Change is a constant in life. A month ago, we began a new liturgical year in which we will hear the
Gospel of Matthew most Sundays. In November of this year, we will be adjusting to the Roman Missal’s new Mass prayers and responses. The Gospel of Matthew and the Missal changes raise the same question: “How do we change and, at the same time, remain faithful to the core of our beliefs?”
Another key question for Matthew is, “How are Jesus’ followers connected to the people with whom God made a covenant at Mt. Sinai?” Matthew writes for a changed community still familiar with the images, words and key concepts of Judaism. He structures his Gospel on the first five books of the Bible. Known in Judaism as the Torah, they were written by Moses, according to Jewish tradition.
Matthew seeks to demonstrate that all the promises of salvation made by God in the Hebrew Scriptures have been fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.
No wonder, then, that one of the key passages in understanding how this Gospel views change can be found in Jesus’ words, “Every scribe who has been trained for the Kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who can bring from his storeroom both the new and the old” (13:52, New Revised Standard Version). All citations are from this source.
But who are the learned scribes? Not the Pharisees, but Jesus’ disciples, such as Matthew himself. Discipleship is a major theme of this Gospel. Although the author’s name is unknown, by tradition he is called “Matthew,” from the Greek word mathetes, meaning “disciple.”
Tradition claims that he was a tax collector, a social outcast in his day. In Matthew’s vision of Jesus’ disciples, outcasts, social “nobodies” and even gentiles are welcome. Matthew’s Jesus provokes a response from people: True disciples accept him in faith, others reject him. This theme continues from Jesus’ day to our own.
Gospel’s Intended Audience
When Matthew wrote (ca. 85 A.D.), the rift between Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah and those who did not was widening. The Romans had completely destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D., so the question for Jews was, “How might the Temple-centered version of Judaism best be preserved in a world without priests and sacrifice?”
Two different responses to this dilemma eventually arose: rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. But the split was not yet final. At this time of transition, Matthew sought to help his audience connect their roots (Judaism) and to give them a changed, hope-filled vision of the future.
Matthew’s community seems to be neither completely Jewish nor completely gentile, but a new reality which he calls “the Church,” a term found only in this Gospel.
To the themes of change and inclusive discipleship, Matthew adds a prologue to anchor Jesus firmly within Israel’s salvation history. His genealogy links Jesus to Abraham, father of Israel, and to King David’s lineage while also showing that God can write straight with crooked lines by acting in new and unexpected ways.
Like any family tree, this genealogy contains both saints and sinners—with several surprising inclusions. Five women—Tamar (Genesis Chapter 38), Rahab (Joshua 2 and 6), Ruth (Ruth Chapters 1—4), Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11—12) and Mary (Matthew 1:18-25)—advance salvation history. Each woman acts contrary to the social norms of her culture and yet accomplishes God’s will
in stunning ways.
This prepares for the amazing birth of Jesus, who will act in ways contrary to the social norms of his day and yet fulfill God’s will.
When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, according to Mosaic Law he could have her stoned. Instead, he decides to “dismiss her quietly,” thus modeling what Jesus will later embody—knowledge of the demands of the law and the ability to find mercy and compassion at its heart.
The angel of the Lord makes a claim for Jesus, and Joseph can accept in faith or reject what is offered. In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph, rather than Mary, says the Yes that advances God’s plan, thereby legally securing for Jesus the title “Son of David.”
Joseph is Matthew’s first model disciple. The contrast between those who accept and those who reject Jesus is already vividly apparent in Bethlehem and in Jerusalem. The paradox of Jesus’ mission and life is that foreigners unfamiliar with God’s promises (the Magi and later the gentiles) accept him while those who should be familiar with those promises (Herod, the chief priests and scribes) reject Jesus.
Precedents and Breakthroughs
Through the infancy narrative and Jesus’ public ministry, Matthew links Jesus to the traditions surrounding Moses. Like Pharaoh, Herod slaughters children out of fear; both Jesus and Moses leave Egypt. Both pass through water (River Jordan and the Red Sea) and are tested by God in the desert (Jesus for 40 days and Moses/Israel for 40 years).
Jesus responds to the three temptations with quotes from Deuteronomy (8:3, 6:16 and 6:13). In the Torah, Moses had established the foundations of God’s relationship to Israel. Now Jesus uses these Mosaic ideals (complete reliance upon God, the proper use of power and realizing that faithfulness can include suffering) to ground his relationship with God the Father.
By beginning Jesus’ public ministry with a reference to Isaiah’s prophecies (8:23—9:1), Matthew sets the stage for the gentile mission to come. Jesus’ first disciples are fishermen, who cast nets in wide circles to maximize their catch. This serves them well later when they cast their nets for Jewish and gentile disciples.
Jesus’ call spurs an immediate response, and the fishermen follow him. Matthew clearly challenges his community (and us) to become disciples
and do likewise.
Having situated Jesus within salvation history, Matthew presents the heart of Jesus’ preaching: the Kingdom of God. His preaching is structured around five blocks of material. Each one features a
speech by Jesus and parallels the Torah’s five books.
These five sections show how to live a life faithful to the heart of the tradition and, at the same time, live the vision of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus. This Kingdom requires a change of heart and of social structure—and will come at great cost. The beatitude “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:10) will apply to Jesus as one who lives out the Kingdom.
In the first discourse, Jesus, the new Moses, goes up a mountain to present a new interpretation of the law. In describing the Kingdom of God, Jesus inverts the common view that the nobodies are far from the Reign of God. He claims that these are the very people who will be blessed.
In the sayings, miracles and healings that follow, Jesus attempts to change people’s perspectives on the law and religious practices by highlighting the law’s underlying heart: God’s intent.
We see again the themes of discipleship and acceptance or rejection. While the leaders doubt and reject Jesus, a Jewish leper and a gentile centurion approach him as models of faith, addressing him as Lord and recognizing his power and authority.
Even though the disciples accept Jesus, they don’t know what to make of him, especially when he calms the sea, casts out demons and forgives sins. Only Peter gets things right by declaring Jesus as the Messiah, but then Peter immediately rejects Jesus’ explanation of what a messiah is.
Learning to Be a Disciple
In the second discourse, Jesus sends his disciples out to proclaim the Kingdom of God by doing what he did: curing the sick, raising the dead, healing the lepers and casting out demons. These actions(signs) introduce the messianic age (Isaiah 35:5-6). Disciples must give without counting the cost and rely on God for everything, but the price of discipleship will be extremely high—rejection, suffering, arrest, family splits, death.
The Hebrew Scriptures saw divisiveness within a family as a sign of the end-times (see Micah 7:5). Certainly, there was divisiveness in the Jewish community over who Jesus was!
Jesus brings not a sword of violence but one of clear-cut decision to accept or reject the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus. This decision leads to a redefinition of Jesus’ family as those who do the will of God; the Church is now Jesus’ family.
Faith, Community, Discipleship
The next discourse presents parables about the Kingdom, using seemingly ordinary images that challenge Jesus’ listeners (and us) to change their thinking about the Kingdom of heaven.
Change is difficult, and even after three disciples glimpsed Jesus’ resurrected glory in the Transfiguration (17:1-8), Jesus described all his disciples as having “little faith” (17:20). But even a little faith can accomplish much, as shown in the parable of the mustard seed.
The fourth discourse teaches the disciples how to live as community. Jesus challenges them to avoid the trap of valuing social status in the Kingdom of God.
In a passage more current than we might like (18:15-20), Matthew addresses sin within the Church and outlines a process for dealing with those who need to be cut off from the community temporarily in order to help them repent. The power to forgive, previously given to Peter (16:19), is now extended to the entire community, which manifests the presence of Jesus (18:18-20).
Mirroring the issues dividing his community, Matthew seems to portray two levels of commitment: obedience and discipleship. Obeying the commandments is good, but discipleship involves more: the full giving of self. Even Jesus’ disciples still do not recognize what this will require. Peter, that grand mixture of faith and doubt, says, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27).
Jesus’ Final Week
Everything Jesus does after entering Jerusalem fulfills the Scriptures and sets off five increasingly intense controversies with the religious/political leadership of the day, leading to his death. In these controversies, the leaders come off as hypocrites and less responsive than Jesus to the “nobodies” of the world. Jesus emerges as the authoritative interpreter of the law.
Asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus links the teaching about love of neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) with Judaism’s creedal statement (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might”). Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries already recognized that connection.
In contrast to Chapter Five’s blessings/Beatitudes, Chapter 23 addresses seven woes to the scribes and Pharisees, but, in a larger sense, also to the crowds (and us!). Evil actions are highlighted, and people are warned against them, lest destruction come.
Since this Gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Matthew interprets that tragedy as a result of rejecting Jesus as well as the Hebrew prophets.
Jewish people had long awaited their Messiah and questioned when the final age would arrive and God would intervene to set things right. Many people looked for signs that the end was approaching, but Matthew, in the final discourse, presents Jesus as denying all the conventional omens while advocating faithfulness in the face of presentday sufferings.
The final revelation will not be secret, but rather public and dramatic. Using end-time images from the prophetic literature, Matthew warns people that, since no one knows when the Son of Man will come, all must live in accord with God’s purposes and keep alert and watchful until that day.
Determined Opposition Coalesces
Jesus’ actions and words in Jerusalem are too much for the leaders. They not only reject Jesus, but also plot to kill him. His disciples must still decide whether to accept or reject Jesus. An
unnamed woman comes and anoints him, pouring out all her love for him. Judas, named and famed as one of his followers, rejects and betrays him, while Peter and the rest of the disciples still
At the Last Supper, a Passover meal, Jesus reinterprets those ritual actions. He changes the meaning and the reality of the bread and the wine. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ faithfulness is contrasted with the weakness of his disciples. His prayer echoes the one he taught his disciples earlier (6:9-13), as he accepts God’s will.
Jesus could flee across the Mount of Olives into the desert or elect a violent response, but he freely allows himself to be arrested so that everything takes place “according to the Scriptures.”
During his trial, the fidelity of Jesus, silent like Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, contrasts with the cowardice of his disciples, especially Peter. His denial and later repentance remind us that people can change, that even for the worst of sinners, forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. Judas, on the other hand, denies Jesus and then merely regrets his actions, not believing that forgiveness is possible, and so hangs himself.
The crucifixion scene is awash in images and citations taken from and in fulfillment of Psalms 22, 28 and 69. At the point of death, Jesus cries out the first line of Psalm 22, which ends with complete trust in God’s power. At the Last Supper, Jesus had told his disciples that he would not drink the fruit of the vine again until he drank it in the Kingdom of God. Here bystanders offer him cheap, sour wine to drink.
The Kingdom is breaking into human history now, at the moment of his death, and even the soldiers say, “Truly, this was God’s Son” (27:54). Matthew presents Jesus’ death as a world-changing event. The curtain of the Temple sanctuary, which veiled direct access to God, is torn in two, opening the way to God for all.
The Gospel of Matthew intertwines the themes of constancy, change and discipleship, with Jesus serving as the model for all three. Jesus is faithful to God and to the heart of the Law of Moses even while reinterpreting it.
He embodies the Kingdom of God in his own life, giving himself totally in spite of the high cost. Matthew recognizes Jesus as the fulfillment of all Israel’s hopes.
Even the little faith of the disciples can be made much in the hands of Jesus. Rooted in the traditions of the past, and with faith in the Risen Jesus, they gather once more on a mountain to be sent forth by him to make disciples (mathetes) of all nations (see 28:19-20). As disciples rooted in Jesus, we too can confidently go forth to an unknown future, assured of his abiding presence to guide us through all the changes that life hands us.
On November 28, 2010, we began Cycle A, a selection of Scripture that will be used until we start Cycle B, in Advent 2011. It features Matthew’s Gospel for the four Sundays of Advent. The celebration of Epiphany uses Matthew because only he recounts the story of the Magi. Similarly, only in Matthew does John the Baptist question whether he should baptize Jesus. Matthew’s Gospel is used in six of this year’s seven Sundays in Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday. Most Sundays during Lent and all the Sundays of the Easter season, however, use the Gospel of John.
In 2011, between the 14th Sunday of the Year and the Feast of Christ the King, Matthew’s 21 Gospel passages contain 10 unique stories: weeds and wheat growing together, buried treasure, on this rock, a brother who sins, the unforgiving servant, workers hired at the 11th hour, the greatest commandment, call no one father, wise and foolish virgins and “I was hungry and you gave me food.”
Although several Gospel stories used in Cycle A appear in other Gospels, Matthew sometimes offers unique details. Two of the three miracle stories included in the Sunday readings are found in other Gospels (multiplication of the loaves and fishes
nd the cure of the Canaanite woman’s daughter). Only Matthew recounts the miracle of Peter’s walking on water. Matthew’s versions of the Beatitudes and the Our Father are the ones that we remember best.
For Matthew, Jesus is the master teacher, preparing Jewish disciples for a Church that will include gentiles on equal terms. That transition still had its rough edges when Matthew wrote, approximately 55 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.