Reading Matthew’s Gospel

‘The Gospel according to St Matthew’ is first in the liturgy cycle of three years, and in our copies of the New Testament, but is not the first book written – the early Letters of St Paul come before. Nor is it likely to be the first of the four gospels, now that is usually considered to be Mark. Matthew’s owes its primary place to the esteem in which it was held in the early years of Christianity. That popularity may come from this gospel laying so much stress on the teachings of Jesus, some directed to all disciples, and others for leaders and evangelists.  While much of this is clear to see in a quick check of the gospel, there is also a subtlety in the style that is not so frequently noted.

During the church year, we read the gospel is short selections that fit the annual seasons, first Advent to Christmas, later in the year the sections on the Passion, death and resurrection from Lent through to Pentecost. Other parts of the gospel are fitted in-between.  Some verses of the gospel will not be used in the Sunday liturgies. This makes is harder to appreciate the form and the message of Matthew as a whole. I therefore recommend finding some way of reading the text from its beginning to the end. Various programs are possible, allowing readers to choose what fits into their own life. You may go through the text in daily, or weekly selections, use it as a new year ‘resolution’ or a Lenten practice. Reading verse by verse should be done meditatively or prayerfully.  Other sources such as commentaries can be used as desired for guidance, to point up themes and theology as well as historical background.  Such a ‘close’ or careful reading repays doing more than once, as new aspects appear on further reflection and as one’s life changes.  Questions may also arise that can be passed over at first, then be returned to later.

Most of what we can know of the human author of the gospel is what we can deduce from the text itself. It is often described as ‘the most Jewish of the gospels’.  This is shown by the number of quotations, and allusions to the Older Testament, as well as a use of Jewish ways of reading scripture, commenting on it, and debating its meaning. It takes in the styles of Law, prophecy and wisdom literature. It is also often written in the form of Jewish poetry, which is a ‘parallelism’ of stating a theme in two different ways. One example is this doubling up of parallels: ‘Ask and you will receive, search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.  For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds. and for anyone who knocks, the door will be opened. (7:7-9)

The strong Jewish background leads to biblical scholars making various suggestions: that the author may have been a Jewish convert, that he wrote for a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles, or that he was in controversy with those he labels ‘Pharisees’ about who are the rightful heirs of Judaism. What is clear is that Matthew was steeped in knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, often using direct quotations but in addition, echoes of the past scriptures are frequent for those who know them as Matthew does. The gospel takes as given Jewish practices of daily life. All of this is filtered through writing in good Hellenistic Greek which was the universal language of the Roman Empire at that time. Matthew seems to have known both Hebrew scriptures and the contemporary translation into Greek (often called the ‘Septuagint’.) And sometimes makes a translation of his own.

One Jewish heritage is often overlooked.  Many places in Matthew contain stern judgements or condemnations. This reflects the prophetic practice that such passages are to be taken as warnings: it hopes that people will change and act rightly and the judgement or punishment will be averted. (This is displayed most vividly in the story of Jonah, where impending punishment does not happen once there is repentance.) If this style is not understood, Matthew at times may sound harsh or threatening.

But, while Matthew respects the past, he also is insistent that something new has come with Jesus the Messiah, a radical new beginning of how God acts in the world.  One basic way he deals with this is with the idea of ‘fulfilment’.  There are over a dozen specific statements of ‘this was done to fulfil…’   Both the English ‘fulfil’ and the underlying Greek word (plero-) have several meanings, but the basic idea here is ‘make complete’, to ‘perfect’ or to ‘realise’.  Matthew sees many aspects of how God acted in the past that point forward to a completion or perfection that comes with the person of Jesus.  Some stand out on a quick reading, like the kingship that was promised through David, the Law that contained moral demands but also ways of living in the world. Other are more subtle: Israel as an instrument for extending the knowledge of God to all nations, and what it means to be the ‘son of God’.  Jesus is not a ‘new Moses’ or a ‘new David’, but is the embodiment or realisation of all earlier hopes and desires and he brings alive for us the loving will of God.

The literary outline of Matthew is beginning with an account of the circumstances around Jesus’ birth, next the opening of his ministry in the time of John the Baptiser. These are followed in the body of the work presented as five sets of teachings interspersed with narration of the events of Jesus’ life through to his death and resurrection.

We can pick up and follow as a main theme running through the gospel from beginning to end, which is that in Jesus ‘God is with us’.  This comes early in the gospel with the naming of Jesus as a fulfilment of the quotation from Isaiah, ‘they shall call his name Emmanu-el which means “God with us”’ (1:22-24). Strangely to contemporary ideas about a name, just before this Joseph is told to name the son born by Mary as ‘Jesus’ – a Hebrew word that means ‘God saves’ and Jospeh is told ‘he will save his people from their sins’. To the Hebrew way of thinking, ‘name’ is the essence of the person, so while ‘Jesus’ is how he was addressed, his deeper role is that he is ‘God present in the world’.  This ‘withness’ of God is picked up in subtle ways through the gospel, which an alert reader can catch. In the last verse, the resurrected Messiah says, ‘Behold: I am with you to the end of this time.’

Watching for such echoes, resonances and highlighted points is one of the pleasures of reading Matthew slowly and carefully.  Other themes that one can follow are the nature of the church – Matthew is the only gospel to use that term, and he devotes one of the five discourses to what church will be. There is the consideration of what it means to be ‘the Messiah’, including the paradox of a saviour and rescuer who has to undergo death.  ‘Kingship’ starting with the heir to David is another aspect that is shown to be ‘not as expected’.

When reading, it is helpful to understand how Matthew uses some subtle connections that are not openly made explicit.  This begins in the opening verses. Into a genealogy of Jesus, based on the usual form of listing father to son, Matthew inserts four women. One who is familiar with the Older Testament would see that they are ‘irregular’ in some way, not Jews in some cases, or not in the normal birth order, but using the practice of ‘levirate’ – whereby a brother is to have relations with his widowed sister-in-law so her child is accepted as belonging to the dead brother. (This preserves his line, and also assures her of support in a patriarchal society.) Matthew hints these four irregularities show us something about his final point in the genealogy which at the end we see is the line of Joseph, who is not his father in the natural way, as Mary’s child is of the Holy Spirit.  Matthew does not ‘explain’ any of this, but leaves it to the reader to work out the meaning.  While reading the gospel from the beginning, other almost hidden connections can be found.

There are more paths that can be taken. Many bibles have notes connecting a passage in Matthew to the Older Testament, and also to the other gospels, and one can look these up and see what further light they throw on Matthew.

Matthew stresses the authority with which Jesus speaks, most strikingly over aspects of the Law in 5:20-48. While he is not writing a ‘biography’ of Jesus, the author’s own belief and reverence can lead to ‘meeting’ Jesus in our own lives.  Underlying all of this is love, God’s love for us, our loving response to that, and love as the way we live in the world with others.

If you want to study Matthew in more detail, there are a bewildering number of commentaries, at levels from beginner to scholarly ones noting the Greek and comparing various interpretations.  There are also books on the historical background, or the way people lived at the time. Some editions of the bible have study notes.  Many sources can be tracked down online as well. All these show varying interpretations, which indicate that there is an openness to finding the meaning, and we can make our own choices. If you want a thorough guide from Catholic scholars, two of about 300 pages are Daniel J. Harrington, SJ, who stresses especially the Jewish aspects not widely understood, and Rudolph Schnackenburg. I have over a dozen commentaries I check when writing the notes for Sunday readings. My notes are designed to be useful background to particular passages and offer some suggestions but leave the readers to their own reactions to the text .

The most important thing as I see it is for everyone to engage with the text itself and doing this prayerfully so that it can ‘speak to you’ and you find what it means for your relationship with Jesus, and how you want to live your life in Christ and with others.

To use a modern term, this reading should be ‘interactive’ with the text. We may come with questions, find answers, find new questions to consider. Readers may be comforted and consoled, inspired or energised, angry or pained over what happened to Jesus and how standards of the world (or in the church!) around them seem to fail to have gospel values. Easily overlooked is being amused, as Jesus used his sense of humour often to make serious points.  Readers should certainly expect to be challenged to change their attitude and actions.

Another text of the New Testament tells us, ‘The word of God is alive and active…discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.’ (Hebrews 4:12) The adventure of encountering Jesus as a loving presence in our lives, as Matthew himself did, lies open before us in this Year A.  May it be a blessing to us all!

Joan Griffith, 2022