Revisiting an Overlooked Classic: Franzmann on the Gospel According to Matthew
Franzmann walks alongside of readers of the Gospel according to Matthew like a sharp-eyed and knowledgeable tour guide pointing out features of the evangelical landscape which invite and provoke deeper reflection and, in turn, cannot but help make preaching more interesting and robust.
Shortly after Martin Franzmann’s (1907-1976) death, Kenneth Korby referred to his teacher as, “the sweet singer of the Missouri Synod.” Indeed, this is an apt description of Franzmann who was destined to be remembered for his contribution to 20th century Christian hymnody. He is less remembered for his exegetical work, which is a shame, for Franzmann knew theology must sing. It is no dry and pedantic pursuit chasing after dogmatic trivia, but a vibrant art that listens intently to the Holy Scriptures, “the breathing space of the Holy Spirit,” as Oswald Bayer has called them, so Christ Jesus is proclaimed to lacerated sinners in all of His crucified beauty and resurrected favor. A chief and abiding exegetical contribution of Franzmann is his 1961 book, Follow Me: Discipleship According to Saint Matthew (CPH, 1961). A couple of weeks ago a friend asked me “What’s with this revival of Franzmann?” I am not sure there is a Franzmann revival going on, although the recent book by Matthew E. Borrasso, The Art of Exegesis: An Analysis of the Life and Work of Martin Hans Franzmann (Wipf & Stock, 2019) has helpfully reminded us of his multifaceted life. A Franzmann revival would not be a bad thing. My goals here, though, are much more modest. With Year A (the Year of Matthew) in the LSB Three-Year Lectionary fast approaching, I simply want to commend Follow Me: Discipleship According to Matthew to preachers as a devotional companion while they read, mark, learn, inwardly digest and finally proclaim Christ from the inspired pages of this gospel.
Franzmann sees the theme of discipleship woven into the tapestry of Matthew’s narrative. Unlike disciples of the rabbis, disciples of Christ Jesus do not elect their Lord and Teacher. He elects them, calling them to a cruciform life, molding their erratic wills to fit His own good and gracious will. In fact, as Franzmann puts it, “Jesus is singularly brusque with enthusiastic volunteers” (2). Like the prophets of the Old Testament, disciples are called and compelled by the Word of the Lord who came to them. The One who calls and claims mundane men from fishing nets and tax collecting stations to be His disciples is no mere rabbi, but Israel’s Messiah (8).
Unlike disciples of the rabbis, disciples of Christ Jesus do not elect their Lord and Teacher. He elects them, calling them to a cruciform life, molding their erratic wills to fit His own good and gracious will.
Matthew highlights the continuity between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Franzmann observes how tirelessly Matthew demonstrates that the Scriptures are fulfilled in this Jesus. From his recital of Jesus’ genealogy, to the emergence of the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, Matthew demonstrates Jesus is the promised Emmanuel born in Bethlehem, the son called out of Egypt whose advent is the occasion of Rachel’s lamentation for her slaughtered children.
As John the Baptist looms so large in the lectionary for Advent, preachers would do well to study Franzmann’s exposition of the life and message of the man identified as the voice crying in the wilderness (see pp. 15-32). The Baptist proclaims God’s Kingdom is at hand. Franzmann says of the King and His kingdom: “His kingship is no longer merely a reign over the history of men and nations; it has, in a sense, become incarnate” (19). The preaching of Advent proclaims the Kingdom is here in the person of the King! In Him the promises made to David are not aned.
John’s preaching heralds this King and His coming Kingdom. In view of the arrival of the King, “John demanded a repentance as radical as it was universal, as deep as it was wide. His appeal was more categorical even than that of the prophets, for it was made under the urgency of the last days, in the shadow of the coming final revelation of God” (28). In the singular voice of the Baptist, all the words spoken of old by the prophets are brought to a point with John’s preaching of repentance. So, John the Baptist stands one foot in the Old Testament, the other in the New as he announces how the light of God’s new and final revelation has come in the Christ whose way he has been given to prepare.
Franzmann was a master at shaping exquisite word pictures from his exegetical lathe. In the section on the Beatitudes, he writes of Christ Jesus: “As Messianic Giver He gives absolutely, into emptiness” (36). Disciples remain beggars, capable only of being given-to out of the generosity of a Donor whose benefits do not cease. Franzmann’s writing is coherently crisp and unerringly evangelical: “He is promising and giving to those who have nothing and need everything, that which answers their every need. He is pointing men to the present fact and future hope of God acting for men and for their salvation” (38). Jesus is the One who is greater than Moses, so Franzmann writes, “It is plain: Jesus is not urging upon His disciples a more strenuous moralism; He is bidding them spell out in their lives the implications of their new existence” (45). Jesus does what the Law is powerless to do: He saves. Jesus gives what the Law is impotent to bestow: freedom to live in the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus’ miracles, or “mighty deeds” as Matthew calls them, figure large in Franzmann’s treatment of this gospel. Franzmann observes the, “embarrassed fumbling with the miraculous which is characteristic of so much present-day theology” (68). In place of such dogmatic timidity, Franzmann shows preachers a more excellent way which does not apologize for the text but has the boldness to say what the text says. “In the miracles, the beggary of man and the largesse of God were strikingly and unmistakably delineated, so that each miracle became the Gospel in miniature and was so proclaimed” (68).
In place of such dogmatic timidity, Franzmann shows preachers a more excellent way which does not apologize for the text but has the boldness to say what the text says.
Along the way, Franzmann also offers sober and sane counsel for those who bear the authority of the preaching office: “Only the compassionate can bear the burden of authority without being either bent or twisted or broken by it” (81).
Franzmann reads the parables as expositions of the “mysteries of God” as the Lord who tells them confounds the wise and gives understanding to the simple. All of the parables, for Franzmann, are to be heard under the cross: “God’s ultimate ‘parable’ (in this sense) is the cross, where the Godhead is both impenetrably veiled in flesh and fully revealed in the splendor of a love which surpasses the highest reach of human love that men can only call it divine and believe it and adore it. The cross, above all else, is God’s revelation, gives to him who has and takes away from him who has not. At the cross men say either, ‘Jesus be cursed,’ or, ‘Jesus is Lord’ (I Corinthians 12:3)” (113).
Faith clings to what is given from the Lord; it is always a beggarly faith, looking to God who fills the hungry with good things. This faith itself is a gift and not something the believer creates himself. The divine origin of this faith is demonstrated in the diabolical attack it must suffer: “Proof of the divine origin of faith is seen in the fact that Satan attacks all good works of God; and he attacks it in characteristically satanic fashion, by imitative perversion of it” (139).
Faith clings to what is given from the Lord; it is always a beggarly faith, looking to God who fills the hungry with good things.
The Church, for Franzmann, is not a club of self-sanctified saints but a holy company of beggars who live by trust in the electing and consoling word of absolution: “Forgiveness is the ground the disciple walks on, and the air he breathes; he exists only on the terms of forgiveness. The word of the forgiveness which the Church hears fills the Church with forgiveness” (154). Forgiveness of sins is not a first step which sets the disciple on a path that will sooner or later allow him to leave the absolution behind and demonstrate his own spiritual capacities, but the lifeblood of the beggar.
The cross and resurrection are not just the climax of Matthew’s evangelical narrative. Franzmann spots the imprint of the passion and the victory of, “the suffering Servant of prophecy is woven into the texture of all the Gospels” (190). It is in this light Franzmann observes how the, “Transfiguration does not lose touch with the world of history and fact” (141). The Transfiguration is the confirmation of Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ and the Lord’s subsequent reprimanding the reminder to Peter that He will be delivered over to death on a cross.
Throughout Franzmann’s exposition of Matthew’s Gospel, judgment and grace, Law and Gospel, wrath and mercy in the words and actions of Jesus ring out loud and clear. The cross and resurrection, atonement and divine vindication stand in view of the eschatological horizon. The fate of Jerusalem portends the tribulation to befall the world. “All history is a sign for the eyes of faith; all history alerts the disciples to the end of history” (179). At the end of history is the cross itself: “In a very real sense the cross was a last judgment on man and did usher in the Day of the Lord” (213).
In the technical sense of the word, Follow Me is not a commentary. It lacks detailed exegetical notes, word studies, grammatical analysis and the like. This fact does not lessen its usefulness to preachers in the least. Instead, Franzmann walks alongside of readers of the Gospel according to Matthew like a sharp-eyed and knowledgeable tour guide pointing out features of the evangelical landscape which invite and provoke deeper reflection and, in turn, cannot but help make preaching more interesting and robust.
 Also see Ronald Feuerhahn, “Martin H. Franzmann: An Exegetical Preacher” in Concordia Pulpit Resources (December 1, 1996-February 9, 1997), 2-4.