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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through Matthew's Gospel

This section traces major themes and characteristics in each segment of Matthew's Gospel. It supplements the introduction and notes that accompany the Gospel text itself.

The Origin of Jesus (Mt 1, 1–2, 23 )

The first two chapters of Matthew's Gospel are like a prologue to a great drama, sounding major themes that will be played out in the rest of the story. In this way the evangelist or Gospel writer alerts the reader to the particular tones he will give his portrayal of Jesus.

A Messiah Rooted in the Hopes of Israel

The Jewish heritage of Jesus is stressed in the very first lines of this Gospel. He is the “son of David, the son of Abraham” ( 1, 1 ) and his messianic lineage is traced through Jewish history from Abraham to Joseph, the husband of Mary ( 1, 2–18 ). Explicit quotations from the Old Testament (for example, 1, 23; 2, 6; 2, 15; 2, 18; 2, 23 ) are augmented by numerous allusions to Old Testament figures and events (for instance, the hostility of Herod recalls the rage of Pharaoh against the Israelites; the reference to a star recalls the prophecy of Balaam about a future deliverer for Israel in Nm 24, 17 ; Joseph, who is guided to protect the holy family through dreams and goes into Egypt, is reminiscent of another Joseph who was also a dreamer and one who rescued Israel in Egypt during a time of famine and distress). In all these ways Matthew proclaims something that echoes throughout the Gospel: Jesus is the promised Messiah, the one through whom God's longed‐for salvation would be achieved. Thus continuity with the Old Testament is stressed (compare Mt 5, 17 ).

A Messiah Close to His People

The experiences of Jesus and his family evoke another theme important to this Gospel, namely Jesus' identification with the “least.” The Matthean Christmas story has a sober mood to it. Right from the beginning, Jesus and his family are threatened with death by a tyrant. Innocent people are killed because they are identified with Jesus. The holy family is forced into exile (just as Israel had been in its tortured history). Even when they return from Egypt (a new exodus?) they are unable to go home to Bethlehem but must become displaced persons, living in Nazareth ( 2, 22f ).

This identification with the great events of Israel's struggle to be free may help explain one of the names given Jesus in Matthew's story. He is to be called Emmanuel, that is, “God is with us” ( 1, 23 ). As subsequent events of the Gospel will show, the Matthean Jesus has extraordinary compassion for the suffering (see, for example, the healings in chapters 8 and 9 ), explicitly identifies himself with the “least” (see Mt 25, 31–46; 10, 42 ), and promises to remain with his church as it continues its mission in the world ( 28, 20; 18, 20 ).

Jesus as Messiah of Israel and Savior of the World

While Matthew stresses the Jewish roots of Jesus and his messianic mission, he also signals the ultimate worldwide scope of that mission. As Herod and the leaders of Jerusalem plot to destroy Jesus, the magi, Gentile wise men, come seeking to pay homage to him ( 2, 1–12 ). Even in the family tree of Jesus, Matthew may be hinting at the wider horizons of Jesus' mission. While most of the genealogy traces the male line of Jesus' ancestry, there are several women mentioned—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba—all of whom were foreigners whose entry into Jewish history was under unusual, sometimes even scandalous, circumstances. Even Mary, the mother of Jesus, seems to be put in this category since her association with the royal Davidic line is not by natural means but only through the initiative of the Spirit—something that causes consternation to Joseph ( 1, 18–19 ).

Thus from the beginning outsiders had been part of Jesus' history. This is a major theme of Matthew's Gospel. He will emphasize the rejection Jesus experiences from the Jewish leaders and at the same time provide scattered examples of Gentiles groping toward faith (for example, the centurion in 8, 5–13 ; the Gadarene demoniacs in 8, 28–34 ; the Canaanite woman in 15, 21–28 ). Matthew carefully notes that Jesus' historical ministry focused on Israel ( 10, 5 ) but with the new age of resurrection, that mission of salvation would now extend to all nations ( 28, 19 ).

The infancy narrative also hints at the kind of salvation Jesus will bring. Of all the Gospels, Matthew alone stresses the significance of the name Jesus. The angel gives the divine instruction that the child is to be named Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins” (see the explanatory note at 1, 21). Jesus is depicted as savior throughout the Gospel as he delivers people from their burdens of sickness, oppression, and sin. This is a Jesus who thirsts for justice or righteousness ( 3, 15 ) and blesses those who, like the prophets before them, suffer in the pursuit of justice ( 5, 10 ). Jesus exercises divine power in forgiving sins (see 9, 1–8 ) and urges his disciples to reflect this same sense of reconciliation in dealing with each other (see especially 5, 43–48; 18, 21–35 ).

The overall mood of Matthew's Christmas story is quite different from that of Luke's. There are no triumphant angels, no picturesque gathering of shepherds, little focus on a tender vision of mother and child. Instead there are ominous plots against the child, outbreaks of violence, displacement, and exile. But throughout there is also the promise of God's abiding presence, bringing salvation in spite of sin and rejection. Perhaps we can think of Matthew's infancy Gospel as an “adult” Christmas story, one that has a special truth for the many people experiencing violence and persecution today. It tells a story that begins in the strength and beauty of a particular history and culture but will ultimately reach across boundaries to touch all peoples. In any case, these two chapters prepare us for the story that will follow, a story that will trace Jesus' mission of salvation through bitter rejection to ultimate triumph.

Preparation for the Ministry of Jesus ( 3, 1–4, 17 )

This transition section brings the reader from the infancy narrative into the beginning of Jesus' ministry in Galilee. It opens with the preaching of John in the desert and closes with the first footstep of Jesus into Galilee, the northern region of Israel where he proclaims the advent of the Kingdom.

Two characteristic Matthean themes dominate this segment of Matthew's narrative.

The Dawn of a New Age

Throughout his Gospel, Matthew is conscious that the coming of Jesus was the decisive turning point in the history of salvation. In Jesus, God was offering the world salvation; the final age longed for by Israel was now beginning. This conviction is expressed through the figure of John the Baptist, whose appearance is reminiscent of Elijah, the great prophet expected to return at the end of the world (see note to 3, 4 ) and whose message heralds the imminent approach of God's Kingdom ( 3, 2 ). That message will be driven home by Jesus himself. He, too, preaches the nearness of the Kingdom ( 4, 17 ). Whereas John is clearly a prophet preparing the way, Jesus is the one who brings the Kingdom to reality. Jesus is clearly superior to John: the Spirit of God descends on Jesus ( 3, 16 ) and a “voice from heaven” (a Jewish way of speaking obliquely about God) declares that Jesus “is my beloved Son” ( 3, 17 ). Jesus' entry into the region of Galilee and the start of his mission there will be light and hope to people who languish in darkness and the fear of death, (see 4, 13–16 ). Even at this early stage of his Gospel, the evangelist hints at the universal scope of Jesus' message (see note to 4, 12–17 ).

Repentance and Good Deeds

Both John and Jesus call people to repentance. The reality of God's kingdom and the consciousness of living in a new and decisive age of salvation should move Israel to change its way of thinking and its way of acting. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew will insist that the touchstone of authentic repentance is good deeds. So here John the Baptist challenges the Jewish leaders: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” ( 3, 8 ). It is not sufficient for them to claim to be children of Abraham ( 3, 9 ); status within God's reign is not dependent on blood lines or rank but on one's response to God's love embodied in Jesus.

The testing of Jesus in the desert also illustrates this point (see notes to 4, 1–11 ). As was the case in the infancy narrative, Jesus recapitulates the experience of Israel. In their wandering through the desert, Israel and its leaders had often failed God's covenant, but Jesus, faithful Jew and faithful Son of God, will not fail, despite the efforts of Satan to draw him away from his messianic mission. The Jesus of Matthew's Gospel shows a fierce and loving loyalty to God. As he tells John, he must “fulfill all righteousness” ( 3, 15 ). Jesus is not content merely to preach fidelity to God; he demonstrates it here in the mysterious realm of the desert test and in his commitment to his mission even to the point of death on the cross.

The Galilean Ministry of Jesus ( 4, 17–16, 12 )

A major section of the Gospel begins with Jesus' entry into Galilee and the inauguration of his ministry of teaching and healing. We will consider the material in six segments, following the flow of Matthew's narrative.

The Sermon on the Mount ( 4, 17–7, 29 )

The Sermon on the Mount, the first of Jesus' five great discourses in this Gospel, is perhaps the best‐known passage of Matthew's Gospel.

The Sermon itself spans chapters 5 through 7 , but preparation for this great discourse begins in chapter 4 . After sounding the theme of the Kingdom of God ( 4, 17 ), Jesus calls his first disciples to follow him and to share in his mission ( 4, 18–22 ). Jesus is committed to teaching, proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and healing ( 4, 23 ). That liberating mission draws a response from every point of the compass as throngs of broken and needy people surge toward Jesus and his message of God's mercy ( 4, 24f ). Jesus' teaching, Matthew implies, is not mere abstract truth. Jesus' words and his healing touch have the power to transform lives.

The Sermon on the Mount does not have a neat progressive structure; rather, sayings of Jesus are clustered around basic motifs. We will note some of them here:

A New Teaching for a New Age. Matthew's conviction that Jesus is the Messiah, and therefore the authoritative teacher of God's will, runs throughout the Sermon. With Jesus the final age of salvation dawns and, with it, new insight into God's will. Matthew's Jesus sees that will of God as being in continuity with the revelation that came through the Law of Moses in the Old Testament, but now bringing that law to its fullest and most compelling expression. In the opening verses of the Sermon Jesus states: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” ( 5, 17 ; see the comments in the notes to this text).

The conviction that the end of the world will be a triumph of God's grace—a conviction based on belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—runs throughout the Sermon and gives it special force. The false values assumed by the world are crumbling. This is the message of the beatitudes ( 5, 3–12 ): those who are “poor in spirit” or who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” or are “peacemakers” are blessed because God will vindicate their hopes. Similarly, because it is a new age with new possibilities, the old wisdom is no longer adequate. A series of six antitheses or contrast statements mark off the difference between former interpretation of the Jewish law and Jesus' own radical teaching (see 5, 21–48 ).

The Supreme Law of Love Expressed in Committed Action. Matthew's emphasis on good deeds, cited above (see comments on Preparation for the Ministry of Jesus [ 3, 1–4, 17 ]), is clearly in evidence here. The words of Jesus at the conclusion of the Sermon are unequivocal: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” ( 7, 21 ). But the Sermon demonstrates that Matthew's Jesus is not simply talking about frenetic action. The heart and soul of Jesus' teaching is the command to love. That comes to its fullest expression in the last of the contrast statements where Jesus tells his disciples they are to love even the enemy ( 5, 44 ) because God's own love is lavish and indiscriminate, bathing both just and unjust in its light and refreshment ( 5, 45 ). Matthew is consistent on this point throughout the Gospel (see 7, 12; 22, 34–40 ). Asking his disciples to strive for love of enemies—the most challenging demand that can be made on the human heart—expresses the ultimate spirit of all of Jesus' teaching on human relationships. For this reason, the disciple is to strive for complete honesty ( 5, 33–37 ), avoid retaliation for injury ( 5, 38–39 ), and is not to violate another through lust or manipulation ( 5, 27–30 ).

Jesus' teaching roots all of this in God's relationship to us. The teaching on love of enemy and nonretaliation is, therefore, not a peripheral part of the Gospel nor is it an abstract ideal. This fundamental teaching of Jesus remains a challenge for Christians who wrestle with what this Gospel teaching demands of us who live in a violent world where the use of force is commonplace.

Revelation of a Close and Compassionate God. Jesus' teaching in this part of the Gospel also gives a profound insight into the Gospel's image of God. God's boundary‐breaking love is not based on merit but reaches out even to the unjust and the “enemy” ( 5, 45–48 ). God cares for us more than for birds of the air or the wild flowers, whose freedom and beauty are signs of God's provident love ( 6, 25–32 ). Therefore, the disciple is to have complete trust in God and to pray with confidence and without pretense ( 7, 7–11 ). Jesus' model prayer ( 6, 9–15 ) catches up much of the spirit of the entire Sermon. There is a wonderful simplicity and honesty about the instructions on piety in the Sermon ( 6, 1–18 ); God's relationship to us is direct and close. There is no place for posturing before such a loving God.

The Authority of the Sermon. How to live with the Sermon on the Mount has been a constant point of discussion in the church. Are these demanding words to be taken as impossible ideals, meant only for a perfect world or for perfect people? Or do they make sense only in the setting of Jesus' own times, when people thought the end of the world was near and so might be capable of responding heroically in such an emergency situation?

None of these solutions are adequate. The instructions of Jesus are not a system of clear‐cut laws spelling out exactly how we are to act in every circumstance, nor are they abstract or impossible ideals. These teachings give us practical guidance as we seek to live a life faithful to the Gospel. They illustrate the core spirit of Jesus' teaching, a spirit we must embody in our own circumstances. The possibility of living in accord with the teaching of Jesus is based on God's grace; the Sermon illustrates the difference grace can make in a person's life and relationships. Within the array of moral choices that confront us, the examples Jesus gives in the Sermon such as the call for integrity in our relationships, for nonretaliation, and for a commitment to reconciliation help direct us in the right way.

Jesus the Healer (8, 1–9, 34)

Introduction: This is a powerful section of the Gospel in which Matthew displays another dimension of Jesus: he teaches, he also heals. As the notes to the text state (see comments under 8, 1 ), Matthew draws most of these stories from his source, Mark's Gospel, but the evangelist significantly reedits this material. He abbreviates many of Mark's stories, omitting some of the colorful details in order to concentrate on Jesus' essential actions and accompanying words. Matthew also clusters the nine major stories of these chapters into three segments (a tenth miracle is reported but barely narrated in 9, 32 ; it serves to contrast the reactions of the Pharisees with that of the crowds): 8, 1–17; 8, 18–9, 17; 9, 18–34 .

Each of these clusters of stories seems to have a dominant motif. In 8, 1–17 the emphasis falls on Jesus' power to heal. The second section, 8, 18–9, 17 , concentrates on the demands of discipleship. And the final section, 9, 18–34 , illustrates the essential role of faith in the healing narratives. These motifs are by no means exclusive, however; the richness of the healing stories allows the Gospel to proclaim many levels of meaning at the same time. We will examine more closely each of these dominant themes.

Christology. By narrowing the spotlight on Jesus in the first three stories, Matthew emphasizes the divine power that works through the Messiah. Jesus cleanses the leper, heals the servant of a Gentile soldier, and dispels the fever of Simon's mother‐in‐law. Except in the case of the centurion, there is little attention to the plight or disposition of the sick person in these stories. The concluding verse of the section ( 8, 17 ) makes Matthew's intended point; by his healing touch Jesus fulfills the prophetic promise of Isaiah 53, 4 : “He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases.”

By their very nature the healing stories serve Matthew's purpose. All of us experience sickness or disability at one time or another in our life. We all experience our limitations and realize too well that death looms before us. Jesus is moved with compassion ( 9, 3.36 ) and does not hesitate to stand in solidarity with those whose condition makes them “outsiders” (see his association with the leper, the Gentile, the tax collectors).

The Conditions of Discipleship. In the second set of stories Matthew illustrates some of the demands of discipleship. Only those fully committed to proclaiming the Kingdom of God and following Jesus are able to go with him across the sea (see 8, 18–23 ). But even for those who remain, following Jesus can mean the threatening experience of the storm at sea ( 8, 24–27 ) and strange encounters with the power of evil ( 8, 28–34 ). The true disciple is one who learns that mercy and compassion drive Jesus, a lesson the Pharisees (whom Matthew consistently portrays in negative tones) seem unable to grasp ( 9, 9–13 ).

Faith. The healing stories often serve to illustrate the meaning of faith. Faith is, first of all, trust in Jesus' power to heal and transform us. That faith is evident in the leper who approaches Jesus (even though the law forbade him to do so), in the centurion who pleads on behalf of his servant (see 8, 10 ), in the friends who bring the paralytic to Jesus ( 9, 2 ), in the woman with the hemorrhage who touches the tassel of his cloak ( 9, 22 ), and in the two blind men who trust that Jesus can do what no one else can ( 9, 28f ).

Note, too, the faith illustrated in these stories often takes a very active form. The leper boldly comes up to Jesus; the woman dares to touch him; the Gentile swallows his pride and pleads with a Jewish healer; the friends of the paralytic gain him access to Jesus. The sick and disabled can teach us this lesson: trusting in God does not mean mere passivity, waiting for a bolt from heaven. Transformation comes when we exercise our trust in God, and commit our own resources to seeking a new life.

The Mission Discourse ( 9, 35–11, 1 )

Now that Matthew has completed his portrait of Jesus as teacher and healer, he moves to a new segment of the Gospel. Using his own mission as a model, Jesus gathers his twelve apostles and commissions them to proclaim the Kingdom of God, and to heal. The motivation for their mission is the same that animated Jesus' own energetic healing in the previous two chapters: the crowds are “troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd” (see Mt 9, 36–38 ).

This forms the second of the five great discourses of Matthew's Gospel. The evangelist draws some of the material in this discourse from chapter 13 of Mark's Gospel (see especially the material in Mt 10, 16–23 ); the rest comes from Q, the sayings source he holds in common with Luke (see introduction), or from Matthew's own sources.

Note that the discourse can be read from two different perspectives: (1) as part of the unfolding story of Jesus' ministry and his relationship with his disciples; (2) and an instruction for the post‐Easter church. In the former time frame, Jesus tells his apostles to restrict their mission to Israel, the chosen people of God ( 10, 5f ); but in the new age, when the gospel must be proclaimed to all the world (see 28, 16–20 ), Jesus' words apply to the universal mission of the church.

Typical Matthean themes run through the discourse. The Twelve (including Matthew the tax collector, 10, 3 ) share in Jesus' own mission of proclaiming the Kingdom and healing those in need ( 10, 7f ). Note that the apostles are not yet commissioned to “teach”—that comes only after the Resurrection (see 28, 20 ) when they have a deeper grasp of Jesus' mission. Any disciple who follows Jesus can expect to meet indifference, hostility, or rejection (see, for example, 10, 16–25.34–39 ). The discourse is not naive but clearly warns the apostles about the cost of proclaiming the gospel in an authentic way.

But there is also strong affirmation of the power of the gospel and of the sense of confidence that should go with those on mission. They are not to be afraid of those who threaten their lives ( 10, 26–28 ) or flinch before the divisions that may come. The loving God who has an eye for the sparrows and counts the hairs on our heads will not abandon those who follow the way of Jesus. Christians who live in circumstances of persecution and violence understand well these words of Jesus. Those who live in more comfortable circumstances need to ask themselves if the gospel values they reverence are not sometimes co‐opted by the seductions of the dominant culture.

Matthew's concern with the mission of the church will reemerge in the final scene of the Gospel when the mission of Jesus, confined to Israel during his lifetime, bursts out into the world through the mission of the church ( 28, 16–20 ).

Mounting Hostility to Jesus and His Mission ( 11, 2–12, 50 )

In the mission discourse Jesus warned his disciples to expect opposition when they preached the gospel. Now Jesus himself becomes embroiled in conflict because of his mission. For the next two chapters Matthew traces the opposition that swirls around John the Baptist and Jesus.

The motif of conflict is apparent from the first words of chapter 11 —John the Baptist is in prison and soon to die. He sends his disciples to Jesus with the key question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” ( 11, 3 ). That question leads to a summary of Jesus' great deeds, and to Jesus' reflection on John's ministry and his own.

The opposition to Jesus is crystallized in “this generation” ( 11, 16 ), which understood neither the ascetical John nor the gentle and compassionate Jesus ( 11, 18f ). “Wisdom,” that is, God's message to Israel embodied in Jesus himself, will be proven present in the liberating works that Jesus performs in his ministry ( 11, 19 ).

Matthew weaves together in this section profound insight into the bond between Jesus and his Father ( 11, 25–27 )—one of the most beautiful passages of the Gospel—with tumultuous scenes of conflict, as the enemies of Jesus fail to perceive that he is the Messiah and attack him for healing on the Sabbath (see the series of stories in chapter 12 ). Judgment, another typical Matthean motif emerges from all this. The Jewish towns that refuse to transform their lives in the light of the gospel bear the responsibility for their failure. Matthew's emphasis on judgment goes hand in hand with his emphasis on the necessity of good deeds. Living out the gospel should not be confused with mere noble aspirations and religious rhetoric. A tree is known by the fruit it produces ( 12, 33 ).

The section closes with this insistence: the true family of Jesus are not those who merely claim kinship with him but those who do the will of God ( 12, 50 ).

The Parable Discourse ( 13, 1–50 )

Parables were the trademarks of Jesus' teaching style. As the notes to the text explain (see 13, 11 ), these pointed stories both reveal and veil the mystery of the Kingdom. Unless the listeners are willing to probe beneath the surface of the parables, the true meaning of Jesus' words will escape them ( 13, 14f ).

Typical themes of Matthew's Gospel emerge again in this discourse. The certain triumph of the Kingdom, which was a strong theme of the Sermon on the Mount, dominates the parable of the sower ( 13, 1–9 ) as well as the parables of the mustard seed ( 13, 31f ) and the yeast ( 13, 33f ). Discipleship motifs stand out in the parables of the treasure and the pearl ( 13, 44–46 ): true followers of Jesus are to put aside everything and be fully committed to the compelling beauty of God's reign.

Many of the parables in Matthew's Gospel have obvious moral messages (see also the stories in chapters 24 and 25 ). The parable of the weeds sown among wheat ( 13, 24–30; explanation, 13, 36–43 ) makes the point that the church, like the world itself, is a mix of good and evil. The disciples should not be discouraged by this but be confident that God's grace will triumph at the end of time, and evil will be punished. The theme of judgment present in the previous section of the Gospel reemerges here.

The conclusion of the parable discourse seems almost to be a signature of the Gospel writer ( 13, 52 ). The scribe who is instructed (literally: “discipled”) in the kingdom of heaven is like the householder who can bring from the storehouse “both the new and the old.” Preserving the best of the past and yet making it come alive for a new generation seems to be one of the main purposes of Matthew's Gospel (see introduction p. 1249 ). Matthew was convinced that Jesus did not destroy the beautiful traditions of Judaism but gave them new meaning. Bridging past and present in an open and respectful manner is one of the greatest challenges of religious leadership in any age.

The Kingdom and the Disciples ( 13, 51–16, 12 )

It is difficult to characterize this long section of Matthew's story under any single heading. Jesus' ministry of teaching and healing continues but now begins to burst beyond the confines of Galilee into Gentile territory. Clashes with his opponents, mainly the Pharisees, also continue to erupt. But the haunting story of Jesus' walking on the water and Peter's awkward attempts to trust his master ( 14, 22–33 ) may give us a clue to the special character of this section. With new intensity Jesus begins to instruct his disciples on the mystery of the Kingdom, and they begin to realize the awesome identity of the Messiah. Several motifs run through these chapters:

The Inclusive Mission of Jesus. Following the lead of Mark's Gospel, Matthew begins to trace the boundary‐breaking nature of Jesus' ministry (see Reading Guide to Mark's Gospel, RG 391–92 ). After another conflict with the Pharisees ( 15, 1–20 ), Jesus ventures near the Gentile region of Tyre and Sidon and there encounters a “Canaanite” woman ( 15, 21–28 ). This is one of the most intriguing stories in the Gospel. At first Jesus resists the woman's entreaties on behalf of her daughter. The Matthean Jesus remains committed only to the people of Israel (see 10, 5f ). But the woman's insistence, an expression of her active faith, breaks down Jesus' resistance and seems to open the horizons of his own vision. Matthew uses this story to instruct his own church: they, too, may have had too narrow a concept of their mission, thinking that only Jews could become Christians. But the needs and genuine faith of the Gentiles showed the early church that God intended to extend the boundaries of the Kingdom to include all people.

The two stories of the miraculous feedings ( 14, 13–21; 15, 32–39 ) give a similar impression of expansiveness. Jesus will not let the vast crowds go hungry and uses the occasion to instruct his disciples. Another epic scene takes place on the mountaintop, a favorite place of revelation in Matthew's Gospel ( 15, 29–31 ). Similar to the vista at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount (see 4, 23–25 ), vast crowds of the sick and disabled surge toward Jesus and he cures them. Once again the disciples can observe the boundless compassion that drives Jesus.

Opposition and Rejection. Despite the mercy of Jesus, his opponents continue to resist and misunderstand his message. The parable discourse had warned that some would prefer not to “see” and not to “hear” what Jesus preached. That prediction comes true in Nazareth ( 13, 54–58 ) where Jesus' own people rebuff him and take offense at his “wisdom and mighty deeds.” The story of Herod and the death of John the Baptist ( 14, 1–12 ) are early warning signs about Jesus' own fate. His enemies were so immersed in their opposition that they would carry it to the point of trying to destroy Jesus.

In this conflict about the tradition of washing hands before eating ( 15, 1–20 ), the Gospel offers one explanation of the intransigence of Jesus' opponents. They have allowed their own traditions to “nullify the word of God” ( 15, 6 ). In other words, they had lost a sense of priority, placing good but not essential values ahead of those that were most fundamental. Matthew continues to stress that Jesus was not opposed or indifferent to the Law, but he wanted to inject new life into its observance by insisting that the love command was the basis of all fidelity (see discussion at 5, 17 ).

The Disciples. The story of Peter walking on the water contains material unique to Matthew's Gospel and illustrates both the importance of Petrine traditions in this Gospel and the evangelist's view of discipleship. Peter begins to sink in the waves because he “doubted” or “hesitated” and because he has “little faith” ( 14, 31 ). The latter phrase is particularly characteristic of Matthew's Gospel (see p. 1250 ). Matthew's portrayal is sympathetic and realistic: the disciples believe but their faith is weak. Deeper trust in Jesus is needed.

At the same time, the disciples are quite different from the opponents of Jesus. While the opponents reject Jesus and align him with Satan ( 12, 24 ), the disciples acclaim Jesus as “the Son of God” ( 14, 33 ). The enemies of Jesus cannot understand his teaching, but the disciples, albeit hesitantly, do “understand” ( 16, 12; see also 13, 16.51 ).

The Way to Jerusalem ( 16, 13–20, 34 )

A dramatic shift in the setting of the Gospel story is about to take place. Jesus goes with his disciples to the northernmost reaches of Israel, Caesarea Philippi ( 16, 13 ). There he will ask the fundamental question of the Gospel: “Who do you say that I am?” ( 16, 15 ). Jesus' question and Peter's response represent a turning point in the narrative. “From that time” ( 16, 21 ) Jesus will begin to speak openly about his approaching death, and the action of the Gospel will point toward Jerusalem and the events of the Passion and Resurrection.

The announcement of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem ( 16, 21 ) thus introduces the motif of a “journey,” a theme already present in Mark's Gospel (see comments on Mark 8–10 ) and one greatly expanded in the Gospel of Luke (see comments on journey narrative in Luke RG 406–8 ). The threefold prediction of the Passion (in Matthew, see 16, 21; 17, 22f; 20, 17–19 ) punctuates the journey and keeps the reader's attention directed to Jerusalem and Jesus' death and resurrection. That great climax to the Gospel, already alluded to as early as the infancy gospel (see comments in RG 375 ), dominates the entire narrative and gives urgency to Jesus' teaching. The transfiguration reflects this: immediately after Jesus predicts his death for the first time, the light of resurrection glory seems to emanate from his person in a mountaintop scene reminiscent of the revelation given to Moses on Sinai (see the notes to 17, 1 ).

During the journey narrative, the spotlight seems to fall with new intensity on Jesus' relationship with his disciples. Although some conflicts with the Pharisees take place (see, for example, the dispute about divorce, 19, 1–12 ), most of Jesus' words are directed to his disciples, revealing to them what it means to follow a Crucified Messiah. Special Petrine traditions are present in this section, too, including Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi and Jesus' blessing upon him, his mediating role in paying the Temple tax on behalf of Jesus and himself ( 17, 24–27 ), and his lead question about forgiveness in the discourse on community life ( 18, 21 ).

The Ministry of Leadership

Matthew gives special attention to Peter in his Gospel (see comments on 14, 22–33 ).

Although the disciples had already confessed Jesus as “the Son of God” ( 14, 33 ), Peter himself has an opportunity to confess his own belief that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” ( 16, 16 ). Thus the focus in the Caesarea Philippi scene is not on the disciples in general but on Peter and his faith in Jesus. Peter's firm belief in Jesus is rewarded by a special blessing. He receives a new name, “Peter” or “Rock” (see comments in notes to 16, 18, p. 1282 ) because he will be the foundation upon which Jesus' church will be built. Peter is given the “keys of the kingdom of heaven” and empowered to “bind” and “loose.” Both of these images, as the notes to the text indicate, refer to the responsibilities of leadership entrusted to Peter. He becomes, in effect, the prime minister of the community.

Matthew will balance out this focus on Peter by also asserting the authority of the community in chapter 18 , but at this point in the Gospel he is showing the important role entrusted to the leader of the community. Undoubtedly this reflects a ministry of leadership already present in Matthew's church. The Gospel uses Peter as a model for leadership. Historically, Peter had been an important leader in the church. In Acts we are told that he helped mediate between the Jewish Christian church of Jerusalem and the emerging Gentile churches (see Acts 10–15 ). Paul, too, acknowledges the importance of “Cephas” (see, for example Gal 1, 18; 2, 11–14 ). And the Letters of Peter, even if not written directly by the Apostle, testify to the importance of his memory in the early church (see Reading Guides to 1 and 2 Peter).

While it would be going too far to impose on this Gospel scene the full‐blown institution of the papal office, Roman Catholic tradition can legitimately see in the figure of Peter the founding model for the later emergence of this office in the church. Peter is blessed because of his strong faith in Jesus and because he served a key role in maintaining the unity of the church. Equally important to remember, however, is that the gospel refuses to idealize Peter or to place him above the demands of the gospel. The same Peter that Jesus blesses lavishly here is also called “Satan” and “obstacle” ( 16, 23 ), will underestimate the need for reconciliation ( 18, 21 ), and will deny his discipleship in the face of the Passion ( 26, 69–75 ). Leaders within the community must remain disciples (see 23, 10 ).

Life in the Community

The fourth discourse of Matthew's Gospel, the discourse on community, occurs in this section of the Gospel ( 18, 1–35 ). The notes supply detailed commentary on this powerful example of Jesus' teaching. Matthew gathers here two parables of Jesus (the lost sheep, and the unforgiving servant) and several sayings, and he molds them into a discourse.

Two key sayings divide the chapter and strike its major themes. At the end of the first major section, Jesus tells the disciples: “In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost” ( 18, 14 ). The call to urgently seek out and care for the “little ones,” that is, the weak or alienated members of the community, dominates the first half of the discourse. The members of the community are not to seek their own aggrandizement ( 18, 1–5 ) and are never to “scandalize” or despise those on the margins of the church ( 18, 6–10 ). Matthew's version of the lost sheep parable drives that lesson home: the leaders of the community are to seek out the stray, not to condemn them.

The second half of the discourse concludes with another key saying: “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother (or sister) from the heart” ( 18, 35 ). The need for reconciliation dominates the latter half of the discourse. Disputes are to be settled in a fair and practical manner ( 18, 15–17 ), and even if strong discipline must be taken toward a recalcitrant member, he or she is to be treated “like a Gentile or a tax collector”—a poignant note in a Gospel where Jesus seeks out just such people (see, for example, 9, 9–13 )! Those who have experienced limitless forgiveness from God should not put limits on reconciliation within the community. That is the radical message of Jesus' reply to Peter, and the concluding parable of the story. Its message is similar in content to Jesus' teaching on love of enemies in the Sermon on the Mount (see 5, 43–48 ). We are to strive to love even the enemy because God's own love is lavish and indiscriminate.

This entire chapter offers a remarkable model for the church. There is little concern here for structures and budgets (important as they are for us and may have been for Matthew's community, too); emphasis falls rather on the care we need to have for each other if we are to be followers of Jesus.

Final Teaching in Jerusalem ( 21, 1–25, 46 )

The Gospel drama now enters Jerusalem, the capital city, where Jesus will experience death and resurrection. The great temple of Herod dominated this city in the time of Jesus, and its shadow falls across the scenes Matthew narrates in these chapters.

Jesus the Messiah enters his city in triumph, but he is seated on a donkey's colt, which Matthew interprets as a sign of Jesus' humility (see comment on 21, 5 ). As a fearless prophet, Jesus cleanses the house of God, another sign of his God‐given mission to call Israel to repentance. The next day Jesus returns to the Temple compound and begins to teach the crowds ( 21, 13 ). There follows a number of key texts that reveal the heart of Jesus' message. But the Jewish authorities (the Pharisees now joined by the “chief priests and elders of the people,” all members of the Sanhedrin, an informal ruling body whose base would, in fact, have been Jerusalem) remain hostile to Jesus and his message. This section of the Gospel is filled with sharp clashes between Jesus and his opponents.

Two important clusters of sayings and parables are found here. In the first, 23, 1–39 , Jesus excoriates the scribes and the Pharisees, portraying them in purely negative tones for their hypocrisy and lack of fidelity. As we will discuss below, this is Matthew's most intense assault on the Jewish leaders. The second collection of sayings and parables forms the fifth and final discourse of the Gospel, the so‐called eschatological discourse or discourse on the end of the world (see the note to 24, 1 ). While gazing at the stunning Temple from the Mount of Olives, Jesus reflects on the fate of the Temple and the end of human history. This leads to a series of parables, some of them unique to Matthew, urging the disciples to remain faithful and to exemplify that fidelity through good deeds (see 24, 36–25, 46 ).

The Authority of Jesus

Matthew portrays Jesus in strong, authoritative tones in this section. The Messiah enters the royal city in triumph with the acclamations of the crowds filling the air ( 21, 1–11 ). “The Lord of the sabbath” ( 12, 8 ) asserts his authority over the Temple by driving out the merchants and money changers, reclaiming God's house ( 21, 12–17 ). He meets head‐on the challenges of each of the major religious authorities of Israel: the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests, the elders of the people, the Sadducees. Even though Jesus will soon be a prisoner, Matthew wants to leave no doubt in the mind of the reader: Jesus is the Messiah, the true Teacher of Israel.

The foundation of that authority is Jesus' identity as God's Son. The parable of the tenants reaffirms that ( 21, 33–46 ); Jesus describes himself in this allegory (see note in text, p. 1295 ) as the son of the vineyard owner, the “heir,” whose maltreatment will bring judgment on the tenants. He is more than David's Son—even David the King had to call the future Messiah “Lord” ( 22, 41–46 ).

Matthew also presents Jesus dealing with questions of the law in characteristic fashion. The law is not rejected out of hand but reinterpreted. The dispute about the greatest commandment of the law ( 22, 34–40 ) is most revealing: “the whole law and the prophets” depend on the love command. The core of Jesus' teaching and the basis for all interpretation of tradition are the values of love and compassion (see 5, 43–48 , and comments on chapter 18 ).

Jesus and His Opponents

In chapter 23 Matthew presents Jesus as launching into a fierce assault on the hypocrisy and infidelity of the scribes and Pharisees. As the notes observe (see comments on 23, 1–39 ), they become, in effect, negative examples—the reverse side of the portrayal of the faithful disciple found in the Sermon on the Mount. Reading this discourse tells us what values Matthew's Jesus holds most dear: practicing what one preaches ( 23, 3 ), being compassionate rather than laying heavy burdens on others ( 23, 4 ), not using religion as a means of self‐aggrandizement ( 23, 5f ), having a proper sense of values and therefore understanding that mercy and justice are always the highest priority in interpreting the law ( 23, 23–28 ). Jesus urges his disciples to be leaders who have a sense of solidarity with the community rather than viewing others as inferior and subordinate ( 23, 8–12 ).

This strong indictment of the failings of the leaders is not intended solely to pummel the opponents of Jesus. Rather it is meant as a sober instruction for the Christian readers of the Gospel. Nevertheless, the negative stereotyping of the Jewish leaders, especially when it is read apart from its historical context in the Gospel, can have destructive effects. We who live in the horrible shadow of the Holocaust must be responsible readers of this Gospel and, while taking to heart the important lessons of this discourse, must not allow its negative image of the Jewish leaders to influence our attitude to Jews today. Every modern pope and the teaching of the Second Vatican Council has attacked anti‐Semitism and reminded Catholics of their spiritual and historical roots in the living faith of Judaism (see particularly, the 2002 statement of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible).

Judgment

The parables that make up the eschatological discourse have a familiar Matthean ring to them (see 24, 36–25, 46 ). Once again the evangelist dwells on the importance of doing good deeds as the authenticating expression of one's discipleship. The “faithful and prudent servant” is the one who is found taking care of the household and distributing food to those in need ( 24, 45f ); the wise virgins have their lamps filled with oil and are ready to respond at the proper moment ( 25, 1–13 ); the servant who employs his or her talents is the one blessed on the master's return from a long journey ( 25, 14–30 ); those who will be invited to inherit the Kingdom are those who carried out the love command—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, and welcoming the stranger ( 25, 31–46 ).

The climactic parable of the sheep and the goats illustrates how far Matthew is prepared to press his insistence on good deeds. The “sheep” had not even recognized the Risen Lord present in the needy but yet acted out of compassion. They are blessed by the Son of Man in his glory because they have proven to be faithful servants. More than once in his Gospel Matthew has stated that doing the good deeds of compassion and justice weigh far more than knowing the right words and wearing the right vestments (see a similar message in the parable of the two sons, 21, 28–32 ). There is little tolerance for religious hypocrisy in this Gospel.

The Death and Resurrection of God's Son ( 26, 1–28, 20 )

The Passion ( 26, 1–27, 66 )

The Passion story moves quickly from Jesus' prediction of the plot against him ( 26, 1–5 ), through the last supper with his disciples ( 26, 20–30 ), his anguished prayer and arrest in Gethsemane ( 26, 36–56 ), the interrogation and trial before the Sanhedrin or Jewish Council ( 26, 57–75 ), the Roman trial before Pilate ( 27, 1–31 ), and the final scene of crucifixion, mockery, and death ( 27, 32–56 ). The burial in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb and the Pharisees' demand that Pilate post a guard ( 27, 57–66 ) prepare the reader for the explosive events of the Resurrection.

The peculiar emphases Matthew gives the Passion story can be summarized under three major themes:

The Majesty of Jesus. Even in the Passion story, Jesus remains the majestic Messiah of Israel. This is already true in Mark's account but it is given particular emphasis by Matthew. Jesus is imbued with prophetic knowledge of the events about to take place: he predicts the plot of the leaders ( 26, 1f ), is fully aware of his impending death ( 26, 12.18 ), knows the identity of his betrayer ( 26, 25 ), and the certainty of Peter's denials ( 26, 34 ). His captors cannot seize him until Jesus confronts Judas with his treachery ( 26, 50 ). And when the high priest commands with an oath that Jesus reveal his identity, Jesus predicts with calm majesty his eventual triumph as the Son of Man who will be exalted at the right hand of God ( 26, 64 ). Death cannot destroy or defeat God's Son—that is the heart of Matthew's message in the Passion story. The parade of mockers who file past the cross jeer Jesus and ridicule his claim to be God's Son ( 27, 39–44 ). But as death comes, Jesus is acclaimed as the true Son of God, and nature itself erupts in testimony to Jesus' victory (see comments on 27, 51–54 ).

The Dawn of the New Age. The death of Jesus is the center point of sacred history in Matthew's perspective. As discussed above (see comments on RG 381 ), Matthew, along with all of the New Testament, considered Jesus as the advent of the final and decisive age of salvation promised by God to Israel. The death of Jesus was the climactic act of his entire mission: here all of his love and commitment were compressed into one intense act of fidelity to the will of his Father. Thus the death of Jesus becomes in a special way the turning point between the old and the new age. With the death (and resurrection) of Jesus the final age of human history had begun and, therefore, humanity must respond to God's grace in a new way.

Several features of Matthew's Passion story proclaim this theology of history. At the moment of death ( 27, 51–57 ) signs of the new age break out: nature convulses, the tombs are split open, and the dead are liberated—just as the dream of the prophet Ezekiel had envisioned, with the dead bones of Israel's hopes taking flesh and escaping the tomb (see Ez 37 ). The age of death is over; the age of resurrection begins.

The attention Matthew gives to the response of the leaders and people of Israel to Jesus is another part of his theology of history (see, for example, 27, 24f ). Paradoxically, because Israel rejects Jesus, the way will now be open for the gospel to be proclaimed to the Gentiles. This does not mean that Matthew despairs of having the Jews accept the message of Jesus (he seems to offer some hope of this in 23, 39 ), but he does believe that the mission to the Gentiles is now possible in the new and final age of salvation, and one of the catalysts for that mission was the fact that the mission to Israel had failed. Paul, too, has a similar theology in Romans 9–11 , where he reminds his readers that in the mystery of God's providence the failure of Israel becomes a moment of grace for the Gentiles. For Paul, Israel remains special because God is faithful and will never forget the promises made to the chosen people. This biblical teaching is reaffirmed in the theology of the Second Vatican Council where in the document on relationships with non‐Christian religions (Nostra Aetate) the Council explicitly refers to Romans 9–11 to state that the Jewish people have a special and enduring place in the history of salvation. Pope John Paul II in his historic visit to the synagogue of Rome affirmed that Catholicism has a relationship with Judaism “which we do not have with any other religion.” For these reasons the Pontifical Biblical Commission declared that “an attitude of respect, esteem and love for the Jewish people is the only truly Christian attitude in a situation which is mysteriously part of the beneficent and positive plan of God” (The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible, par. 87).

Examples and Counterexamples. The Passion story also serves Matthew's teaching about discipleship. In the crucible of suffering and death, one's true character is revealed. The Passion is filled with examples, both positive and negative, of how people respond to the gospel in crisis. The leaders remain implacably hostile to Jesus and demand his death. Peter and the rest of the disciples prove their “little faith,” with Peter denying he knows Jesus and the others fleeing in panic. Judas betrays his master and gives in to despair rather than seeking repentance ( 27, 3f ).

There are also bright moments: the woman of Bethany who performs a last kindness for Jesus, anointing him for burial despite the protests of the disciples ( 26, 6–13 ); Pilate's wife who pleads on behalf of “that righteous man” ( 27, 19 ); the centurion and his companions who acclaim the crucified Jesus as the “Son of God” ( 27, 54 ); the women who stand by Jesus at the cross and see to his burial ( 27, 56 ); Joseph of Arimathea, the rich disciple who risks his reputation by burying a publicly executed man in his own new tomb ( 27, 57–61 ). And, of course, Jesus himself is the prime exemplar of fidelity—seeking God's will despite the threat of death, refusing violence at the moment of his arrest, and trusting in God even as his life's breath is taken from him.

There is no doubt that Matthew intended the readers of the Passion to place themselves in the story and to ask the troubled question posed by the disciples: “Is it I, Lord?” ( 26, 22 ).

The Resurrection ( 28, 1–20 )

The Gospel concludes with the events surrounding the empty tomb and Jesus' appearances to his disciples. None of the Gospels attempts to narrate the resurrection itself, but Matthew comes closest to that in mentioning an “earthquake” and an “angel of the Lord” who comes from heaven to roll back the stone from the tomb ( 28, 2 ). Marvelous events such as these and the opening of the tombs at the moment of Jesus' death (see 27, 51–53 ) continue to signal the final and glorious age when God's presence would be felt in a vivid way.

Mark's original ending does not include the report of any appearances of the Risen Christ; the discovery of the empty tomb, and the words of the heavenly messenger about Jesus' triumph over death are enough to proclaim the message (see Mk 16, 1–8 ). But in Matthew's Gospel, Jesus appears first to the women as they leave the empty tomb ( 28, 9f ), and then to the eleven disciples (here Matthew does not forget Judas's tragic fate) in Galilee ( 28, 16–20 ). Matthew's denunciation of the Jewish leaders continues right to the end of the Gospel: when the chief priests and elders learn from the soldiers about the astounding events at the tomb, instead of believing in Christ's triumph, they concoct a false story about the disciples stealing the body of Jesus ( 28, 11–15 ).

The final scene of the Gospel ( 28, 16–20 ) is on a mountaintop, the favored site of special revelation throughout the Gospel (see, for example, the temptation, the Sermon on the Mount, the transfiguration, the healing of the crowds, 15, 29–31 ). The Risen Christ comes in triumph, as he had predicted during his Passion, and commissions his disciples to go to “all nations,” making disciples, baptizing them into the community, and teaching them to observe all that Jesus had commanded.

Major themes of the Gospel are compressed into this scene: Matthew's concern with the universal mission of the church; his emphasis on Jesus as teacher; his realistic portrayal of the disciples (who even now “hesitate” as they encounter the Risen Christ, see 28, 17 !); his interest in the church. This scene has inspired countless Christian missionaries throughout the centuries to leave their homeland to bring the gospel to others. Above all, the Gospel's majestic portrayal of Jesus as the church's firm foundation and abiding hope is reaffirmed. No matter how turbulent will be the church's future, the Risen Jesus will not abandon it. Matthew concludes his Gospel with the final promise of one who was named Emmanuel, “God is with us” (see 1, 23 ): “I am with you always, until the end of the age” ( 28, 20 ).

D.S.

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