Read: Matthew 12; Exodus; 1 Kings 1-11
In his short little book simply titled Following Jesus, NT Wright waltzes through several New Testament books and explores their main themes and ideas. Among the books explored is the Gospel according to Matthew. Of Matthew he writes:
Matthew's whole gospel is, in fact, a Coronation Anthem. And the only sensible reason for going to church and hearing Matthew read is so that we can learn how to join in.
But who is being crowned King? Matthew gives him two names, and explains them both. He is to be called 'Jesus', which means 'YHWH saves'–because, says Matthew (1.21), he will save his people from their sins. That is, he will deliver his people from their exile, which was the punishment for their sin. He will be the King who will go down into exile with his people and lead them up and out the other side. And the real exile is not the Babylonian one. It is the satanic exile of sin and death.
The second name is 'Emmanuel', which means 'God with us' (1.23). Matthew has drawn together the two threads of Jewish expectation. First, God will save his people from their sins; yes, and he'll do it through the King, Jesus. Second, God himself will come and dwell with his people. Yes, says Matthew; he'll do that, too, through the King, Jesus. This book celebrates the coronation of the saviour, the God-with-us-King. (25)
Well, that's a wonderfully beautiful way of saying it. I've said it with several more words, to be sure, and so has Matthew. But Matthew is building his Gospel brick by brick (if I may change the metaphor) and will not be satisfied until he laws the final brick, the capstone to the entire edifice: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. In the meantime there's a lot of ground to cover. This is where we meet chapter 12 of Matthew. And it is overwhelming.
One thought, governing two aspects of Israelite history, bookends this chapter and thus defines for us everything going on in the middle. First, in verse 6: "I tell you, something greater than the temple is here." This must have absolutely sent shock waves through the community. People just didn't talk about the temple that way, but Jesus did. I think perhaps he wanted them to keep the temple in perspective or maybe he wanted them to think about the temple in a new way–not so much as a place, but as a person in whom all that the temple offered was reserved and unleashed.
I suppose we are kind of that way with our own buildings now too. And the sad, sad reality is that in our modernish ways we tend to invest a lot more of our time and resources in our properties than we do in our people. And maybe Jesus was making a similar judgment about the people of that generation. The key is found in what he says: I desire mercy, not sacrifice. In other words, I care far more about people than I do about your rituals. They never escaped that trap. I wonder if the church of now will? Jesus said this. Jesus said that mercy is more important than ritual.
This is a message the church has yet to hear.
There's so much kingdom talk in this chapter. One thing that stands out is that now the agitation and aggression towards Jesus is heating up. Now the Pharisees are openly plotting to 'destroy' him. Now they are actively thinking that Jesus is a mere agent of the devil. Jesus keeps on going. He will continue to be a man of healing and hope. He will continue to be merciful to all who desire mercy. I guess Jesus' thinking is that the more people line up against him, the more merciful he will be. I mean seriously: how depraved does one have to be to plot against someone who heals another person? Yet that's what they did. Jesus heals, and he's in league with the devil. Jesus heals, and he's a threat to the power structures and must be destroyed. Jesus lets his people eat, and he's little more than the leader of a sinful band of degenerates.
No one says such things about the church. I suspect that's because we don't do these kinds of things that arouse the suspicions of others.
The chapter ends much as it began, in verse 42: "The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here." Solomon, man of wisdom and wives, was indeed a great king. He wasn't as great as his father, but he was special. Now Jesus says that even Solomon is eclipsed by Jesus.
Jesus is greater than the temple. He's greater than Solomon. He's greater than sacrifice; he's greater than wisdom. And he will keep pressing on doing good to people and preaching the kingdom of God.
You have to admire Jesus…even though 'admire' is a poorly chosen word. Something greater. And? This something greater says that what really matters is mercy. Jesus, the King, Emmanuel, the Son of Man, says that what matters for his disciples, for those who would follow is this: mercy.
NT Wright concludes his chapter on Matthew in Following Jesus with these words, "In the kingdom of the Son of Man, the power that counts is the power of love. It is the rule of Emmanuel, God-with-us." (31) Jesus says he is building a family of brothers, sisters, and mothers around himself. He is the center which holds us together and how does he hold us together? Mercy, love. And what is he saying to us? Be merciful. Love.
This is the something greater: the teaching, embodied in Jesus, that what matters here and now is mercy, not sacrifice.
Go and be merciful.