In the three-year cycle of readings we return, at the start of Advent 2016, to Year A, which brings us the gospel of Matthew on the Sundays of the year.
In the list of gospels, Matthew is always placed first, because an ancient tradition tells us that it was the first to be written. It also tells us that it was by no less than Matthew/Levi, the son of Alpheus; called to be an Apostle while sitting in the tax collectors place at Capernaum. Before his conversion he was a publican, i.e., a tax collector by profession.
Neat, but wrong. The author of Matthew knew little of Israel and of its geography. Even for the account of his own conversion he draws on the account in the gospel of Mark. The true author of Matthew is unknown to us, though the Gospel’s place of origin is likely to be Antioch, in Syria, the third biggest city in the Roman world. Communities of Gentile and Jewish Christians lived harmoniously together, but their relationship was threatened by resurgent militant Pharisaic Judaism. This was at its height around 85AD, but the dating of the gospel as we know it is uncertain. Many have said it could not have been written after 70AD because it does not overtly mention the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, but even this is not conclusive.
More certain is the target audience. Matthew is written by a Jew for a Jewish Christian community. The evidence is substantial. Matthew delights in quotations from the Old Testament. He is so familiar with the text that, on occasion, he either slightly misquotes or uses an unfamiliar translation. He is clearly familiar with Jewish concerns and with traditional Jewish argument. His text contains numerous Jewish texts or practices which he does not attempt to explain. Nor is he afraid to be anti-Jewish. The Pharisees, probably a worthy enough group of men, are painted with broad black brush strokes.
The purpose of a Jewish gospel is clear enough. It stands as a corrective to the insurgency of the Pharisees. Jesus is the Messiah, and the Church is the new Israel. The gospel provides Jewish Christians with the means of knowing their Christian faith, and growing in it. Where the Church was becoming increasingly Greek, populated by Greeks and dominated by Greek theological ideas, Matthew’s gospel retained and promoted the Jewish root and the Jewish fulfillment.
Moses is the key. The Gospel of Matthew is modelled on the Books of Moses, the Pentateuch. The Old Testament begins with the Books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Said to be written by Moses, they tell the story of the escape from Egypt, the wandering in the desert and the gift of the Law. The books which follow tell of the conquest and settlement of the Promised Land. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is the new Moses, leading his people from slavery to freedom, confusion to clarity. The Gospel leads us through five great sermons. Like the Promised Land of Moses, they lead us to the reality of the Church.
And Jesus is the great Teacher. The Ten Commandments of Moses were, originally, the means of keeping the Covenant with God. By the time of Jesus the Commandments, along with innumerable oral and written laws, had become the unbearable burden of trying to be a good Jew. So, again and again Jesus tries to recall his audience to a loving relationship with God, first by reducing the ten commandments to two which govern our relationships, and by his own personal invitation to a loving relationship with the Father through him. Jesus does not cease to teach, with his own authority, a far more demanding, interior and spiritual morality than was ever required by Israelite laws, prophets, sages or scribes.
Matthew is the only gospel to use the Greek word ekklesia (church), today such a standard piece of vocabulary. For him the Church is the Kingdom, and the Church is the people called out of all nations to be God’s new Chosen People, the true Israel, comprising Jews and Gentiles in equality and harmony, with new and authoritative leadership. Matthew calls all members of the Church to be humble, exemplary and zealous; to have the fraternal charity to correct one another, to pray continually and to forgive our debtors.
Perhaps no sentence of the gospel is so worthy of reflection as the final one:’ and know that I am with you always, until the end of the world’. (Matthew 28. 20b).The Church is not just an institution. It is Christ continuing to live and minister in the world today. It is the Risen Christ who lives and works in and through us, giving us that power and authority which no merely human person or group could ever supply.
Matthew is not as refreshingly candid as Mark, as lovingly compassionate as Luke, or as deeply mystical as John. But there are unique values in Matthew, without which we would be the poorer, values which revolve around the portrait of Jesus the Teacher and Jesus the founder of the New Israel. They offer an opportunity to explore the almost-forgotten Jewish roots of our faith and to touch the full maturity of Christ our Head.
Fr Paul Hardy