An introduction to the Gospel of Matthew
We are pleased to say that, in the course of this Year of the Word, we shall receive a regular commentary on Scripture to complement our Sunday Mass readings, generously provided to us by the Rev. Fr. Joseph O'Hanlon. In preparation for that, he here presents his introduction to the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew’s Gospel, the most influential of the four Gospels Christians inherited from the first century of believers, was written in Antioch in Syria, then the third largest city in the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria. Some three or four years after the death of Jesus, Paul of Tarsus was received into the Christian community and baptised in Damascus, the ancient capital of Syria. Thus we know that the message of Jesus spread quickly to the north (and to the south – see the Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40) of Jerusalem. Authorities in Jerusalem had harassed Jews who had known Jesus or who, after Pentecost, had listened to Peter and John and others who proclaimed the story of Jesus of Nazareth and what God had done through his life, death, and resurrection. Many fled and brought their faith to Jewish communities in Palestine, including Samaria, and to cities of the eastern Roman Empire, such as Damascus, Tyre and Sidon, Antioch, Seleucia, and beyond to towns and cities in Asia Minor. The proclamation of the gospel of God went west to Macedonia and Greece, and on to Rome itself. Towns and cities throughout the Roman Empire had significant Jewish communities, wealthy enough to have synagogue buildings as their meeting places, and it was to these that Jews who had heard and accepted the story of Jesus turned as they fled from increasing opposition in Jerusalem. Our earliest fathers and mothers in faith were these Jewish men and women who accepted the new vision of things that God gave to the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
The journey of our faith across the eastern provinces of the empire was fraught with difficulties, not least the dangers of travelling by land (from bandits of all sorts), and by sea (St. Paul was shipwrecked three times). But Christians took to the roads and the seas not only to flee from danger but because they were impelled by the command of Jesus to proclaim the gospel of God to the whole world. Often they met with local opposition from people who sought to protect their own gods and temples (see, for example, Acts of the Apostles 19:21-41). Many Jews wherever they went were hostile to their brothers and sisters who appeared to be corrupting the faith of their fathers and mothers by associating with followers of Jesus, a condemned criminal. But the greatest challenge was not from opposition without but from dissension within. We may view the crisis from the stand taken by St. Paul and that championed by St. Peter.
St. Paul, a Jew belonging to the Pharisee wing of Jewish faith, and an educated Roman citizen, came from Tarsus to Jerusalem to deepen his understanding of his religious faith and he sat at the feet of the most distinguished Jewish scholars in Jerusalem. He became aware of a new grouping within Judaism that proclaimed Jesus to be God’s Messiah and that the way of Jesus was the true way to live Jewish faith (Acts 8:1-3). Religious authorities in Jerusalem recognized Paul’s zealous opposition to the Christian movement and he was dispatched to Damascus to root out such heretics among the large Jewish community in that city. But on the way Paul had a visionary experience of Jesus and the upshot was the conversion to Christianity of one destined to become Christianity’s most effective pastor and most influential theologian (Acts 9:1-31).
Peter, on the other hand, had come from an obscure background as a Galilean fisherman to be one of the first to be called to follow the prophet from Nazareth. His time with Jesus was marred by confusion and misunderstanding which led him at the end to run away, and to deny and curse Jesus who had, in a moment of optimism, changed his name from Simon to Peter (the Rock). But Jesus named him as the leader of the Twelve and ensured his rehabilitation after the resurrection. Thus he became a leader (with James the brother of the Lord) of the first community of Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 1-2).
Both Peter and Paul believed that God intended that what had been done on earth in His Son must be told to all the nations. No longer was God’s conversation with humanity to be confined to the people of Israel exclusively. The command of the Risen Lord Jesus was that his disciples must “make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”, and to teach them to observe all that Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:19-20). As often in human affairs, the devil was in the detail.
Paul understood that turning to the Jew called Jesus did not involve adopting all aspects of Jewish religious commitment. In fact, both Jew and Gentile were now free, not only from ritual practices (observance of all dietary prescriptions) and identity markers (male circumcision), but were committed to a deeper understanding of God and God’s commitment to all creation. To be sure, Jews had witnessed to the one true God throughout the ages but now, to be a light to the whole world, they were required to divest themselves of those boundary markers and identity markers which were no longer necessary to light up the world with God’s love. Faith in Jesus, in who he was and is, in what he said and continues to say, in what his life, his death, and his resurrection proclaim about the God who is God of all, now and forever—this is the faith that speaks of an unbreakable relationship destined to last forever and a day. The props were taken away and the message could stand on its own feet.
St. Peter, equally convinced that the unique significance of Jesus was for all humanity, nonetheless believed that certain aspects of Jewish religious observance were a sine qua non for all converts. Converts (male) to Jesus must be circumcised. Men and women coming to Jesus must adopt traditional food restrictions and ritual washings. They must obey the ordinances of the Jewish Law (Torah). For Peter a central modicum of Jewish belief and practice must become part of the life of pagans who sought salvation in the community of Jesus Christ. Peter did not advocate too much intermingling with “unwashed” pagans.
This much we learn from Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians and we must be aware that in Galatians we have only one side of the argument.
Paul and Peter met in Antioch and had a mighty disagreement on the matter and, thank God, Paul won the argument. Otherwise the message of Jesus would have died on the vine and Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect. The anger of the dispute is written in Paul’s letter to Christians in Galatia. It is a letter dripping with righteous indignation and Paul never returned to Antioch after the bitterness of that conflict. Nor did the Christians of Antioch have much truck with Paul’s ideas, at least, not at first.
The Gospel according to Matthew was written in Antioch and it espouses Peter’s position to a considerable degree. The communities of Christians in that city were made up of Jewish people and pagan converts, and they had to learn to live with each other, to share the same Eucharist, and to attend to a sensible mingling of things old and things new (Matthew 13:51-52). Matthew sought to walk a middle way and to espouse unity with diversity. His is an ecumenical Gospel and Christians throughout the ages and throughout the world have found in it a way of living all that witnesses to the beauty of God in our world, which we call Jesus. Matthew’s basic ecumenical conviction was based on a piece of wisdom that Jesus handed to his first followers:
"Have you understood all these things?”
They say, “Yes”. So he said to them,
“On this account every scribe who has been trained
for the kingdom of heaven is like a householder
who brings out of his treasure
things that are new
and things that are old.”
A Cautionary Note
Matthew’s Gospel was not written for us. It was written to reconcile Jewish and Gentile Christians to each other in the great city of Antioch somewhere about seventy years after the death of Jesus. It was written in Greek, not in the local language of that city (probably Aramaic) but in the language that had, since the days of Alexander the Great, become the lingua franca of business and commerce of most countries of the Middle East. This was the language in which Christians in Antioch celebrated the Eucharist and listened to the word of God proclaimed to them by their teachers, one of whom was an otherwise unknown man named Matthew.
That we have inherited his words is due to the Holy Spirit inspiring the churches, east and west of Antioch, to realise that in the pages of Matthew we have a pearl of great price. Indeed, that very phrase comes from what became a Gospel of God for the churches everywhere and for all time:
… the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it. Matthew 13:45-46
Perhaps, in reading how Matthew sought to bring peace to the conflicting followers of Jesus in that beautiful city on the banks of the Orontes, we might learn to heal ourselves. We who have inherited from God Matthew’s words of wisdom, we who live in a divided Catholic Church, in the midst of a divided Christianity, might learn that together we have, in Matthew’s words, “a pearl of great price” (Matthew 13:45). A consummation devoutly to be wished!