The Gospel of Matthew is the first word of the Christian scriptural canon. Although the Gospel of Mark was written earlier, it is Matthew’s gospel which comes first in our bibles. Such a privileged position gives a particular authority to this early Christian work. Many stories and words of Jesus come to us in more than one gospel, but it is often Matthew’s presentation of them which believers carry in their hearts. For example, both Matthew and Luke describe Jesus preaching the beatitudes. Yet Luke’s five beatitudes are generally forgotten, while Matthew’s eight beatitudes appear on countless plaques and in most prayer books throughout the world. The number of Christians who know Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer could fit in a rowboat, while Matthew’s wording is prayed by millions daily.
To begin this journey we should orientate ourselves by discussing three foundational issues: the origins of the gospel, the structure of the gospel, and the image of Jesus which results from Matthew’s creative activity.
The Origins of Matthew’s Gospel
For practical purposes the only source from which we can draw information on the origins of Matthew’s gospel is the gospel itself. The earliest external evidence comes from the fourth century Christian historian, Eusebius, who quotes the second century bishop, Papias. The quotation is not particularly helpful since it states that, “Matthew collected the sayings of Jesus in the Hebrew language,” and the gospel contains much more than the sayings of Jesus and is written in Greek.
Since the copies of the gospels we possess come to us without the name of the author or the date or place of composition, we can only seek such information from indications within the text. It is relatively certain that the date of Matthew’s composition was after the destruction of Jerusalem which took place in 70 CE. The gospel’s version of the Great Supper appears to look back on this catastrophic event when it says that the king was enraged and he “sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city” (Matt 22:7). At the same time we know that the gospel must have been written before 110 CE, when Ignatius of Antioch quotes verses from it in his letters. Most scholars choose a date between these two outside limits, situating the composition around 85 CE. As to the actual author or place of composition, the gospel yields no conclusive results.
What can be reliably established is that Matthew used earlier sources from which to compose his gospel. Because the texts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke contain remarkably similar (at times identical) wording, it is clear that there is a literary connection among them. There is a wide consensus that Mark serves as a source for both Matthew and Luke. Furthermore, similarities between wording in Matthew and Luke indicate that they share a second source between them. For convenience this second source has been called “Q.” Thus it seems that as Matthew sat down to compose his gospel, he possessed a copy of Mark’s gospel and a copy of Q. It was from these two sources that he drew the majority of his material.
This is an invaluable insight. Because we possess Mark and can reconstruct Q, we can compare Matthew to them, identifying the ways in which he has changed his sources. By recognizing the material that Matthew adds, deletes, and rearranges we can surmise the motivations which guided his writing. In this way the interests, the issues, and the theology which are particular to Matthew’s gospel come to light. In other words, when we locate the specific ways in which Matthew has structured his gospel, his unique voice can be appreciated.
The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew has used most of Mark in his gospel. Over 90% of Mark appears in Matthew’s account. What is remarkable that even though almost all of Mark is used, Matthew has written a very different gospel. He alters Mark in three significant ways.
First, he extends Mark’s narrative both at the beginning and at the end. Mark begins his gospel with the preaching of John. Matthew begins with a genealogy which leads to stories about Jesus’ birth. Mark ends his gospel with the empty tomb but with no appearances of the risen Lord. Matthew adds two appearances, one to the women who come to the tomb, another to the eleven disciples. Second, Matthew regularly enriches his gospel with quotations from the Hebrews scriptures. In a dozen places this practice is very pronounced, following a clear formula. For example, after telling us that Jesus always taught in parables, Matthew adds: “This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: ‘I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world'” (Matt 13:35). Yet beyond these very obvious quotations, we can identify at least another fifty times when Matthew refers to the Jewish scriptures. Through the use of such citations, Matthew demonstrates his conviction that Jesus’ saving work was fulfilling the ancient promises of God.
The third way in which Matthew changes Mark is to insert large sections of speech material into Mark’s narrative. Much of this material comes from Q, which was an extended compilation of the sayings of Jesus. Moreover, it seems that Matthew adds these sayings of Jesus according to a specific strategy. He gathers Jesus’ sayings into five large blocks. What makes this structure obvious is that Matthew notes the end of each of these blocks with a set phrase or refrain: “And it happened when Jesus finished . . . .” Three times Jesus finishes “his sayings” (7:28, 19:1, 26:1). Once he finishes his “instruction” (11:1) and once he finishes his “parables” (13:53).
When we take these five refrains as a cue, a convincing structure to Matthew’s gospel unfolds. After the account of Jesus’ birth and before the passion narrative begins, Matthew has arranged the remainder of his gospel into five distinct sections or books. Each book consists of a narrative taken largely from Mark which is followed by a discourse comprised mainly of sayings from Q. In each book, then, we find a narrative about Jesus followed by a discourse by Jesus. We have already noted Matthew’s use of quotations from the Hebrew scriptures. It is very likely that this five-fold pattern is modeled after another aspect of the Hebrew scriptures: the five books of the Torah which begin the Jewish canon. Scholars debate the exact meaning of this modeling, but the structure appears intentional by Matthew. We will use it as a guide for our exploration of his gospel.
Jesus as Teacher
Matthew presents us with a particular image of Jesus. Because Matthew includes five large sections of sayings material within his gospel, Jesus is shown regularly instructing his disciples. In Matthew, more so than in any other gospel, Jesus is a teacher.
The importance of this portrayal should not be underestimated. Our understanding of Jesus is dependent upon the gospels. Our access to Jesus is literary. We have no photographs or audio recordings of him. The oral testimony of those who knew Jesus has long ago faded into history. The writings of Paul and other letters which comprise the majority of the Christian scriptures offer us very little detail about the birth, ministry and death of Jesus. Within our bibles the only real source for this information is the four gospels, and they each present a different perspective on Jesus. For Mark the emphasis is on Jesus’ deeds of power or miracles. Mark knows Jesus to be a teacher but gives us little of his actual preaching. In John’s gospel Jesus’ words refer almost exclusively to his own person, revealing his identity as the Son of the Father. There is very little instruction on how we are to live other than we are to believe in him. Of course, Luke records many sayings of Jesus, because he, like Matthew, draws upon Q. Yet Luke does not package Jesus’ words as effectively as Matthew who uses the discourses of Jesus as a essential structural element of his gospel. Therefore, if we did not have Matthew’s gospel, our appreciation of Jesus as a teacher would be severely diminished.
We would lose a great gift, if the contribution of Matthew were missing from our bibles. For Matthew supports a truth which we often take for granted: an essential part of being a Christian is to follow Jesus’ teaching. We know that Jesus’ words are given to guide us and to show us how to live. What if we did not have Jesus’ words or only a few of them. What if our image of Jesus was primarily that of a miracle worker (as in Mark) or of a revealer of his heavenly relationship to the Farther (as in John)? What if we did not have the Sermon on the Mount or Jesus’ instructions to his disciples or his parables of the Kingdom? We would still have Christianity, but it would be a very different religion. It would still be a faith that believes in Jesus’ miraculous power to save us and his ability to reveal the mysteries of heaven. But the way to follow Christ’s teaching would be less clear, and path on which we were to walk would be difficult to find.
Matthew’s gospel presents Jesus to us as a teacher. That image tells us that we must be disciples. It makes clear that to be a Christian is to live our lives in a particular way and with genuine responsibility. With Jesus as our teacher, we sit at his feet, listen to his words, and learn what we must do if we wish to gain eternal life. Let us open our ears and hearts to receive his instruction as we begin our study of Matthew’s gospel.
Starting at the End
The gospels have been written backwards. This is because the first and most important things within them happen at the end. It is at the end of the gospels that the death and resurrection of Jesus occur. These pivotal events of Jesus’ dying and rising are called the Paschal Mystery. They are the foundation of our faith.
The earliest writings of the Christian scriptures are the letters of Paul. Centering upon the Paschal Mystery, Paul shows very little interest or even awareness of Jesus’ birth or ministry. His preaching seems to focus entirely upon the dying and rising of Christ and our union with him. Paul’s approach is typical of early Christian proclamation. Therefore, it makes sense that, before the first gospel was composed, there existed written narrative accounts of Jesus’ passion. For what believers would most likely first commit to writing was what they felt was primary. For Christians that was the Paschal Mystery.
The first gospel was written when the author of Mark decided to add a description of Jesus’ ministry to such a passion account. Mark begins with the preaching of John the Baptist and provides a description of Jesus’ miracles and teaching which leads to the arrest in the garden. Both Matthew and Luke, who use Mark as a source, choose to begin their gospels earlier. They are the only two gospels which describe Jesus’ birth before they recount his public ministry. The gospel of John, which is the latest of the four canonical gospels, begins even earlier. John prefaces his description of Jesus’ ministry with a great prologue, describing Jesus as the eternal Word. The later a gospel is, the earlier it begins. Mark begins with John the Baptist; Matthew and Luke with Jesus’ birth; John with the existence of the Word before the creation of the world.
This backward movement does not only apply to the manner in which the gospels were written. It also pinpoints the thrust of the message the gospels seek to proclaim. Because the apex of the Good News is found in the Paschal Mystery, it is that truth which colors all which comes before it. In other words Christ’s pre-existence, his birth, and his ministry all point towards his dying and rising. Within the gospels, all that comes before Jesus’ passion is present in order to proclaim Easter.
An Infancy Narrative Is More Than History
Matthew and Luke use the story of Jesus’ birth to emphasize certain truths about the Paschal Mystery. Therefore, their purpose in these stories, which are called infancy narratives, is much more than simply telling us how Jesus was born. The infancy narratives contain historical information. However, neither Matthew nor Luke write as modern historians. They are evangelists, those who proclaim the Easter message.
This orientation gives Matthew and Luke considerable flexibility in shaping the story of Jesus’ birth. What is important to them is not carefully preserving data, but creatively telling the story in a way which could move their audiences to faith in the risen Christ. This flexibility can be recognized by noting the different ways in which Matthew and Luke present the Christmas story. These two gospels agree on a number of details. Both include Mary and Joseph. Both relate that Jesus lived in Nazareth, was born in Bethlehem, and was given the name “Jesus” from heaven. Both recognize that Mary conceived without the intervention of Joseph.
Yet the differences between the two infancy narratives are greater than their similarities. Mary is the central character of Luke’s account and learns of the birth through an appearance of the angel, Gabriel. Joseph is the central character of Matthew’s narrative and learns of the birth from an angel in a dream. Only Matthew tells us of the Magi and flight to Egypt. Only Luke knows of the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, the presentation in the temple, and the great hymns of the Magnificat and Benedictus. Only Luke knows of the census which is his means to explain why Mary and Joseph left Nazareth to travel to Bethlehem. In Matthew’s gospel Mary and Joseph begin in Bethlehem and move to Nazareth only after their return from Egypt. Luke structures his infancy account around parallel accounts of the angelic announcements, births, and circumcisions of John the Baptist and Jesus. Matthew shapes his narrative in five scenes, each ending with a formulaic fulfillment quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures.
The differences between the two infancy narratives demonstrate the significant freedom with which each evangelist treated his material. They are a strong indication that the primary reason for telling the story of Jesus’ birth was theological, pointing to the Paschal Mystery which would be narrated later in the gospel.
The Magi of Matthew’s Story: Violence
We can demonstrate the connection between the infancy narratives and the Paschal Mystery by examining the story of the Magi. As already mentioned, the Magi are unique to Mathew’s gospel.
Although the Magi are familiar characters of the Christmas season, there is one part of their story which has never played a role in our holiday customs. When was the last time you received a Christmas card depicting the slaughter of the innocents? Such a scene does not match the warm and joyful mood of Christmas. Yet it is part of the Magi story. Found in Matt 2:16-18, it tells how Herod brutally killed all the children around Bethlehem who were under two years of age, when the Magi did not return to tell him where he could find the Christ child.
Why is this violent scene a part of Matthew’s infancy narrative? It is unlikely that the evangelist is reporting an actual historical occurrence. There is no mention of such a slaughter in either Roman or Jewish sources, and such an event, had it occurred, should have left some trace in our records. It is more likely that Matthew is shaping his account of Jesus’ birth in such a way that it mirrors the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
In Matthew’s passion narrative, the authorities together with all the people plot against Jesus and deliver him to death (Matt 27:25). Despite his crucifixion and death, however, he is raised up (Matt 28:6). Matthew’s infancy narrative follows this same pattern. Herod with the chief priests and scribes and the concern of all the people in Jerusalem plot against Jesus (Matt 2:3-4). Yet, despite Herod’s worst intentions and the slaughter of the innocents, Jesus escapes death by fleeing to Egypt (Matt 2:14). Matthew’s use of the Greek verb, “to assemble,” strengthens this parallel. Although it is never used in Mark’s passion narrative and only once in Luke’s, Matthew uses it five times in his passion narrative to describe the assembling of Jesus’ enemies against him. Matthew uses the same verb in the infancy narrative when Herod assembles all the chief priests and the scribes to discuss where the “king of the Jews” was to be born. Moreover, the only other place in the gospel where Jesus is referred to as the “king of the Jews” is during the passion (Matt 27:11, 29, 37).
These similarities indicate how Matthew’s infancy narrative has been shaped to reflect the Paschal Mystery. The violence in the story of Jesus’ birth reminds the reader that the one who is born will suffer and die for our salvation.
The Magi of Matthew’s Story: Mission
The story of the Magi also illustrates a central blessing which flows from Jesus’ death and resurrection. In the final scene of the gospel, the risen Christ appears to his disciples and gives them a great commission: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations” (Matt 28:19). Because of the Paschal Mystery the good news now extends to all the nations. During his ministry, Jesus limited his message only to Jews (Matt 10:5-6; 15:24). After the resurrection, the gospel is to be preached to the Gentiles as well.
This result of the resurrection is reflected in the infancy narrative by the Magi. The text is clear that they are “from the East” and that they are unfamiliar with the Jewish scriptures (Matt 2:1-2). In other words, they are Gentile. Yet they come to pay Christ homage. The Magi represent all the Gentiles who will come to worship Christ when, after the resurrection, the gospel is proclaimed to them.
Both the violence and the mission in the story of the Magi tell us that Matthew’s infancy narrative is doing more than reporting historical facts. It is exposing its readers to spiritual truths which flow from the Paschal Mystery. It is proclaiming Easter.
Matthew and City Life
Christianity was an urban phenomenon. Although the origins of the Christian movement in the ministry of Jesus were rooted in the rural soil of Galilee, the spread of the gospel took place in the urban centers of the ancient world. Because the Roman empire made easy travel possible, the early apostles gravitated quickly to the great cities of Antioch, Alexandria, Byzantium, and Rome. In those cities one would find people from all parts of the empire. A flourishing commercial climate allowed both goods and ideas to be exchanged. People were meeting and influencing each other on an unprecedented scale.
The city of Antioch in Syria is often suggested as the place where the Gospel of Matthew was written. Even though the suggestion cannot be proven, it is likely that Matthew was composed in a city much like Antioch. For there are aspects of the gospel which indicate an urban setting.
In describing the locations for his narrative, Matthew mentions a “city” twenty-six times. Mark, who Matthew uses as a source, only mentions a “city’ eight times. Matthew also seems to reflect the wealth of a great urban center. Both Luke and Matthew tell the parable of the servants who received from their master different amounts of money to invest (Matt 25:14-30; Luke 19:11-27). Yet in Matthew’s version the amounts that are entrusted to the servants are fifty times greater than the amounts in Luke. Throughout his gospel, Matthew mentions gold and silver more frequently than Mark and Luke together.
Wealth, however, is not the primary indication of Matthew’s urban setting. Even more convincing is the striking mix of ideas which we find in this gospel. For there is an obvious tension in Matthew’s narrative which is best explained if we see it flowing from the pluralistic setting of city life.
The Tension of Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew is not a homogenous gospel. It contains clear and definite statements which pull in opposite directions. Some statements seem to close the gospel off from those who are not Jewish (Gentiles). Other statements welcome Gentiles with open arms.
Several directives in Matthew’s gospel describe Jesus’ disciples as those who are to be different from the Gentiles. In Matt 5:47 the disciples of Jesus are told that if they only greeted members of their community, they would be doing no more than what the “Gentiles do.” In Matt 6:7 they are warned not to pray “as the Gentiles.” In Matt 6:32 they are told to be different from Gentiles who worry about material things. In Matt 20:25 they are told that they must not exercise authority as is the custom of Gentiles. In two places Matthew indicates that missionary efforts should not be addressed to Gentiles. When Jesus refuses to heal the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter, he tells her, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 15:24). When Jesus sends out the disciples to preach, he tells them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5-6).
Yet another group of statements in the gospel seems to include Gentiles within the community and its mission. In Matt 4:15-16 a quotation from Isaiah is used to describe Jesus’ mission as a light dawning upon the Gentiles. In Matt 12:18-21 another Isaiah passage associates Jesus as the Servant of Yahweh who will “proclaim justice to the Gentiles” and “in his name the Gentiles will hope.” The Magi of the infancy narrative portray Gentiles coming to worship Christ (Matt 2:1-12). The great commission which concludes the gospel announces that the good news is to be taught “to all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20).
How can we explain this tension within Matthew’s gospel? One plausible suggestion is that the gospel contains statements from different periods in the life of Matthew’s community. Jesus and all the early apostles were Jewish. The early Christian movement saw itself as a part of Judaism. In the early years after the resurrection, to be a disciple of Jesus entailed being Jewish as well. As Matthew’s community began its life, it was probably very tied to its Jewish roots, distinguishing itself from Gentiles and believing that its mission should be only to Jews. As time passed, however, things began to change. Gentiles were eager to follow Christ and Matthew’s community gradually opened itself to welcome them. The possibility that Matthew’s community was located in a great urban center such as Antioch would certainly facilitate this development. As Jews and Gentiles interacted in the economic, cultural, and civic dimensions of city life, the gospel of Christ could easily spread from Jews and take hold in Gentile hearts.
The Gospel of Matthew has preserved perspectives from different stages of its community’s history. The statements which limit the gospel mission only to Jews derive from its early years. Those which recognize a mission to all nations express the later stages of its history. Moreover, the decision to retain diverse attitudes from different periods is not only of literary significance. It also reveals a profound pastoral approach.
Matthew’s Pastoral Approach
Although Christianity began as a movement within Judaism, by the end of the first century it was standing as a religion in its own right, composed primarily of Gentiles. The mission to the Jews had largely failed. Gentiles had responded to the gospel in great numbers. In the late first century, a community such as Matthew’s would find itself composed of a small traditionalist core of Jews significantly outnumbered by an ever-growing contingent of Gentiles. In such a context it would have been easy for the conservative minority to dig in its heels and attempt to cut off further growth. It would also be understandable for the new majority of Gentiles to impose its will and silence the Jewish voice.
The pastoral approach of Matthew’s gospel attempts to discourage both of these one-sided strategies. The gospel opts for an inclusive approach, seeking to bridge the gap between a Jewish past and a Gentile future. It does not discard the traditions of the original Jewish perspective, but absorbs them into a new synthesis. By giving prominence to the moral teaching of the Torah and frequently inserting quotations from the Hebrew scriptures, the gospel assures the traditionalist minority that they have a place in a church becoming ever more Gentile.
Matthew might be describing himself when he provides a saying of Jesus found only in this gospel: “Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt 13:52). The new is brought out first, but the old is not thrown away.
The greatest gift of Matthew’s gospel to our church today may be its pastoral approach. Matthew holds together all the parts of the tradition so that all members of the community might recognize themselves in its narrative. Matthew’s vision is inclusive. It warns us about throwing out too easily that which is old. It teaches us to honor the minority voices and ideas which are no longer in vogue. Even as it orientates itself for the future, it still treasures what is valuable from the past.
In Matt 9:17 Jesus warns his disciples that if they pour new wine into old wineskins, the skins will burst and both the wine and the skins will be destroyed. That is why new wine should only be poured into new skins. At the end of this small parable Matthew adds that by doing this “both are preserved.” That comment summarizes Matthew’s pastoral attitude. The gospel strives to preserve both the new wine and the old wineskins. Such an orientation is not only a good way to write a gospel. It is a healthy and positive way for any community to live.
Even with a brief exposure to Matthew, it is clear that he has a skill in arranging things. We have seen how his gospel can be divided into five books and how each book consists of a narrative and discourse section. Breaking material down into clear groupings gives structure and symmetry to what could otherwise seem random information. The technique of numbering items was widely used in the Jewish scriptures and rabbinical traditions as a way of shaping instruction. It also served as a mnemonic device, allowing those who would learn God’s law to remember it more easily. In a society where few could read or keep written notes, learning was largely oral. The pattern of numbers could help the student recall what was important.
Matthew likes the numbers two and seven. Because we have Mark, we can see how Matthew often doubles a character found in his source. When Matthew tells Mark’s story of the demoniac (Mark 5:1-20), he turns the single demoniac into two (Matt 8:28-34). When Matthew relates the story of the blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-52), he drops his name and changes him to two blind men (Matt 20:29-34). Pushing the doubling further, he includes a second story of healing two blind men earlier in his gospel (Matt 9:27-31). This doubling tendency in Matthew has the effect of increasing the scope and impact of Jesus’ healing miracles.
The number seven is traditionally a number of completeness or taking an issue to the highest level. Matthew uses sevens in his gospel when he wishes to emphasize a particular aspect of his narrative. Seven demons illustrate the height of possession (Matt 12:45). Seven baskets of leftovers denote the fullness of God’s abundance (Matt 15:37). Saying that a woman was married seven times pushes the example to its widest extension (Matt 22:25). Pardoning your brother or sister seventy times seven times shows that there is no limit to forgiveness (Matt 18:21-22).
As you read the gospel be attentive to Matthew’s use of numbers. Ask yourself whether this effort to shape the gospel assists you in remembering the good news.
“We are the Church.” This slogan, which grew in popularity after the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, points to a major theme of Matthew’s Gospel. More explicitly than the other evangelists, Matthew situates his telling of Jesus’ life and mission around the formation of a community of disciples. Of course, no writer in the Christian Scriptures understands faith as an individualistic, me-and-Jesus, relationship. All authors in the Bible recognize that God deals with humanity through the establishment of a people, a network of lives joined together in a common call. Yet it is Matthew who regularly brings the issue of the faith community into the spotlight. Any careful reader of this gospel will recognize that Matthew’s Jesus is the Lord who founds a Church.
Ecclesial Aspects of Matthew
There are a number of ways in which Matthew focuses upon the reality of the Church. The most obvious is his adaptation of the event at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:13-20). Following Mark, his source, Matthew repeats Jesus’ questioning of the disciples over his identity and Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Messiah. After the profession, however, Matthew provides for us the only scene within the scriptures which describes Jesus establishing the Church: “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).
This verse is important not only for its content but also for its vocabulary. Here Matthew uses the word, “church” (in Greek, ekklesia). In the gospels this term occurs only in Matthew. It is used once in this verse and twice in Matt 18:17. The word is related to the Hebrew word for “assembly,” a group of people gathering for a specific purpose. Probably the most important such assembly in the Jewish tradition was the gathering before God on Mt. Horeb. There God sealed the covenant with Israel (Deut 4:10). Matthew’s use of “church” identifies an assembly of people standing in a new relationship with God through the saving activity of Jesus.
When we examine the use of the term “church” in the other place in Matthew where it occurs (18:17), another ecclesial aspect of this gospel emerges. Matthew is not only interested in describing the Church; he also desires to instruct it. Chapter 18 of the gospel is the discourse section of Book Four. This discourse serves as a kind of handbook for the community, providing guidance on how the church is to live until Christ returns. Matthew describes how leadership should be exercised (verses 1-5); how scandal should be avoided (verses 6-9); how the weak in the community are to be treated (verses 10-14); how disputes should be settled (verses 15-20); and how there can be no limits on forgiveness (verses 21-35).
Although the ecclesial orientation is clearest in chapter 18, the teaching of Jesus in every discourse of the gospel is directed to the Church. By inserting Jesus’ teaching throughout his narrative, Matthew has provided specific instruction for every member of the Church.
Four Qualities of Church Life
When Matthew’s teaching is examined, what kind of a church does it envision? Drawing primarily from chapter 18, we discover a church which is humble, forgiving, responsive, and confident.
Being Humble. Humility must characterize the true disciple and especially anyone charged with authority. When Jesus’ disciples ask him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, he puts a child in their midst and says that they must become like children (Matt 18:1-5). The society of Jesus’ time did not espouse a romantic notion of childhood. Becoming like a child did not imply being sweet, innocent, or loving. In the ancient world children were the property of their fathers. Their status, education, and even existence rested upon their father’s good will. To be a child was to be one who was dependent. In order to be great in the kingdom of God, Matthew believes that disciples must recognize their complete dependence on God. The power of the Church is God’s power. Those who humbly claim their true status as children of God allow God’s presence to infuse the community.
Because God’s strength is primary, Matthew is unafraid to expose the weakness of the Church. Not all prophets are true (Matt 7:15). Even the great “rock,” Peter can be rebuked (Matt 16:22-23) and can fall (Matt 26:69-75). Matthew describes the Church as a mixed reality. It is a field which includes both wheat and weeds (Matt 13:36-43); a net which contains both good and bad (Matt 13:47-50); a wedding banquet at which some are improperly dressed (Matt 22:11-14); a gathering composed of both sheep and goats (Matt 25:31-46). This mixed nature of the community warns all members that their status is dependent on God’s mercy. There is no place for pride or self aggrandizement. If the Church is to be faithful to its calling, it must be humble.
Being Forgiving. The Church must always forgive. Because the humble status of every believer is dependent on God’s mercy, all are called to extend mercy to others. Matthew concludes the discourse of chapter 18 with the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt 18:23-35). He introduces the parable with a dialogue between Peter and Jesus discussing how often must a disciple forgive a brother or sister (Matt 18:21-22). Luke has a similar saying in his gospel wherein Jesus teaches that we must forgive seven times (Luke 17:4). Matthew raises the bar. His version insists that we must forgive “seventy times seven.” In Matthew’s math, this adds up to unlimited forgiveness.
The parable tells us why. No matter how much forgiveness we are asked to extend to another, God has shown us more. The amount which the servant owed to his master (ten thousand talents) was an astronomical amount, about one billion dollars. The amount which a fellow servant owed to him (one hundred denarii) was a few months wages. By presenting this vast difference in amounts, the parable insists that if we appreciate the mercy which has been shown to us, our only option is to forgive others.
The parable of the unforgiving servant is found only in Matthew’s gospel. It is possible that Matthew composed it himself to emphasize the importance of forgiveness. He also stresses forgiveness by including an additional saying after the Lord’s prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. In 6:14-15 he rephrases the prayer’s petition on forgiveness so that no one could miss its importance: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” In light of the mercy God has shown to us, all disciples must forgive their brothers and sisters.
Being Responsive. Matthew calls his church to be responsive, particularly to the weakest members of the community. If forgiveness describes how we must act towards those who offend us, responsiveness points out how we must act towards those who need us. Four times within his gospel, Matthew refers to the “little ones” (10:42; 18:6, 10, 14). This phrase describes the lowest members of the community. The little ones are the poor, the marginalized, the unpopular. They have no power or influence. They struggle to be accepted. They fight to survive.
Whereas people would normally avoid such people, Matthew insists that our responsiveness to them is the measure of our connection to Christ. Our smallest action of service to them—even offering a cup of water—will lead to our lasting reward (Matt 10:42). If our indifference to their needs were to lead them to stumble, it would be better that we would be drowned in the sea (Matt 18:6). God is constantly concerned over the fate of the little ones. If we refuse to respond to them, their guardian angels will convey our lack of care to our Father in heaven (Matt 18:10). Just as the shepherd seeks out the lost sheep, it is God’s will that the little ones be protected, that none of them be lost (Matt 18:11-14).
It is the Church which must be attentive to the little ones. The consequences for ignoring this responsibility are fatal. The powerful judgment scene of Matthew’s gospel is a warning to the Church. Our eternal fate depends upon what we do to the little ones, to the least members of the community. Moreover, from Christ’s viewpoint, the judgment is personal. For Christ has identified himself with the little ones. What we do to them, we do to him (Matt 25:40, 45).
Being Confident. Matthew challenges his church to be humble, forgiving, and responsive. These are real and difficult demands. To live up to them could at times seem overwhelming. How is the disciple to meet such expectations? Only with the presence of Christ. In the center of his discourse in chapter 18, Jesus reminds us of the source of our strength: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (18:20).
Lest the importance of Christ’s presence be overlooked, Matthew has carefully framed his entire gospel with this theme. In the first chapter he singles out the good news of Jesus’ birth by noting that the child will be named Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” (1:23). In the very last verse of the gospel, the risen Christ assures his community with the pledge, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20).
Yes, Christ expects a humble, forgiving, and responsive Church, and we are weak. Yet we can still be confident. Despite all of the flaws which would derail our progress, Christ’s presence in the community gives us hope. The demands of discipleship can be taken up. Because Christ is with us, the yoke of service is easy, the burden of the gospel is light.
A Church of Good Works
As a humble, forgiving, responsive, and confident Church follows Christ, Matthew’s gospel encourages a proper relationship between God’s grace and our works. All Christians believe that salvation is a free gift of God. We can never merit such a gift. Had not God chosen to grace us with a relationship through Christ we could never attain eternal life. Because the grace of God is so primary, some Christian theologies have denigrated the value of our good works. They suggest that our efforts to do good only tempt us to boast in our own merit and to claim that we have somehow earned salvation. In their worst form, these theologies have called such works legalism and have placed such human striving at the center of Judaism. Thus Jews are sometimes characterized as a people who seek to control their relationship to God on the basis of doing the works of the law.
Matthew knew better. Steeped in the Jewish tradition, he understood that the heart of Judaism was God’s free choice of Israel. He also appreciated that the presence of such a gift required a human response. Jews were to respond to God’s choice by following the law, the Torah. The law, however, had to be interpreted. Matthew believed that it was Jesus’ interpretation of the law which would guide his community in the proper response to God. Far from being a way to earn salvation, following Jesus’ teachings was the essential way of accepting the gift which was given.
Because Matthew is secure in the primacy of God’s grace, he boldly asserts that the teachings of Jesus must be followed, that the good works which they outline must be done. He insists that it is not the one who says “Lord, Lord” who will enter the kingdom of heaven but the one who does the will of the Father (Matt 7:21). He ends the Sermon on the Mount by saying that the one who wishes to build his or her house on rock must not only hear his words but act on them (Matt 7:24-27). The ultimate measure of a life is not what we think or say but what in fact we do (Matt 25:31-46). The final instruction of the risen Christ to his church is that it must teach all nations to obey all his teachings (Matt 28:18-20).
Actively doing what God demands is called righteousness. At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus consents to John’s baptism because he feels it will allow him to “fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). The Church is blessed because it hungers and thirsts for righteousness and is willing to suffer persecution for the sake of righteousness (Matt 5:6, 10). The righteousness of Matthew’s community must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt 5:20). Such righteousness is attained by following Jesus’ interpretation of the law. This is why Matthew is so insistent that the works which Jesus teaches must be done.
Doing such works bind us to Jesus and respond to the free gift which is given. They do not serve as a basis for pride but in fact point to God the source of all good. Matthew is clear that the righteousness which we seek is not our own. We are charged to seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness (Matt 6:33). Our light is to shine before others so that they might see our good works and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt 5:16).
In Matthew, Jesus forms a righteous Church. His teachings lay out the proper response to God’s grace, and it is imperative that his disciples put them into practice. The importance Matthew gives to the works of the Church does not negate God’s free choice. Rather it insists that our actions are essential—not because they earn us salvation, but because they demonstrate that we are children of God.
We do not often hear chapter 23 of Matthew’s gospel. This is fortunate. The chapter is a lengthy and negative attack against the Pharisees. The Sunday lectionary utilizes only one small section of the chapter and it is from its calmest verses (Matt 23:1-12; the 31st Sunday of Year A). Therefore, the person reading through Matthew’s gospel can well be surprised and shocked to encounter the array of derogatory claims hurled against the Pharisees. Just to sample a few, Jesus calls them hypocrites, children of hell, blind fools, serpents, brood of vipers, and those sentenced to hell.
Just how bad were the Pharisees? What motivated Jesus to attack them so viciously? Even if they seriously harmed him or his mission, why did he not follow his earlier teaching in the gospel and love his enemies (Matt 5:44)? In order to understand this difficult chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we must first appreciate its historical setting and the purpose for the attacks.
Historical Setting: The Struggle Over the Inheritance
The violent attacks of chapter 23 reflect Matthew’s historical situation rather that the circumstances of Jesus’ ministry. During Jesus’ life Judaism was a thriving religious community characterized by a variety of groups or sects. There were Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Haberim, followers of John the Baptist, and those who followed Jesus. Although these groups disagreed over many aspects of their heritage, they recognized each other as fellow Jews and coexisted around the common symbol of the temple in Jerusalem.
With the destruction of the temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., Judaism was thrown into a crisis. Each group struggled to adapt to the new circumstances. Only two Jewish groups were successful in developing a strategy which has lasted to the present day: Pharisaic Jews and Christian Jews. Pharisaic Jews reformed the tradition around their interpretation of the Torah and became the forerunners of modern Judaism. Christian Jews shaped the tradition around the person and teaching of Jesus, even as they began to accept a growing number of Gentile converts.
Matthew’s community, with its strong Jewish heritage and openness to Gentiles, marks an early stage of this Christian development. As Matthew wrote his gospel, the temple was in ruins and the most active other Jewish group was the Pharisees. Both Matthew’s community and the Pharisees were offspring of the Judaism which flourished at the time of Jesus. The family ties which connected them, however, did not insure harmony. Like children fighting over their deceased mother’s china, each believed that the inheritance should belong to them. The intensity and anger which is reflected in chapter 23 of Matthew results from this conflict.
During Jesus’ ministry, this kind of active aggression did not exist. In fact the teachings of Jesus suggest many connections with those of the Pharisees. Both emphasized God as a loving Father, the resurrection of the dead, and a flexible interpretation of the law. These similarities have even led some scholars to suggest that Jesus was himself a Pharisee. Although such a thesis probably pushes the relationship too far, it is unlikely that the antagonism of chapter 23 of Matthew reflects Jesus’ interaction with the Pharisees during his ministry. Therefore, even though the gospel places the attacks against the Pharisees in the mouth of Jesus, it is much more likely that the attitudes and words are really those of Matthew and his community as they struggled against the Pharisees after the destruction of the temple.
The Purpose of the Attacks: Identifying the “Other”
Having situated the attacks of chapter 23 in the context of Matthew’s community, it is useful to appreciate their purpose. Violent verbal attacks against another group is called polemical rhetoric. Such language served a particular function in the ancient world. It identified a particular group as “the other,” strongly separating such a group “from us.” By using polemical rhetoric, a writer would strive to move his readers away from the group which was being vilified. The verbal attacks would identify the other as an undesirable option and encourage the reader to remain in the group to which he or she already belonged. The polemic sought to destroy the social presence of one’s competitor and thereby build up a positive identity within the attacking group.
Polemical rhetoric suits Matthew’s agenda. In the struggle with the Pharisees over the inheritance of Judaism, Matthew’s verbal attacks upon them seeks to render them an inappropriate option for his readers. The polemic claims: “They” do not have the true approach to the tradition; “we” do.
In light of this, one cannot approach such polemic in order to derive an accurate description of the Pharisees as they really were. Since the purpose of this polemic is to identify the Pharisees as the opponents of Matthew’s community, facts do not influence the language. Charges of seeking the places of honor (Matt 23:5-8), leading their converts to evil (Matt 23:15), or extortion (Matt 23:25) do not necessarily describe actual Pharisees. The very overstatement of Matthew’s rhetoric should make this clear. No matter what they may have done, how could the Pharisees possibly bear the responsibility for “all the righteous blood shed on earth” (Matt 23:35)! Matthew’s attacks upon the Pharisees simply tag them as his adversaries.
This function can be illustrated by examining the most prevalent charge Matthew throws against the Pharisees: hypocrisy (Matt 23: 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, 29). We understand hypocrisy as a lack of correspondence between what is said and what is actually done. Although the charges in a few verses seem like hypocrisy (Matt 3, 25-27), most of Matthew’s descriptions of the Pharisees’ actions do not. For example, misusing converts seems more like abuse than hypocrisy, and tithing seems more a matter of greed (Matt 23: 15, 23). These inconsistencies in Matthew’s attack reveal to us that the purpose of such charges are not to describe what the Pharisees actually do but only that they are Matthew’s opponents.
In other words, “hypocrite” is a tag which identifies an opposition group. A vivid and comical example of this can be found in another Christian writing, the Didache. The author of this work uses “hypocrite” as polemical rhetoric when he says: “Let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, who fast on Mondays and Thursdays; rather should you fast on Wednesdays and Fridays” (Didache 8:1). Why are the author’s opponents hypocrites? Because they fast on different days than he does!
Once we appreciate the nature of polemical rhetoric, we realize that chapter 23 of Matthew does not provide an objective description of Pharisees in the first century. There is no reason for us to conclude from this chapter that Pharisees were more hypocritical or iniquitous than any other religious group of their time. They were simply in a struggle with Matthew’s community.
Understanding all this, we must still face the reality that abusive language, denigrating the forerunners of modern Judaism, remains in our scriptures. Its presence in our sacred texts should stand as a powerful reminder of our responsibility to approach other religious groups with openness rather than polemic. Our faith is rooted in the same soil as that of the Pharisees. That faith calls us to repudiate the violent attacks which Matthew heaps upon them. The violence of Matthew’s words may shock us, but they should also motivate us to insist that name-calling and stereotyping are not compatible with the gospel we profess.
“If it bleeds, it leads.” This cardinal rule of media promotion can be verified by any consumer of current events. Stories of murder, assassination, and conflict make the front pages of newspapers, the covers of magazines, and the first stories on the evening news. People are immediately interested in violence. Nothing seizes our attention like blood.
Unless it’s money. When it comes to power and corruption, we assume that money is involved. “Follow the money” was the tip which eventually unraveled the Watergate conspiracy. When huge sums of dollars are exchanged, when under-the-table transactions are exposed, we are riveted to the story. Few things interest us as much as money.
Unless it is the paranormal. Events we cannot explain intrigue us and fuel discussion. Occurrences which contradict the rules of science or reason demand our attention. The popularity of such shows as The X-Files and Unsolved Mysteries illustrate the ongoing hunger for what is unusual. The paranormal sells. Its claims engender immediate interest.
Blood, money, and the paranormal spur instant curiosity. They are the bread and butter of any storyteller and a boon for any promoter. Yet many readers of the Bible are surprised to discover that Matthew’s passion account contains a strain of material characterized by these three elements. This article will identify this material, suggest its origin, and evaluate its dangers and benefits.
Matthew’s Unique Material and Its Origins
There are five scenes in Matthew’s passion account which are unique to his gospel. When they are read together, it becomes obvious that they are characterized by an interest in blood, money, and the paranormal.
1. The Death of Judas (Matt 27:3-10)
27:3 When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. 27:4 He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 27:5 Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. 27:6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” 27:7 After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. 27:8 For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 27:9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, 27:10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
2. Pilate’s Wife’s Dream (Matt 27:19)
27:19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.”
3. Pilate Washes His Hands (Matt 27:24-25)
27:24 So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 27:25 Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
4. After Jesus’ Death (Matt 27:51b-53)
27:51 . . . The earth shook, and the rocks were split. 27:52 The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 27:53 After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.
5. The Plot to Deny the Resurrection (Matt 27:62-66, 28:2-4, 11-15)
[27:62-66—The chief priests receive permission from Pilate to set a guard at Jesus’ tomb lest his disciples steal the body and claim that he has been raised up.] . . .28:2 And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 28:3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 28:4 For fear of him the guards shook and became like dead men. . . . 28:11 While they were going, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests everything that had happened. 28:12 After the priests had assembled with the elders, they devised a plan to give a large sum of money to the soldiers, 28:13 telling them, “You must say, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 28:14 If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 28:15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story is still told among the Jews to this day.
Notice how the theme of blood characterizes scenes 1 and 3 with Judas claiming he has betrayed “innocent blood” and hanging himself, with the chief priests buying the “Field of Blood,” with Pilate saying he is “innocent of this man’s blood,” and with the people saying “his blood be upon us and our children.” Money influences scenes 1 and 5 with Judas being paid “thirty pieces of silver,” and with “a large sum of money” financing the plot to cover up the resurrection. The paranormal emerges in scenes 2, 4, and 5 with Pilate’s wife’s eerie dream, with the earthquake and the dead being raised, and with the angel descending and rendering the guards immobile with fear. Scene 1 is particularly effective in tying together two of these themes with the penetrating phrase “blood money.”
What can we suggest as to the origins of this unusual material? It is likely that Matthew has drawn these sections of his gospel from a popular storytelling source. Such a source differs considerably from the most common gospel material. Most of the material which we have in the gospels is intended to serve the Church’s mission of evangelization. Narratives of Jesus’ ministry were told in such a way as to assist preachers in proclaiming the Good News. But storytelling material seems to have been shaped for a different purpose: to address peripheral questions which engaged the imagination of believers. Instead of focusing on faith or salvation, these stories examined marginal questions such as “Whatever happened to Judas?” and “What did Pilate’s wife think about Jesus?” When these early Christian storytellers composed their narratives, their primary concern was not what was the Good News but what would make a good story.
It is likely that the unique material in Matthew’s passion account originates from such a storytelling source. Its interest in blood, money, and the paranormal betrays its desire to grab your attention. It stoops to the most basic human impulses to do so. This low-brow, “Jerry-Springer,” dimension of Matthew’s passion account might surprise the pious reader. However, it demonstrates how the early Church was composed of real people who were moved by the same human instincts which influence us today.
The Dangers of Matthew’s Storytelling Source
When we interpret the material in Matthew’s storytelling source, we should be dubious concerning its historical accuracy. We believe that there is historical information in the gospels. However, storytelling material is not the place to find it. The aim of the storyteller was not to report objectively “what happened” but to narrate a story which would engage the listener. Embellishments were many. Where information was lacking, dramatic scenes could be created.
The death of Judas can be used to illustrate this point. The storytelling source in Matthew tells us that Judas “hanged himself” (Matt 27:5). The Book of Acts reports that Judas died when he fell and his bowels bust open (1:17). In the second century Papias, an early Father of the Church, reports that Judas died from pus and worms which flowed from every part of his body. The differences in these accounts indicate that the early Church did not really know how Judas died. But popular interest in the fate of the man who betrayed Jesus spurred storytellers to create a variety of narratives to show that he died a terrible death.
Distrusting the accuracy of Matthew’s storytelling source is especially important when we recognize another characteristic of this material: it is anti-Jewish. Scenes 1 and 5 associate the Jewish leadership with the lowest motives of bribing Judas and covering up the resurrection. With its famous “blood curse,” scene 3 has perhaps the most tragic history of any scene in the scriptures. It has fueled the belief that the Jewish people are responsible for Jesus’ death. Even though the Second Vatican Council clearly repudiated this understanding (Nostra Aetate, #4), millions of Christians continue to believe it. Understanding how Matt 27:24-25 is the work of a dramatic storyteller rather than an objective historian can assist us in avoiding the false conclusion that the Jewish people are responsible for Jesus’ blood.
The Benefits of Matthew’s Storytelling Source
What benefits can be drawn from this unique material in Matthew? Two possibilities come to mind. The emphasis on money confirms a saying of Jesus which Matthew has recorded earlier in his gospel: “You cannot serve God and wealth” (Matt 6:24). Matthew’s source associates money with corruption and warns us that if we make money our master, we lose our very selves.
The second benefit is connected with the theme of blood. Someone must claim responsibility for Jesus’ innocent blood. Judas does not want it. Neither do the temple authorities or Pilate. The story can only proceed when the people accept it. Once we stop reading the story as an historical account of who killed Jesus, a moral lesson emerges. Innocent blood cannot be shed without someone taking responsibility. Whenever innocent life is lost in our world because of poverty, greed, hatred, or indifference, we are not free to absolve ourselves from involvement. The gospel calls us to be the ones who say, “Let the blood be upon us.” We are responsible for each other.
Here then is a truth that can flow from Matthew’s low-brow popular source. It might be violent, biased, and sensationalistic. But it can still offer Good News.
It is a tremendous advantage when we understand that Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as one of the sources for his gospel. There is a firm consensus among biblical scholars that as Matthew composed his account of the ministry and passion of Jesus, he had a copy of Mark’s gospel before him. Since we also have Mark’s gospel, we are able to reconstruct what parts of it Matthew chose to include or omit. Even more valuable is our ability to identify sections of Matthew’s gospel which are not found in Mark, for these sections highlight ideas and themes which Matthew specifically wanted to include within his proclamation.
Knowing Matthew’s compositional strategy reveals an important theme within his account of Jesus’ death. The description of Jesus’ last moments takes place in Matt 27:45-54. When compared to Mark’s account of the same scene (Mark 15:33-39), it becomes obvious that Matthew is following Mark very closely. Using almost identical wording as Mark, Matthew describes how darkness covered the land from noon to three o’clock (verse 45), how Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (verse 46), how the bystanders thought he was calling Elijah and offered him sour wine (verses 47-49), how Jesus utters a loud cry and dies (verse 50), how the curtain in the temple was torn in two (verse 51), and how the centurion proclaims “Truly this man was God’s son!” (verse 54). What also becomes clear is that immediately after he recounts the tearing of the temple curtain, Matthew adds a section of material which is found only in his gospel (verses 51b-53): “The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
Matthew has included an earthquake, the opening of tombs, and the raising of the dead who enter the holy city, Jerusalem. Obviously these verses were important to Matthew, for he chose to add them to Mark’s account which read very well without them. What was he trying to say through them, and how do they assist us in living the gospel in our own lives?
We do not have any personal correspondence of Matthew, no letters or journal entries, which might explain his motivation for adding these unique verses to his account of Jesus’ death. We must surmise what led him to insert them. Yet his purposes can be reasonably established when we examine the import of his imagery and the chronological pattern he chose.
The Import of Matthew’s Imagery
The imagery contained in these dramatic verses can only be properly understood when we appreciate the Hebrew scriptures. As we have seen elsewhere in our study of this gospel, Matthew knows the Jewish scriptures well and often draws upon them to tell the story of Jesus.
Throughout the Hebrew Bible earthquakes and the splitting of rocks are a sign of God’s activity in the world. When God exercises judgment and saving power, God’s might is reflected in the shaking of the earth. In the Song of Deborah, God is described as fighting for Israel. As God approaches, “the earth trembled” (Judg 5:4). As God comes to answer David’s prayer, “the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations of the earth trembled and quaked” (2 Sam 22:8). The prophet Nahum knows that when God appears “the mountains quake before him . . . by him the rocks are broken in pieces” (Nah 1:5-6).
These images from the Jewish scriptures argue that when God chooses to act in our history, the earth is not indifferent. It recognizes God’s presence by trembling. Matthew knows this imagery and uses it in a number of places in his gospel. When Jesus stills the storm in Matt 8:23-27, Matthew does not use the usual word for “squall” which Mark uses, but the word for “earthquake” (verse 24). When Matthew describes the signs that will indicate the end of the world, he includes “earthquakes” among the signs of God’s arrival (Matt 24:7). Most clearly when Mary Magdalene comes to see Jesus’ tomb, there is a great earthquake as an angel of the Lord descends from heaven and rolls back the stone and sits on it (Matt 28:2).
Both in the Hebrew scriptures and in Matthew’s gospel we are to understand the shaking of the earth as a sign that Gods is near and active. Thus Matthew draws our attention to an earthquake at Jesus’ death to insist that as Jesus breathes his last, God is not absent but present.
However, why is God present? To answer this question we must examine another set of images in Matthew’s unique material: the opening of tombs and the raising of the dead. Again here the meaning of this imagery can be discovered in the Hebrew Bible. Matthew certainly knew of the famous passage in the prophet Ezekiel when God responds to the complaint of Israel that all her hope was lost: “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people” (Ezek 37:12-13). By joining the earthquake to the raising of the dead, Matthew not only insists that God was present at the death of Jesus but that God was present to give life and joy.
Matthew’s Chronological Pattern
To appreciate Matthew’s intention in adding Matt 27:51b-23 to the account of Jesus’ death, we must not only understand the meaning of the imagery but also the particular chronology of the narrative.
Verse 52 is peculiar because its precise chronology can be debated. Are we to understand the raising of the dead to be happening at the same time as the earthquake, that is at the time of Jesus’ death? If that is the case then a strange scenario emerges. Verse 53 tells us that after Jesus’ resurrection, those who were raised came out of their tombs and entered the holy city. If they were raised when Jesus died, then we must picture them patiently sitting in their tombs until Easter morning! It is therefore better to read verse 52 as taking place after Jesus’ resurrection. Thus after Jesus was raised the tombs of others were opened, they came out of them and entered the holy city.
With this understanding we discover a dramatic break in the chronology of Matthew’s narrative. Immediately after telling us of the earthquake, he chooses to relate an event which will happen in the future: the raising of the dead. This is a well-used technique of storytelling. We are probably most accustomed to it cinematically. Frequently in a movie we are presented with a “flashback” of events which happened earlier in the lives of the characters. Sometimes we are also offered a “flash forward” to events which are yet to come. Matthew seems to be using this “flash forward” technique. The good news of Jesus’ resurrection is that since Jesus has been raised up, we too will experience the resurrection from the dead (1 Cor 15:20). Matthew chooses to present the benefits of Jesus’ resurrection, the raising of the dead, out of chronological order. Instead of waiting until Easter morning, he tells us at the very moment of Jesus’ death that the tombs will be opened after Jesus is raised.
We have now reconstructed a responsible explanation for Matthew’s insertion of unique material into account of Jesus death. By drawing our attention to an earthquake, Matthew insists that the power of God was active as Jesus gave up his life. By flashing forward to the time after Jesus’ resurrection, Matthew proclaims that the same power of God will not only raise Jesus to new life but also gift believers with life eternal. By reminding us of what God’s power will achieve at the darkest point of the narrative, Matthew powerfully connects Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even though he will tell the events at the empty tomb in their proper order, he cannot wait. In the first moments after Jesus dies Matthew is already proclaiming the good news that is to come.
How Matthew’s Insertion Affects Us
Matthew’s purpose in inserting Matt 27:51b-53 into his gospel provides a spiritual technique which we may adopt as we struggle with the difficulties of life. Every day brings its challenges. A spouse may disappoint us or we may encounter a serious disagreement with a friend. We may deal with the consequences of a poor decision by our children or face a situation at work which is unjust. Some days bring even greater troubles: a serious illness, the painful rupture of divorce, the loss of a loved one in death.
In these moments of darkness our faith tells us that God’s promises to us are still intact. We believe that in time God will lead us out of the disappointment or disagreement, through the poor decision or unjust situation. We live in hope that illness, divorce, and death will not have the final word, that God has a plan to lead us to life.
Yet the spiritual technique that Matthew offers us can take us farther. If Matthew broke the chronology of his narrative to proclaim the good news of resurrection even as Jesus died on the cross, we are invited to follow the same redirection of time. At the very moment that life challenges us, we can do more than wait for better days. Like Matthew we can flash forward to the positive resolution which God has promised us. Even as we grapple with the problem, we can proclaim the solution. In our sickness we can claim our ultimate life. In our brokenness we can picture ourselves whole again. In our grief we can visualize a time when we will shout for joy. All will come to pass in God’s time, but we need not wait for it to happen before we claim it. Like Matthew who proclaimed Easter on Good Friday, in our darkest moments we can flash forward to glory.
All the evangelists depend upon the Jewish scriptures. All believed that the God who was the Father of Jesus was the same God who inspired Moses and the prophets. When the traditions which the gospel writers were using came up short, when their sources lacked details, the evangelists turned to the Hebrew Bible to fill in the spaces.
In his description of Jesus’ death, Mark draws heavily from the Psalms. When it came to Jesus’ last words, Mark turned to Psalm 22 and placed its opening verse on Jesus’ lips, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34). In Psalm 22:8 the enemies of the psalmist mock him “shaking their heads.” Mark has the passersby act in the same way towards Jesus (Mark 15:29). The guards on Calvary act out the psalmist’s complaint that his enemies “divide my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots” (Ps 22:19; Mark 15:24).
Matthew adds to Mark’s references. Knowing that the mocking and shaking of heads comes from Ps 22:8, Matthew adds the words of the mockery found in Ps 22:9: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now if he wants to” (Matt 27:43). Mark reports that they offered Jesus “wine mixed with myrrh” which was a drug to kill the pain (Mark 15:23). Matthew has Jesus offered “wine mixed with gall” (Matt 27:34). This changes the drink from a drug to an act of mockery similar to the one directed to the psalmist who is offered wine and gall (Ps 69:22).
This use of scripture by the evangelists might seem arbitrary to us. But it conveyed to them a profound truth. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection were a part of the same plan of salvation revealed in the Jewish scriptures (see Matt 26:56).
As you read through Matthew’s gospel, watch the footnotes in your bible indicating the many references to the Hebrew scriptures. Your appreciation of the narration will deepen as you realize what is written between the lines.
Matthew 1:1-17—The Genealogy of Jesus
The beginning of Matthew’s gospel does not look very promising. A genealogy containing dozens of unusual names seems both academic and dry. Yet a careful reading will yield an important spiritual insight.
The predominately male names of the genealogy are broken with the names of five women. What these women have in common is that all of them gave birth in unusual and often scandalous circumstances. Tamar (verse 3) disguised herself as a harlot in order to conceive through her father-in-law (Gen 38). Rahab (verse 5) was a prostitute (Josh 2:1). Ruth (verse 5) was a Moabite and was held in contempt by Jews. Her offspring were seen as impure to the tenth generation (Deut 23:4). The wife of Uriah (verse 6) was Bathsheba. She had an adulterous union with David (2 Sam 11). Mary (verse 16) conceived Jesus without Joseph’s involvement which caused Joseph to consider divorcing her (Matt 1:19).
One would expect that Jesus could claim a pure pedigree. Yet Matthew begins his gospel by including dubious and unorthodox ancestors in Jesus’ lineage. He does not intend to denigrate the position of Jesus by these additions, but rather to demonstrate the supreme power of God’s grace.
God writes straight with crooked lines. God uses what we consider unworthy to further the divine plan. Looking back upon failures and disappointments, we can often recognize the action of God moving our lives towards the good. Pulling together all the successes and mistakes, all the hope and despair, all the beauty and ugliness of our history, we would expect to find a random heap of confusion. Instead we discover a genealogy for the Messiah.
Reflection: Looking back on my life, where do I see God at work? Has something which I felt was a disaster ever led to a blessing?
Prayer: God of Mystery, I believe that you guide my life. Lead me through my disappointments and failures. Show me the way to life.
Matthew 1:18-25—Joseph’s Dreams
Matthew shows particular interest in the title “son of David.” He uses it eleven times, more than any other evangelist. It is always used as a title for Jesus, with one exception. Here in the infancy narrative it is given to Joseph. The angel who appears to Joseph addresses him as “son of David” (verse 20).
The honor of this title indicates the importance of Joseph in Matthew’s gospel. He stands at the center of the infancy narrative. The actual birth of Jesus is described in only one verse (verse 25). The majority of the narrative involves Joseph’s struggle to understand the manner of the birth and to protect the child from the clutches of Herod. Through all of these events God speaks to Joseph in dreams. In a dream he understands that Mary conceived through the Holy Spirit (verses 20-21); that he must flee to Egypt (Matt 2:13); and that it was safe to return to the land of Israel (Matt 2:19-20). Clearly Matthew wishes to present Joseph as a man guided by God.
Yet dreams are elusive experiences. How is one to tell whether a dream is to be trusted? Matthew answers this question by showing us the goodness of Joseph. In a few carefully chosen words, his character is set. We are told he is a “righteous man,” but more importantly we sense his sensitivity and generosity as he decides to spare Mary public disgrace (verse 19). Matthew is telling us that if we wish to discern God’s will, goodness is more important than cleverness. We will understand God’s ways if our hearts are pure.
Reflection: Who do I know whose goodness allows them to see clearly? When have I been able to recognize God’s action because of the love I bear for others?
Prayer: Dear Lord, it is not always easy to discern your will in my life. When my mind is confused, guide me through your love.
Matthew 2:1-12—The Magi
The story of the Magi has been influenced by a story in the Hebrew scriptures. In chapters 22-24 of the Book of Numbers an evil king named Balak desires to prevent Moses and the Israelites from settling in the promised land. So he calls upon a seer named Balaam to curse Israel. Yet every time Balaam tries to open his mouth against Israel, only blessings come forth. In his most famous oracle, Balaam says that “a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17).
Although we talk of the three “kings,” Matthew calls them “magi,” a word close to our “magician.” Magi were astrologers and experts in dreams and secret arts. Thus they were in the same profession as Balaam. Moreover, both Balaam and the Magi came from the east and made use of a star. But the most important connection between these two stories is that both Balaam and the Magi frustrate the evil plans of a king. Balaam foils the plan of Balak to curse Israel. The Magi resist the plan of Herod to destroy the Christ child.
We can often feel helpless as we face the powerful forces of our world. What difference can an ordinary person make when the desires of corporations and the policies of governments seem opposed to what is just? For all of its beauty, the story of the Magi is a story of integrity and resistance. Moral choices are significant. The political power of Herod was enormous. The Magi’s choice to disregard his request demonstrates more than courage. It shows that those who worship Christ must be willing to do what is right.
Reflection: When have I had to face a difficult moral decision? Did my commitment to Christ give me guidance in what I should do?
Prayer: God of Justice, I know that there are many forces I cannot control. Never allow me to think that the choices I make for good or evil do not matter.
Matthew 2:13-23—The Weeping of Rachel
Yes, the Magi refuse to cooperate with Herod, and the Christ child escapes to Egypt. But Herod, though cheated, is not powerless. He orders the death of all children around Bethlehem who were under two years of age. Christ is born, but violence continues. Why does Matthew include this brutal scene in his account of Jesus’ birth? In the feature article of this issue, I argue that the violence in this scene anticipates the violence of Jesus’ passion. It also, however, reflects our situation. Even though we claim the victory of Christ in his resurrection, we still wait his final coming when all evil will be destroyed. Until Christ returns, we must live with evil.
How do we proclaim the good news of our faith when violence, hatred, and death surround us? Matthew gives us the first essential step. In the middle of his Christmas story he presents the figure of Rachel “weeping for her children . . . because they are no more” (verse 18). To attack evil we must first recognize its presence. We must grieve. The greatest encouragement to the evil in our world is not hatred but indifference. As long as we remain in denial over the evil around us, we can take no steps to oppose it.
Matthew tells us that Rachel, who is presented as wailing in Bethlehem, wept so loudly that her cries were heard in Ramah, a village some six miles away. Throughout our world other mothers continue to weep because their children are the victims of poverty, sickness, and war. Before we can help them, we must grieve with them. We must hear their cries.
Reflection: When has the suffering of another person led me to compassion? How has denial prevented me from loving another in need?
Prayer: Jesus, you wept when you faced the death of your friend Lazarus. Allow me to see how the pain I feel in another’s sorrow can open my heart to your grace.
Matthew 3:1-17—Going Public at the Baptism
With the settling of the Holy Family in Nazareth, Matthew ends his infancy narrative. He now begins the narrative section of the first book of his gospel. (See the introduction.) Matthew is following Mark in these verses, and begins Jesus’ public ministry with John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism.
Because we have Mark, we can discover how Matthew has changed his source to create this baptism scene. Mark throughout his gospel attempts to keep the identity of Jesus secret until his passion. Thus at his baptism, the voice from heaven which announces Jesus’ status as a Son is directed to Jesus alone: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Matthew has already announced Jesus’ status as son in his infancy narrative (Matt 2:15). He has no interest in keeping Jesus’ identity quiet. Therefore, he changes Mark’s words from the second to the third person: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (verse 17). A private communication has become a public announcement.
There is a spiritual message in Matthew’s alteration. Jesus’ ministry begins with his baptism. That work is meant to proclaim the good news of God’s love. If we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, we must be willing to let others know of our status as daughters and sons of God. It is not enough that we are privately comforted by the knowledge of God’s care for us. We must “go public” with who we are. False humility does not promote the kingdom. When people recognize God’s love in us, the gospel comes alive and our work of evangelization begins.
Reflection: Am I reluctant to share God’s love for me with others? What gifts do I have which, if shared, would lead others to Christ?
Prayer: Father, I believe you love me as your child. May my joy in your presence so infuse me that others will be drawn to your light.
Matthew 4:1-11—Tuning the Devil Out
Jesus’ is not the only voice we hear. As we make our way through life, many voices call out to us, inviting us to follow their direction. Matthew seems to have our situation in mind as he presents this scene of Jesus’ testing by the devil. In all the gospels, only in this scene and its parallel in Luke do we hear the devil’s voice.
Moreover, the narrative is composed in such a way that it connects Jesus’ testing with that of Israel. Many details of the story are taken from the Book of Deuteronomy where Israel is shown to be tested in the wilderness. Matthew expects us to read this story realizing that we will be tested just as Israel was.
How does this passage prepare us for our testing? By reminding us who we are. The issue of the test is Jesus’ identity. Twice the devil begins his argument with, “If you are the Son of God . . . ” (verses 3 and 6). Jesus is able to pass the test because he is aware of his sonship. Knowing that God is his Father, Jesus can trust that God will provide bread (verses 3-4), protection (verses 5-7) and glory (verses 8-10). Jesus is victorious over Satan because he is secure in his relationship to God.
This passage calls us to the same security. External authorities, however valid, will not assure our success. The devil is able to quote scripture to suite his own purposes. Only with the internal confidence of a daughter or son can we discern which voice is from Satan and which is from God.
Reflection: What signs indicate that an idea or action comes from God? When have I known that this was or was not the case?
Prayer: Lord, it is not easy to make good decisions. Pride and vengeance can come disguised as virtue and necessity. Help me to remember who I am and recognize your voice.
Matthew 4:12-25—Fishing Together
Two essential events which prepare for Jesus’ ministry have already occurred. His sonship has been proclaimed at his baptism, and he has been victorious in the test with Satan. In these verses Jesus puts the last piece of preparation in place: he calls disciples (verses 18-22). This action is particularly important for Matthew, because more than other evangelists Matthew emphasizes the role of the church. The calling of the disciples is the beginning of the church community. It is with this community that Jesus will promise to remain always and to this community that he will give the great commission which ends the gospel (Matt 28:18-20).
The narrative stresses the initiative of Jesus in calling that community together. In Jewish circles it was expected that disciples seek out their teachers. This is the pattern presented in John’s gospel (John 1:35-42). In Matthew’s scene, however, Jesus is the one who finds his disciples. This is Matthew’s way of stating that the church is called together by the free choice of Christ.
Jesus’ choice to call together his disciples reminds us that our way to salvation is communal. In a society which exalts the importance of the individual, faith can become limited to only “me and Jesus.” Matthew’s gospel forestalls such a narrow understanding of salvation. Jesus, if anyone, could do everything on his own. Yet he consciously chose to associate his ministry with others. We are expected to follow the example of the Master. Our way to God is not a private adventure. We follow Christ together in a community of brothers and sisters.
Reflection: When have I been grateful to be part of a faith community? How have the actions of others helped or hindered my walk with Christ?
Prayer: Jesus, you have called me to believe as part of a community. Allow me to be thankful for those who have passed on their faith to me and walked with me on my way to you.
Matthew 5:1-16—Disciples of Joy
The importance of the community continues in this section as Matthew provides the discourse section of Book One, the Sermon on the Mount. Mountains are special to Matthew. They are the privileged place of divine action and revelation. Therefore, it is appropriate that Jesus gives this charter for the kingdom on a mountain. By his careful description of the scene, Matthew indicates that, although the crowds are present, it is the disciples who gather near (verse 1). In this way Matthew emphasizes that this sermon is directed to those who follow Jesus, the church. The sermon insists that Jesus’ disciples be the salt of the earth (verse 13) and the light of the world (verse 14). When they are truly salt and light, others will see their goodness and give glory to God (verse 16).
The beatitudes which begin the sermon tell the disciples how they are to be salt and light (verses 3-12). They become so, when they are “blessed.” Another way to translate “blessed” is “happy.” In other words, it is the joy of the disciples which will allow them to be salt and light for the world. When the world sees Jesus’ followers happy even in poverty and loss; when it senses their joy as they hunger for righteousness, show mercy, work for peace, and endure persecution; then it will know that the kingdom of God is near.
The Sermon on the Mount takes up three chapters of Matthew’s gospel. But all that it contains flows from the beatitudes. The world is to know Christ’s presence by the joy of his disciples.
Reflection: When have I recognized in the joy of another the presence of God? Have sorrow or loss ever caused me to doubt God’s presence?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, as your disciple, I know I am called to share my faith. Give me joy in your love, so that by seeing it others may come to you.
Matthew 5:17-48—Jesus Is Not Against the Law
The verses we find in this section of the Sermon on the Mount are called “the antitheses,” because they contrast a previous instruction with the teaching of Jesus. They are arguably the most misunderstood verses in the gospel. The most frequent way to interpret the antitheses is to imagine Jesus setting aside the Jewish law and replacing it with a new law. Such an understanding of the antitheses is untenable, if we carefully read the text.
Matthew clearly states that Jesus’ teaching does not set the old law aside. Jesus has come “not to abolish but to fulfill” (verse 17). “Not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (verse 18). Matthew accepts the authority of the Jewish law.
What makes Jesus’ teaching different than other rabbis is that it goes beyond what the law requires. In the antitheses Jesus sharpens the Torah, moving to the level of inner dispositions. If murder is wrong, then we must avoid anger which is the root of murder and lust which is the root of adultery. To avoid swearing falsely, we should not swear at all. The disciple should not be satisfied with strict justice (an eye for an eye) but avoid every violent reaction. The Jewish law teaches to treat foreigners and even enemies with respect (Exod 23:4-5; Prov 25:21-22), but Jesus teaches that his disciples should love and pray for their enemies.
It is wrong to identify the Jewish law with retribution and hatred. It is filled with love and forgiveness. But those who follow Jesus are called to do more than even this gracious law requires.
Reflection: What shortcuts do I take in following the gospel? Am I willing to go beyond what is required in order to be a disciple?
Prayer starter: Lord, I understand that if my life is just like everyone else’s, no one will recognize your presence in me. Give me the strength to set myself apart by the depth of my love.
Matthew 6:1-18—Thy Kingdom Come
The Sermon continues with a treatment of the three traditional practices of Jewish piety: giving alms (verses 2-4), prayer (verses 5-15), and fasting (verses 16-18). As in the antitheses, Jesus continues to teach that the manner in which his disciples follow these practices must be better than the practices of others.
It is in the section on prayer that Matthew gives to us his version of The Lord’s Prayer (verses 9-13). This, the most famous prayer in the Christian tradition, also appears in a different form in Luke 11:2-4 and in the Didache 8:2 (a work not in our bibles). The prayer is thoroughly Jewish. There is nothing expressed in it that even a Jew today could not pray.
There are six petitions in Matthew’s version of the prayer. All of them ask for the same thing: may God’s kingdom come. We usually associate the hallowing of God’s name, the doing of God’s will, and the forgiving of debts as something we do on an ongoing basis. Yet the tense of the Greek verbs points to a one-time event when God will act to bring about all we ask. That event is clearly the establishment of God’s reign. Every petition in the prayer, then, prays for God to act, to bring about a kingdom of justice and peace.
This prayer of Jesus demonstrates his profound desire to identify with all of the sorrow in our world and to beseech God to change it. We believe that through Jesus’ resurrection, that process has begun. But the reign of God is not fully established until Jesus returns. Until that time we take up his prayer and call out, “Your kingdom come.”
Reflection: How conscious am I of the need for God to destroy the evil in our world? How willing am I to wait for God’s action and to work to promote its coming?
Prayer: Father, I know that our world needs to change. When I recognize the power of greed, hatred, and injustice, move me to pray for Christ’s return.
Matthew 6:19-34—O You of Little Faith
At this point the structure of the sermon becomes elusive. Matthew is drawing sayings from Q which are only loosely linked together. Nevertheless, there is a theme which connects most of them: trust in God above all else.
Matthew recognizes the strain that disciples will feel in making the right choices in life. He insists that there must be a priority and that God must be first. He asserts that heavenly treasure is superior to earthly treasure (verses 19-21). He warns that a person can only serve one master (verse 24). He advises that those who would be free from worry must put the kingdom of God first (verse 33).
The tone in these verses is not harsh but encouraging. Examples are used to lead the reader to recognize the wisdom of trusting in God. Matthew argues from the lesser to the greater: if God cares for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, how much more will God care for you (verse 30)? Here Matthew uses one of his favorite phrases, “you of little faith.” Occurring five times in the gospel, this gentle rebuke is directed to disciples whose faith is real but faltering. It is Matthew’s way of saying, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t pull back. Don’t believe less—believe more! Doing so will provide you with a richer life.”
Faith, for Matthew, is very practical. In these verses he argues that trusting in God is both wise and productive. It will provide a life free from worry and fear. Trusting in God does not simply lead us to the kingdom. It increases our joy and confidence as we proceed towards it.
Reflection: What are the things I worry about in my life? Do Matthew’s words help me to see that more trust will lead to less frustration?
Prayer: Lord, I know how many situations in my life are beyond my control. Rather than letting worry consume me, deepen my trust in you.
Matthew 7:1-12—The Golden Rule
The Sermon on the Mount continues with more practical advice on how to live. We are to refrain from judging (verses 1-5) and trust that God will provide what we ask for in prayer (verses 7-11). In verse 12, however, we come to the highpoint of the sermon: the golden rule. This saying summarizes the “higher righteousness” which the disciple is to follow. Matthew tells us that the golden rule is the law and the prophets. For Matthew this rule is Jesus’ central teaching.
Most Christians believe that Jesus was the author of this saying, but many expressions of this rule can be found throughout antiquity. The heart of the rule is found in the Hebrew scriptures: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Lev 19:18). A formulation much closer to Jesus’ is associated with the Jewish Rabbi Hillel. One day a non-believer came to Hillel and said that he would convert to Judaism, if Hillel could teach him the whole Law while he stood on one foot. Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.”
Jesus agrees with Hillel. Matthew does not feel that Jesus’ central teaching has to be innovative to be authoritative. Jesus’ teaching on loving our neighbor is an inheritance from Judaism. Matthew has already emphasized the centrality of love when discussing the treatment of enemies (Matt 5:44). He will show its importance again when he presents the greatest commandment (Matt 22:39). For all the practical topics that the Sermon on the Mount covers, the crux of its message is clear: we follow Jesus when we love our neighbor.
Reflection: Who are the people I find difficult to love? Who are the people through whose love I have come to know the presence of God?
Prayer: Divine Revealer, I know how confused I can become in discerning your will. Clarify my path with the simple command to love my neighbor.
Matthew 7:13-29—Building on Rock
Matthew concludes the Sermon on the Mount with a strong directive: “Do it!” His closing comments tell us that we must put the teaching of Jesus into practice. Together with Paul and innumerable other Jewish and Christian authors, Matthew knows that salvation comes as a free gift of God’s grace. That conviction, however, is in no conflict with his insistence that those who receive such a gift must act upon it. Doing what is right, attaining true righteousness is essential if we are to enter the kingdom of God (Matt 5:20). Matthew would agree with the author of the Letter of James that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jas 2:17).
To make this point Matthew reminds us that we will be known by our fruits, by what we do (verses 16-20). He warns us that entrance into the kingdom is not guaranteed because we know the right words, because we say “Lord, Lord.” It will be our actions, doing the will of our Father in heaven that will allow us to enter (verses 21-23). Finally, he ends the Sermon on the Mount with a parable which contrasts a wise man who built his house on rock with a foolish man who built his house on sand (verses 24-27). Similar parables are found in the rabbis who taught that studying the Torah without good works is like building without a stone foundation. Again, Matthew borrows from the Jewish tradition a truth which has profound relevance to Jesus’ teaching: being a disciple is not only a matter of words but also of actions.
Reflection: When have I been disappointed in another because their actions did not match their words? Where do I need to speak less and do more?
Prayer: God, my Savior, I know that your grant me a relationship with you as a free gift. Allow me to thank you by living the teachings of Jesus, by loving my neighbor.
Matthew 8:1-17—Crossing Boundaries with Power
We now begin the narrative section of Book Two of Matthew’s gospel. It consists of a series of nine miracle stories which have been taken from Mark and Q. As Matthew draws these stories from his sources, he generally shortens them, leaving out what he considers unnecessary details. By doing this the focus is placed more clearly upon Jesus. This vivid presentation of a powerful miracle worker adds to Jesus’ stature. He is not only a teacher. He is the Beloved Son of God who acts with God’s own power.
After the lengthy Sermon on the Mount the shift to these stories of healing is dramatic. In rapid fire we experience the first three miracles. Jesus heals a leper (verses 1-4), the servant of a centurion (verses 5-13), and Peter’s mother-in-law (verses 14-15). What these miracles share in common is that all three were directed to those with a marginal position in the Israelite community. A leper was to be avoided. A Gentile was an unbeliever. A woman in a patriarchal culture was held in low esteem. Yet Jesus crosses the boundaries which his society would set for him. He touches the leper (verse 3); he praises the Gentile (verse 10); he anticipates the woman’s need and heals her before any request to do so (verse 15).
The interaction with the Gentile centurion is particularly valuable to Matthew because of the importance he gives to the Gentile mission. But all three miracles are disturbing to those who wish to conform the gospel to societal stratification. From the time that Jesus begins to act, the message is clear. The kingdom of God will not be bound by human structures or expectations.
Reflection: Who are the marginalized people in my family, neighborhood, or workplace? How may the gospel be calling me to reach out and touch them?
Prayer: God of power, I appreciate the ways your gospel comforts me in sorrow and quiets my fears. Enlarge my vision so that I may also recognize its call to break down walls and lift up the lowly.
Matthew 8:18-34—The Battle With Evil
In the first three miracles which Matthew presents, Jesus heals various kinds of physical afflictions. In the next three miracle stories he takes on more serious opponents. Jesus calms a storm (verses 23-27); drives out demons (verses 28-34); and forgives sin (Matt 9:2-8).
In these stories Matthew is not simply reporting incidents from Jesus’ ministry. He uses details and dialogue to address his community. In the calming of the storm Matthew is not concerned with the conditions of the water but of the cosmos. Throughout the bible the sea often stands as a symbol of the powers of evil in combat with God. Yahweh is shown to be in battle with sea monsters while creating and saving the world (Job 26:12-13). Matthew presents Jesus’ action as a cosmic battle with evil. The Greek word translated “windstorm” in verse 24 really means “earthquake.” Matthew is associating this miracle with the shaking of the foundations of the world. Jesus’ calming of the storm symbolizes his cosmic victory over evil which comes about through his resurrection.
Jesus’ relationship to his disciples is emphasized in the story. They follow him into the boat, into the struggle with evil (verse 23). Their call to the sleeping Jesus echoes the words in Psalm 44:23, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever!” Their words have become a prayer. Matthew intends that his community see themselves in the boat voicing their fears to the risen Lord. We should place ourselves in the boat as well, so that in our struggle with evil we can hear Jesus’ response: “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?”
Reflection: What storms shake my life? Are there times when I feel God is asleep? When have I heard Jesus’ voice in the midst of the storm?
Prayer: God of the storm, as I am knocked about by the waves of disappointment, misunderstanding, and loss, make me thankful for your presence and for my brothers and sisters who are in the boat with me.
Matthew 9:1-17—The Gift of Friends
In the last of the second trio of miracles, Jesus cures a paralytic man (verses 2-8). Matthew, in his usual style, has omitted many of the colorful details which were present in his source, Mark. He does not tell us how the man was lowered through the roof in order to gain access to Jesus (Mark 2:4). By doing this he centers in more clearly on the person of Jesus, showing him as the Son of Man who has the power to forgive sin (verse 6).
Yet Matthew is not simply concerned about Jesus. In a way similar to his treatment of the calming of the storm, Matthew uses this miracle to address his audience. He tells us something about Christ in order to teach us something about ourselves. He shows us how those who are disciples of Jesus must depend upon each other.
Our need for each other is reflected in a small detail which begins the miracle. The paralyzed man was carried to Jesus by his friends. Moreover, the faith which occasions the miracle is not the man’s faith but “their faith” (verse 2). The man who was paralyzed could not walk to Jesus. This physical detail suggests that he might have had spiritual obstacles as well. Perhaps he was angry at God or suspicious of Jesus. His faith was weak. If left to himself, no miracle would have occurred.
But he was not left alone. The faith of his friends compensated for his handicap. Matthew is again emphasizing the importance of the church. We believe together. When our faith fails, our brothers and sisters lift us up and carry us to Jesus.
Reflection: Can I remember a time when the faith of others supported me in my weakness? Did I ever thank them for giving so great a gift?
Prayer: Lord, sometimes I pretend that I can make it on my own. Let me see your presence in the service which I receive from others.
Matthew 9:18-34—More Than Miracles
Matthew now presents the final three miracles in his nine miracle cycle. Jesus heals the daughter of a synagogue leader and a woman with a hemorrhage (verses 18-26); two blind men (verses 27-31); and a man possessed by a demon (verses 32-34). These wondrous works emphasize the authority of Jesus and move large crowds of people to wonderment (verses 26 and 31).
Yet Matthew closes his miracle series on a negative note. Even after these clear displays of power, the Pharisees do not believe. They assert that the source of his power is not God but the “ruler of demons” (verse 34). Before we move to criticize the Pharisees and chastise them for their lack of faith, we might do well to read this story from another perspective. The failure to believe might be a warning to the reader. Similar to the tendencies which we have seen in earlier miracle stories, Matthew may be again addressing us.
Every miracle must be interpreted. An event which moves one person to faith leads another to suspicion. What makes the difference? Certainly dispositions are important, but so much depends of the right timing and the power of God’s grace. There is no event which can force us to believe.
Miracles are usually persuasive when we read them in the scriptures. In actual living they are less clear. Matthew’s abrupt assertion that some did not believe is meant to stop us short. He is reminding us that our own belief rests on God’s free gift. Therefore, the faith we possess should not lead us to pride but to thankfulness.
Reflection: How well do I recognize the miracles which occur in my life? What are the reasons which prevent me from embracing these gifts of God’s love?
Prayer: God of Mystery, I know that there are many good men and women who do not believe in you. Rather than allowing their lack of faith to discourage me, let it lead me to humility and gratitude.
Matthew 9:35 to 10:15—The Importance of Compassion
After a brief introduction which sets the scene (chapter 9, verses 35-38), Matthew begins the discourse section of Book Two. This discourse is much shorter than that of Book One, the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:1—7:29). It is closely connected to the narrative section which has preceded it. We have just seen how, through a series of nine miracle stories, Jesus ministers God’s saving power to those in need. In this discourse Jesus addresses his disciples, passing on his power to them so that they can participate in his mission.
At the end of the healing of the paralytic, the narrator commented that the crowds, after seeing Jesus’ power, gave glory to God “who had given such authority to human beings” (Matt 9:8). Now that power which Jesus exercised in the healing miracles is passed on to the disciples. He tells them to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons” (chapter 10, verse 8). Matthew is telling his community that they, the church, are to carry on Jesus’ work.
Moreover, that work is not limited only to deeds of power. Matthew usually downplays Jesus’ emotions. But in this section he uses an emotion to reveal the motivation for Jesus’ mission. Jesus heals and teaches because he has compassion for the harassed and helpless crowd (chapter 9, verse 36). If we as the church are called to carry on Jesus’ work, we are to imitate his motivation as well. We are not only to minister to those in need, but to do so out of compassion and love.
Reflection: How important do I feel it is to show compassion to others? Do I see it as an incidental feeling or as a powerful bond with the ability to heal?
Prayer: Divine Master, I can all too easily reduce my service to a matter of performance and achievement. Show me the importance of examining not only the work I do but my reason for doing it.
Matthew 10:16 to 11:1—Is Jesus Against Peace?
Once Jesus has called his disciples to continue his mission, Matthew concludes the discourse section of Book Two by telling us that such a mission will not be easy. The disciples will go forth like sheep into the midst of wolves; they will be flogged and brought before governors and kings for trial; they will be betrayed by their own families and hated by all (chapter 10, verses 16-22). God, of course, will be with the disciples to provide them with words to say (chapter 10, verses 19-20) and protective care (chapter 10, verses 30-31). Nevertheless the amount of opposition and violence against the disciples is overwhelming.
In the midst of this dire scenario, we find some of the most problematic sayings in the gospels: Jesus claims that his presence does not bring peace but a sword, and sets family members against each other (chapter 10, verses 34-38). How do we explain that these words are coming from the Prince of Peace and the King of Love?
Jesus’ words are not proscriptive but descriptive. Matthew is not saying that it is Jesus’ purpose to bring conflict and division. He is, however, acknowledging that such painful realities often accompany the gospel. The world does not always welcome the principles of justice, the call for repentance, or the option for the poor. Families are not always supportive when a member chooses to believe in Christ or places another value above family allegiance. By describing these violent reactions Matthew is not encouraging us to promote them, but warning us to be prepared for them. Following Christ is not a free ride. We must be willing to pay the price.
Reflection: Have I ever experienced opposition or rejection because of my faith in Christ? If no one has ever questioned my beliefs, should I worry that my witness is not clear enough?
Prayer: Lord, I do not seek to suffer for you. I do not wish to be rejected or marginalized because of my faith. Yet if such pain should come to me, give me the strength to stay the course.
Matthew 11:2-9—Adjusting Expectations
Matthew begins the narrative of Book Three with the struggle to believe. As we progress towards Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is within the gospel a growing sense of opposition. Jesus is more frequently shown in debate over his actions and his teaching. It is questionable whether the historical Jesus experienced as much conflict in his ministry as the Gospel of Matthew presents. Much of the opposition in the gospel seems to reflect the situation of Matthew’s community and its struggles at the end of the first century.
Nevertheless, the opposition in the gospel provides an opportunity to reflect upon our own journey of faith. John the Baptist is a model for us. Matthew both praises John and lessens his importance (verse 11). However, the way John approaches Jesus can give us guidance. Jesus’ ministry did not match John’s expectations. John might have been looking for a preaching style and a message more like his own. Yet John does not write Jesus off. He sends his disciples to learn more (verses 2-3). The openness of John to move from his preconceptions stands in stark contrast with the children in the marketplace who could only complain that their desires were not met (verses 16-17). The willingness to change and to grow is the trademark of wisdom (verse 19).
This section of Matthew invites us to flexibility in our own struggle to follow Christ. When things do not turn out as we had hoped, we can question whether God has been faithful. We can dig in our heels and complain like children in the marketplace. But wisdom calls us to open our hearts and, like John, continue to grow.
Reflection: In a time of disappointment, have I ever doubted God’s care for me? Looking back, has that doubt been resolved? If so, how was my trust restored?
Prayer: Lord, I realize that your ways are not my ways. When I am unprepared for what I must face, allow me to keep talking to you so that I might discover your will anew.
Matthew 11:20-30—Taking Up the Easy Yoke
After another note of opposition as Jesus chastises the unfaithful of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, the mood of the narrative brightens. Jesus offers a prayer of thanks and invites the weary to come to him.
As is common in Matthew, both the ideas and language in this prayer are Jewish. Jesus’ prayer follows the form of Jewish hymns of thanksgiving which have been found in many sources including those of Qumran. Beginning with a first person declaration, “I thank you,” God is then addressed directly, “Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” Then the reason for the thanks is given, “because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent, and have revealed them to infants” (verse 25).
The Jewish influence continues as Jesus takes upon himself the role of Wisdom. In the Hebrew scriptures Wisdom is present to God at the creation of the world and guides humans in the paths of life (Prov 8). Just as Wisdom calls out, inviting all people to follow her ways (she is personified as female), Jesus calls out to those who wish to live, that they might follow him and take up his yoke (verses 28-30). His words here very closely echo the description of Wisdom in the Book of Sirach: “Put your neck under her yoke, and let your souls receive instruction; it is to be found close by. See with your own eyes that I have labored but little, and found for myself much serenity” (51:26-27).
Matthew’s message is clear: those who would wish to find life should take up Jesus’ yoke. For he is the Wisdom of God.
Reflection: Do I understand that my faith does not flow from creeds or laws but from a personal relationship with Christ? How has following Jesus made me wise?
Prayer: Jesus, I understand that following you requires that I take up the weight of discipleship. However, help me to see that your yoke is easy and your burden is light.
Matthew 12:1-21—Debating the Law
This narrative section of Matthew continues with more disputes between Jesus and his opponents. We are given two scenes in which issues regarding the Sabbath are debated: Jesus’ disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath (verses 1-8) and Jesus curing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath (verses 9-14).
These stories of Jesus’ arguing with opponents will become frequent in Matthew. Scholars call this type of narrative “a controversy dialogue.” In this literary form, Jesus debates a particular issue of the law or of his ministry with others who take an opposing view. Jesus always wins. The evangelists use these stories to proclaim Jesus as the authoritative teacher for their communities.
We should take a balanced approach in evaluating the issues over which Jesus and his opponents debate. Frequently Jesus’ position matches a stance which was accepted within Judaism. This is true of the Sabbath debate. There was a wide range of opinion among Jews concerning what could or could not be done on the Sabbath. Jesus’ willingness to heal on the Sabbath and even his example of the sheep which falls into a pit would have been found acceptable and persuasive by many rabbis of his time. We should not, therefore, picture Jesus as the only Jewish teacher who would allow healing on the Sabbath.
In a society which is giving less deference to a weekly day of rest, it might seem that these debates over the proper observance of the Sabbath are overblown. Yet Jews saw the Sabbath rest as a significant expression of their commitment to God. These debates in the gospels should remind us of the necessity of witnessing to our faith in everyday living.
Reflection: How does my faith in Christ influence or alter my weekly schedule? Do I set aside some time in which my relationship to God is primary?
Prayer: Lord, I am as busy as the next person. It is a constant battle to fit what is important in my schedule. Please help me make time for you.
Matthew 12:22-50—The New Family of Jesus
Jesus continues to debate with his opponents over the source of his power to heal (verses 22-32) and their request for a sign (verses 38-42). However, after presenting those who disagree with Jesus, Matthew ends this narrative section with those who are related to Jesus, his family (verses 46-50).
Yet Jesus’ statements about his family are disturbing to many devout Christians who view Mary and Jesus’ other relatives with respect. When Jesus is told that his mother and brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak with him, he distances himself from them, seemingly refusing their request. Such treatment of one’s natural family is troubling. It seems to have troubled Matthew as well. He softens the negative view of Mark by omitting the statement that Jesus’ family felt that he had gone out of his mind (Mark 3:21).
Nevertheless, even in Matthew, one cannot disguise the thrust of this story which moves against Jesus’ natural family. What point is the gospel trying to make? This narrative expresses the conviction of the early church that the spiritual bonds of believers can at times override the claims of one’s own family. Matthew makes this particularly explicit. Mark says that Jesus pointed to “those who sat around him” as his family (Mark 3:34). In Matthew Jesus points to “his disciples” (verse 49). Here Matthew is again emphasizing the importance of the church, insisting that it is through the relationships with other men and women of faith that we enact our relationship with Christ. These relationships must come first. To reverse an old maxim, Matthew believes that water (baptism) is thicker than blood.
Reflection: Who are the people with whom I share my faith? Are they members of my natural family? Could I imagine growing in faith without them?
Prayer: Faithful God, you bless me with so many gifts: health and security, ability and freedom. Allow me never to take for granted the people through whom my faith grows.
Matthew 13:1-23—Learning from the Sower
Matthew now begins the discourse section of Book Three which consists of seven parables. Three are taken from Mark. The other four are taken from Q and Matthew’s additional sources.
Teaching in parables was a characteristic of the historical Jesus. In a way similar to other rabbis of his time, Jesus valued the ability of a parable to seize the attention of his hearers and open their minds to new ideas. Effective parables surprise and disturb us, posing questions with which we must grapple. In the struggle to understand, new understandings emerge.
It is useful to distinguish between the parable itself and the use which a particular evangelist such as Matthew might make of it. Matthew groups the seven parables into this discourse so that they may confound Jesus’ opponents. Jesus explains that he will teach in parables because his opponents refuse to listen, but his disciples will understand (verses 10-17).
Matthew also gives a explanation of what the parable of the sower means for him (verses 18-23). But the parable cannot be limited to Matthew’s meaning. The parable of the sower can also address the frustration we feel when our efforts are not successful. We work so hard and so much of what we do seems wasted. How do we maintain hope and enthusiasm? In the parable, most of the seed which is sown does not grow. Only a part falls on good soil. Yet that part yields a rich harvest. This parable advises us not to measure our efforts. Yes, much of our work will be wasted. But there will still be a harvest. A handful of seed can grow the kingdom of God.
Reflection: When have I felt that my efforts have been wasted? Has it ever occurred that despite such disappointment something good has happened, something beautiful has grown?
Prayer: Lord of the Harvest, how often do I find myself scattering seed this way and that. Allow me to see that I can sow and water, but only you can make things grow.
Matthew 13:24-43—Weeds Among the Wheat
Matthew draws the parable of the mustard seed from Mark (verses 31-32). He finds the parable of the yeast in Q (verse 33). But the parable of the weeds among the wheat comes from another source and is found only in Matthew. Matthew presents his interpretation of the parable as a scenario for the end of time (verses 36-43).
But again we can interpret the parable in its own right and ask what meaning it suggests for our own lives. It is noteworthy that in the parable no description of the enemy is given nor is any motivation for his vicious action. He is a nameless aggressor acting in a senseless way. From this perspective the parable may be addressing the abrupt and devastating way that evil can enter our lives. A child dies in a freak accident. A relationship we care about falls apart. The diagnosis is cancer.
Faced with an sudden onslaught of evil, our immediate response is, “What can I do?” The parable suggests that sometimes the answer is, “Very little.” Like the servant in the parable we would like to act, to root out the evil thing which has so affected our life. But often such action is impossible and trying to remove what is harmful would only damage the good things which continue to grow (verse 29). Therefore, we must at times endure the evil we cannot change and accept the situation that is out of our control.
Yet the parable also insists that there will come a time when things will change and when action is possible. In that harvest time, evil can be rooted out, bundled, and burned without destroying what is good.
Reflection: When have I had to face an evil situation without having the ability to change it? By waiting have I found new opportunities for action?
Prayer: Lord, when senseless evil attacks, my world is turned upside down. Rather than throwing myself into useless action, let me wait for the moment in which you will make my actions count.
Matthew 13:44-53—The Net, The Treasure, The Pearl
Three more parables bring the discourse of Book Three to a close. The parable of the fishnet (verses 47-50) reflects back on the parable of the weeds and the wheat, insisting that the mixed nature of our present experience will be clarified in the future. However, the two small parables which precede it point in another direction. Both the parable of the treasure in the field (verse 44) and the pearl of great price (verses 45-46) address the human tendency to make excuses.
Life is hectic and demanding. There are many things we would like to do and some that we must. We would like to lose weight, learn a sport, spend more time with our spouse or children, volunteer to help the poor. Because our time is limited we end up making excuses, promising ourselves that we will get around to it.
The parables of the treasure and the pearl call our bluff. They insist that the issue is not a matter of time or organization, but of value. If we truly value something, we will go after it. The person who found the treasure in a field was willing to sell everything to buy that field. The merchant who found one perfect pearl sold everything he had to make it his.
In order to act we must first appreciate the goal we seek. If I consciously value my family, my reputation, my faith, I will find the time and energy to protect and deepen them. The treasure in the field looks back on a wisdom saying which Matthew included in the Sermon on the Mount: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:21).
Reflection: What things in my life do I never seem to accomplish? Would it be easier to act if I more clearly appreciated the true value that such action would achieve?
Prayer: Faithful God, many claims vie for my time and energy. Help me appreciate the opportunities of real value and give me the strength to seize them.
Matthew 13:54 to 14:21—Anticipating the Final Banquet
As Matthew begins Book Four he follows the sequence of Mark closely. First he relates the rejection which Jesus experienced at Nazareth (Matt 13:54-58). Then he recounts the gruesome death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod Antipas (Matt 14:1-12). Next comes the feeding of the five thousand (Matt 14:13-21).
The feeding of the five thousand is one of the few stories which can be found in all four gospels (Mark 6:35-44; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-15). Its importance in the tradition derives from the common belief that the fulfillment of God’s kingdom could be seen as a great meal. Isaiah 25:6 describes such a feast: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” The early church believed that Jesus’ death and resurrection initiated God’s kingdom. The feeding of the five thousand was a way of describing that final feast which would occur when Jesus returned at the end of time.
Matthew links this meal with other meals in his gospel. It stands in stark contrast to the meal of Herod which immediately precedes it. Herod’s banquet was characterized by pride, violence, and the unjust killing of John the Baptist. At Jesus’ banquet there is healing, satisfaction, and joy. Jesus’ actions of taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the bread (Matt 14:19) look forward to the last supper which Jesus will share with his disciples (Matt 26:26).
Of course all of these meals provide connections with the eucharistic meal which we continue to share as Christians. The Eucharist unites us to Jesus who fed the five thousand and will feed all people in the Kingdom of God.
Reflection: Do I understand that the Eucharist does more than unite me to Christ today? It offers the promise of participation in the final banquet of God’s kingdom.
Prayer: Risen Lord, so often I pray the Eucharist in my need and sorrow. Teach me to recognize that this bread is one of hope, hope for the future blessings of your reign.
Matthew 14:22-36—Walking on Water
The next scene Matthew presents is Jesus walking on the water. We have already seen how storms on the sea are used by the evangelists to represent Jesus’ power to combat evil and save us from its destruction. In Matt 8:23-27 Jesus was asleep in the boat. In this narrative Jesus comes to his disciples across the water. He says, “It is I” (verse 27) which reflects the divine name of God from Exod 3:14, “I am he.” Just as God saved Israel from slavery in Egypt, Jesus saves his disciples from harm.
Matthew draws this scene from Mark 6:45-52. But he enlarges the story by adding an episode about Peter. This is the first of a number of incidents concerning Peter which are only found in Matthew’s gospel. Matthew inserts much of this material into Book Four because the church is the central topic of this book and Peter plays a key role in the church.
Peter acts as the representative of what belonging to the church means. He knows that he is called to follow Christ. So when he sees Jesus walking on the water, he asks permission to do the same (verse 28). Yet Peter is not a perfect disciple. When he sees the strength of the storm he doubts and begins to sink. Jesus pulls him up and uses Matthew’s gentle rebuke to failing disciples “You of little faith” (verse 31).
Through Peter, Matthew has shown us what it is to be a disciple. We will doubt and will need to be pulled up by Jesus time and again. But we also share in the dignity and power of Jesus. We too can walk on water.
Reflection: When have the waves and winds of my life caused me to doubt? When have I realized that the power of Christ was working in me?
Prayer: Saving God, it is all too easy to be pulled down by my weakness and imperfections. Allow me to realized that through your grace I have the dignity of a daughter or son.
Matthew 15:1-20—Avoiding Defilement
Even though Matthew uses Mark as a major source for his gospel, he feels the freedom to disagree with Mark when it suites his purposes. This section in which Jesus discusses the tradition of the elders is a clear illustration of this tendency.
Matthew draws this story from Mark 7:1-23. Mark’s community did not follow the Jewish food laws which placed limitations on what Jews might eat. One of the major purposes of Mark’s story was to provide his community with a narrative in which Jesus ends any limitations on food. In debate with the Pharisees, Jesus asserts that what matters to God is not what goes into the mouth (food) but what comes out of the mouth. For out of the mouth the intentions of the heart for either good or evil are seen (Mark 7:14-23). Mark has used a moral argument to invalidate the claim of cultic food requirements. He makes his point explicit when he states that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19b).
Matthew’s community respects Jewish tradition and probably still follows the Jewish dietary requirements. Therefore, when Matthew faces this story in Mark, he has a problem. What is he to do with a story with which he does not agree? He could omit the story entirely, but he is attracted to the moral argument which was a common teaching of the Rabbis. So he omits the verses which undermine the food laws (Mark 7:18b and 19b) and retains the moral teaching. By these changes Matthew can both respect the practice of his own community and also include in his gospel a powerful lesson on the importance of moral choice and practice.
Reflection: In making decisions in my life, am I tempted to an all-or-nothing approach? Have I found that compromise can at times provide a better outcome?
Prayer: Lord, as I negotiate the course of my own future, allow me to follow the example of Matthew. Teach me to find the good in what I have been given and use it.
Matthew 15:21-39—Admitting It, When You Are Wrong
We have already discussed the use of “controversy dialogues” in Matthew’s gospel (see January 22). Here we encounter another “controversy dialogue,” but a very unusual one. In verses 21-28, Jesus argues with a Gentile woman who wants him to heal her daughter. She comes to Jesus out of need, but Jesus is reluctant to meet her request because he feels his mission should be limited only to Jews (verse 24).
Matthew is interested in this story because he believes that the gospel is to be preached to all the nations (Matt 28:19). Here, then, is a rare story of Jesus actually interacting with a Gentile. But that is not the only thing which makes this story distinctive. This is the only “controversy dialogue” in the gospel which Jesus loses. When Jesus says no to the woman’s plea (and does so by making an unflattering comparison between her and a dog), the woman does not give up. She turns Jesus’ insult into a clever image of dogs being fed with leftovers (verse 27). This gentle comment provides a pause big enough for Jesus to reconsider his refusal and grant her request. In the end it is the woman who is victorious in the controversy. Jesus changes his mind.
Since Jesus was fully human, there is no doubt that he changed his mind many times in his earthly ministry. However, because the gospels present him as the glorious Lord, this is the only time we see him doing so. The implications of this little narrative are immense. If Jesus had to admit he was wrong, how can we pretend that we are exempt from doing so?
Reflection: When have I had to admit that a position I deeply held was wrong? What did I learn in the experience of changing my mind?
Prayer: Lord, I try to make good decisions and to follow the truth. Show me that when I realize I have judged wrongly, there is no shame in thinking differently.
Matthew 16:1-28—A Rock to Build and to Stumble
In the events of Caesarea Philippi, Matthew’s interest in the church reaches a high point (verses 13-28). When Jesus asks the disciples who people are saying that he is, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah. Matthew has taken this story from Mark, but he enlarges it by adding a blessing of Peter, declaring him to be the “rock” on which Jesus’ church will stand (verses 17-19).
Matthew uses a pun in these verses. In Greek, Peter’s name is the same word as “rock.” Matthew’s readers would hear the connection: “You are Peter [Petros], and on this rock [petra] I will build my church.” Clearly Matthew is comparing Peter’s faith to a solid rock foundation.
But the image is not that simple. A few verses later Jesus will rebuke Peter for not accepting Jesus’ mission to suffer (verse 23). Again, Matthew draws this rebuke from Mark but he adds an additional phrase, “you are a stumbling block to me.” Matthew is aware that Isaiah spoke of a rock or stone over which the inhabitants of Jerusalem will stumble and fall (Isa 8:14-15). He seems to be using two very different qualities of a rock to describe the faith of Peter. Like the rest of the disciples who are “of little faith” Peter is both a real believer and yet prone to weakness and doubt.
This tension in the character of the “rock” who is Peter provides a reason for hope. Although our flaws like Peter’s can indeed cause others to stumble and fall, our faith, if it is real, can still provide a foundation upon which the belief of others can stand.
Reflection: When have my weaknesses damaged the faith of others? Can I see how my shortcomings cannot excuse me from witnessing to what I believe?
Prayer: Lord, I know that my faith is not perfect. Even though it is often weak and flawed, let me claim the faith I have and use it.
Matthew 17:1-13—Knowing the Touch of Jesus
We ended our daily reading guides for Matthew last month in the midst of the narrative section of Book Four. Now we continue with the scene of Jesus’ transfiguration. This is an unusual scene within the gospels. Jesus is not shown healing or teaching. He is presented in glorious discussion with Moses and Elijah. What kind of scene is this? Matthew calls it a “vision” (verse 9). But what are we seeing?
Matthew makes two changes from his source, Mark, which reveal his understanding of this scene. First, whereas Mark has Peter address Jesus as “Rabbi,” in Matthew Peter calls him “Lord” (verse 4). “Lord” is the preeminent title of resurrection (see Phil 2:11). Even though this story may have a basis in Jesus’ historical ministry, Matthew is presenting it as an encounter with the risen Lord.
Second, Matthew alters Mark by adding an interaction between Jesus and the disciples. As they lay on the ground overcome with fear, he touches them and tells them not be afraid (verse 7). By this addition the risen Lord assures his Church that he is with them. The next verse, which has been taken from Mark, adds a new dimension to the disciples’ relationship to the risen Lord. They look up to see “no one except Jesus alone” (verse 8).
Matthew has shaped this story in order to tell us that when the crises and shocks of life paralyze us, there is only one option for a believer. We must feel Jesus’ touch, look up from our doubt and fear, and stand up to move forward with the risen Lord.
Reflection: When have I felt paralyzed by the pressures of life? How have I felt the touch of Christ to give me strength?
Prayer: Lord, there are times when I, like the disciples, feel pressed flat by the power of fear. Let your touch revive me. Let your words give me hope.
Matthew 17:14-27—Moving Beyond Obligation
After the disciples descend from the mountain of the transfiguration, Jesus cures a epileptic boy (verses 14-20) and predicts his passion a second time (verses 22-23). Then follows another story which is unique to Matthew and which emphasizes the role of Peter. The issue of this narrative is taxation. Some tax collectors approach Peter and ask whether Jesus intends to pay a tax (verse 24). It is unclear which tax is in question. This could be an early story before 70 C.E. referring to the tax for the temple in Jerusalem. It could also refer to a tax levied for the temple of Jupiter in Rome or a tax to support the scholars in Jamina.
Whichever tax is at issue, the point of the story revolves around the response. Both Peter and Jesus agree that the tax should be paid. But Jesus is clear that it is not to be paid out of obligation. He feels that he is exempt from the tax. Matthew is certainly making this same point for his community: “The children are free” (verse 26). Yet if his community is not required to pay the tax in God’s eyes, they should nevertheless do so in order not to give offense. Therefore, Jesus sends Peter to draw a coin from a fish’s mouth and pay the tax (verse 27).
The story reminds us that obligation is not the center of the Christian life. If peace and order are to be achieved, if harmony is to be encouraged, we must go beyond what is strictly required. We go the extra mile not because we must, but because love calls us to do so.
Reflection: Have I ever been frustrated with others who refuse to give beyond what is clearly demanded? When have I been able to increase the depth of my generosity?
Prayer: Divine Master, your law instructs me in my obligations. Give me the freedom to do not only what is required but what is best.
Matthew 18:1-14—Failing to Protect the Little Ones
With the beginning of chapter 18 we enter the discourse of Book Four. This section gives specific instruction to the community of the Church on how it is to live until Christ returns.
The first part of this discourse deals with the Church’s special need to care for “the little ones,” the least in the community. Matthew is adamant that those who have greater talents and resources cannot write off those who have less. From those who have been given more, more will be expected. Refusing to care for the little ones, might shake their faith and cause them to stumble. Matthew uses bold language to warn the stronger members of his community against such an oversight: “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (verse 6).
Yet, for all his concern, Matthew is a realist. He knows that, despite his warning, members of his community will sin and the little ones will be scandalized: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes” (verse 7). Matthew does not say that such failures are the will of God. It is God’s desire that none of the little ones be lost (verse 14). But God has created humans with free choice, and their decisions are not always the best.
Matthew is not afraid to admit this reality. Such honesty, however, does not excuse the sinner. In effect he tells his community, “Yes, bad choices will be made. Just be sure you do not make them.”
Reflection: When have I by my words or actions scandalized another? What have I done or should I do to repair the damage of this offense?
Prayer: Lord, you above all others understand that I am not perfect. Give me the love and strength not to lead another to sin, and the humility to ask forgiveness when I do.
Read Matthew 18:15-35—When Community Fails
In the second part of his discourse for the community, Matthew takes up a problem of perennial concern. How are members of the church to deal with those who sin against them? Matthew outlines a three-step process by which the matter is to be resolved. First the offended party is to address the offender privately (verse 15). If that fails to produce a reconciliation, two or three witnesses are to be introduced into the process (verse 16). If no progress is made, then the case should be brought before the whole community (verse 17).
This graduated process was probably the method that Matthew’s community used to resolve its disputes. The Jewish community of the Qumran Essenes followed the same three-step outline. The purpose of the process was not to punish but to restore the offender to the community: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” (verse 15).
Nevertheless, Matthew insists that if the offender refuses to cooperate even with the decision of the church, he or she should “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (verse 17). In Matthew’s Jewish community this statement amounts to a decree of excommunication. In other words, there comes a time when the procedure has run its course, and failure must be admitted.
The decree of excommunication stands in some tension with Matthew’s claim for limitless forgiveness within his community. (See above, “Shaping a Righteous Church.”) Although forgiveness is always demanded, an offender is not free to do whatever he or she desires. There are consequences for bad decisions. There comes a time when ties should be broken.
Reflection: When have I had to end a relationship with someone who offended me? What have been the consequences of that decision?
Prayer: Lord, I know that you always call me to forgive a brother or sister from my heart. Give me the wisdom to recognized that there are times when even a forgiven relationship cannot continue.
Matthew 19:1-15—The Church Decides
The familiar phrase, “When Jesus had finished saying these things,” informs us that we are beginning Book Five of Matthew’s gospel (verse 1). This is the last book narrating Jesus’ public ministry. As we proceed through it, we will note a growing tension between Jesus and the religious leaders.
Matthew draws most of this material from Mark. The first incident he pulls from his source is the debate over divorce. Jesus’ sayings on divorce are witnessed in all three synoptic gospels (Matt 19:3-12; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). They all recognize that marriage is an institution ordained by God which must be respected. Yet when the various sayings are compared to each other, differences in approach appear. Mark advises both husbands and wives to avoid divorce (Mark 10:11-12). This indicates that in his community both men and women could seek to end a marriage. Matthew only warns husbands (verse 9), reflecting a more traditional environment in which only men could initiate the process.
It is likely that the historical Jesus did not allow for divorce for any reason. Is Matthew disagreeing when he says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery” (verse 9)? We know that Paul allowed divorce when a believer is married to a non-believer (1Cor 7:15). Is Matthew making an exception here? Interpreters cannot agree.
Clearly different communities of the early church struggled to apply the teachings of Jesus to their own circumstances. This reminds us that principles which are clear in the abstract become confusing in the execution. This is why we need a church community to help us understand not only what Jesus taught but how we should live it.
Reflection: Who are the faithfully married people in my life who witness to me? What have I learned from the reality of divorce?
Prayer: Lord, I know that it is easier to profess your teachings than to live them. Give me the wisdom to discern your will and the generosity to follow it.
Matthew 19:16-30—A Tragic Story
Matthew continues his narrative with a beautiful but sad story from Mark. A young man comes up to Jesus and asks what must he do to gain eternal life.
What makes the scene beautiful is the immediate rapport which is established between Jesus and the man. Here is a young man who is clearly attracted to Jesus. He approaches him sincerely, as one from whom he can learn the way to life. Nor is this young man a slacker. He follows all the commandments (verse 20).
Jesus recognizes the man’s goodness, and calls him to follow him (verse 21). Here is where the sadness enters. The man refuses to take up the invitation. This is the only scene in the gospels where Jesus calls a disciple and the person does not respond. The man does not, however, walk away casually. He leaves grieving (verse 22). We can imagine Jesus grieves as well.
The story is a tragedy. It is meant to pose a profound question. How is it possible to be loved by Christ, to be attracted to Christ, to be called by Christ and yet walk away? The reasons for the refusal can be many: wealth, busyness, unworthiness, fear. None of them adequately explains the tragedy. But the story leads us to feel the loss. It points to the awesome power each of us has to address the Savior of the World and say, “Yes, I know that you love me, and much of me wants to respond with love. But my answer to you is no, not today, not ever.” Today Jesus is inviting you to follow him. What will your answer be?
Reflection: Have I ever walked away from an invitation to follow the Lord? What have I learned from the tragedy of saying “no.”
Prayer: Jesus, I make decisions every day. Help me see the importance of those choices. Each “yes” or “no” is a personal response to you.
Matthew 20:1-16—The Unfair Parable
Matthew now offers us the parable of the workers in the vineyard which is found only in his gospel. The most common reaction to this parable is, “It’s not fair!” We identify with the workers who were hired first and ask why should those who have “worked only one hour” be paid the same wage as those who have worked all day (verse 12)? Strictly speaking the parable does not negate justice. Those who were hired first did in fact receive the wage upon which they agreed (verse 13). Yet what galls those who were hired first (and us) is that there is not equal pay for equal work.
It is within the frustration over this imbalance that the parable makes its point. If we insist that justice be followed to the letter, then God is not free to be merciful. For mercy always involves giving someone something which they do not deserve. If mercy, however, were taken off the table, we would all be lost. For the most essential aspects of our lives go beyond what we deserve. Are we owed life or health or love? It is only because God gives us more than what we deserve that we have happiness, salvation, and eternal life.
God will not, of course, be limited by our desire to measure everything out according to our merits. God will be generous to whomever God chooses. Even though we may at times be peeved that others are recipients of God’s mercy, such gifts to them are good news for us. Their God is our God. Mercy to them is an assurance that mercy will be available to us.
Reflection: When have I been upset by the good fortune of another? How frequently do I recognize the blessings of my own life?
Prayer: God of mercy, when I begin comparing myself to others, it often leads to envy and resentment. Help me keep my eyes focused on your mercy and let me be grateful.
Matthew 20:17-34—The Mother of Zebedee’s Sons Makes Her Move
We do not know whether the mother of the sons of Zebedee was able to hear the parable that Jesus just told of the vineyard workers. If she did, however, she did not understand its import. For in her desire to secure the highest places for her sons in Jesus’ kingdom, she betrays the importance she gives to position and authority, to measuring one person’s value against another’s. The workers were concerned that their position of primacy was undercut when those who were hired last received the same wage. This mother seeks a special favor so that her sons might reign above all the rest.
Matthew has taken this story from Mark (10:35-45). He has edited it to protect the reputation of James and John. In Mark these two apostles themselves pose the inappropriate request to Jesus. Matthew has their mother ask for them. He avoids mentioning the apostles names, calling them simply “the sons of Zebedee” (verse 20). Yet Matthew’s attempt to salvage their reputation is undercut when the mother suddenly disappears from the story and we find Jesus talking to the apostles directly (verse 22).
Whoever makes the proud request, Jesus speaks against it. Criticizing the attitude of privilege, he asserts that those who wish to be first must see themselves as servants (verse 27). If anyone had a claim to authority and influence it would be Jesus as the glorious Son of Man. Yet he did not come claiming his rightful position of power but instead gave his life in service for the ransom of many (verse 28). The Church must be modeled on the cross. Claiming the signs of worldly authority betrays the gospel.
Reflection: In what ways today does the attraction for position and power harm the mission of the Church? With what attitudes do I contribute to this failure?
Prayer: Jesus, Son of Man, it is easier to believe in you than to follow your example. Help me to be the servant of all.
Matthew 21:1-17—The Action in the Temple
The triumphant entry into Jerusalem reminds the reader that Jesus has now reached the city where he is to suffer and be raised from the dead. From this point on, the controversy between Jesus and the religious leaders will intensify.
Upon entering the city, Jesus goes directly to the temple and overturns the tables of the money changers (verses 12-13). This action in the temple is narrated by all four gospels (Mark 11:15-17; Luke 19:45-46; John 2:13-17). The purpose of Jesus’ action, however, is unclear. To imagine Jesus objecting to the exchanging of money in the temple would be peculiar. The action was both necessary and natural in light of the sacrificial system of worship at the heart of Judaism. As a good Jew, Jesus would have appreciated this. Perhaps he was objecting to a dishonesty which he felt characterized such exchanges. Yet such criticism of the temple is largely absent from his teachings as they have come down to us. The best way to see Jesus’ action is as a prophetic sign symbolizing the replacement of the present temple in light of the coming reign of God.
Whatever the reason for Jesus’ action, the consequences were tragic. Most biblical historians would agree that it was this temple action which brought Jesus to the attention of the Roman authorities. In a city filled with excitable Passover pilgrims, any disruptive action would concern Pilate. With little inquiry and certainly no due process, Jesus would have been targeted as a troublemaker and sentenced to die. His action may have been a vivid religious statement, announcing the kingdom of God. It was seen as a political problem which was resolved by crucifixion.
Reflection: When have my actions been misunderstood by others? Have I ever judged that acting on what I believe is more important than the consequences?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, I cannot control how people see or judge me. Help me make my first priority to do what is right and leave the rest to you.
Matthew 21:18-32—Two Sons Respond
In the morning as Jesus returns to Jerusalem from Bethany, he curses a fig tree (verses 18-22) and enters the temple. There he engages in debate with the chief priests and elders over the ministry of John the Baptist, deflecting their attempt to claim that John’s ministry was merely of human origin (verses 23-27). Jesus then tells the parable of the man with two sons (verses 28-32). The parable is unique to Matthew and in its present context serves to criticize the religious leaders for their opposition to John (verse 32).
However, when the parable is interpreted on its own, a wider meaning emerges. The parable is little more than an expanded proverb, claiming that our actions are more important than our words. The son who did the Father’s will, even though he said he would not, clearly comes out ahead of his pleasing but deceptive brother. Obedient faith is a primary focus for Matthew. The emphasis on doing is found throughout his gospel. (See article, “Matthew’s Gospel.”)
In this parable Matthew applies the importance of doing to the judgments we make concerning others. If what we do is more important than what we say, then we had better judge cautiously. Some people who present an attractive appearance may well be selfish and disobedient. Others whose words or demeanor offend us may be faithful daughters and sons. The parable warns us to think twice before we judge a brother or sister who has a quick temper, who struggles with a broken marriage, who seems inconsistent in a promise. Any one of these may in fact be doing the Father’s will.
Reflection: Who are the people I find easy to judge? How can I see them differently?
Prayer: Lord God, only you can see the intentions of the heart. Instead of judging what seems to be true in others, allow me to live in the truth myself.
Matthew 21:33-46—A Parable of Violence
Matthew now presents the parable of the wicked tenants (verses 33-41). He draws the parable from Mark (12:1-12). In its present context Matthew uses the parable to show that the leadership of Israel must be replaced by another group (verse 43). This new group is, of course, Matthew’s community which interprets the law in contrast to the teaching of the Pharisees. (See above, “What Does Matthew Have Against Pharisees.”)
If we take the parable on its own, however, it presents a disturbing reflection on the societal issues of justice and violence. We should not see the owner of the vineyard as a wealthy or influential person. The socio-economic situation of first-century Palestine was unstable. Poor farmers who owned some land were forced to entrust it to whomever they could find in order to earn even a small profit. If the tenants refused to honor the agreement to turn over the produce, the owner had little legal recourse. He would quickly be in danger of losing everything. This explains the escalating violence in the parable. The tenants believe that they can attack with impunity. The owner’s foolish decision to send his son is born out of desperation.
The parable reminds us how societies whose legal systems are corrupt or ineffective not only negate justice but promote violence. In such societies the weak are the first to suffer. When fairness cannot be extended to all, it is the poor and vulnerable who bear the brunt of the injustice. This parable calls us to examine the structures of our own country, reminding us that when justice is not protected, the security of every citizen is endangered.
Reflection: Am I thankful for the safety and stability of my country? Do I recognize that my own security depends upon justice for all?
Prayer: Loving Creator, you have made us interdependent. Help me to speak out for the weakest among us, so that we all might rejoice in your peace.
Matthew 22:1-14—Dressing for the Feast
Matthew’s parable of the marriage feast is taken from Q. It is more allegorized than Luke’s version (Luke 14:15-24). In fact the violence in the parable makes little sense if we read the parable literally. Why would you kill someone who was inviting you to a wedding (verse 5)? The acrimony of the parable reflects the controversy between Matthew’s community and the Pharisees. The rejected invitations stand for the rejection of gospel by some in Israel. The angry king who destroys the murderers’ city is Matthew’s way of saying that Jerusalem was destroyed because of its refusal to believe in Jesus (verse 7).
After Matthew uses the parable to judge those who will not respond to the Christian message, he turns to address his own community. He adds the small parable of the wedding garment (verses 11-14). A person who has accepted the invitation is not properly dressed. In this parable the garment stands for a life lived in accordance with God’s call, a converted life filled with good deeds. The man with the dirty, wrinkled clothing represents the person whose life has not undergone basic change or produced fruits worthy of repentance.
The parable reflects one of Matthew’s central themes: doing the will of the Father (Matt 7:21). Here is a believer who does not hunger and thirst for righteousness (Matt 5:6). He is thrown out of the feast (verse 13). Matthew is telling his community and us that our acceptance of God’s invitation should not lead to complacency. The refusal of some is no advantage to us. If we do not strive for God’s righteousness, we too will be found to be unworthy.
Reflection: Have I too often taken my faith for granted? What can I point to today that demonstrates that I am following Christ?
Prayer: Lord, you have saved me by your free choice. Allow the strength of my gratitude to engender a deeper generosity.
Matthew 22:15-33—Careful Who You Try to Trap
Matthew now presents four disputes between Jesus and the religious leaders. The first concerns paying taxes to Caesar (verses 15-22) and the second the resurrection of the dead (verses 23-33).
The debate over taxation should not be used to draw some profound conclusion regarding the relationship between the Church and the state. Jesus’ famous statement, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” does little to clarify how one might negotiate those mutual obligations (verse 21).
The real impact of the story occurs as Jesus unravels the trickery of his opponents. The Pharisees and Herodians believe that have the perfect way to discredit Jesus. By asking him to take a stand on the payment of taxes, they thrust him into a seemingly no-win situation. If he opposes taxes, he will arouse the anger of the Romans. If he agrees to taxes, he will lose the respect of his fellow Jews. With insight and wit, Jesus asks for the coin used to pay the tax. As soon as his opponents pull a coin from their pockets, their trap is undone. They have demonstrated that they are willing to use Caesar’s money. If they are carrying Caesar’s image, they should pay his tax.
This story teaches a lesson on deception. Those who set a trap to destroy another may in fact do harm. However, it is just as likely that the wickedness they set in motion may undo them. Jesus says to give both to God and Caesar. It is God, of course, who must come first, and those who give to God will act in the truth.
Reflection: Have I ever witnessed the deception or entrapment of another? What damage has resulted for the parties involved?
Prayer: Lord, sometimes I am tempted to attain a good through improper means. Let me trust that acting in honesty will produce the best results.
Matthew 22:34-45—The Greatest Commandment
Matthew continues with two more disputes: what is the greatest commandment (verses 34-40) and whose son is the Messiah (41-45). He has inherited the question of the greatest commandment from Mark (12:28-34), and his editing has transformed it from a friendly discussion between Jesus and a scribe to a test conceived by Jesus’ opponents (verse 35).
Nevertheless, Jesus’ answer to the question is a highlight of Matthew’s narrative. In a gospel that is so concerned with instruction on the law, this summary expresses Matthew’s central message. Love of God and love of neighbor is the heart of the law. It reveals what it means to follow Jesus.
The double commandment is thoroughly Jewish. Love of God is commanded in Deut 6:5; love of neighbor in Lev 19:18. The only originality in Jesus’ teaching comes from the formulation of placing the two directives side by side. Matthew heightens this comparison by saying that the two are on the same level: “a second is like it” (verse 39).
Care must be taken, therefore, not to use this “love-commandment” as the feature which distinguishes Christians from Jews. Many Christians still suppose that Christianity is a religion of love, whereas Judaism is a religion of law. Even the most casual reading of the Hebrew scriptures will demonstrate that the presence of love is central to the Jewish tradition. Matthew’s viewpoint accurately reflects this orientation. Love does not replace the law but expresses its centermost command. Loving God and our neighbor is the clearest summary of what God expects from us. If Christians believe in love today, it is because Jews believed in it before us.
Reflection: What demands has the command to love placed upon me? How do I express my love for God in my love for another?
Prayer: Gracious God, I realize that my love for you must come before all else. Help me see that I cannot begin to love you unless I can love my brother or sister.
Matthew 23:1-39—A Difficult Chapter
This chapter is difficult to read because of its violent attacks. We must remember that it does not provide an accurate description of the Pharisees. The purpose of the attacks is to establish an distinct identity for Matthew’s community. (See above, “What Does Matthew Have Against the Pharisees.”) Like most established religious groups, the Pharisees of Matthew’s day adopted a social hierarchy for their structure. Those who led the community wore special insignia, received particular privileges, and were regularly honored in public.
Matthew seeks to distinguish his community by forbidding the use of titles and the presence of highly authoritative roles. His community is not to use the titles “Rabbi, father, or instructor” (verses 8-10). Instead the leaders are to humble themselves and act as the servants of all (verses 11-12). New religious movements often begin with an emphasis on equality. It is likely that Matthew’s church operated with an egalitarian form of leadership. Seeing this deviance from the practice of established Jewish groups, Matthew points to it as a sign of goodness and uses the difference to attack the Pharisees.
As the Christian movement became institutionalized, titles and positions of power reasserted themselves. Today most church communities largely ignore Matthew’s directives on church structure. This is not necessarily a negative development. Titles and positions do not in themselves make Christians any more hypocritical than they did the Pharisees of Matthew’s day. Nevertheless, even as we choose to disregard Matthew’s directives, we should not ignore his values. Whenever those in leadership hold on too tightly to their positions, the focus of the gospel becomes blurred. Whenever those in authority do not first consider themselves servants, the charge of hypocrisy becomes real.
Reflection: How do I use my authority as a parent, employer, or minister? Do I work to make the connection between my role and my service obvious?
Prayer: Gracious God, you alone are Father and Teacher. Allow my recognition of your authority motivate me to greater service.
Matthew 24:1-35—The Son of Man Returns
Chapters 24-25 comprise the discourse section of Book Five, the last major discourse of the gospel. The first half is taken largely from Mark (13:1-37). Writing as the temple lay in ruins, Matthew begins this section by showing that Jesus foresaw the time when not one stone of the temple would be left upon another (verses 1-2).
Matthew describes the events that will precede the return of the Son of Man. There will be dramatic signs, persecutions, tribulations, and false prophets (verses 3-28). Then Christ will return on the clouds of heaven (verses 29-31). The parable of the fig tree reminds his readers to watch the signs of the times and be ready (verses 32-35).
The events which Matthew describes are terrible and violent. He increases the dismay by inserting material which declares that the Church itself will be torn by internal betrayal, hatred, and loss of faith (verses 10-12). The narration, however, contains hope. “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (verse 13). Those who persevere will not be disappointed. Nor is that patience to be seen as a passive reality. Those who endure must continue to proclaim the gospel to the nations (verse 14).
Even though we do not live with the same fervid expectation of Christ’s return as did Matthew’s church, his message of hope is still relevant. Every life includes events which frighten and shake us. Sickness, failure, loss, and death are real. Divisions and resentments happen both within and without our families. The Christian is called to endure with patience and to proclaim what we believe. We stand in hope—holding on and speaking out.
Reflection: In what circumstances did I have to endure patiently? Could I believe that even in those difficult times God was still guiding my life?
Prayer: Lord, when the terrors of life attack me, I have nowhere to flee. Allow me to hold on to your promise that my life will end in joy.
Matthew 24:24 to 25:13—The Bridesmaids Disagree
Matthew continues his discourse with several sayings on the unknown day and hour of Christ’s return (chapter 24, verses 36-44). He then presents the first of three parables of delay, the faithful or unfaithful servant (chapter 24, verses 45-51).
The next parable is that of the wise and foolish bridesmaids (chapter 25, verses 1-13). It is unique to Matthew, possibly an elaboration of a much simpler illustration which has been recorded in Luke (12:35-38). Matthew uses this parable to show the necessity of readiness as we wait for Christ’s return.
Yet, as always, there is more to learn from the parable. The characters of the foolish bridesmaids are instructive. We know these kind of people from our own experience. They are the disorganized who want to do everything. Eager not to miss anything, they make commitments without being prepared. When it is time for them to act, they ask us to cover for their inadequacies: “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out” (chapter 25, verse 8). We are tempted to enable the poorly prepared out of a false charity. The parable, however, provides a different response. The wise bridesmaids refuse to help. They will not excuse their foolish partners from responsibility. Neither do they berate them with the familiar, “I told you so.” They simply and calmly direct their sisters to the oil dealers.
This parable teaches that charity does not always require us to respond to another’s request. When people ask us to cover for their irresponsibility, saying yes may only prolong the dysfunction. A clear and restrained “no” can be an expression of love.
Reflection: When have I felt that I was being used by another? Did I find it difficult to resist his or her effort to manipulate me?
Prayer: Generous God, I know that your command to love is at the center of the gospel. Give me the wisdom to see when my helping is love and when it is not.
Matthew 25:14-30—A Hard Saying
Matthew uses the parable of the talents to demonstrate what the faithful servant should do while awaiting the return of Jesus. He or she should act to follow Jesus’ teachings with as much energy as possible.
This parable, however, can be seriously misinterpreted. The saying in verse 29 sounds cruel and unfair. Why should those who have already be given more, while those who have nothing lose the little they possess? If this is the way God deals with us or the way we are asked to deal with others, whatever happened to mercy and love?
It is important to realize that the saying is not prescriptive but descriptive. It is not telling us that those who have little should be punished and those who have much rewarded. It is simply stating that those who have much are likely to make more, while those who have little are most likely to fail. The parable describes the hard truth we all know. The servants who are entrusted with many talents find the motivation to make more. The poor servant with the fewest talents gives up out of fear and does nothing (verses 24-25).
Placing the parable within the larger context of the gospel dispels a great deal of its harshness. The poor servant who received only one talent might be seen as a “little one” of Matthew’s community. As such those who had more gifts within the church would be expected to assist him and show him special care. Nevertheless, even a “little one” is called to use what has been given. If he chooses to bury his gift, he will have to answer to the master.
Reflection: How do the gifts I have been given motivate me to do good? Has the feeling that I am missing a gift ever paralyzed my ability to act?
Prayer: Master, any talent you give me is precious. Rather than lament what I do not have, allow me to use your gift with as much energy as I can.
Matthew 25:31-46—What Counts in the End
Matthew closes Book Five and the public ministry of Jesus with the great last judgment scene. The passage is not a parable but a revelation of the mystery behind all the parables and indeed the entire gospel. Unique to Matthew, this narrative sums up many of the motifs which are central to his gospel. Jesus is to be found in the midst of the Church. Therefore, whatever is done is done to him (verse 40, see Matt 18:20). Jesus is especially connected to the “little ones” of the community, to the “least” brother or sister (verse 40, see Matt 18:10). The list of good works against which the judgment is measured stresses the importance of “doing” (Matt 7:21).
This powerful scene has served as an examination for Christians throughout the centuries. The scope of the scene, however, widens when we ask who it is that is gathered before the glorious king. The text is clear: “all the nations” (verse 32). The judgment will come not simply to us as individuals but as communities. The king will not just ask us but also our nation, “What have you done for the hungry and sick? How do you treat your prisoners? Do you welcome strangers?” Suddenly this scene addresses our national policies on poverty, healthcare, prison reform, and immigration.
Throughout his gospel Matthew has insisted on the importance of responsibility, of attaining righteousness. This final scene of Jesus’ ministry applies those demands to our civic life. We must not simply be just people. We must work for a just country. Personal righteousness is insufficient. We must build a moral nation.
Reflection: How can my faith in Christ impact the policies of our country? Do I allow my beliefs to influence the way I vote?
Prayer: King of the World, I give you power over my life. Increase my care for the least of my brothers and sisters and extend your love throughout our nation.
Matthew 26:1-35—A New Passover
Chapter 26 begins Matthew’s passion narrative. The plot to kill Jesus (verses 1-5), an anointing at Bethany (verses 6-13), and the involvement of Judas (verses 14-16) lead to the celebration of a last meal between Jesus and his disciples (verses 17-35).
Matthew presents this last meal as a Passover meal (verses 17-19). It is likely, however, that the last meal of Jesus took place on the day before Passover (John 19:31, 42). Those involved in Jesus’ arrest would not want to crucify him on the holy day. Matthew’s own account admits such a concern in the statement of Caiaphas, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people” (verse 5).
On whatever day the meal occurred, it is clear that early Christians interpreted the meaning of the meal in light of Passover. After the destruction of Jerusalem, all Jews sought a way to continue the celebration of Passover without a temple in which the sacrificial lambs could be slaughtered. The rabbis resolved the issue by instituting a non-sacrificial seder meal. Matthew’s Jewish community tied the death and resurrection of Jesus closely to the Passover, using the Passover theme of liberation from slavery. Matthew adds the words “for the forgiveness of sins” to Mark’s account in order to emphasize the saving quality of the meal (verse 28).
As the tradition continued to develop, the meal which Jesus ate with his disciples on the night before he suffered became the central rite of the early Church. The Passover themes of liberation, sacrifice, and love led to a liturgy which was not limited to a yearly occasion, but could be celebrated whenever the community gathered.
Reflection: Do I realize that the Eucharist unites me to the same God who liberated Israel from oppression in Egypt? From what slavery has God freed me?
Prayer: God, my Savior, your love is active in my life. Each time I celebrate the Eucharist, let it remind me of how many blessings flow from your hand.
Matthew 26:36-56—Thy Will Be Done
Matthew now presents Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane (verses 36-46) and his arrest (verses 47-56). The prayer of Jesus is used to reveal his personal struggle and eventual commitment to the suffering which is to follow.
Matthew draws clear parallels between this prayer in the garden and the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus warns his disciples to stay awake lest they “enter into temptation” (verse 41, see Matt 6:13). Jesus prays three times. Mark only gives us the content of the first prayer (14:36). Matthew tells us what Jesus prayed each time (verses 39, 42, 44). As in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus addresses God as his Father and prays “your will be done” (verses 39, 42).
In this scene Jesus is a model for us. He lives out the greatest commandment: to love God with our whole soul and mind (Matt 22:37). Jesus soul is filled with grief (verse 38) and his mind wants him to avoid the cross (verse 39). Yet he turns all that is his to serve the Father’s will. In saying this prayer Jesus demonstrates that he is fulfilling the righteousness which is the expectation for every disciple (Matt 3:15).
Matthew wants his community and us to follow Jesus’ example. As the troubles of life press in upon us, we must decide what to do. The prayer of Jesus unveils our need to take all our doubts and fears and turn them over to our Father. All the instruction of the gospel is directed to this act of submission. As Jesus’ disciples we are not simply expected to pray his prayer but also to walk in his footsteps.
Reflection: When have I had to struggle to accept the Father’s will? What did the effort teach me about myself and my faith?
Prayer: My Father, life is not without pain. Especially in times of suffering, allow me to believe in your love and do your will.
Matthew 26:57-68—The Revelation of the Son of God
The next scene which Matthew presents is a night trial of Jesus before the “whole council” of the Jewish leadership (verse 59). Several factors raise serious doubts concerning the historical accuracy of this event. The trial violates almost every known regulation given for Jewish trials in the Mishnah. Capital trials could not be held at night or on the eve of a Sabbath or festival. Nor could a verdict be given on the same day as the trial itself. Even small details [such as how could the whole council meet in the house of the high priest (verse 57)] indicate that the actual events of Jesus passion happened differently. John tells us that Jesus was interviewed by Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, before being sent on for trial before Pilate (John 18:12-14). Most historians accept this as the more likely scenario.
What of the charges brought against Jesus? Jesus is questioned about being “the Messiah, the Son of God” (verse 63). If “Messiah” is understood as a kind of troublemaker who could upset the political stability of the country, such a charge could have well been leveled against the historical Jesus.
But Matthew’s interest lies elsewhere. His account is heavily shaped by theology. The charge echoes the affirmation which Peter makes at Caesarea Philippi (Matt 16:16) and Jesus’ response about the coming Son of Man (verse 64) looks forward to the glorious appearance of the risen Christ to his disciples (Matt 28:16-20). Matthew is not presenting an historical report of what happened during Jesus’ trial. He is exploring the spiritual significance of Jesus’ death. Jesus’ suffering led to the exaltation of the Messiah.
Reflection: Who are the innocent men and women who are condemned in our society? How does the gospel call me to work for their vindication?
Prayer: Saving God, your son suffered that I might live a new life. Do not allow the glory of this gift to distract me from those who continue to suffer today.
Matthew 26:69 to 27:10—Peter and Judas
While Jesus is openly proclaiming the truth before the council, Peter repeatedly denies his connection to Jesus in the courtyard. The issue is whether Peter can admit to be “with Jesus,” not in some physical sense but in the role of a disciple. Matthew emphasizes this connection by inserting “with Jesus” in the charge of the second maid (chapter 69, verse 71). Peter fails as a disciple. He even breaks the prohibition against oaths given by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (chapter 26, verse 72; see 5:33-37).
The story of Peter’s denial is found in all the gospels (Matt 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:56-62; John 18:15-18, 25-27). Matthew, however, is able to increase its impact because of the special material he includes on the death of Judas (chapter 27, verses 3-10). Judas, like Peter, has followed Jesus to the house of the chief priest. For he knows at once that Jesus has been condemned (chapter 27, verse 3). Judas, like Peter, repents of his failure. But, unlike Peter, Judas is not able to believe in God’s forgiveness. Giving in to the terrible consequences of his actions, he goes out and hangs himself (chapter 27, verse 5).
In a gospel which emphasizes the importance of good works and the consequences of our actions, the characters of Peter and Judas illustrate the two options which are available for the failed disciple. Neither has an excuse. Only one has a future. It is only by letting go of our sin and trusting in God’s mercy that life can continue. Peter recovers and serves the Church as its “rock,” while Judas swings in the wind.
Reflection: Have I ever been tempted by despair? What people or events allowed me to move beyond my failure?
Prayer: Lord, I will not always succeed in serving you. In the midst of my failure, let me turn from my pride and trust in your love.
Matthew 27:11-26—The Wrong Man is Released
Having provided us with a contrast between Peter and Judas, Matthew now offers a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. Again, questions of historical accuracy surround this scene. Roman and Jewish sources contain no record of the custom to release a prisoner during the Passover. This is perhaps why Luke eliminates any reference to such a practice in his gospel. Moreover, the idea of Pilate turning to a Jewish crowd and asking them to choose between life and death is improbable. Pilate’s main concern during Passover would be to prevent crowds from forming and to defuse any potential riot.
Matthew’s real interest in this scene, however, is spiritual. It provides a reflection on the fate of innocence in our world. Matthew carefully enhances the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. He is the only evangelist who tells us that Barabbas was also called Jesus (verse 16). Thus the crowd is given a choice between Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah. Matthew has Pilate underline the point when he asks the crowd “which of the two” do they want (verse 21).
When the crowd chooses Jesus Barabbas, the message of the scene is revealed. We live in a world where justice is frustrated, where the guilty are freed and the innocent condemned. Even when the right decision is obvious the wrong decision can be made. Evil has power. The helpless suffer. The innocent die. Efforts to correct the abuses are overlooked. Opportunities to strike out in vengeance are taken up. Matthew shapes the scene with the great drama. He sets before us two alternatives, evil and goodness, guilt and innocence. Here is Jesus Barabbas and Jesus the Messiah. Which one do you choose?
Reflection: In what circumstances have I witnessed injustice? Did I have a choice to correct what was wrong? Do I now?
Prayer: Just God, I realize how little influence I have over the forces of society. Nevertheless give me strength to promote whatever justice I can.
Matthew 27:27-44—Two Meanings for “King”
Jesus is now mocked by Pilate’s soldiers and led to crucifixion. One of the undisputed historical facts of Jesus’ passion is that he was crucified. Originally a Persian form of execution, crucifixion was adopted by the Romans for the death of rebels and slaves. In the debate over placing responsibility for Jesus’ death, this form of execution is important. Whatever contribution others may have made to Jesus’ condemnation, crucifixion proves that the Romans were the primary agents of his death.
All four gospels agree on the charge which was hung on the cross: “Jesus, King of the Jews” (verse 37; Mark 15:26; Luke 23:38; John 19:19). The charge is a political one. Jesus was crucified by the Romans as one of many “Jewish revolutionaries” who desired to overthrow Roman rule. The Romans feared that by attracting crowds Jesus could spur a Jewish uprising. This necessitated his death, even though his message did not advocate political revolution. It was the Roman perception of what a “Messiah” would mean for them that led Jesus to the cross.
Matthew may have known the Roman fear which occasioned Jesus’ crucifixion. However, he would read the charge displayed on the cross very differently. To him and to us the mocking title of “King” carries a meaning beyond anything which the Romans could have imagined. Here on the cross hangs the one who God has raised up and given the highest glory in the heavens. Here is the king of the new creation which promises life and peace for the world. Here is the Lord who has claimed the hearts of believers from Calvary to the ends of the earth.
Reflection: What does the symbol of the cross mean to me? Can I see in it a cruel and unjust form of punishment? Can I see the proclamation of glory?
Prayer: Father, I believe your Son died for me. As I gaze upon his cross, let me see beyond the pain to the love which it displays.
Matthew 27:45-65—A Community Proclaims the Son of God
Matthew cannot wait. As soon as Jesus breathes his last, Matthew jumps to the resurrection. Although the other evangelists wait until Easter morning, Matthew announces the new creation with an earthquake and the raising of the dead (verses 51-52). He does not even try to hide his intentions, revealing that he is already describing what will happen “after his the resurrection” (verse 53). The material which Matthew uses is probably an elaboration upon the vision of Ezekiel: “You shall know that I am Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people” (Ezek 37:13).
The raising of the dead is at the heart of the Christian message. Because Jesus had been raised up, his disciples expected that evil and death would soon be defeated (1Cor 15:20-28). All this would be accomplished when Christ returned and established the kingdom. This was the central message of the first Christians. It was what made the gospel “good news.”
As Matthew anticipates Easter, he cannot help but reinforce a central interest of his gospel. Mark has a single centurion proclaim, “Truly this man was God’s Son” (Mark 15:39). Matthew enlarges the profession into a chorus by giving the words to the centurion “and those with him” (verse 54). For Matthew the profession of Christ as God’s Son cannot be the role of an individual. The resurrection is the proclamation of a community. Therefore, just as he looks forward to the resurrection, Matthew looks forward to the Church. He cannot wait to share it. At the foot of the cross, a community of Gentiles proclaims that Jesus is Lord.
Reflection: Do I see the gospel as the proclamation of a community of believers? How has the witness of others strengthened my own faith?
Prayer: Lord, even in the presence of loss and death allow me to look ahead. Let me anticipate your promise of life and community.
Matthew 28:1-15—The Witness of Mary Magdalene
When the women find the empty tomb in Mark, they do not see Jesus (16:1-8). Matthew changes his source by including an appearance of the risen Christ (verses 9-10). He also adds another earthquake which ties the resurrection scene to the events at the cross (verse 2; see 27:51).
The presence of Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb is recorded by all the evangelists. Sometimes accompanied by others, her name is always mentioned first. How can we explain the extensive testimony that gives Mary Magdalene this pivotal role on Easter morning?
It is unlikely that the evangelists would have made up Mary’s involvement. It would not suit their interests. Women in the ancient world were not respected and their testimony was not valid in legal proceedings. The early Fathers of the Church had to defend the truth of the resurrection against the charge that it was the fabrication of unreliable women! The best explanation for Mary Magdalene’s presence in all the resurrection stories is that she was, in fact, the first disciple who received an appearance of the risen Lord.
If this is true, we owe Mary Magdalene a great debt. The Christian faith cannot be proven scientifically. What we believe, we believe upon the witness of those who have come before us. For this reason it is truly said that our faith rests upon the witness of the apostles. But the faith of Peter, John, and the rest of the twelve rests upon a prior proclamation. Mary was sent by Jesus to “tell my brothers to go to Galilee” (verse 10). She was the apostle to the apostles. Our faith rests on hers.
Reflection: Who are the people who have passed down their faith to me? Have I ever thanked them for this tremendous gift?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, if you were not risen, my faith would be in vain. Thank you for your work of salvation and the people who have proclaimed the gospel to me.
Matthew 28:16-20—Jesus Decides to Stay
In Matthew’s gospel Jesus does not ascend into heaven. He promises to remain with his Church always. Matthew ends his gospel with an appearance of the risen Christ to the disciples gathered on a mountain in Galilee. These last verses reflect the same narrative-discourse pattern which Matthew used to shape Jesus’ ministry. Jesus appears to the disciples (verses 16-17) and then teaches them (verses 18-20).
Matthew packs his conclusion with the central themes of his gospel. The Church is highlighted with the great commission given to it. The Gentiles are shown as part of the Church because disciples are to be made from “all nations” (verse 19). The Church is to teach as Jesus taught (verse 20). It is not to fear. For Christ whose birth was announced as “God is with us” (Matt 1:23), and who promises to remain with us always (verse 20) will be with the Church whenever two or three are gathered (Matt 18:20).
Matthew remains the sympathetic realist. Even as the disciples stand in the glory of the risen Christ, some doubt (verse 17). The great Church, proclaiming to the nations, is never perfect. Here the reader remembers the gentle rebuke of Matthew’s gospel, “O you of little faith.” The teaching has been given. The Lord has been raised. The community has been charged with a world-wide mission. We still sin and doubt. Is this cause for despair? Only if we would stand with Judas. We choose to stand with Peter who denied his Lord yet remained “the rock.”
Go forth, then, O Church of Christ, ever believing, ever doubting. You are flawed and wounded, but the gospel of Christ is in your hands!
Reflection: When have my faults held me back from my mission? When have they reminded me where my true strength lies?
Prayer: Risen Lord, when I doubt my ability to serve you, remind me that it is not my Church but yours. Let your work be done in me.