Making the Most of Matthew
Exploring resources that deepen knowledge of the liturgical cycle in Year A
Since the reform of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, every three years the Sunday cycle of readings begins anew with Matthew’s Gospel. For those of us who regularly preach the Word, this may be a challenge. What can we say that is new? How can we better understand what has likely become overly familiar? This article will offer a few avenues to pursue throughout the liturgical year of Matthew.
Before setting forth some paths to follow, we should note, at the very beginning, an important orientation. Each new liturgical year, despite how familiar it may seem to us, offers us a new opportunity to deepen our knowledge of what we already know. Practically, what this means is that we are invited to open ourselves once more and be surprised by what we thought we had already mastered.
One way to deepen our acquaintance with Matthew is to use a new resource as our companion for the year. While commentaries sometimes repeat standard information, new ones can occasionally offer insights that you never thought of before. For Matthew, I recommend three possible new resources: Brendan Byrne’s commentary in “The Paulist Biblical Commentary” (Paulist, $149); David R. Bauer, “The Gospel of the Son of God: An Introduction to Matthew” (IVP Academic, $38); and, more technically, R. Alan Culpepper, “Matthew: A Commentary” (Westminster John Knox, $80). There is nothing wrong with revisiting resources you have found useful in the past. Yet, accessing a more recent presentation of the Gospel that takes advantage of new scholarly insights is worth the effort (and expense) for helping you explore Matthew in more depth.
Rather than offer a summary of various parts of Matthew, I will set forth some paths to pursue that may lead you to deeper reflection on this “first Gospel” — so named because it is the first book in the New Testament — attributed to Matthew, the tax collector disciple of Jesus (cf. 9:9).
Additional Reading from Pope Francis’ Reflections
Pope Francis offers a spiritual and pastoral reading of “The Gospel of Matthew” (Orbis, $22). Taken from a variety of written and oral sources on various occasions, Pope Francis guides readers to meet Jesus and discover the hidden treasures in the individual lines or words of the Gospel of Matthew.
Father Daniel P. Horan, OFM, in the book’s Foreword, says Pope Francis guides readers who “long to follow Christ more fully, understand Scripture more clearly, and love God and neighbor more completely.”
Context and Narrative
The first recommendation may seem mundane and overly obvious, yet in my experience it is often overlooked. Because Matthew is such an “orderly” Gospel, many preachers focus on the distinct sections that stand out. Primary among these are the five great “sermons,” or discourses, beginning with the famous Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5-7; then Chapters 10, 13, 18 and 23-25). Since antiquity, these five inspiring tracts of Jesus’ teaching have attracted interpreters who considered them to be structural markers. But this approach overlooks a vital feature: Matthew is first and foremost a narrative, not simply a collection of spiritual and ethical teaching.
The effective preacher will pay close attention to the context of each snippet of the Gospel used throughout the liturgical year. What comes before and what goes after a passage can help frame how it functions in the Gospel. The story spans from the genealogy (cf. 1:1-17) to the Great Commission (28:16-20), from Abraham to the eschatological kingdom. It is the proclamation of “Emmanuel” — God with us — whose presence is assured even after he has returned to the Father (1:23; 18:20; 28:20).
As this narrative unfolds, it reveals Jesus as God’s faithful and obedient Son in both Word (especially the five discourses) and deed (the multiple miracles). Everything in the Gospel is there to reinforce this identity, which is a fulfillment of what the prophets foretold. Paying attention to this overarching plan can help preachers see how individual passages connect to or push forward, the narrative. It culminates in the passion and resurrection of Jesus (Chapters 26-28) who shows himself as the authentic Son of God because he voluntarily accepted his Father’s will to suffer and die to save his people. The story of Emmanuel the Savior thus comes full circle (1:21; 26:28; 27:54).
A second strategy for preaching Matthew is to watch for the themes that pop up regularly as the story of Jesus advances. None of the Synoptic Gospels is simply generic. Each has its distinctive emphases, which can give the preacher a unique vantage point from which to understand Matthew’s perspective. Of the many possible themes to trace, let me point to four.
The Nature of Discipleship
Matthew does not only focus on Jesus as the Messiah and Son of God. He also intertwines the theme of discipleship. This is evident in two ways. First, Matthew is the only Gospel to use the word “church” (Greek: ekklēsia), first in the acknowledgment of Peter as the premier apostle (cf. 16:18) and then in reference to the whole community of disciples (18:17). Jesus makes it clear in the heart of the Sermon on the Mount when he teaches his disciples the Our Father (6:9-13) that he is forming a new community based on faith and not bloodlines (12:48-50).
The five major discourses can be seen, in effect, as specific teachings about the nature of discipleship. Disciples are called to be childlike (not childish), to follow after the Master by taking up the cross, to serve rather than to be served, and to participate in Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing and — after Jesus’ return to the Father — teaching (cf. 28:20).
Unlike the characterization of the disciples in Mark, in Matthew they are more susceptible to acknowledging Jesus’ divine identity (cf. 14:33; 16:16), even if sometimes they have “little faith” (6:30; 14:31) or are wracked by doubts, even at the end (28:17). Matthew emphasizes certain characteristics of discipleship. One is that it is not a volunteer organization (8:18-22). Jesus has to call the disciples, and they must respond freely and follow (4:18-22). Furthermore, the disciples need to forego worldly relationships (10:37-39) and give up material possessions to follow Jesus (10:8). Most importantly, they must be ready to suffer for the sake of the Gospel (10:16-19).
Disciples are called to be “salt” and “light” in the world (cf. 5:13-14), and they are sent out on mission (equals apostles) to proclaim the Good News of Jesus and to call all to repentance. Unfortunately, as in Mark, when the crunch time comes, even these fairly perceptive disciples desert Jesus in his hour of need (26:56). Discipleship is not easy.
The Ethics of the Kingdom of Heaven
A strong dimension of Matthew’s Gospel is its forthright ethical perspective. The key to unlocking it is the Sermon on the Mount (see the sidebar “What to Make of the Sermon on the Mount?”). Virtually all interpreters see this discourse as a foundation document of Christianity. It looms large not only in the interpretation of this first Gospel, but also in the readings of every Lent, when Christians are called to repent, reform and be converted. Even the setting of the sermon is crucial. Jesus gives it on a mountaintop — the locus of God’s presence and of divine revelation, and reminiscent of Moses receiving the law — and the audience consists of disciples in the first row surrounded by “the crowds” (5:1).
Multiple features stand out. It begins with the Beatitudes (nine, actually, not eight), which sets the bar high for all of Jesus’ disciples and alludes to future suffering for the sake of Jesus. It also includes a series of radicalized interpretations of the law — “you have heard it said, but I say …” — which demand that the disciples follow the greater “righteousness” (5:20). The sermon then ends with a powerful simile of two contrasting houses, one built on sand and one built on rock. Only a firm foundation can help a house withstand the pressures that come over time, symbolic of the need for believers to be firmly rooted in strong ethical principles. In the very middle of the sermon stands the teaching on prayer, enshrined in the Our Father, which calls us to do God’s will and not our own.
If the sermon sets the stage for Matthean ethics, it does not contain all of it. This Gospel is filled with other important teachings, including the need to forgive others, uphold marriage and avoid divorce, and to stay alert for the coming of the Son of Man in judgment, at which time we will be held accountable for what we did or did not do according to the Gospel message.
We should also not overlook the concrete nature of Matthew’s advice. A major failing, in the Evangelist’s eyes, is when people say one thing but do another. Hypocrisy is the big no-no. This is not merely against a group of Jewish leaders, but applies to all religious-minded people who think they can smugly fulfill God’s law by mouth rather than by deed. Matthew warns that saying “Lord, Lord” is not enough to enter the kingdom (cf. 7:21; 25:11-12). Moreover, be honest in whatever you say: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No’” (5:37). In the context of modern society, where lying has become a standard feature for the sake of political ideologies, and where anonymous postings on social media have led to all kinds of falsehoods, a recovery of a truly ethical perspective is vital. Matthew shows the way.
What to Make of the Sermon on the Mount?
Christians have been debating how best to understand the Sermon on the Mount since Matthew recorded it. Only a few exceptional individuals, like Francis of Assisi, have succeeded in putting it literally into practice. Are these ethical teachings principles for all humankind or only for disciples of Jesus? Are they merely ideals, or are they meant to be literally enacted? Do they supplant or complement the Ten Commandments? Are the Beatitudes a declarative statement or a heavenly wish list, a demanding exhortation?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “From the Sermon on the Mount onwards, Jesus insists on the conversion of heart: reconciliation with one’s brother before presenting an offering on the altar, love of enemies, and prayer for persecutors, prayer to the Father in secret, not heaping up empty phrases, prayerful forgiveness from the depths of the heart, purity of heart, and seeking the Kingdom before all else. This filial conversion is entirely directed to the Father” (2608).
Regardless of how one interprets the sermon, Matthew sees it as the way to become “perfect” (Greek: teleios, “goal-oriented,” cf. 5:48) by means of the greater “righteousness” (5:20). It offers not so much a “new law” but a fulfillment of “the law” and “the prophets” (5:17).
The Coming Judgment
One of the most challenging tasks in preaching Matthew is how to approach the question of judgment. This theme pops up in a variety of images. One concerns the metaphor of trees that produce either good fruit or bad fruit. Already, John the Baptist, a precursor to Jesus as the Christ, preaches that if a tree does not bear good fruit, it will be cut down and thrown into the fire (cf. 3:10). Jesus hints at the same thing (12:33; 13:23). The Sermon on the Mount echoes this teaching (7:16-20).
Warnings of judgment appear off and on in the Gospel and serve as a kind of wake-up call to act in good faith. The theme culminates in the magnificent judgment story of the sheep and the goats (cf. 25:31-46), which illustrates that our concrete actions toward those who are needy serve as a template for how well, or how poorly, we have lived out the Gospel message. Matthew uses typical Jewish apocalyptic language to visualize this threat (unquenching fire, gnashing of teeth, weeping and wailing), all of which were standard features of his day.
We should be careful, though. Matthew’s concentration on judgment is not merely a nod to “Santa Claus religion” — that is, “you’d better watch out!” It is rather a call to repentance and conversion, which is the essence of Jesus’ proclamation of the Good News (cf. 4:17).
Most scholars consider Matthew the most Jewish of the Gospels. There are many features that confirm this, such as the unique fulfillment citations from the Old Testament (e.g., 1:22-23; 26:54; 27:9), the emphasis on “the law and the prophets” (7:12), and the expression “kingdom of heaven,” a roundabout way to refer to God’s reign. Intriguingly, though, Matthew exalts Jesus’ mission of salvation as one offered to all humanity. Matthew is consequently universalistic in its vision.
This theme is first discreetly evoked by Jesus’ title as “son of Abraham” (1:1), the figure whom God promised to make the “father of a multitude of nations” (Gn 17:4) and the person at the head of Jesus’ own genealogy (cf. Mt 1:2). It continues in stories like the healing of the centurion’s servant (8:5-13). Jesus shows amazement that a Roman centurion, a non-Jew, would ask him to intervene in his servant’s healing. Just before acceding to the man’s wishes, Jesus compliments his faith by saying: “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith” (8:10). He proceeds to predict that the Kingdom will not be filled by the Israelites, but by all who will come from east and west.
Jesus also warns his Jewish listeners that they cannot simply rely on their heritage from Abraham as a guarantee to get into the Kingdom (cf. 3:9). More is needed. Living a life of faith requires conversion and following the higher ethical standards of the Kingdom.
A female counterpart to the centurion is the Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon (cf. 15:21-28). Once more Jesus confronts faith beyond the borders of Israel. At first the woman’s request to heal her possessed daughter is rebuffed by Jesus, who insists he was sent only “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (15:24). But witnessing her sincere homage to him, Jesus commends her faith, and her daughter is miraculously healed.
The culmination of this theme is found in the final command of the risen Jesus to his disciples (on a mountaintop!). Jesus tells them to go forth and “make disciples of all nations [Greek: panta ta ethnē], baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit” (28:19).
We should not miss the import of this theme for our own context. Whereas some Catholics want to narrow the faith and pare it down to only a faithful few, Matthew’s Jesus widens the circle incredibly to embrace virtually anyone who is willing to take up the cross and follow him.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Preaching Matthew is both a delight and a challenge. My advice, though, is to be careful to avoid some common pitfalls. First, don’t simply read Matthew as a Gospel like the others, even the other Synoptics. Try to get into Matthew’s framework, or universe, and perceive how he was trying to communicate to his own community the truths about Jesus as he perceived them.
Second, be careful to avoid any semblance of anti-Jewish interpretation (see sidebar “Who Were the Pharisees?”). For instance, the terrible line in 27:25 is not a curse on Jews because of the involvement of some Temple leaders in his death. In fact, it may well be an ironic statement, placing the Jews once more under Jesus’ mission to save his own people.
Third, despite the way the Lectionary is structured, try to maintain the larger picture of how individual passages fit into Matthew’s overarching narrative. From Sunday to Sunday, it is possible to follow a trajectory and to discern interrelated themes which are special to this Gospel.
Fourth, without belaboring the obvious, it is essential to read carefully the text of the Gospel itself. Don’t just read about it. Read the text first, then look at the Bible’s notes, and then, after some reflection, pursue a wider consultation with a commentary or two. There is no substitute for direct contact with God’s Word.
Finally, remember that every homily imparts only part of the Gospel message. Pick and choose what seems most pertinent in your own context and recognize that you will need to let some wonderful thoughts fall by the wayside. You can pick them back up in three years!
SULPICIAN FATHER RONALD D. WITHERUP is former Superior General of the Society of Saint Sulpice. He has authored many books on the Bible, including “Matthew: God With Us” (New City Press, 2000).
Who Were the Pharisees?
Given the rise of anti-Semitic sentiments and actions in our day, Christian preachers have an obligation to preach the Word of God responsibly. In the year of Matthew, one of the biggest dangers is violating this principle because we misinterpret the text. This is especially true of the image of the Pharisees, whom Matthew often lumps together with the scribes and other opponents of Jesus.
Matthew seemingly excoriates them, such as in Chapter 23, with a series of vicious woes. The reason for this is likely the date of Matthew. The author writes near the end of the first century (c. 80-90) when Christianity, an originally Jewish sect, was beginning to split from its parent Judaism. Invective overwhelmed Christian charity, and the Evangelist succumbs to the temptation to revile his enemies. Sadly, we continue this today with pejorative terms like “pharisaical,” which conveys a false stereotype.
The picture of the Pharisees is far more complex. They were a lay movement that believed in a final resurrection and argued for the validity of the oral interpretation of the law. They were not legalistic ogres. Far from being intolerant and hypocritical, many were devout and law-observant. Remember that St. Paul was a Pharisee and proud of it (cf. Phil 3:5; Gal 1:14). Moreover, even Matthew recognizes that good scribes existed (13:52) and that Pharisees occupied an authoritative teaching position (23:2).
So, what are we preachers to do? First, emphasize that these stereotypical anti-Jewish passages were part of an internal conversation within Judaism; Christians today cannot continue that conversation in the same way. Second, the Pharisees survived the destruction of Jerusalem and led to Rabbinic Judaism, which survives today. They were instrumental in transforming Judaism from a religion of sacrifice to one of the Word. That is why the Jews are “the people of the book” and the foundation of our Christian faith.