Text Study for Matthew 4:12-25 (Part Three)

See Charles W. F. Smith. “The Mixed State of the Church in Matthew’s Gospel.” Journal of Biblical Literature 82, no. 2 (1963): 149–68. https://doi.org/10.2307/3264991.

“Come after me,” Jesus says to Simon Peter and Andrew, “I shall make you fishers of people” (Matthew 4:19, my translation). That’s all well and good – but fishers of what kind of people? “All kinds,” the Matthean author answers. Jesus tours the whole of the Galilee. Jesus heals all the diseases and maladies of the people” (Matthew 4:23). None are excluded or left out.

Charles Smith notes that the community addressed by the Matthean account appears to have been a mixed group. This reality seems to present some challenges to the community, since the issue is addressed in a variety of ways in the gospel account. This is, after all, the gospel with the parable of the weeds among the wheat, the wise and foolish bridesmaids, and the sheep and the goats.

Most important for our purposes, this is the gospel with the parable of the fishnet in Matthew 13:47-50. “Again,” Jesus says, “the Kingdom of the heavens resembles a fishing net thrown into the lake, and out of which every variety was gathered together…” (Matthew 13:47, my translation). The first four disciples had been casting nets into the lake when Jesus called them to fish for people.

The NRSV translation misses, I think, some of the nuances in this little parable – beginning with that opening sentence. When the net is thrown into the lake (the Galilean one, we can presume), what comes out is “all kinds.” The word for “kinds” is genos. There is actually no explicit mention of fish here, although it is fair to insert that.

However, the Matthean audience would certainly have caught that word. “Genos” primarily means ethnicity or tribe, or extended family, or nation. Only in a derivative sense does it mean kind or type or class. And all of these various kinds (of fish, for now) were “gathered together.” The participle is a form of “sunago.” Yes, that’s the root, for example of “synagogue.” There is more going on here than just a fish story.

While I think about it, I’m thinking that my message will be entitled “It Takes All Kinds” or something like that. The Matthean author is using the call of the disciples in chapter four to set up this theme and concern which is pursued throughout the gospel account. We preachers can use the text to do the same for our folks as we read through the Matthew gospel for the balance of this liturgical year.

“Clearly this is a marked emphasis of Matthew with no such concentrated reiteration in other sources,” Smith writes. “Has it a connection with some particular controversy and, if so, how can we identify it?” As we pursue these questions, we can think about how our own communities deal with “the mixing of all kinds” (or the lack thereof).

Smith points to a scholarly commonplace that wonders how much of the parable is original with Jesus and how much comes from the Matthean author. Many would suggest that the “inclusive” note of verses 47-48 comes from Jesus. And the “exclusive” turnabout in verses 49-50 comes from the Matthean author. That could be, but later studies have shown that this division may not be as obvious as it first appears.

In any event, these parables and related materials declare that a separation is inevitable. However, that separation will be eschatological in nature. It will take place at the end of  the age. It is not up to the church of this age to make such separations. For now, at least, it takes all kinds.

But how does the Matthean author (and/or the Matthean community) see this issue? It could be that there’s way too much “judging” going on in the community. That would fit with some of the language we find in the Sermon on the Mount, appearing on the textual horizon. It could be that the mixed crowd has become a bit casual and that the Matthean author wants to remind them that Jesus will sort them out in the end.

These are diametrically opposed conclusions, but each can be drawn from the text. I think that the former interpretation – too much judging, too much premature separating – fits better with the overall Matthean narrative arc. Repent, for the Kingdom of the heavens has drawn near. But, friends, there’s still time to respond to God’s invitation to life. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Of course, if you’re like me and have profound doubts about non-universal views of salvation, then a whole other set of questions is raised. But that set of questions is for another day.

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