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The Gospel of St. Matthew.

On September 21, the Church celebrates the feast of St. Matthew. Matthew was one of the original twelve, called from his employment as a tax collector to follow Jesus. He records his own calling for us in chapter 9, verse 9. Mark records it in 12:13, calling him Levi, son of Alpheus; Luke in 5:27. Giuseppe Ricciotti, in his Life of Christ speculates that Matthew, whose name means "gift of God," turned the proceeds of his profession over to the support of Jesus' ministry. Upon being called, Matthew held a banquet for his fellow tax collectors. It was on this occasion that Jesus, seeing the Pharisees scandalized because he ate with tax collectors and sinners, declared he had not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Mt. 9:10-13).

Dating the Gospel

Some modern scholars date the appearance of Matthew's gospel around 70 or 80 A.D. They say Mark's gospel was the first one and that Matthew used Mark as a source for his own. Arguments put forth for this hypothesis are that, Mark's gospel being shorter, it would make more sense for Matthew to use it and expand on it than that Mark would rely on Matthew's and shorten it. Also, since Mark's gospel is the most "primitive" (it leaves Out the virgin birth, the visitation and the resurrection), some modem scholars argue it has to be the first; the later stories in Matthew and Luke were written for a later generation in an attempt to make history match theology.

One problem with this hypothesis is that it posits the improbable theory of an eyewitness, Matthew, relying on Mark, who was not an eyewitness. Another point is that tradition has maintained that Matthew's gospel was the first to be recorded and appeared in Aramaic around 50 AD. This Aramaic version disappeared around 70 A,D., the time of the destruction of Jerusalem. A Greek translation extant at the time survives and is the one from which we get our translation (Fuentes, A Guide to the Bible).

Ricciotti tells us that "Matthew's familiarity with writing may have led the other disciples to assign him the task of writing their oral catechesis." Matthew's task was to give an official reproduction of the oral catechesis of the apostles. His gospel is "an eyewitness account vouched for and contributed to by other eyewitnesses."

Matthew's purpose

Matthew's purpose was to demonstrate to the first generation of Christians, who were also Jews that the prophecies in the Old Testament were fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. In order to do this, he had to convince his readers that Jesus Christ is not a new patch sewn onto an old garment, but the new Moses, the new and supreme lawgiver. Matthew uses a number of techniques to do this.

First of all, he directs his readers often to the Old Testament prophecies, so that we can see for ourselves that what has been spoken of, or has just happened, fulfils what had long been foretold. Within the first four chapters, Matthew has reminded us five times of what has been foretold, with the expression: "Then was fulfilled...." After the Sermon on the Mount, he picks up the refrain again in chapter 8: ("This was to fulfil...") and maintains it to the end of his gospel. For this reason, Matthew's gospel is sometimes called "the Gospel of Fulfillment."

Matthew seems to be enamoured of the number 7 and multiples of it. For the Jewish people, 7 symbolized completion or perfection. Only Matthew informs us that it was 14 generations from Abraham to David, 14 from David to the deportation to Babylon, and 14 generations from the deportation to the birth of Christ (1:17).

His gospel is known also as the Gospel of the Church, since he is the only one of the gospel writers to use this word on the occasion of Peter's confession (16:18).

Literary devices

Besides this method of direct instruction, Matthew uses a number of literary devices and images to manifest Jesus Christ as the consummation of the Old Covenant. Some of these include the use of parallelisms, frequent sharp contrasts between the attitudes of the Pharisees and the disposition of Jesus, the mountain motif, the crisscross motif and the diptych.

The Psalms commonly use parallelism and antithetic parallelism. These devices provided emphasis as well as memory aides in a culture that was transmitted orally. In a parallelism, the same statement occurs twice back to back, but in different words. For example, Mt 10:26: "There is nothing covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known."

During the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus signals that his authority overrides the old law, with the emphatic formula: "You have heard it said...but I say to you...." This repetition, an antithetic parallelism, is an example to the reader of the differences in attitude shown in numerous encounters between Jesus and the Pharisees. His listeners observed immediately that "His authority was unlike the scribes...." (7:29).

The Pharisees

The fundamental difference in attitude between Jesus and His adversaries consists in their preoccupation with external forms of things, people and events, and Jesus' insistence on the importance of the interior disposition and motivation for one's actions. This theme runs through each clash between Jesus and the Pharisees. They have a propensity for discounting everything they observe so that, seeing, they do not see at all.

For example, after Jesus has multiplied the loaves and fishes (15:32-30), the Pharisees come to Jesus asking for a sign. Jesus' reply to them that they can read the signs in the heavens but not the signs of the times is his way of telling them that they can't see what's right in front of them. Jesus' motive in performing his miracles was to strengthen faith that already existed and not to dazzle anyone; he never performed miracles to gratify anyone's ego or shock anyone into belief. When these things failed to happen, the Pharisees concluded no "sign" had taken place. The Pharisees were looking for a wonder-worker or magician, someone who would spare them the effort of acknowledging their sinfulness and co-operating with God.

The Pharisees maintained their control and guarded their status through rigid rules about the Sabbath and cleanliness. In their self-sufficiency, they sought their own justification primarily in two ways: by looking for scandal in the way others observed the law, and by posing artificial moral scenarios for Jesus to solve. By displaying their shock at infractions against the law, such as eating with unwashed hands, they deceived the innocent. and the naive into believing they were righteous. Believing the opinions others held of them to be the source of their authority, they preoccupied themselves with manipulating their opinions instead of putting themselves right with God.

Another contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees shows up in the use they make of questions. The Pharisees posed questions to justify themselves, to obstruct thought, and hence action, and to "entangle Jesus in his talk" (22:15).

Jesus, on the other hand, asked questions to stimulate thought among his listeners, to enable them to infer a knowledge of the unknown on the basis of what they knew, and to discover the disposition of the person for whom he was about to perform a miracle. Occasionally his questions had the effect of silencing his enemies, as in the question of healing on the Sabbath: "What man of you, if he has one sheep and it falls into a pit..." (12:11). After his answer to the questions regarding the payment of taxes and the resurrection, no one dared ask him any more questions (22:46).


Since Matthew's original readers were Jewish, he could count on their understanding the significance of the new covenant being delivered on a mountain. Not only does Jesus deliver his sermon on the mount just as Moses received the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, but he seems continually to be descending and ascending (5:1, 8:1, 15:29, 17:1, 17:9). In fact, Matthew opens with the human descent of Jesus, which is why his emblem in art is the winged man, and closes his gospel with him on the mountain top in Galilee, his last appearance before ascending to heaven. If one were to draw a picture of the structure of Matthew's gospel, it would look like a large "V".

In addition to descending and ascending, Jesus frequently "crosses over...." Matthew often begins a new episode with the phrase, "when they had crossed over...," or "Jesus passed on from there...," or "when the disciples had reached the other side...." These phrases all suggest horizontal movement in contrast with the vertical movement of Jesus descending and ascending. One gets the impression of threads being woven. The events of Jesus' life are handled by Matthew like the warp and weft on a loom as if he is weaving a new, transparent veil to replace the one that is torn in two in front of the Holy of Holies (Mt. 27:51). The subliminal message to the reader is that Jesus' message is not a new patch sewn on to an old garment, but a weaving of old threads with new to create a new covenant founded on the old, but superseding it.


Finally, Matthew uses another image he knew would be familiar to his original readers. A diptych is an ancient, hinged, two-leaved writing tablet resembling the two stone tablets on which Moses received the Ten Commandments. For example, chapters 4:23 - 9:38 of his gospel take the form of a booklet, opening and closing as it does with a summary of Jesus' ministry: "And Jesus went about all Galilee teaching in their synagogues" (The New-World Dictionary-Concordance to the New American Bible).

The first "page of the booklet" is the discourse of the Sermon on the Mount and the second is the works of Jesus in chapters 8 and 9; that is, the curing of the leper and the centurions s servant, the calming of the sea, the cleansing of the two demoniacs. Just as the Ten Commandments are commonly divided into three and seven, these two "tablets" put the words of Jesus on one side, the works of Jesus on the other. The idea is that Jesus words and deeds are equally powerful and inseparable one from the other. His miracles support the doctrine of the Sermon.

The image of the diptych can be applied to the entire gospel of 28 chapters, the first "leaf" being the first 14 chapters, the second "leaf" containing the remaining 14. At the hinge of this diptych; i.e., the "bottom" of chapter 14, Jesus, buoyed up by the spirit, walks on the water, illustrating his power over the laws of nature and his consummation of the moral law. His person overrides law, represented by the open book over which he "rises."

Matthew's gospel is also symmetrical, though not rigidly so. As the diptych closes, so to speak, events "match up." The image suggests to the reader the idea of interpreting the events of Christ's life in the light of other events; for example, Jesus' questioning of his disciples about his identity (16:13) and his similar question to the Pharisees (22:41), or the temptation in the desert in the light of the agony in the garden.

What about Jesus' question to his disciples and the Pharisees regarding his identity? Jesus asks his disciples, "Who do the others say I am?" In phrasing his question thus, he reveals that he knows that they know, or suspect, who he really is. Then He addresses them directly, "Who do you say that I am?" Peter has not yet witnessed the Transfiguration, yet he recognizes the Christ. Shortly, he and two others of the ignorant but docile disciples will be granted a vision of Jesus in glory.

After answering three devious questions from the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus poses a similar question, on the eve of the passion, about his identity, in the third person: not, "Who do you say I am?" but, "Who is the Christ? Whose son is He?" To the Pharisees, he poses it as an abstract, impersonal question. When they answer, "David's son," Jesus has a poser for them: "If David calls Him Lord, how is He his son?" Not liking it when the tables are turned on them, they maintain a stony silence. The unteachable Pharisees will soon be shown the riddle of the cross. If they were looking for scandal, they would find it.

Passion of Jesus

The temptation and the passion considered together provide symbolic symmetry which further intensifies the contrast between the mind of Jesus and that of His adversaries for the reader of Matthew's gospel. The soldiers' mock-worship of Jesus, as they dress him in a purple robe and crown of thorns and kneel before Him, takes the mind back to the third temptation of the devil. The devil had taken Jesus to a very high mountain to show Him the kingdoms of the world. They would all be His if He would fall down and worship the devil. We know Jesus' answer: "You shall worship the Lord." Now Jesus, from the depth of suffering, is about to rise up and receive the worship of everyone. By emptying Himself, He fulfilled the condition for being exalted by God.

The taunting of Jesus on the cross (27:39) corresponds to the second temptation of the devil. (Luke reverses the second and third temptations.) The devil challenges Jesus to throw Himself down from a pinnacle of the Temple to demonstrate that He will be saved by the angels (3:6). The same taunting recurs--"If you are the Christ, save yourself, come down from the cross." His tormentors at the foot of the cross are here cast in the role of the devil in the temptation. Jesus does not put God to the test, as the devil tempted him, but accepts God's right to put him to the test.

The first temptation "Command these stones to become loaves of bread," (3:3) matches up with the opening of the tombs (27:52) upon the death of Jesus. Jesus would not perform a miracle to satisfy His own needs, but would raise up those who had died by offering his own flesh as bread for the life of the world.

Matthew's gospel is like a hall of mirrors. There are more events in his gospel which can be taken together and examined; for example, the cowering of Peter faced with the accusations of a lowly servant girl and the equanimity of Christ before the all-powerful Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. The temptation in the desert and the agony in the garden taken together teach us to place no store in our present circumstances. From his ordeal in the desert, Jesus is about to launch on a public ministry which, in spite of its fatigue, exasperations, and hardships, gratified his deepest needs and desires. From the luxuriant Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus enters on the ordeal of his passion.

These personal and unscholarly reflections are written to understand his gospel and to honour his feast day. Who was St. Matthew? He was no mere tax collector. He was a thoughtful teacher, a lover of the Church, and his gospel a monstrance for the person of Jesus Christ.

Kathilne Nitsch is a teacher at Hawthorne, an independent Catholic school, and a mother of three.
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Author:Nitsch, Kathline
Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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