables of the reign of God, however, express a theme of separation, of dividing the wheat from the weeds, the good fish from bad, the wise maidens from the foolish, and so on. For such as acknowledge that they are poor in spirit, helpless children, babies to whom everything must be revealed—for them his reign comes as inexpressible good news. For such as oppose and seek to destroy or dishonor Jesus, God’s reign still will come and you cannot stop it. But the reign of God will come against you as fire, as outer darkness, as weeping and gnashing of teeth.
One final thing about the reign of God, that is, about the theological center of the Gospel of Matthew. Because it comes already but has not yet come in fullness, the present manifestations of the reign of God in Jesus will often seem weak and hidden and impotent. The seed sown often will not bear fruit. From the day of John the Baptist the reign of God—of almighty, omnipotent, omniscient God—suffers violence and violent men are seeking to snatch it away. Healed and restored for a time, limbs and legs will again weaken and wither, and men will die. Eschatological Elijah’s head is severed by a two-bit puppet monarch and presented to an adulterous and jealous wife on a plate. The King himself will first willingly and powerfully become weak, will reign from a cross, will be rejected and abandoned by his own Father—only to be raised in immortal triumph and be installed into the place of all authority and omnipresent blessing for his church. The Gospel of Matthew, with the entire New Testament, testifies to the hiddenness of God’s work in Christ, the weakness of the kingdom.
Matthew’s Gospel Language
As I indicated briefly above, I think that “good news” or “gospel” is a smaller category than “the reign of God,” so to speak. The latter refers to all of God’s deeds in Christ which are law and gospel, judgment and salvation; the reign of God is like a dragnet that in the end both cherishes and saves the good fish and destroys the rotten ones. The gospel is, to be sure, the gospel of the reign of God, but as we normally use the word, it refers not to the judgment aspects of God’s reign but to the saving and redeeming actions.
And the good news in Matthew is not often expressed in the vocabulary of St. Paul or St. John, if I can say it that way. For Paul, good news comes to expression as justification, or redemption, as union with Christ’s death and resurrection or forgiveness of sins. There is, of course, a wide array of expressions for the gospel in Paul. John, too, has his own favorite ways of proclaiming good news: light in darkness, new birth, and so on.
In Matthew, Jesus speaks plenty of good news, but there is something of a distinctive idiom. Often it is, not surprisingly, the language of the reign of God. It can be very, very good news to hear that God in Christ has come to reign over me—especially if I realize that I am helpless without him and desperately in need of his restoring and protecting reign. For my money, the most powerful and (exegetically) most significant gospel proclamation in Matthew’s Gospel is the first beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the reign of heaven.” If Paul had written that proclamation, he might have said, “Redeemed are those who are enslaved, for Christ has set them free.” And if John had written it, he might have said, “Enlightened are those who were in darkness, for Christ is the light of the world.” Matthew likes the theme of the mighty and gracious God coming to reign in mercy over the small and the ignorant, the powerless and the weak. In Matthew, Jesus preaches good news to the poor (5:3; 11:5), even as the Father reveals the mysteries of the reign of God to helpless infants rather than those who regard themselves as wise and understanding (11:25–27). In Matthew, the weary find Sabbath rest in the Sabbath’s Lord (11:28–12:8). Forgiveness comes through Jesus’s work, to be sure (9:1–9; 26:28). But more often Jesus is power for the powerless, wisdom for the ignorant, and significance for children who have no status or little social significance. Indeed, only those who turn and become like children will enter the reign of heaven on the last day (18:1–3).
The Call to Discipleship
One final observant about the content of Matthew’s Gospel and preaching on it. In Matthew’s narrative you become a disciple because Jesus calls you to follow him and because the Father reveals the truth to you; no one follows by his own reason or strength. No one follows Jesus because he is sufficiently strong or committed—you begin as the poor in spirit, as the mourners, as the powerless and the hungry who need God to satisfy. And such you remain at all times.
Nevertheless, following Jesus entails also obeying him, and although Matthew gives us virtually nothing explicit about the Holy Spirit’s empowerment and indwelling, following Jesus means that you will (at times, at least) obey him. This means that preaching from Matthew texts will, when appropriate, involved exhorting the people of God to live lives of good work that will act as salt and light in a rotting and dark world. That exhortation will not return empty—at least, not always. It will bear fruit.
One sometimes hears it said that Lutheran preaching will not exhort to good works, or at least will not end on such a note. This is an over-simplification. Of course the exhortations to follow Jesus in obedience will be done in such a way that properly distinguishes law and gospel. But texts, perhaps especially from some of the great discourses in Matthew, lend themselves to exhorting believers to the new life of obedience. When Jesus tells his disciples to forgive one another, he means it and he expects it to happen. And, to borrow from Paul’s idiom, because we are in Christ and indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we believers will be able to forgive one another, even if it takes a while or has to be repeated over and over. When Jesus tells his disciples not to serve two masters, or to love their enemies, this means that the preacher can tell Jesus’ disciples today the same thing—and expect them to do it. Again, we do not do it in a Roman Catholic or an Evangelical sort of way. We always distinguish law and gospel properly. But preaching Matthew at times will naturally mean saying to God’s people, “We who are following the crucified, risen, and reigning Jesus are supposed to love one another. Repent of your coldness of heart, and begin to do that again—today.”
So . . . may the Spirit help us all as in Series A we begin by studying, pondering texts from the Gospel according to Matthew and asking the question, “What is this about?” May that same Spirit lend energy and creativity, faithfulness and eloquence to proclaiming and applying textual messages to the lives of God’s people. The reign of God has come near in Jesus. We pray that his reign may come among us as well. With the whole church, we pray, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
 See the discussion in James W. Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd ed. (Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 208–211.