Barent Fabritius, Saint Matthew and the Angel (1656)
The Gospel of Matthew is a book that has generated countless books and studies and continues to be one of the most read and preached upon books in the bible. Writing about this gospel is, to use the words of Stanley Hauerwas, “an honor, a burden, and a daunting task.” (Hauerwas, 2006, p. 18) On the one hand, as a pastor who deals with the gospels on an almost weekly basis there is a greater familiarity with these texts and with the various scholarly perspectives on them. On the other hand, to take up a project like this is a burden and daunting task because it attempts to capture years of learning, study, and remain open to new discoveries. There are scholars who dedicate their entire life work to Matthew’s gospel or even to a small portion of it like the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, to the casual reader many of the commentaries and works of interpretation on the bible may be unapproachable because they are written for those who have an insider’s knowledge of the world of Biblical studies.
The Gospel of Matthew gives us a window into Jesus’ life, ministry, teaching and by extension the world he did his living, ministry and teaching within. Both the time of Jesus life and the time when Matthew’s gospel was written were times:
when there was conflict and division in the community of faith;
when some were insiders and others were outsiders;
when political and religious leaders were coopted, mistrusted, and discredited;
when the great majority of the common people were without power;
when cultures clashed. (Case-Winters, 2015, p. 1)
In 2015 I wrote a guide based on a class I taught on Mark’s gospel and Mark’s portrait of Jesus and the world he lived in and many of the things addressed in that series apply to reading Matthew. If you want to read more as an introduction about the Kingdom of God (or in Matthew frequently kingdom of heaven) in contrast to the Kingdom of Satan, the Roman Empire as a setting for the gospel, Second Temple Judaism as a setting for the gospel, the gospel writers as interpreters of scripture, structure and some other topics I would invite you to these brief introductions below:
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 1
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 2
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 3
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 4
Mark’s Portrait of Jesus and the World He Lived in Part 5
There are a few additional topics I want to introduce prior to beginning my journey through Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew, Mark and Luke share a lot of material in common while John occasionally will have a common story but in general will narrate Jesus life and teaching in an independent manner. Where there are stories or teaching that are shared between Matthew and other gospels, I will list the parallels as a subtitle for the section. For those who have not studied the gospels they may not be aware of the similarities and difference among Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew, Mark and Luke are often called the synoptic gospels (syn-with, together; optic-relating to eye or sight: they are the gospels that share similar patterns, stories and often word for word correspondence). Mark is the shortest of the gospels and is believed by most modern scholars to be the oldest. The authors of Matthew and Luke probably had access to Mark’s gospel and added material to that to compose their own gospels. There is also material that Matthew and Luke share that are not a part of Mark’s gospel and scholars have often labeled this material shared in common as ‘Q’ from the German ‘Quelle’ or source. Whether there is an independent source behind these shared sayings in Matthew, Luke and the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas or whether Matthew is the second gospel written and the source of the common material is something that can interest scholars but for most readers of the gospel it is helpful to understand that there are parallels are shared between Matthew and Luke in addition to the material that is present in Mark and in addition to the material that is unique to each gospel. Each gospel writer does bring specific accents to their portrayal of Jesus, but I do think it is helpful to see what they share and how the similarities and the accents give us a richer picture of Jesus and his teaching.
Matthew as an Interpreter of Scripture
Matthew invites us into his world viewed through the lenses of a scripture formed imagination. Even though Matthew will use explicit quotations from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) far more than any other gospel writer the entire gospel is permeated with allusions and imagery from the law, prophets, psalms, wisdom literature and story of the Jewish people. Matthew’s reading of scripture is shaped by the merciful and inclusive reading that comes out of the prophets, particularly Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea which expands the promises of God’s covenant beyond the boundaries of the Hebrew people. As Richard B. Hays can state:
Thus, for Matthew, the story of Israel is carried forward through a particular, prophetically shaped, interpretation of Torah within a community called to embody the mercy of God. Emphasis authors (Hays, 2016, pp. 127-128)
Matthew’s scripture formed imagination hears within the story of Jesus both a continuity with and an expansion of the story of the people of Israel and their relationship with the Lord, the God of Israel. Throughout this journey I will attempt to highlight the way Matthew uses both the explicit quotations and the implicit allusions to scripture to show how these all give Matthew’s gospel a fuller exposition of who Jesus is, what he teaches and what it means for those who are now invited to become a part of this story.
Matthew, Discipleship and a Meaningful Life
The name Matthew means disciple and from beginning to end the gospel is for the formation of a community of disciples who will follow Jesus in the world. Most readers of Matthew may reflect upon the Great Commission at the end of the gospel with its command to ‘make disciples of all nations’ but the entire book in both its narrative and teaching is forming the follower to first become a disciple themselves. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s classic work the Cost of Discipleship, originally published in 1937, attempted to capture this for the church of his day by returning to the Sermon on the Mount as the center of this journey behind Christ. Unfortunately, discipleship has become a term that churches may use frequently but I think many people may wonder why they would follow Jesus, especially when it means picking up one’s cross to follow him, when they have been taught they can simply believe in him. For Matthew, and for us as readers of Matthew, the key comes in understanding what it means to live a meaningful life. In Matthew’s scripture formed view of the world a meaningful life is a life lived in harmony with God’s will for the creation. For the Jewish mind the will of God for the creation is expressed in God’s law, or Torah, and God’s Torah is a gift that enables one to live the life God intends. Matthew points the hearer to Jesus interpreting God’s law to show how one can live the wise and righteous life that God intends. Following Jesus becomes a school where the student slowly learns the blessing of a life of shalom (peace, harmony) in contrast to the cares of the world.
Reading the Gospel as a Story
Matthew’s gospel has multiple genres: genealogy, narrative, teaching, and parables for example, but fundamentally Matthew tells us a story. Matthew’s story is theological in nature, it talks about God and God’s kingdom and how Jesus is God us. If you’ve read any of my other writing on scripture, you’ll find I stay close to the text as I write, I’ll bring in historical elements as the illuminate the story but primarily I want to enhance rather than distract from the story Matthew wants us to hear. Sometimes the story may differ dramatically from how we would tell a story, no modern writer would probably begin a narrative with a long genealogy but for Matthew this makes a critical connection to what comes before. Matthew will use clues, some visible in English translations and some not, that help us frame and give structure to the gospel of Jesus Christ he tells.
Conversation Partners on this Journey
I learn as I walk along the journey. I have several works on Matthew that I have read over the years, but the following are ones I will either be reading for the first time or who I intentionally want to re-engage as we move systematically through the Gospel of Matthew:
Allen, O. Wesley, Jr. Matthew (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013)
Relatively recent work on Matthew and one of two commentaries I will be reading through as I do these reflections. First of the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries series I have looked at.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, Discipleship (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001 (1937)) Cited as DBWE 4 (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, English volume 4)
Bonhoeffer’s classic work that I read for the first time at the beginning of my seminary education in 2000. I’ve read it multiple times but particularly with the Sermon on the Mount I’m interested to reread it considering where I think this project is going.
Case-Winters, Anna, Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Publishing, 2015)
I’ve used several of the Belief Theological Commentaries in other places and they’ve proven to be a good conversation partner. The authors in this series are not biblical scholars but instead theologians so they bring slightly different gifts and perspectives to the process, but I’ve been impressed with the series volumes I’ve used.
Hays, Richard B. Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016)
Richard B. Hays is one of the most insightful readers of scripture I have found. This book and the earlier Reading Backwards examine the four gospel writers as interpreters of scripture.
Luther, Martin, The Sermon on the Mount and the Magnificat, (St. Louis: Concordia Press, 1956) Cited as LW 21
When possible I’ve gone back to read Luther’s perspective on scripture to help me understand my own tradition. Luther was a phenomenal reader of scripture for his age. His work on the Sermon on the Mount wrestles with it theologically within Luther’s idea of the Kingdom of God and the Secular Kingdom (often called Luther’s two kingdom theology). There are some useful insights even if I know that there will be several places I take a very different perspective than Luther.