Approval. We all want it, whether by one or many. My school consisted roughly of 300 people. And this is my school, not my high school. My school went from Kindergarten up to 12th grade. Junior and Senior high were combined and made up approximately 150 people. The popularity polls really start to make their rounds when students hit 7th grade and they enter into the world of both Junior and Senior High. Every one is bigger and older and stronger than you. They can drive too. It’s a scary place. Yet when I look back, for many students popularity was a high honor in high school. Yet out of 7,000,000,000 people on earth, some felt proud to be among the Top Ten in a high school made up of 150 students.
Of course most schools have more than 300 students. According to one website, Chicago International Charter School borders on 8,900 students, which is roughly 1,000 more students than my alma mater, Nicholls State University. The point remains, being #1 out of 8,000 high school students, out of 320,000,000 in the USA, out of 7,300,000,000 on earth… just isn’t impressive.
In the Gospel of Matthew, Matthew helps to make firm the Christians’ commitment to Jesus “in the face of pressure and rejection from the synagogue” (284). DeSilva shows what Matthew does, that he
“demonstrates Jesus’ credibility and honor as a teacher and the Pharisees’ dishonor and unreliability as teachers of God’s way. Matthew included a striking number of confrontation stories between Jesus and other Jewish teachers (e.g., Mt 9:1–8, 10–13, 14–17; 11:2–6; 12:1–8, 9–14, 24–42; 15:1–20, 21–28; 16:1–4; 19:3–9; 21:15–17, 23–27, 28–32, 33–46; 22:15–22, 23–33, 34–40, 41–46). These confrontations have been rightly analyzed as competitions for honor and, as a result of that honor, the right to speak as authoritative interpreters of God’s Law” (284).
Here how the challenges work. There are three parties:
- The Challenger (usually the Pharisees)
- The Challenged (usually Jesus)
- The Audience
The Challenger (the Pharisees) poses a question to Jesus, the Challenged. If the Challenged doesn’t come up with an answer to win the debate, he loses honor and the Challenger gains honor. “Jesus repeatedly emerges as the victor in these exchanges in the eyes of the public. Without exception he is able to demonstrate that his actions and his teachings are truly in accord with God’s Law, while his opponents distort and miss God’s intentions“ (284).
Test Case: Matt 12.9-14
He went on from there and entered their synagogue. And a man was there with a withered hand. And [the Pharisees] asked him, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?’—so that they might accuse him. He said to them, ‘Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.’ Then he said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.
Mark’s account says, “And he said to them, ‘Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. And he looked around at them with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart…” (Mk 3.4-5a).
Jesus gave the Pharisees his response, and “they were silent.” There was nothing they could say. If they said they wanted to save life, then Jesus would heal the man and, in their eyes, break the Sabbath. They would be approving the actions of a lawless man, a Torah-breaker. If they said they wanted to kill, then of course nobody is going to follow them and instead, they will all follow Jesus. Here we see that Jesus “is able to demonstrate that his actions and his teachings are truly in accord with God’s Law” (284).
How Does This Help Matthew’s Readers?
What this brings to the readers of Matthew is knowing that when they are persecuted by the Pharisees and scribes for following Jesus, they are being persecuted by those who really don’t know God’s Law. These Christians should look “exclusively to Jesus as the teacher of the divinely approved way of fulfilling Torah [Mt 17:5]…. Following the opinion of the dishonorable is to risk becoming dishonorable” (285). Even in persecution the Christians can rejoice that they follow the One who is true and teaches the way of God truthfully (or “in accordance with the truth”, Mt 22.16). Even more so, according to Matt 25, Jesus is the eschatological Judge over all of the universe, and when the Day of the Lord comes he will separate the sheep from the goats, his people from those who are not his people. DeSilva says,
Matthew 11:20–24 and 12:41–42 suggest that those who reject Jesus’ message will fare far worse than the worst of [pagan] cities” (285). And “[if] the majority, who are entering the broad and easy road to destruction, despise the Christians as dishonorable fools, the Christians will be able to neutralize the force of such pressure to conform by contemplating the ultimate end of the outsiders—destruction. The way of life promoted within the church, even if held as dishonorable by the majority of people, is nevertheless the road to life and eternal honor before the court of God and the Son. (285).
But if Matthew wants to preserve the Christian body of believers, why does he speak about church discipline in Mt 18?
As those who do the will of God, they are the family of the Son of God, hence part of God’s family (Mt 12:48–50) and partners in the honor of the head of that family. Within that family there is a mandate for applying social pressure ‘positively’ on group members who are straying from commitment to the group and its distinctive values (Mt 18:10–14). Within the group all the faithful must be honored and affirmed as they walk in line with the group’s values (Mt 18:10) and on no other basis…. The church is in a position to enforce the wayward member’s conformity with the ethical ideals of Jesus. After all, what member would willingly endure excommunication from the church as long as he or she believed it truly has the authority to bind and loose, and remains the place where the presence of God as mediated by Jesus can be known? If the narrow road is the way to the eternal inheritance of God’s kingdom, the church is the gateway to that inheritance. Attachment to the community and vital engagement of its values is therefore a strong assurance also of God’s approval of an individual’s life and worth, a strong counterbalance to society’s claims to the contrary (286).
While it’s good to have the approval of others (your spouse is a good example) and it’s important to have the approval of others (it’s always good when your boss [and your spouse] actually likes you), ultimately Christians are to seek the approval of Christ. Christians will never be the most popular people on earth. If the world hated Jesus, they will hate his followers as well (Jn 15.18). They will always have something against us because we have been chosen out of this world (Jn 15.19). Let us remember this when we read Matthew, the Gospels, and the whole Bible, that Jesus is the one who has and bestows true honor. He is the only one we are to follow (Mk 8.34).