I’m blogging through Richard Hays’ The Moral Vision of the New Testament over the next several weeks. In this introductory post, I laid out a reading schedule. If you’re just joining us, don’t miss the post that sets the stage for how we understand the ethics of the New Testament, or last week’s summary of Paul’s moral vision.

Today, we’re looking at the ethical vision of two Gospels – Mark and Matthew. How does one go about finding “ethics” in the story of Jesus?

Hays recognizes that we can’t limit the moral meaning of the Gospels to the didactic passages alone. Instead, we need to discern the Gospels’ ethical vision from understanding the shape of the story as a whole.

The Gospel of Mark

Christology: For Mark, the central question concerns the identity of Jesus, and the answer is that Jesus is the suffering Messiah.

“To be Jesus’ disciple means to allow one’s identity to be stamped by the identity of the one who died forsaken on the cross” (79).

Discipleship: Jesus’ sacrifice is vicarious for his people, but it is also exemplary. Mark makes clear that Jesus’ followers are to embrace the cross. This is what discipleship looks like:

“To be Jesus’ follower is to share his vocation of suffering servanthood, renouncing the world’s lust for power” (82).

Eschatology: The community is called to a posture of intense wakefulness. Because Christ is returning soon, believers cannot afford to compromise the radical demands of discipleship.

6 Observations about Mark’s narrative world

  1. The world according to Mark is a world torn open by God. (The kingdom changes everything.)
  2. Because the cosmic conflict is underway, time becomes compressed.
  3. God has reversed the positions of insiders and outsiders.
  4. Mark’s Gospel redefines the nature of power and the value of suffering.
  5. Mark’s vision of the moral life is profoundly ironic; God’s love and power are manifested in unexpected ways.
  6. This Gospel’s lack of closure calls for active response from the reader.

The Gospel of Matthew

Christology: Matthew shapes his Gospel from beginning to end in a way that shows Jesus to be the Teacher who expounds Torah in a new and authoritative way. At the same time, Jesus is the One who fulfills the Torah.

The Community of Faith: Matthew sees the followers of Jesus as a community of people who obey the teachings of Jesus and are thus “training for the kingdom.” The community’s mission is expressed in three ways.

  • A communal ethic of perfection: to see the world from the perspective of God’s future (98).
  • The hermeneutic of mercy: double love (for God and others) governs the construal of the law (101).
  • Community discipline and forgiveness: rigorous moral norms combined with forgiveness and reintegration for the repentant (102).

Eschatology: Matthew focuses primarily on the continuing and promised presence of Jesus with his people. This leads him to relax the eschatological urgency we find in Mark, even as he continues to stress the Lord’s presence in the community of faith. Eschatology (specifically, future judgment and rewards) continues to serve as a powerful warrant for moral behavior.

Historical Setting: Matthew writes his Gospel as an “ecclesiastical diplomat;” he pulls together different traditions into a master narrative that unifies the church under its confession of Jesus’ lordship.

7 Observations about Matthew’s narrative world

  1. The world is stabilized and given meaning by the authoritative presence of Jesus.
  2. The present is the time of the church’s mission to make disciples of all nations.
  3. God’s ultimate judgment of all will be based upon works of love and mercy.
  4. The bitter conflict with the synagogue is a salient aspect of Matthew’s world.
  5. The community must be characterized by humility, patience, and concern for the “little ones.”
  6. Obedience is represented as a simple possibility for those who hear Jesus.
  7. The church is a community where people can find security and can act with moral confidence.

Some Personal Considerations

I appreciate the way that Hays takes seriously the distinctive elements we find in the Gospels. He does not mute the voices of Matthew or Mark in his attempt to summarize and synthesize their contribution to our understanding of Jesus. I also appreciate his take on the Sermon on the Mount as a method of training in the ways of righteousness.

Some of Hays’ hermeneutical moves are puzzling (his allegorical approach to Peter walking on water, for example), based primarily on his reconstruction of the historical setting in which the Gospels were written rather than a persuasive case from the text itself. Overall, though, these two chapters made me want to go back and immerse myself in the narrative world of the Gospels, to once again be shaped by the ethical vision on display in both the didactic portions and the historical narratives.