The Gospel of Matthew

Knowing the Gospels Better Opens the Way to Prayer

The Gospel of Matthew

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Years ago I was privileged to be part of an excavation team working on a site in Israel along the coast of the Sea of Galilee.

Unfortunately for me, I had broken my wrist the day before leaving home for that memorable experience. With my wrist in a cast, I was assigned the relatively more sedentary task of washing the pottery my colleagues had discovered in their digging. Fortunately for me, my partner most of the time was a self-made, financially successful Texan in less than perfect health who really knew and loved the Bible. As we worked tranquilly side-by-side, taking in the same views of the lake that Jesus had, this humble man recited many biblical stories that stirred us both. He knew a lot about biblical history and could cite long passages, chapter and verse, from memory. Better still, he lived what he believed. He made me think of the scribe Jesus refers to in the Gospel of Matthew who “has been trained for the kingdom of heaven” and “brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (13:52).

Matthew reminds me of some classmates I have had—the really organized types who became great teachers because they could present things in a systematic, comprehensive way. Matthew had at least two sources, the Gospel of Mark and a source of Jesus’ sayings called Quelle or simply “Q.” According to Matthew, Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures and taught us the way of righteousness; he was and is the teacher, the true interpreter of the Law and the prophets. Matthew emphasized ethical behavior as well as faith in Jesus, who is the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Man. Matthew presented a kind of catechism, offering direction for the faith and behavior of believers who are members of one community, the church. Matthew was especially concerned that the leaders of the church give true guidance to people by exemplifying faith, forgiveness, and vigilance in expectation of the parousia as they do the will of God, our heavenly Father.

More than any of the other Gospels, Matthew emphasized leadership in the early church. For instance, Matthew’s Gospel has three scenarios in which Peter’s unique role among Jesus’ apostles is highlighted: Peter’s walking on water (14:28-31); the blessing of Peter after his confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah (16:17-19); and Peter’s paying the temple tax for himself and for Jesus from a coin found in the mouth of a fish (17:24-27). Matthew’s special treatment of Peter as representative and spokesperson for the apostles and the “rock” upon which the church has been built has prompted many interpreters to connect Matthew with the church at Antioch, where Peter’s authority and following were dominant. Others argue that his emphasis on Peter might be an indication that Matthew originated in Rome, where Peter met his death under Nero around AD 64 and where St. Peter has been especially revered ever since.

At a Glance

Who: Matthew the Evangelist composed his gospel in the eighth decade of the first century.

What: The Gospel is narrative theology; Matthew incorporated sources that were part of Christian tradition to recount some of the events of Jesus’ life and the early church’s belief that Jesus was the Messiah.

When: The events Matthew recorded took place in the first half of the first century AD.

Where: Various locations throughout Palestine, ending in Jerusalem. Possibly written in Antioch or Rome.

Why: To encourage a predominantly Jewish-Christian audience who needed reassurance in light of the increasing hostility between believers in Jesus and the Jews of the synagogues, who were making it difficult or impossible for Christians to stay connected to them.

Major Themes

  • Jesus the teacher offers the true interpretation of the Law and the prophets. Jesus teaches that righteousness means doing the will of our heavenly Father. This is the basis of God’s judgment.

  • Jesus is our model as God’s Son; he is the Messiah who fulfills the promises of the Scriptures.

  • The church is entrusted with the care of the community of “little ones” who believe and follow Jesus’ teachings on discipleship.

Authorship

Called the “Gospel of Matthew” by the early Fathers of the Church, this is not to be mistaken as the work of the apostle named Matthew who was a contemporary of Jesus. The connection with the apostle Matthew is probably the result of the appearance of the name “Matthew” as the tax collector whom Jesus calls according to Matthew 9:9, a person referred to as “Levi” in Mark and Luke (Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27). Matthew the Evangelist composed this Gospel in the mid-eighties of the first century AD.

Literary Form

Narrative Theology: Responding to the needs of the church, Matthew developed the concept of a “gospel” from Mark and adapted it for his particular audience of Jewish Christians. He conveyed his beliefs about Jesus as the Messiah through stories about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Key Passages

5–7: On a mountaintop, with his disciples gathered around him, Jesus teaches the crowds. The Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer are incorporated within Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.

10: Jesus sends out his disciples to preach the good news that the kingdom of God is near.

13:1-53: Jesus preaches a series of parables that attracts many but is met with rejection as well. From this point on, Jesus focuses more and more on his disciples, while the leaders of the people mount their effort to put him to death.

18: In response to a question by the disciples about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus describes the role of the church in seeking the lost sheep and in extending forgiveness.

Food for Thought

The Gospel of Matthew stresses faith in action. Following Jesus imposes moral imperatives. We will be judged on whether we have fed the hungry, given clothes to the needy, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned (see 25:31-46). In our precarious world, we learn from Matthew the value of trust in our heavenly Father. Trust banishes fear and doubt. We can ask ourselves, “What more can I do in my own life to show that I have understood the message of Matthew’s Gospel?”

Excerpted from Mary Ann Getty-Sullivan’s recent book, The Quick Reference Guide to the Bible (The Word Among Us Press, 2014). Available at wau.org/books

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