Layman's Bible Commentary Layman's Bible Commentary
by Various Authors
THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
Suzanne de Dietrich
"The Gospel according to Matthew" the simple title tells us immediately that this book is concerned with "good news," for such is the meaning of the Greek word translated "Gospel."
This good news concerns Jesus of Nazareth. The way in which the Apostles understood their task of preaching is admirably summarized in Acts 10:34-43. It was a question of a testimony, given by men who had followed Jesus during his earthly ministry and who had seen him again after his resurrection. They had heard his word, they had seen him act They had recognized in him the Messiah announced by the prophets. The aim of their testimony was to lead men to faith in Jesus, which accounts for the singular accent put on his death, on the necessity of this death, and on the Resurrection. Precisely because the Cross bad been a stone of stumbling for the disciples themselves, because it remained "a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," as Paul said (1 Corinthians 1:23), the Passion occupies a central place in all of the Gospels. From the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, the Cross stood on the horizon; one could even say it stood there from his infancy, for both Matthew and Luke give us from the very beginning a presentiment of the opposition of which it will be the climax. And this opposition is not the result of an unfortunate concourse of circumstances. It is because he is the Holy One of God that Jesus was rejected by men. Men could not endure this Presence which judged and condemned them.
But without knowing it men thus accomplished the fixed purpose of God. Everything that happened had been foretold by the Scriptures. In his own Person, Jesus both announces and inaugurates the Kingdom of God. He creates the New Community.
He is the Suffering Servant, of whom the Book of Isaiah speaks, who dies, the just for the unjust. He is the conqueror of sin and death. He is the salvation of the nations. This is the common message of all the Gospels. This is what constitutes the good news, joyous news.
Distinguishing Features of the Gospel According to Matthew
The Gospel by Matthew was designed for readers of Jewish origin. In all probability it was written in Palestine, perhaps in Galilee, or in Syria, This is to be seen in a number of special characteristics as well as in its general orientation.
1. Jewish customs are familiar to those to whom the Gospel is addressed. These customs are not given the kind of explanation that Mark sometimes felt himself obliged to give (compare Mark 7:1-13 with Matthew 15:1-9). Every Jew practiced ritual ablutions. He knew what a phylactery was and why tombs were whitewashed (Matthew 23:5; Matthew 23:27). Matthew is careful to show that Jesus respected the Law; he only condemned its deformations and abuses. Jesus wore fringes on his clothing as did all pious Jews (Matthew 9:20; compare Numbers 15:38). He paid the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24-25). He exhorted his disciples to pray that the final catastrophe would not arrive on the Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). On the other hand, since as Son of Man he announced and incarnated in his own Person the coming Kingdom, he was Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8; see also 9:14-15); in that he was Son of God, he had the right not to pay the Temple tax (Matthew 17:24-26).
Jesus insisted on the fact that those who observed the Law ought to observe it entire, even to its least commandments (Matthew 5:17-20); but to the old Law he opposed a higher law, the law of the Kingdom, which demanded purity of heart and a love which reflected that of the Father (Matthew 5:21-48). Thus this Gospel affirms simultaneously Jesus’ respect for the ancient commandments in that they were given by God, and his divine liberty as the Son who inaugurated the New Age.
2. The charges of Jesus against the Pharisees involve two major points:
They add to the commandments of God "the precepts of men," and in so doing they are "blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!" (Matthew 15:9; Matthew 23:24).
They "preach, but do not practice" (Matthew 23:1-3). The insistence on putting into practice the word which is heard is one of the constant themes of this Gospel. For it is precisely this divergence between "saying" and "doing" which is the snare of "pious" people, their real hypocrisy. It was the sense of their own piety as "practicing" Jews (practicing in the ritual sense) which closed the Pharisees against the message of Jesus, against all the prophetic and therefore revolutionary elements of this message. The true disciple is to be known by the fact that he "does" the will of God (Matthew 6:10; Matthew 7:21; Matthew 12:49-50; Matthew 21:28-31).
3. Matthew makes a constant use of scriptural proofs; this is, one might say, the basis of his apologetics. True, all the Gospels make a similar use of the Scriptures. There is a continuity between the old and the new revelation. But Matthew adorns his Gospel with references which seem sometimes a little forced to the modern reader. It is without doubt necessary to see here a rabbinic practice of that time; but above all one must grasp the intention and the spirit of it: Jesus revived and accomplished in his Person the destiny of the Elect People. He is the promised heir of David and of Abraham. He is the "King of the Jews" to whom the nations, represented by the Magi, render homage, and against whom hostile forces arise from the moment of his birth. It is in his royal capacity that he proclaims with a sovereign authority the coming of the Kingdom of God and the laws which govern that Kingdom. It is as King of Israel that he dies on the cross. It is as King and Judge that he will return at the last day "on the clouds of heaven" (Matthew 24:30; Matthew 26:64; see Daniel 7:13-14), and that, since his resurrection, all power has been given to him "in heaven and on earth" (Matthew 28:18). The Old Testament citations are designed to prove to the reader that everything which happened had been foreseen, that absolutely nothing is left to chance, that the sovereign hand of God is on his Son from the beginning to the end. Jesus is King, but an abased King who has voluntarily taken the form of the Servant. He makes his own the destiny of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah. He has taken on himself our diseases (Matthew 8:17); he was misunderstood and rejected by his contemporaries; he submitted in silence to accusations and outrages (Isaiah 53:7).
According to the ancient prophecies, the great final gathering would commence with Israel and afterwards extend to the Gentiles. Matthew is the only one who cites the words of Jesus which show that during his earthly ministry he expected to devote himself first and exclusively to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:5-6; Matthew 15:24). It is necessary to understand that this is a question of a priority in time. It is to the Elect People that the call to repentance and faith must first be addressed; it is from their midst that Jesus recruits the disciples who will constitute the nucleus of the new community. To attribute to Matthew any racial exclusivism whatsoever would be completely to distort the picture. His picture is certainly consistent with history. If Jesus was rejected by his own people, it was not without his having done everything he could to rally them; proof of this are his words, "How often would I ... and you would not!" (Matthew 23:37), and the severity of his judgment on Bethsaida and Capernaum (Matthew 11:20-24). If the first mission of the Twelve was reserved for Israel, the mandate to evangelize the Gentiles was explicitly entrusted to them after the Resurrection, as is made clear by a number of passages (Matthew 8:10-13; Matthew 10:18; Matthew 22:1-10; Matthew 24:14). Here again is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: the Servant will be "a light to the nations" and his salvation will "reach to the end of the earth" (Isaiah 49:5-6).
4. Matthew has a distinctive preoccupation which might be called "ecclesiastical." Just as God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai the charter of the Old Covenant the rule of life which should govern the conduct of the Elect People so Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount promulgated the charter of the children of the Kingdom. Matthew alone reports the mandate entrusted to Peter for the constitution of the new community (Matthew 16:17-19). Matthew alone gives the first lineaments of church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
5. At the time when this Gospel was written, the Christian communities were experiencing persecution. Certain passages without doubt reflect this situation. The writer was concerned to fortify the faith of the Christians to remind them that Jesus had foreseen these struggles and that he had foreseen the apostasy of some, the lukewarmness of others (Matthew 5:11-12; Matthew 10:16-23; Matthew 24:9-13). What happened to Israel could happen to them also; they could be rejected in their turn. For this reason the writer reminds them with insistence that "many that are first will be last, and the last first" (Matthew 19:30; Matthew 20:16).
The Structure of the Gospel
The writer of the Gospel has composed his work with singular care. Without doubt the words of Jesus and certain narratives had already been grouped in the sources which he used. But an attentive study shows that there is here a more systematic plan at least in certain of its parts than is the case with Mark or Luke. The teaching of Jesus is grouped in some "discourses," of which each has a precise theme, and in most cases the narratives which follow the discourses are a sort of concrete illustration of them.
Certain commentators have thought it possible to divide the Gospel into five "books" which would make this Gospel the "Pentateuch" of the New Testament The present writer hesitates to go this far. But Matthew in the structure of this Gospel is certainly influenced by the Old Testament. The first chapters (Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 4:22) are, in a manner, the "genesis" of the story which unfolds itself before our eyes. There is here a double beginning: first, the birth of Jesus Christ, with his dual origin, both human and divine (chs. 1 and 2); and second, the coming of the forerunner who prepares for Jesus’ ministry (ch. 3). Along with the latter goes the story of the beginning of Jesus’ own ministry (Matthew 4:1-22).
Verse 4:23 characterizes in a very general manner the ministry of Jesus. Such phrases are repeatedly found in the Gospel and serve as transitions between the different parts of the story; for example, the words of 4:23 are found again in 9:35, These chapters, 4:23-9:34, show Jesus mighty in words and in deeds: he proclaims the Reign of God, and he concretely manifests this Reign by his healings and his miracles.
Verses 9:35-38 introduce what could be called the second discourse, setting forth the instructions given to the disciples before they were sent out on their first mission (ch. 10) .
Verse 11:1 is, again, very general. It serves as a hinge between the second and third discourses, the latter, occasioned by the question of John the Baptist, being centered on the person and work of John (11:2-19), and being followed by declarations of Jesus concerning his own mission (Matthew 11:20-30). The opposition which this mission incites is illustrated by a series of incidents which conclude with some severe words of Jesus against the Pharisees (ch. 12).
The first verses of chapter 13 introduce a fourth discourse of Jesus, in the form of parables (Matthew 13:1-52).
The series of stories in Matthew 13:53 to Matthew 16:12 has a less definite structure. It follows the plan of the Gospel by Mark and ends with the confession of Peter. This confession, in all the Gospels, marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Beginning from this moment, Jesus announces to his disciples his approaching end and tries to prepare them for it.
Chapter 18 may be considered as a "fifth discourse," addressed to the disciples. It groups a series of counsels concerning the life of the New Community the future Church.
Chapters 19 and 20 follow once more the plan of Mark, but the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard is inserted. Chapters 21 and 22 tell of the entry into Jerusalem and the discussions which took place in the Temple between Jesus and the Pharisees.
Chapter 23 is a discourse against the Pharisees, the most violent Jesus pronounced. From this moment the rupture between him and them is complete.
Chapters 24 and 25 prepare the disciples for the final events the end of the world, the return of the Son of Man in power and glory. They deal with the final accomplishment of the mission of the Son of God on the earth, the ultimate victory of God over all adverse forces. These discourses are at the same time both warning and promise. The call to "watch" is, as it were, the theme introducing the story of the Passion, which takes up chapters 26 and 27 and ends in chapter 28 with the proclamation of the Resurrection and the mission command of the Risen One to his Apostles.
Authorship and Date
The traditional view, which still has some convinced representatives in our time, is that our Gospel was the work of the Apostle Matthew. This opinion is supported by the testimony of Bishop Papias in the second century: "Matthew set down in writing, in the Hebrew language, some words of the Savior. Each one translated them as he was able."
This view, however, runs up against serious objections. The Gospel is written in good Greek, and the references to the Old Testament follow the Greek translation rather than the original Hebrew. But above all, a close study of the first three Gospels shows that behind our present Gospels are written sources, of which one is our Gospel by Mark reproduced almost completely by the other two, with some abbreviations and changes of style and another is some collections of words of Jesus, a part of which are found in both Matthew and Luke. It is difficult to believe that an Apostle would thus make use of a Gospel like that of Mark, which is the work of a disciple, not an Apostle, instead of giving his own personal recollections. On the other hand, Matthew himself may have been the originator of one of the collections of the "words of Jesus" which had already circulated orally in the Church, His Gospel gives special importance to the teaching of Jesus, as was seen in the study of its structure.
It was without doubt after the great persecutions by Nero and the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul that the necessity of writing down the most complete testimonies of the words and deeds of Jesus impressed itself upon the survivors of the first Christian generation. If, as is quite generally admitted, the Gospel by Mark was written between A.D. 65 and 70, Matthew would have been written a little later, between A.D. 70 and 80. There can never be absolute certainty about these questions. But is this really cause for regret?
The biblical writers never attached much importance to the person of the authors. It was the Church which, later, insisted on the apostolic origin of the writings of the New Testament. In reality, the Gospels, even as the other writings of the New Testament, worked their way into the faith of the Church not because of their authors but by their content The Church nourished herself on their teachings; she recognized in them a “word of God," a testimony inspired by the Holy Spirit The Gospels express the faith of the Church, which she announced and preached forty or fifty years after the events relating to her Lord his life, his death, his resurrection. They tell us everything which we, in our turn, should believe that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate, is indeed the Son of God, the King of Israel, and the Savior of the world. It must always be remembered that in reading the Gospels there is a testimony to faith which can only be received in faith. Only he who takes seriously the promises of God and obeys his commandments will know who Jesus is and, walking beside him on the roads of Galilee, will come to the time when he can say with Peter not merely by hearsay, not because such is the tradition, but with personal certitude "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matthew 16:16).
The Beginnings. (Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 4:22)
Birth and Infancy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1 to Matthew 2:23)
John the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus (Matthew 3:1-17)
The Temptation and the Beginning of Jesus’ Ministry (Matthew 4:1-22)
The Proclamation of the Kingdom in Words and Acts. (Matthew 4:23 to Matthew 9:35)
The Announcement of the New Age (Matthew 4:23-25)
The Charter of the New Age (Matthew 5:1 to Matthew 7:29)
The Kingdom of God Manifested in Acts (Matthew 8:1 to Matthew 9:35)
Continuation of the Galilean Ministry:
Four Discourses. (Matthew 9:36 to Matthew 16:12)
The Mission of the Twelve (Matthew 9:36 to Matthew 11:1)
Discourse Concerning John the Baptist (Matthew 11:2-30)
Discussions with the Pharisees (Matthew 12:1-50)
Parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13:1-52)
New Conflicts and New Miracles (Matthew 13:53 to Matthew 16:12)
The Way to the Passion. (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 23:39)
Who Is Jesus? (Matthew 16:13 to Matthew 17:27)
The New Community (Matthew 18:1-35)
On the Way Toward Jerusalem (Matthew 19:1 to Matthew 20:34)
The Triumphal Entry (Matthew 21:1-22)
Controversies with the Chief Priests, Scribes, and Pharisees (Matthew 21:23 to Matthew 22:46)
The Pharisees Judged by Jesus (Matthew 23:1-39)
The Accomplishment. Matthew 24:1 to Matthew 28:20
Discourse on the End of the Age (Matthew 24:1-41)
"Watch Therefore" (Matthew 24:42 to Matthew 25:46)
The Passion (Matthew 26:1 to Matthew 27:66)
The Resurrection (Matthew 28:1-20)