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Promise and mission: an overview of the Gospel of Matthew

Posted 27 November 2019 

 

On Tuesday 15 October, a committed group of parish liturgy teams and coordinators from across Melbourne gathered at the Catholic Leadership Centre to begin their preparations for Advent and for a new liturgical year. Having so expertly opened up the Gospel of Luke last year, Ria Greene returned to lead participants through an overview of the Gospel of Matthew, a text that points us unswervingly in the direction of the kingdom, and which speaks powerfully into many of the challenges facing the church today.

Ria has worked in Catholic education for more than twenty years, with a focus on religious education and faith formation, but has also worked as a parish catechist and sacraments coordinator, and has completed further studies in religious education and theology. She teaches a senior religious studies class at St Bede’s College, where she is Deputy Principal, and says that her students have been some of her ‘greatest teachers’.

Matthew’s Gospel was written in about AD85–90, a couple of decades after the Roman destruction of the Jewish temple. It was probably written in Antioch in Syria, a volatile region at the crossroads of various trade routes, with a long—and sadly ongoing—history of conflict and oppression. As Ria pointed out, while Matthew’s Gospel certainly has relevant things to say to us today, Roman-occupied Syria was a time and place very different from our own, and she cautioned against imposing 21st-century values and perspectives on the text.

Unlike the Gospel of Luke, which was written at roughly the same time but which addresses a Gentile audience, Matthew’s Gospel was intended for a community of mostly second-generation Jewish Christians. This is evident in its central themes, with Jesus identified as the greatest of the prophets and as fulfilling God’s promises to Israel. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, this community had probably withdrawn from synagogue life, but the text nevertheless contains more than 130 Jewish Scripture references and allusions, as well as examples of rabbinical writing techniques and a concern with the law and its fulfilment. It is, Ria pointed out, a story of continuity, not one in which a fickle God rejects the Jewish people or the law.

As an oppressed Jewish community, the text’s original audience would have treasured the stories of David, the king of Israel’s ‘golden era’. But in the wake of the temple’s destruction, and with the dawning realisation that the Second Coming was no longer imminent, this community—living as part of the Jewish diaspora in a religiously diverse, cosmopolitan imperial city—was experiencing growing pains and power struggles. It sought a clearer sense of identity, looking to consolidate its diverse membership and to establish structures. Its members sought reassurance and to reaffirm their faith while also discovering a new sense of mission, one focused on going out into the world rather than just inviting others in. All these themes and influences are evident in Matthew’s Gospel.

While traditionally this gospel has been associated with the disciple Matthew, he is probably not the real author, whose identity remains unknown, although he was very likely a Jewish convert to Christianity. The gospel draws heavily on the stories and sayings in Mark’s gospel (incorporating 606 of Mark’s 661 verses), but softens and adapts them for its own context. Along with his contemporary Luke, the author also borrows material from the lost source that biblical scholars refer to as ‘Q’ (after the German Quelle or 'source'), as well as including some unique material, such as its distinct infancy narrative.

Ria highlighted the author’s love of symmetry by outlining the ‘chiastic’ structure of the gospel’s five main discourses, showing how they begin with the theme of blessings and woes (in relation to the proclamation of God’s reign) and then move through the theme of life and community (Jesus’ ministry in Galilee) to the central theme of the kingdom (explored through controversy and the parables) before moving back through the theme of life and community (the formation of the disciples) and concluding where they began on the theme of blessings and woes (in relation to Judea and Jerusalem). These discourses are bookended by a prologue—in which the infancy narrative functions as a kind of overture, helping the audience to ‘tune in’ to what’s coming—and by the gospel’s climax, which focuses on the passion and resurrection of Jesus and the commissioning of the disciples. This preoccupation with symmetry is also shown in the way events and ideas are often organised into groups of three or seven.

The centrality of the kingdom of God is another feature of Matthew’s gospel, with a greater emphasis on the teaching of Jesus than on his actions. This results in a more reflective and didactic account, designed to keep its audience focused on the kingdom at a time when evidence of God’s reign was often hard to discern. As Ria observed, this emphasis is particularly relevant today in a climate that is often openly hostile to the church. The tensions that the early Jewish Christians experienced in relation to Orthodox Judaism and to the wider culture within an imperial Roman city were in some ways similar to the pressures that contemporary Christians face in an increasingly secularised culture.

Ria pointed out that the world of the text itself, like the world of its original audience, was also one of Roman occupation and oppression, and observed that the distinctive geographical features of Palestine—the sea and desert, hills and valleys—feature throughout the Matthean account of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ context was a one shaped by Jewish social customs and paradigms, where concepts of family honour and shame powerfully influenced people’s behaviour and outlook (in contrast to the more individualistic outlook of modern Australia). People—particularly marginalised people—knew their place. The Jewish power centre of Jerusalem is contrasted in the text with the more cosmopolitan and remote (and therefore suspect) region of Galilee.

Ria led participants through a short exercise in redaction criticism, in which Mark’s account of Jesus and the disciples in the storm (Mark 6:45–52) was compared, line for line, with the Matthean version (Matthew 12:22–23). While there are significant similarities, the additions made to the Matthean account reveal some of the central themes of this gospel. The Jesus we encounter here is more authoritative, and the story points more clearly to his identity as the Son of God. Similarly, the inclusion of Peter’s response emphasises the centrality and importance of faith for discipleship (represented by Peter) and for the church (represented by the boat), particularly when the community is being battered by external forces (as Matthew’s audience was) and when faith is waning. Significantly, Jesus comes to where the disciples are, walking out and climbing into the boat when they are in peril, and when Peter cries out in distress, Jesus again comes to the rescue. The account ends with the disciples in the boat (the church) worshipping Jesus as ‘the Son of God’.

The Matthean Jesus is shown to be the fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel, Jewish from birth to death, and is variously identified as the new Moses and new David, as well as the awaited Messiah. An authoritative teacher, he is the definitive interpreter of God’s will, bringing certainty and reassurance when his followers’ faith is wavering or their circumstances seem overwhelming. He models prophetic ministry, as well as a ministry of wisdom and of teaching, showing us what true ecclesial leadership looks like.

Ria concluded by exploring two important passages in greater depth: the infancy narrative and the concluding passages on the commissioning of the disciples. Her commentary included a fascinating discussion of the way that the unconventional women in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus help to prepare the reader for Mary’s unusual pregnancy. She also discussed how the stories of the Magi and the flight to Egypt, with their strong allusions to Hebrew Scripture, point to Jesus’ true identity—as king (Gold), God (Frankincense) and man (Myrrh)—and to his mission as the ‘new Moses’, the saviour of his people. Indeed, some of the gospel’s most important themes—prophecy, fulfilment, teaching, identity and mission—are there in the infancy narrative.

The final passage of Matthew’s gospel, as Jesus commissions his disciples and sends them out, brings the reader back, full circle, to Galilee, where Jesus’ ministry began. And here, like the original disciples being equipped for their mission, we are presented with some of the most striking and important ideas in Matthew’s Gospel: the authority of Jesus; the church’s mission to the nations (including the ministries of baptism and teaching); the trinitarian formulation of ‘Father, Son and Holy Spirit’; and the eternal presence of Jesus, Emmanuel, God with us.

The evening had begun with a prayer marking the feast day of St Teresa of Avila. It ended with the image of the disciples being sent out by Jesus into the world. As participants also prepared to go on their way, Ria reminded them again of these words, attributed to St Teresa: ‘Christ has no body now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.’


 


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