Introduction to the Gospel according to Matthew

[December 4, 2011] The Second Sunday of Advent. Last Sunday began another year according to the calendar of the church. The calendar is a convention that has grown over the centuries. The early church celebrated Easter. We know this because they disagreed over when to celebrate it. That does not mean, however, that Easter was when the church year began. Probably in the beginning the church treated Rosh Hashanah as the beginning of the church year because that was when the cycle of Torah readings in the synagogue began, and the earliest Christians—Jews and devout Gentile (“god-fearers”)—learned the Old Testament by listening to those readings. There is also a good probability that the gospels were written to correspond to those readings. If that is so and they each were accordingly read in the churches in the course of a year, then the churches in their own gatherings (apart from the synagogue) kept a sense of an annual cycle even if they did not observe the Jewish festivals. Eventually, according to the readings, certain times of the year were associated with different events in the Gospel narrative. In any case, while the practice of reading through each gospel was eventually lost, the sense of an annual cycle was not. Slowly our present calendar evolved.

It begins with Advent, moves to Christmas, and is followed by Epiphany, which as a season (not all observe it as such) is observed until Lent. Epiphany begins with the Baptism of our Lord and concludes with the Transfiguration of our Lord. Lent, ending with Palm Sunday and the Holy Week that follows, moves into Easter which as a season ends with Pentecost (it includes Ascension Thursday ten days before). Pentecost is followed by Trinity Sunday (the name into which we baptize) and the long “Green” season that it initiates concludes, on the last Sunday of the year, with Christ the King Sunday, which I prefer to call “Christ the Victor Sunday.” This Green season, from Trinity Sunday to Christ the Victor, takes up about half the year and is devoted to Christian growth, hence the color. That is the present state of the church calendar. It is essentially a curriculum plan for teaching the faithful, and as a bonus encourages us to celebrate the times and “seasons” of our Lord.

If, however, we want to recover the Sunday (Lord’s Day) practice of reading through each gospel in the course of a year, something I recommend, it means that we have to choose to ignore the calendar, read out of sequence, or come up with some sort of compromise. Whatever we must do, it would be better than accepting only the smattering of readings (about 15%) that the Revised Common Lectionary provides, a selection that is governed by particular interests which we may or may not share. I for one think that the church ought to be served the “full gospel” (as the expression goes). The gospel readings would have to be a little longer, but hardly unmanageable. This means reading through one gospel each year. For historical reasons I prefer the order of Matthew, Luke, Mark and John. For no reason other than chance, the four-year cycle begins for us during the year that ends in a multiple of four (2008, 2012, 2016, etc.).

In the beginning, the believers gathered together and “remembered” Jesus as they broke bread together, celebrating the Supper He instituted. Those who were eyewitnesses of Jesus shared their reminiscences. This worked until the mission began to expand outside of Palestine. Matthew, the only disciple who had a writing table and who also owned tools for writing, wax tablets, papyrus and velum, probably took on the role of Jesus’ scribe and recorded some of His teachings and acts for the Twelve. During the persecution under Herod Agrippa I when James the son of Zebedee was killed (this took place in April of 41 CE), Peter fled Jerusalem and probably others of the Twelve did also, including Matthew. Matthew ended up in Antioch. It was probably about that time that he began to compile and organize the first gospel. In 45 CE, Paul, Barnabas and Mark left on their mission to Cyprus and South Galatia. When they returned in 47 with news of new communities of believers, it was obvious that these communities needed permanent access to the eyewitness testimony to Jesus. It needed to take written form, a conclusion that would have been foregone for those raised in the synagogue. Once this step was seen, it also solved the problem of giving the eyewitness accounts of Jesus a stable—and authoritative—form. Matthew’s gospel would consolidate the testimonies of the eyewitnesses whom Jesus Himself chose for the task, namely the Twelve. Apparently Matthew wrote his gospel to correspond to the synagogue readings, assuming that the believers would continue to hear the readings of the Torah and Prophets in the synagogues. Therefore he intended his gospel to be read in the churches on a weekly basis the way the Scriptures were in the synagogue. In other words, he wrote his gospel to be used as Scripture in the churches gatherings, at least the new churches that did not have access to actual eyewitnesses. By 52 CE, when Paul and his coworkers returned to Antioch from his second trip, during which he established churches in Macedonia and Achaia, Matthew’s gospel was finished and reproducible. Paul took a copy of Matthew with him, and from then on, Paul’s churches (and soon others) had a copy of Matthew’s gospel.

When Matthew was compiling, organizing and editing his gospel, a violent controversy was brewing in the Jewish community concerning the Jews who believed in Jesus. Actual riots broke out in Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and other cities (such as Thessalonica). The reason had to do with the way the Gentile mission was handled, especially in and from Antioch. The Gentiles were being given full inclusion in the Messianic communities without having first converted to Judaism (ritually signified by the circumcision of the men). There was no question of the Christian communities being Jewish. Of course they were: they worshiped the Jewish God, used the Jewish Scriptures, and their members attended synagogue and participated in the worship of the Jerusalem Temple. However, the Gentile god-fearers did not practice Halakah (the legal requirements of the Torah; they only kept the Noahide covenant). They were still unclean. Yet these new Jewish communities treated their god-fearing Gentiles as equals, without distinction. To the zealots it seemed to threaten the identity of the entire Jewish community. It was intolerable. The Gentile mission of the church was what this controversy was all about. Matthew wrote, compiled, organized and edited his gospel with this in the background. In part, his presentation of Jesus was an answer to the broader Jewish community: it justified the Gentile mission.

While this controversy raging in the background colored Matthew’s presentation of Jesus, the reader is also struck by the gospel’s obvious organization. It is arranged thematically rather than chronologically with five large teaching sections (5—7, 10, 13, 18, 24-25) broken up with a series of stories between them. If we examine the stories in detail, I think we will see that they correspond to the teaching unit that follows them. When we come to chapters 16—20, however, another organization device comes into play. 13:54—16:20 is the story section that corresponds to the teaching that follows, but the teaching is not just chapter 18 but is structured by Jesus’ three predictions of His passion. So 16:21—17:21 forms the first part; 17:22—20:16 forms the second part; and 20:17-34 forms the third. Moreover, the long second part is divided in two by Jesus’ change in location in 19:1, thus 17:22—18:35 and 19:1—20:16. In other words, Matthew has divided his gospel into seven “books,” the five teaching sections bracketed by the two ends. Apparently, not only was the gospel to be read as Scripture on the Lord’s Day along with the breaking of the bread as the churches “remembered” the Lord, but it was also designed as a manual for instruction, that is, as a catechism for the churches.

The following is the outline that I have just described:

  1. The Emergence of the Kingdom of the Heavens (1:1—4:17)
  2. The Sphere of the Kingdom (4:18—8:1)
    1. Narrative (4:18-25)
    2. Teaching (5:1—8:1)
  3. The Mission of the Kingdom (8:2—11:1)
    1. Narrative (8:2—10:4)
    2. Teaching (10:5—11:1)
  4. The People’s Reaction to the Kingdom (11:2—13:53)
    1. Narrative (11:2—12:50)
    2. Teaching (13:1-53)
  5. The Revelation of the Church in the Light of the Kingdom (13:54-20:34)
    1. Narrative (13:54—16:20)
    2. Teaching (16:21—20:34)
      1. The Believers’ Cross and the Glory that Awaits Us (16:21—17:21)
      2. Applied to Us As the Church (17:22—20:16)
        1. Among Each Other (17:22—18:35)
        2. Within the Households (19:1—20:16)
      3. The Church, Israel and the Kingdom (20:17—34)
  6. The Judgment of the Kingdom (21—25)
    1. Narrative (21—23)
    2. Teaching (24—25)
  7. The Accomplishment of the Kingdom (26—28)

The headings will make more sense as the Gospel according to Matthew is explained.

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