An Appreciation for the Gospel of Matthew

An Appreciation for the Gospel of Matthew

The liturgical memorial of St Matthew the evangelist, which falls on September 21, brings to mind his gospel. Thus, it is most appropriate that as the Church celebrates his birth into Heaven, we here on earth appreciate his gospel.

In the list of the canon, the gospel of Matthew is usually placed first. However, and as scholars rightly point out, it was not the first gospel to be composed. We know that the first gospel was that of St Mark who wrote around the year 70 CE. Scholars tend to date the composition of St Matthew’s gospel precisely fifteen years later, in 85 CE. When considering that the gospel of Luke was also written in the year 85 and that of St John bears the date of 100, this puts Matthew’s gospel as second or third in the year of its composition.

Every gospel is evaluated on the basis of the audience it is written to. And here is Matthew’s gospel which was also written for a particular audience and for a specific intention. To begin with, Matthew’s gospel was written primarily for Greek-speaking Christians which hailed from a Jewish descent. Any reader of the gospel, coming from this precise background, would naturally relate to it. If one reads attentively this gospel text, one realizes that the author quotes the Old Testament directly around 53 times. According to other scholars, Matthew makes more than 100 Old Testament references, including direct quotes or simply refined illusions. Adding to this, the first evangelist also shows that Christ fulfilled an Old Testament Scripture some fifteen times. Already, the genealogy of Jesus and his strictly Jewish origins which hail back to King David speaks for itself.

In an interesting article named Matthew: Jesus Is the Promised Messiah, Mark L. Strauss writes: Matthew’s central theme is promise and fulfillment: God’s promises in the Hebrew Scriptures to bring salvation to his people Israel and to the whole world are being fulfilled with the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The Church’s response to this joyful news should be to go into all the world and make disciples (followers) of Jesus the Messiah (Matt 28:18-20).

In his catechesis on Matthew of Wednesday 30 August 2006, Pope Benedict XVI offerred us some very intriguing points on both the author and his gospel which are worth pondering upon. The Matthean gospel presents Matthew as “the tax collector”. Benedict says: His name in Hebrew means “gift of God.” The first canonical Gospel, which goes under his name, presents him to us in the list of the Twelve, labelled very precisely: “the tax collector” (Mt 10: 3). In his catechesis Pope Benedict comments the negative implication of being a tax collector for the people of the time when the evangelist is writing his gospel. They see publicans as an example of miserliness (cf. Mt 5: 46: they only like those who like them), and mention one of them, Zacchaeus, as “a chief tax collector, and rich” (Lk 19: 2), whereas popular opinion associated them with “extortioners, the unjust, adulterers” (Lk 18: 11).

The great innovation Jesus brought about was that he managed to transcend the prejudices and the harsh judgement of popular opinion and bravely included Matthew among his closest friends. Pope Benedict beautifully explained this point in the following way: A first fact strikes one based on these references: Jesus does not exclude anyone from his friendship. Indeed, precisely while he is at table in the home of Matthew-Levi, in response to those who expressed shock at the fact that he associated with people who had so little to recommend them, he made the important statement: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mk 2: 17). The good news of the Gospel consists precisely in this: offering God’s grace to the sinner!

This very important point mentioned by Pope Benedict brings to mind Pope Francis’ comment on the call of Matthew by Jesus. In his homily delivered at the Plaza de la Revolución “Calixto García Iñíguez” in Holguín, Cuba on Sunday 20 September 2015 the Holy Father said: Jesus looked at him. How strong was the love in that look of Jesus, which moved Matthew to do what he did! What power must have been in his eyes to make Matthew get up from his table! We know that Matthew was a publican: he collected taxes from the Jews to give to the Romans. Publicans were looked down upon and considered sinners; as such, they lived apart and were despised by others. One could hardly eat, speak or pray with the likes of these. For the people, they were traitors: they extorted from their own to give to others. Publicans belonged to this social class.

The great lesson which St Matthew’s experience has to teach to you and me is that Jesus’ love has the power to transform us from within, provided that we let it do so! That is why Pope Francis said: Jesus’ love goes before us, his look anticipates our needs. He can see beyond appearances, beyond sin, beyond failures and unworthiness. He sees beyond our rank in society. He sees beyond this, to our dignity as sons and daughters, a dignity at times sullied by sin, but one which endures in the depth of our soul. He came precisely to seek out all those who feel unworthy of God, unworthy of others. Let us allow Jesus to look at us. Let us allow his gaze to run over our streets. Let us allow that look to become our joy, our hope.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus was the Father’s merciful and transforming look for different people who were outcasts in those days. In Jesus’ loving gaze prostitutes, tax collectors, lepers, pagans, the blind, the deaf, the lame, epileptics, the woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage and even the dead such as the daughter of a ruler were all healed. It is so significant that the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:54). God’s salvation in and through Jesus Christ knows no boundaries! Jesus is truly the son of David, the son of Abraham (Matt 1:1); the Son of Man (Matt 8:20; 10:23; 11:19; 12:8; 12:32. 40; 13:37. 41); the Son of God (Matt 14:33). Matthew was really God’s gift in bringing out, throughout his gospel, this biggest reality about Jesus of Nazareth, namely that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God (Matt 16:16).

O God, who with untold mercy were pleased to choose as an Apostle Saint Matthew, the tax collector, grant that, sustained by his example and intercession, we may merit to hold firm in following you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Written by
Fr Mario Attard OFM Cap