With the onset of Advent, we begin a new lectionary cycle — A — which features the Gospel of Matthew.
Matthew is a logical place to begin for several reasons, the first of which is tradition. In the time of the early Church fathers and beyond, most Church leaders and Bible commentators believed that Matthew was the first Gospel written. (Now, most scholars believe Mark was first.)
This presumption, combined with Matthew’s outstanding catechetical content and structure, led to it being the most utilized and referenced Gospel in the early Church. It is also the only Gospel to use the Greek word for Church, ekklesia , a translation of the frequently used Hebrew word for assembly in the Old Testament, qahal .
Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel has the most extensive teaching in the New Testament on Church discipline and order. It is not surprising that it has often been referred to as the Gospel of the Church.
However, there is a more organic and fundamental reason for beginning with Matthew. It serves as a natural bridge from the Old Testament. Among the Gospels, it references the Old Testament the most, and situates the person and mission of Jesus most explicitly in their Hebrew lineage.
Scholars refer to these formulaic (they are generally prefaced by an expression such as “this was to fulfill”) citations as “fulfillment quotations,” by which Matthew shows how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophesies. The Gospel’s prestige and continuity with the Old Testament is underscored by the fact that in the manuscript tradition Matthew is always presented as the first Gospel.
The Gospel’s major themes also reflect its Hebrew heritage: continuity, morality, judgment/accountability, forgiveness, kindness/mercy and fidelity, the latter two being the primary Old Testament characteristics of God. The theme of Emmanuel (see Is 7:14; Mt 1:23; 18:20; 25:34-46), literally meaning “God with us” and reflecting God’s compassion, pervades the Gospel. Jesus’ dying words (see Mt 27:46) reflect his complete immersion in the human experience, and he refers to his obedient followers (see Mt 12:50) and the apostles (see Mt 28:10) as his siblings.
Key themes of Gospel
Matthew’s emphases on morality and compassion come together uniquely among the Gospels in the last judgment parable (see Mt 25:31-46), in which practical deeds of mercy are the determinant of salvation in their Christological context. Here and in other passages referring to the end times, Matthew describes the final state of the damned in foreboding language. He wants to make sure we recognize that justice, mercy and forgiveness are literally matters of life and death.
However, Matthew is anything but a legalistic perfectionist. As foreboding as his moral demands may be (for example, the Sermon on the Mount), forgiveness is always an accompaniment (see Mt 6:14-15; 18:10-35). Scrupulosity — the act of being overly cautious about behavior — particularly as practiced with respect to the precepts of the Old Testament law, is condemned and linked to hypocrisy (see Mt 15:1-9; 23:25).
Jesus integrates the spirit and letter (see Mt 5:18) of the law. We see this personified in St. Joseph, who obeys the law but in a compassionate manner. A model disciple within the Gospel, St. Joseph exemplifies the integration of justice, mercy and obedience that we are to emulate.
Matthew’s emphasis on forgiveness can provide us consolation and hope as we recognize our inability to live up to the tenets of the Sermon on the Mount and other moral requirements. God is compassionate and forgiving, so we can always start anew.
Understanding Matthew’s Jewish roots is essential to assimilating his message. In recent years the Church has alluded to this through the publication of two documents by the Pontifical Biblical Commission, “The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible” (May 24, 2001) and “The Bible and Morality: Biblical Roots of Christian Conduct” (May 11, 2008).
Let us keep these literary, historical/cultural, theological, and catechetical patterns in mind and consider their application to us when hearing Matthew’s Gospel proclaimed at Mass and when reflecting on it privately.
Getting to know Matthew
The Gospels provide no biographical data on their author. They do not even include his name. The simple attribution “the Gospel according to … ” is a later addition to the manuscript tradition, dating from the end of the second century A.D. We must rely on tradition and inference for guidance as to his identity.
The Church Fathers ascribe the Gospel to Matthew the tax collector (see Mt 9:9), also referred to as Levi (see Mk 2:14 and Lk 5:27), but modern scholars are skeptical about this due to the richness of the Greek prose and the command of the Old Testament exhibited by the evangelist. How likely is it that a tax collector would have the background and scribal skills necessary to compose such a polished Gospel? Of course, apostolic authorship (as distinct from origin) of a Gospel is not essential to it being inspired, so the exact identity is not crucial.
The closest the Gospel comes to a description of its author may be Matthew 13:52, in which Jesus affirms the apostles for their comprehension of his parables by referring (once again) to their Old Testament foundation: “Then every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” This non-contextual mention of a scribe may be a subtle reference to the evangelist, but this is only conjecture.
A good place to begin our journey with Matthew’s Gospel is the introductory article and footnotes that are present in most Catholic Bibles, and particularly the New American Bible, Revised Edition. These study aids give you the layout of the Gospel, survey the prominent themes, and place the Gospel in its historical, canonical and contemporary context.
A good Catholic commentary can also help. My recommendation for beginning and intermediate readers is the Collegeville Bible Commentary series published by The Liturgical Press, but you can hardly go wrong with any contemporary Catholic commentary. Consult a priest, deacon or someone well acquainted with the Scriptures for their recommendations.
While we read the Gospels primarily to know Jesus, we can also appreciate and get to know our inspired guides. Matthew’s Gospel, so eloquently and carefully composed, was a labor of love for his community and the Church. It is a wonderful way to know Jesus, the Church and ourselves better.
We are the fortunate heirs of the tradition. Let us recognize the depth, profundity and practicality of this Gospel of the Church and endeavor to assimilate its theological, moral and pastoral compass through the liturgy, private and communal reflection, and (most importantly) by living it.
We proclaim it within a Eucharistic and community context that translates to life. Let us give ourselves to this celebration and exploration in an enthusiastic and sincere manner befitting the evangelist and the characters he narrates for us.
Karl A. Schultz is a retreat leader and the author of 13 books on biblical spirituality and personal growth.