Matthew 16:1-4: This is almost an exact repeat of 12:38-40. Matthew may repeat it to show just how recalcitrant some of the Pharisees and Sadducees were being. These two groups often differed on key points of understanding the Jewish faith, but significant members of each group seem united in their opposition to Jesus’ understanding of the Jewish faith and of the God of that faith. They are blind to all that is happening in Jesus – healing, deliverance, good news.
Matthew 16:5-12: In light of their on-going resistance to Jesus, Jesus tells his followers to beware of the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He uses the image of yeast, and the disciples are initially confused by this. Matthew may be making a statement about the kind of confusion that comes to many in the course of their Christian spiritual life. When our faith is grounded in stories, we need to remember that stories and images are often multivocal, they speak with different voices and are open to differing interpretations. Of course, some interpretations are more adequate than others. Jesus had little concern for bread in this story!
Matthew 16:13-20: These verses are crucial to Matthew’s gospel. They are about the formation of a community of persons and about the central message around which that community is to be built. The political leaders have had John the Baptist killed. The religious leaders are resistant to the work and message of Jesus. Caesarea Philippi contained a shrine to the Greek god Pan and the city was associated with displays of imperial power, e.g. Herod the Great built a temple to Caesar Augustus there. It is here that Peter, in response to Jesus’ question, confesses that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah (Hebrew for “anointed one”), the Son of the Living God. The confession is important in a number of ways, two of which I want to mention. It says that Jesus is in fact God’s person, the one anointed by God to be God’s “saving agent” in the world, the one to share good news of the kingdom and to make the kingdom more real. There are ways in which Jesus does not fulfill some messianic expectations. He is not organizing to overthrow Rome militarily. He is not as strict in his interpretation of the Law as some would like. The confession also uses language that was used by Roman emperors to describe themselves – son of god. It says that it is in Jesus, not in the mighty and powerful in Rome that God is known. Such a confession defines the community for whom Matthew is writing his gospel. It is a community that is distinct from the Roman elite and from some elements in the synagogue. Verses 17-19 are found only in Matthew. For whatever reason, Peter takes on a certain importance in this gospel. Perhaps the Christian community at Antioch had, at one time, a special relationship with him. Simon becomes Peter. The power of God at work in Jesus transforms lives. The rock on which the church will be built could be Peter (there is word play here between Peter and rock in Greek), it could be Jesus, or it could be the confession that Peter uttered. A new community, more inclusive, is formed, and its central confession is that in Jesus, God’s kingdom has come near. This Jesus community (Matthew is the only gospel writer to use the word “church”) will be strong in the Spirit – not even the gates of Hades will prevail against it! This is a strong affirmation for a community that no doubt suffered a great deal.
Matthew 16:21-23: All this good news, all this joy quickly takes on a sobering tone. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah, the son of the Living God. Yes, he will build a community that not even the gates of death will conquer, but death has a blow to strike. Did Jesus know he was going to die, or did he have a strong sense that anyone who would dare to propose an alternative kingdom to that of Rome and an alternative spirituality to that offered by some religious leaders could not last forever? One has to answer that question for oneself, but it is not unrealistic to assume that Jesus' plan to go to Jerusalem would end in confrontation and death. Jesus seemed to carry with him a certainty that God would prevail (that’s what resurrection is all about). The particular language in which all this is couched reflects the experience of the Christian community of a risen Jesus. Peter, who was so astute moments ago, does not put his best foot forward here. Perhaps this story reflects what could have been a genuine struggle for Jesus, whether to continue his ministry in the outer regions of Palestine, or take his message and his powerful deeds to the heart of the area – Jerusalem.
Matthew 16:24-28: Not only will the way forward be difficult for Jesus, but those who follow him should not expect anything different. Following Jesus will not always be easy. It will mean confronting that within which hinders one’s spiritual journey. It will mean not being intimidated in working for a better world, even when it is hard and the opposition strong. It will mean not clutching one’s life out of fear, but opening one’s life to the God of life who seeks to bring healing and peace, justice and beauty into the world.
Matthew 17:1-13: The story of the Transfiguration, ending with another “prediction” of Jesus’ suffering replays the same themes as the confession and “prediction” of suffering in the previous chapter. This story evokes other themes as well (the mountain, Moses and Elijah all have significance). Perhaps there is also a commentary here about deeply moving spiritual experiences. James, John and Peter are caught up in a wonderful moment. They see clearly. They “hear” the voice of God. They would like to prolong this spiritual high. But they have to go back down the mountain into the beautiful and hurting world. It is a world where great good can happen, but also where many who try and do good are made to suffer. They must go into the world to continue the work of the kingdom, healing, hope, good news. Jack Kornfield’s words are wise ones. “We all know that after the honeymoon comes the marriage, after the election comes the hard task of governance. In the spiritual life it is the same: After the ecstasy comes the laundry…. The true task of the spiritual life is not found in faraway places or unusual states of consciousness; it is here in the present. It asks of us a welcoming spirit to greet all that life presents to us with a wise, respectful, and kindly heart.” (After the Ecstasy, the Laundry). Our churches should be places where we help people experience God more deeply, and places where we send ourselves back into the world to do God’s work.
Matthew 17:14-20: This is the final exorcism story in Matthew’s gospel and it presents some interesting twists. Its placement right after the transfiguration story tells us again that wonderful spiritual experiences by themselves are insufficient as defining factors in the spiritual life. From them we are to be empowered to live God’s love in the world. A lack of faith seems to get in the way of Jesus work, temporarily. One should not infer that when good does not happen in our lives, it is because of our lack of faith. The point is that faith is powerful because it opens us up to God’s power in new ways. It does not guarantee that God’s power will do just what we want in any given circumstance. The assuring words that with God and faith, “nothing will be impossible” caution us against giving in too easily to the way things are.
Matthew 17:22-23: The shadow of potential death continues to be cast over the disciples.
Matthew 17:24-27: During the time of Jesus, all Jews were taxed to support the temple. Jesus response in this situation seems to suggest that children of the king (God) might be exempt from such a tax. Nevertheless, the tax should be paid to avoid giving offense. With God, a way would be found. When this story was read in Matthew’s time, Jews were taxed by the Roman emperor Vespasian. The tax was punitive and identified the Jews as a conquered people. The tax was used to rebuild and support a temple to Jupiter in Rome. The story seems to give Matthew’s community direction on its payment of such a tax. There is much in the ministry of Jesus which stands against the empire and its theology. However, Jesus is thoughtful. He is not out to overthrow the empire violently or through outright rebellion. His revolution will be a quiet revolution of the heart. God’s love changes people. It brings them into a community where they are to live differently, and when others see this difference the glitz and glamour of the powerful Roman empire will seem shallow by comparison. One does not capriciously withdraw support from a government or a culture, but one can undermine those elements of culture which stand in the way of God’s dream for the world by spiritually disengaging from them, and by building alternative relationships that foster God’s dream, God’s purposes.