In Year A of the liturgical season, the gospel readings at mass are mostly taken from Matthew, the first book in the New Testament as we find it now. That reflects the esteem of the book in liturgy and church history. Despite its place in our Bibles, Matthew is not the earliest book written – that place goes to some of the Letters of St Paul. Most modern scholars think that Mark was written first of the four gospels and was used by Matthew as a source. Most of Mark is included, with some sections are the same, word-for-word. Matthew’s Greek style is more refined and he often ‘corrects’ Mark’s more ‘rough and ready’ language. Matthew is considerably longer because he puts in blocks of Jesus’ teaching and more parables and adds the account of Jesus’ birth. When he narrates a story, however, it usually is less detailed and sometimes less vivid than Mark’s. (For an example of this, compare Mark 5:1-20 to Matthew 8:28-34.) Matthew and Luke also share some material that is not in Mark but no written record has been found for these passages, which are mostly sayings, and appear in differing parts in the two gospels. (Some scholars use the designation ‘Q’ for these shared texts.)
Who is ‘Matthew’ the writer? None of four gospels identify their authors but early tradition gave them the names we use. The title of first gospel could be no more than a guess from the fact that the name ‘Matthew’ is only found in this gospel, in the call to the tax collector also listed as an Apostle. Mark and Luke in the same sections have the name ‘Levi’. If the tax collector is the author, it is odd that little or none seems to come from personal knowledge of Jesus’ lifetime but so much from Mark and sources shared with Luke. Without reliable biographical details, we can look at what we can learn from the book itself. ‘Matthew’ organises the writing well, is reverent toward Jesus and the apostles. He is steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures, often quoted in the Greek translation. Passages are often in the Hebrew style of poetry with its ‘parallelism’ and repetition. A good example are the ‘Beatitudes (5:1-10). He often speaks of judgment and condemnation, but like the Prophets, this can be seen as stressing the importance of right behaviour and used as a warning.
Time and place where written: again we have only educated guesses. It seems to be after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE/AD, and possibly after the year 85 which is a date for the expulsion of Christians from Jewish worship. The community of the first readers is likely to be a mix of Jews who had accepted Jesus and Gentiles. Syria is most often suggested, but somewhere near Palestine.
Matthew is in several ways the ‘most Jewish’ of all four gospels, even in the language. Where Luke and Mark, for example, have ‘Kingdom of God’, Matthew usually has ‘Kingdom of Heaven’. Jews avoided naming the sacred name revealed to Moses (YHWH in our alphabet) and tried to avoid ‘God’ as well. All of the gospels show how the Old Testament foreshadowed Jesus, but Matthew has more direct quotations, ten of them using the formula, ‘This happened to fulfil the words….’ There are other passages which make the point less directly While noting the continuity of Jesus to the past, the book also stresses that in Jesus there is something entirely new and unexpected. This starts with the opening of the Gospel in which Matthew gives Jesus a legal Jewish descent though Joseph from David and Abraham and then comes a break with the past: Mary is with child by the power of the Holy Spirit and not a human father. There is a stress on lasting parts of the Jewish Law while Jesus makes significant changes. ‘You have heard it said… but I say to you…’ is used a number of times in Matthew 5:17-48.
Matthew shows Jesus using the rabbinical style of debate when in controversy with Pharisees and scribes. Other styles of Jewish writing, can also be traced in this gospel. In his commentary on the gospel, Daniel J. Harrington suggests that Matthew was in a struggle with the followers of the Pharisees to be the rightful successors to the faith of the Old Testament. This means sections that are less interesting in our time or even sound ‘anti-Jewish’ and need to be put into the context of the time. Harrington stresses that is no excuse in our time to use Matthew to judge modern Jews
Gentiles play a significant part, from the visit of the Magi on to the last words of Jesus when he sends his disciples to carry on his work. Matthew makes a point of noting geographic locations of Jesus ministry, often tying them to an Old Testament prophecy, as Galilee in 4:12-16. This gives them symbolic value. Numbers too are used symbolically and as an aid to memory.
Matthew gives an account of Jesus’ birth which is centred on Joseph. Luke writes from then viewpoint of Mary. Both have the detailed story of Jesus’ testing by Satan, though in different order, and all four gospels show that John the Baptiser’s preaching was the beginning point for Jesus’ public life.
Matthew takes a special interest in St Peter. Although he recounts Jesus rebuking him (16:21-23) and his denial during the Passion as does Mark, this is the only gospel with the ‘commission’ that on Peter Jesus will build his church (16:16-19). Matthew is also the only one of the four to use the word ‘church’ and he gives much attention to the way disciples are prepared to become the Church after the Resurrection.
An important feature of the gospel are the five blocks of Jesus’ teaching, and these instructions for living as a disciple made it a favourite in the early church. The best known of the five is ‘The Sermon on the Mount’ which takes up three chapters. In it Matthew has the traditional version of the ‘Our Father’ (‘The Lord’s Prayer’) and the ‘Beatitudes’ (5:1-10). Only in this gospel is the Last Judgement (25:31ff) which has inspired so much Christian art. Although punishment for sin is part of Matthew’s faith, the parable of the Last Judgement is far more about how Jesus identifies himself with all those in need to the point where anything done for them is done for Jesus himself. This is an example of how Matthew shows the closeness of Jesus to his followers.
Throughout the gospel, we see Matthew’s concern with the preparation of the disciples. This appears early, for immediately after Jesus starts to proclaim the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, he calls the first disciples (4:18-22) and right after this, he begins teaching them and one of his five discourses is directed to them. Although the instructions were historically spoken to those around Jesus, most of also these apply to our own lives.
The presence of Jesus among his disciples – even after his death – is an important point for Matthew. Early in the Gospel, Matthew tells us Jesus is ‘God-with-us’ and Jesus last words at the end are: ‘I am with you through all time.’ He records Jesus saying, ‘When two or three are gathered in my name, I am there with them.’ (18:20)
For the liturgy, selections are chosen predominantly to fit into the feast structure of Advent-Christmas and Lent-Easter seasons and therefore do not follow the sequence as it appears in the Bible. There are also sections that are not read. For this reason, I suggest at some time during Year A, reading all of Matthew through from the beginning. That way you get a better sense of its form and development. Because of
its length, you may want to spread this over a period of time.
For personal prayer, it is good to take just a short passage so that you give it full attention and reflection. Both ways of reading have their special power – the overview seeing it as a whole, and the spiritual development of reading with long pauses to reflect. It can also be helpful to make a list of what most strikes you so that you can return to this as needed.
If you want to study the gospel in more detail than the weekly liturgy background notes, there are numerous study guides and commentaries in varying levels of scholarship, various lengths and amount of spiritual reflections. Look in bookstores and online. There are good notes in some Bibles, especially The Revised New Jerusalem Bible. I use a number of commentaries for the weekly readings and will name them when quoted.
You may want at times to compare Matthew to Mark and Luke, and many bibles print in the margin references that make this easier, and there are also volumes that lay these out in parallel. These first three are often called ‘Synoptics’ – a word meaning ‘seeing from the same view’. The Gospel of John has a number of places that are matched in the first three gospels, but most of the time however, the fourth Gospel is very different. There is no liturgical year focused on John, but selections are read at various times in all three years.
I hope that all will find spending this year with Matthew rewarding, comforting, and inspiring – but also at times challenging! All these are one of the purposes of reading and thinking about scripture. In Matthew Christ becomes ‘present’ to us and we can learn more about Jesus’ life and as a result, he can become part of our daily living.