A painting of St. Matthew the Evangelist. Antonio Triva da Reggio / Shutterstock.com

The Conservative Innovator

St. Matthew continues to spread the message of Christ

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When we recite the Lord’s Prayer, it’s always the version written in Matthew’s Gospel that we say, not Luke’s. The same goes for the beatitudes. When we think of the Last Judgment, it’s always Matthew’s great scene with the sheep and the goats in Chapter 25 that we recall. Yes, Matthew is the Church’s Gospel, and we practically know all the stories by heart, along with its many memorable discourses of Jesus. Yet just who wrote this Gospel is an open question.

When Luke Timothy Johnson, a New Testament scholar, says, “We don’t know anything about them [the synoptic Evangelists],” I think he is being a bit overdramatic, but he is quite correct that we have no reliable outside information on any of the Evangelists. Of course, there is the Papias tradition that claims the apostle Matthew wrote the first Gospel, and that he wrote it in Hebrew, but both of these assertions are patently erroneous. The Gospel we call “according to Matthew” was composed in pretty good Greek, often correcting the Greek of the Gospel of Mark, the writing that just about all major Matthean scholars take for granted as the first, and therefore earlier, writing.

Not to belabor the point, but the opposite case would require that the writer of Mark had omitted a total of one-third (about 350 verses) of a supposed earlier Gospel of Matthew, including the entire Sermon on the Mount, the infancy narratives, the Great Judgment scene and 10 of Matthew’s great parables. Why would Mark have abbreviated the Caesarea Philippi scene to cut out the authority (the keys and binding and loosing) given to St. Peter? Perhaps the Papias tradition (recollected, after all, almost two centuries later by Eusebius!) was speaking ambiguously about one of the sources of Matthew’s Gospel, the so-called Q document. This is quite generally thought to be an early written collection of Jesus’ sayings which, of course, originally would have been in Aramaic.

Putting Matthew in Context

It may well be that there was someone named Matthew who was connected with the origin of this Gospel community, perhaps even one of the Twelve called “Matthew,” who collected and passed on some of Jesus’ sayings. The story of the toll collector named “Matthew” in 9:9, however, is simply the exact same story copied from Mark 2:14-15, merely switching the name “Levi, son of Alpheus” to “Matthew.” This Matthew never appears again in the Gospel apart from a list of the Twelve (see Mt 10:3), also copied from Mark (3:18). Moreover, it is quite unlikely that such a low-level Galilean functionary would have been able to write such good Greek, or that he even would have been still alive by the time most scholars think the Gospel was actually written.

The First Gospel
“The position of the Gospel According
to Matthew as the first of the four
Gospels in the New Testament reflects
both the view that it was the first to be
written … and the esteem in which it
was held by the Church.”


— Introduction of Matthew, USCCB.org

Why would an eyewitness have employed Mark’s Gospel anyway, using it as his major source instead of his own memories and words?

All this becomes important when we look closely at the content of the Gospel to discern why “Matthew” (let’s call the author by his traditional name) wrote what he did and what that might mean for us today. This Evangelist of the late first century evidently saw a problem in his community that the Gospel of Mark did not address. In order to answer that question he utilized Tradition by taking over most of Mark’s Gospel, but he doubled its length, adding more than 300 verses of his own special materials and some 220 verses from the Q document.

Now just what was this difficulty? If we read between the lines we can see that the problem in Matthew’s very Jewish Christian community was just that: It was very Jewish and very Christian! Because of their Christ-like openness to the Gentiles, their church was losing its Jewishness, its ethnic Jewish identity, something they were as loathe to lose as many of our ethnic Catholic communities have been when confronted with closings or mergers. The situation was further complicated by the revival of Judaism going on nearby in Galilee, where the rabbis were reorganizing and setting up new criteria for Jewish orthodoxy. This was just what some of Matthew’s Jewish community members were looking for: a definitive Jewish praxis and a return to its old ways of piety. The only problem was that the rabbis insisted that they alone had the authority to officially recognize the Messiah when he came — evidently not Jesus of Nazareth!

Christ as the New Covenant

Mark’s Gospel doesn’t broach these questions at all, but Matthew saw a chance to flesh out that earlier record of Jesus’ activity to emphasize Jesus as the true Messiah of Israel. He wants to emphasize how Jesus actually reformed Jewish practice with new teachings, not abrogating “the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter” of the Law (Mt 5:18), but fulfilling it. Matthew shows how Jesus revises Jewish religion so that with regard to the Law it is no longer easier to ask forgiveness than to seek permission, as the saying goes. The Jerusalem Temple and its pay-for-prayer sacrificial system was long gone (good riddance!), but the Pharisees’ insistence on “purity” and obedience to the Law needed to be replaced by a fuller obedience, a more personal obedience to God, based on the teaching of Jesus.

Matthew points out how Jesus was “God with us” even from his birth (see 1:23), and promised to be with us always, “even to the end of the age” (28:20). Because of this he was able to look inside the traditional formulations of the Law to authoritatively discern the spirit of the Law — God’s intention behind it. Take for example the “antitheses” (“You have heard it said … but I say to you …”) in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus cautions against the very cause of some dastardly deed condemned by the Law in order to cut out evil at its root. Murder is a heinous crime that is the violent result of hate, a hate built up from anger long formed into a grudge that sears the heart beyond reason until it must be destroyed — by the extinction of its object! Jesus teaches that it is the root hatred, the misuse of the emotion of anger, that must be avoided in order to live in the kingdom of God, the communal sphere of love and understanding of others.

Adultery is not a casual occurrence but a travesty of committed love that always is based on the fantasy of those who should know better. That prolonged brooding on intimacy with someone who is already given in marriage is a very dangerous game that will issue in disgrace if given the opportunity.

Lust does not mean momentary arousal or a strong appreciation of the beauty and attractiveness of another. It always includes the prolonged daydreaming and consequent flirting that cross lines that everyone recognizes. So also with the rest of the teaching in this cluster of precepts: You don’t have to worry about the legality of divorce if you realize that by divorcing your spouse you put both parties at risk to commit adultery, destroying other unions that “God has joined together” (19:6).

You never have to worry about taking an oath if you always tell the truth: “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one” (5:37).

You don’t have to worry about too much retaliation if you don’t retaliate at all. Just leave that part of justice to God. After all, if you know your Scripture as a good Jew, you know that God says, “Vengeance is mine. … Surely, the Lord will do justice for his people” (Dt 32:35-36).

The Beatitudes

Now “justice” or “righteousness” is the hallmark of any good Jew, but Matthew was able to amend Jesus’ traditional teaching to show how following the New Law is far more God-like than slavery to the Law of the Pharisees.

Take the beatitudes, for example. Matthew expanded upon Jesus’ teaching (the four beatitudes of the Q document as recorded in Luke 6), changing them from the goal of consoling believers (“Blessed are the poor [in spite of their poverty] for theirs is the kingdom of God”) to inculcating a profound awareness of God’s own righteousness in a total of nine related beatitudes (which means blessings). “Blessed are the poor in spirit” means that a person’s own spirit is not puffed up beyond his or her creaturely status before God. This is the righteous disposition that a creature must maintain before the loving Creator.

It was logical, then, for Matthew to add a similar idea in “Blessed are the meek,” for this idea of humility includes esteem for one’s fellow human beings as equal creatures of the divine Master. Of course, there was no need to “spiritualize” the dictum for those who “mourn,” for “they will be comforted” because the very act of their mourning shows their deep love as members of the family of Jesus.

Similarly, God’s creatures are to imitate God’s own activity toward all human beings, and in three additional beatitudes not found elsewhere Matthew’s Jesus teaches us how to do it. “Blessed are the merciful” means that believers must always act just as God does in showing divine mercy to all. This is the loving kindness (hesed in Hebrew) that seeks the freely given benefit of the other in a totally faithful way. Such an attitude can come only from one who is “pure of heart,” whose heart-formed motivation comes from the wish to do God’s will and not from any ulterior motive.

The sixth beatitude, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” shows the communal dimension of being righteous in Christ. Peacemakers are those who go out on a limb to admonish other Christians when they observe them in conflict. They must show their love and concern for those others by actually intervening in conflicts that are not their own, calling to task the bickering parties, pleading with them and offering the help they need to make peace, to act mercifully toward one another. Now, all this way of being calls forth a praxis that is countercultural in the ancient world and certainly also in ours. So there is no surprise that Matthew would double the last beatitude about being hated and insulted, adding the more public sanction of “persecution” to the afflictions of believers “because of me [Jesus, the Son of Man]” and reminding us that it is all “for the sake of righteousness” (5:10).

Erasing Culture Barriers

In order to show how the Gospel about Jesus Christ is the true and valid fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation that was laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures, Matthew takes great pains to show just how Jesus fulfills what is spoken about in many passages of that Old Testament, starting from his mother’s pregnancy. In the infancy narratives we learn that Jesus is part of the line of David, but he gains that distinction from his foster father Joseph by adoption — because his conception was not normal. It was “through the Holy Spirit.” From then on the stories are filled with angelic dreams and miraculous interventions. While things happen to Jesus that remind us clearly of the life of Moses — for example, the jealousy of the overlord Herod (who equates to Pharoah in Exodus), the slaughter of all the male babies in both stories, even an exodus from Egypt (see Mt 2:13-15) — we know that Jesus is superior to Moses. All through his life what happens to Jesus is shown by Matthew to have been foretold in Scripture.

Yet even in the genealogy at the head of the Gospel, Matthew insinuates the importance of gentiles to God’s plan. He mentions four women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah (Bathsheba). These matriarchs, mothers of the great patriarchs of Israel, were all gentiles, yet God used their very ethnicity to prove God’s transcendence of any cultural barrier in raising up the great leaders of the Chosen People. Similarly, early in the story is the appearance of the Magi, great visionaries from the gentile world who attend the very beginning of the Gospel in Bethlehem.

Evangelizing the Jews

Matthew takes the miracles and exorcisms of Mark’s Gospel, adds to them and shows how they, too, fulfill the prescriptions of the Law (see 8:4), the predictions of Isaiah (8:17) and demonstrate Jesus’ fabulous restorative power (8:32; 9:6, 21-22), stressing in Matthew’s own way the necessity of faith for Jesus’ saving power (9:29-30).

In these middle chapters we see, too, the beginnings of the struggle Jesus will have with the authorities that leads him to acknowledge the necessity of suffering for himself and for his followers.

Now, since Matthew’s Christian community has been around longer than Mark’s, many members had been born into Christianity, and some evidently had become complacent, even lax in their commitment. For this reason Matthew brings forth some strong predictions of judgment for those who have waned in their faith, weakened in their following of God’s will. Who has not cowered at the parables in Chapter 25 where the foolish bridesmaids are locked out of the wedding feast, the talentless servant thrown out “into the darkness outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (25:30) or at Jesus’ words to the “goats”: “Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (25:41)?

So, instead of bewailing the loss of the “good old days” and trying to return to the out-of-date and inadequate practices of a former time, a very Jewish Matthew embraced the opportunities of renewed growth for his traditional community by delving deep into the traditions about Jesus. He illustrated how marvelous the older ways were when they were touched by the faith and generosity of Jesus.

Matthew accepted the new population of converts from paganism and welcomed them warmly, offering them all the best from the new and perfect Teacher of God’s Law, the renewed Law of the New Covenant in Jesus. On the other hand, with that profound teaching of Jesus that emphasized the attitude needed behind what is to be done, Matthew hoped to bring the “hard-core” Jewish element within his community to a new dimension of their religion.

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They could become open to and lovingly accept the “newbies” when they saw them striving for the same high level of communal love that Jesus taught. On their part, the converts could enjoy the promises fulfilled in the Jewish Messiah without upsetting their lives by having to change them into some fabricated “Jewish” ethnicity.

BROTHER ELLIOTT C. MALONEY, OSB, is a monk and professor of New Testament Studies at St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Visit brelliottnttopics.libsyn.com to listen to or download Brother Elliot’s podcasts.


Pope Benedict XVI on Matthew

“Another reflection prompted by the Gospel narrative is that Matthew responds instantly to Jesus’ call: ‘He rose and followed him.’ The brevity of the sentence clearly highlights Matthew’s readiness in responding to the call. For him it meant leaving everything, especially what guaranteed him a reliable source of income, even if it was often unfair and dishonorable. Evidently, Matthew understood that familiarity with Jesus did not permit him to pursue activities of which God disapproved.

“The application to the present day is easy to see: it is not permissible today either to be attached to things that are incompatible with the following of Jesus, as is the case with riches dishonestly achieved.

“Jesus once said, mincing no words: ‘If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Mt 19:21).

“This is exactly what Matthew did: He rose and followed him! In this ‘he rose,’ it is legitimate to read detachment from a sinful situation and at the same time, a conscious attachment to a new, upright life in communion with Jesus.”

— General audience, Aug. 30, 2006


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