Jesus contrasts the Son of Man with the Gentile rulers
Much scholarship has been devoted to establishing the Jewish context of Matthew’s Gospel, with its Gentile context (including significantly the Roman imperial system) less discussed. Some scholars of the last decade or so, however, have sought to address this. There have been two dominant positions on this issue: 1) that the Matthean author is addressing a mixed audience of both Jews and Gentiles, and as such, supports taking the salvific message of Jesus to both (see Brendan Byrne, “The Messiah in whose Name ‘The Gentiles will Hope,’” p. 55-73); and 2) the Gospel writer’s community have suffered greatly at the hands of the Romans in Antioch, and wish to avoid the Gentile world as far as possible (see David Sim, “The Gospel of Matthew and the Gentiles,” p. 19-48). In order to appreciate the complexity of the Matthean author’s narrative, the Roman imperial context cannot be ignored, as it is alluded to in various episodes with varying degrees of subtlety.
In this passage Jesus lays out the “value-scale”, in Richard France’s (The Gospel of Matthew, p. 759) words, of the kingdom of heaven, with the hierarchy of the world expressed through the example of the “great ones” (οἱ μεγάλοι) (those at the top of the social order) contrasted implicitly to the “little ones” of the kingdom of heaven (see Matthew 10:42, 18:6, 10, 14). Just as earlier in the Gospel, in 5:47, 6:7, 32, “the Gentiles” are represented as those in the human order who are not part of God’s people. Jesus’s problem here is not with the fact that human society requires hierarchies and structures per se, but rather with the manner in which the Gentile rulers (i.e. the Roman authorities) are exercising their power. The two verbs used to describe Gentile/Roman rule are vivid in their portrayal of the subjective force of imperial rulership. Both κατακυριεύω (“lord over/have complete dominion over”) and κατεξουσιάζω (“exercise/impose authority over”) are compound verbs beginning with κατα (“down”), emphasising the direction of power from the top of the empire down to its people (see Richard France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 760).
In contrast, the kingdom of heaven operates in reverse, with the servants and slaves (usually right at the bottom of the social scale), elevated to the top. If one wishes to be great in God’s kingdom, his or her ultimate aim must be to serve others, following in the footsteps of the Son of Man (which the Gospel has by now firmly established as Jesus, but see Daniel 7:13-14 for the prophetic text alluded to), who is the archetypal example of servitude. Unlike the Roman authorities, whose authority is characterised by their dominion over their subjects, and a firm social structure which strongly favoured the elite, the Son of Man’s authority is characterised by service, including the greatest service of all – dying as a “ransom” (λύτρον) for the deliverance of all people (Philemon 2:6-8 also uses the idea of the death of the servant as an example for Christian life). Some have argued that Jesus’s statement that the Son of Man will become a servant, offering up his life as a ransom, echoes the notion of Hellenistic rulers and servanthood that we find, for example in Plato, Republic 1.347d-7.540b (see David Seeley, “Rulership and Service,” p. 234-245, which discusses the popular ancient philosophical ideal that rulers should also take on the role of servants, and Charles Talbert, Matthew, p. 241). However, of more likely influence to this pericope is the Hebrew Bible, which also contains material complementing the anti-tyrannical stance of Jesus’s words here. 1 Samuel 8, for example, presents strong anti-kingship ideology, and describes kings as enslaving the sons and daughters of the people, inflicting harsh taxes, and forcing men to fight in the army.
Commenting on the Markan parallel to this passage (Mark 10:42-45), Adam Winn (“Tyrant or Servant?” p. 325) argues that Jesus’s statement should be read in the light of ideology of Roman rule, and in particular the notion of recusatio, which was employed by the emperors (to varying degrees), advocating the resisting or protesting of anything that explicitly conveyed that the emperor had absolute power, yet still enabling this power to be maintained. The employment of recusatio is one distinctive feature of Rome’s literary understanding of its emperors, and there are numerous examples of rulers either successfully utilising this, or failing to do so, and as a result, becoming unpopular with the Roman people. For example, Augustus did not want to be given the dictatorship for life, would not be addressed as “Lord” (Suetonius, Augustus 53.1), and was also reluctant to take the title of “pater patriae” (“Father of the Country”) (Suetonius, Augustus 52.1; Res Gestae 5.1). He also rejected temples in his honour (Suetonius, Augustus 52.1, Cassius Dio, Roman History 52.35), and Tiberius similarly refused statues (Suetonius, Tiberius 26.1; Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.9). At the other end of the scale, however, Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XIX.1-2, suggests that Gaius’s assassination was associated with the fact that he failed to listen to the requests of the populus. Roman ideology, therefore, certainly wanted to maintain an image of rulers behaving with an appropriate amount of modesty when it came to the way they allowed themselves to be praised and remembered. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is not the impression that we get from Jesus’s words, however! Adam Winn argues that the notion of domineering power was incompatible with the Roman ideological notion of what rulers should be, and so Mark’s audience (and theoretically Matthew’s also) would either take Jesus’s words as a sharp critique of Roman political ideals, or as a contrast between Jesus and those emperors who were not viewed positively in this regard (such as Gaius and Nero) (see Adam Winn, “Tyrant or Servant?” p. 343-344). If the latter, then this passage might not be an outright denouncement of Roman rule, but rather a condemnation of a certain form of it, which Roman literature itself was critical of.
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