As I mentioned in Sunday’s sermon, we’ll be hearing a lot from the Gospel of Matthew this year. Sunday started a new church year, and each annual cycle of readings features one predominate gospel. This year (Year A, the lectionary calls it) is Matthew’s year.
For starters, I think it’s remarkable that the early church included four stories about Jesus, called gospels. They could’ve settled on one, but they chose four. The earliest Christians readily embraced diversity — encouraging us to do the same. And having four stories reminds us that Jesus is bigger than any one person’s, or one community’s interpretation. Each gospel adds to our larger understanding of Christ, and each one offers a slightly different ‘take.’
So what’s Matthew’s take?
Check out these two videos — click here for Matthew, Part 1 (chapters 1-13); click here for Matthew, Part 2 (chapters 14-28). The Bible Project is a series of snappy, witty, fun, engaging 10-minute summaries of just about any book in the bible.
Maybe you figured this out already, but no gospel writer ever actually identifies himself – or herself. We call this gospel “Matthew” because the writer changes the name of the tax collector who wants to follow Jesus. Matthew 9:9-13 calls him “Matthew,” whereas Mark (2:13-17) and Luke (5:27-32) call the tax man “Levi.” Why change the name? Maybe it was Matthew, the former tax collector, who wrote this gospel.
Without Matthew’s gospel, we wouldn’t know about several key things:
- Only Matthew tells us about the Magi who come to worship Jesus (Matthew 2)
- Only Matthew remembers that Jesus told us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison for “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31-46)
- Only Matthew includes Jesus’ Great Commission — “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Matthew’s Jesus is an undeniably Jewish Messiah. From the beginning (Matthew 1:1-16), Matthew tells us that Jesus descended from Abraham. This gospel is packed with Old Testament quotes — 130 references, in fact. Whereas other gospels use the term “kingdom of God,” Matthew changes it to “kingdom of heaven,” a distinction which would’ve mattered greatly to Jews, who deeply revere the name of God. Matthew’s gospel features Jesus saying that he came “not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it” and that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” (Matthew 5:17-18)
Matthew’s Jesus is radical. In the ancient world, genealogies only included men. But Matthew includes five women in Jesus’ family tree — each of whom makes Jesus’ story more complicated. Read about Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary and you’ll understand why Matthew makes sure to tell us that Jesus has some strong and radical women in his lineage.
Matthew arranges his story around five teachings: (1) chapters 5-7; (2) ch.10; (3) ch. 13; (4) ch.18; (5) chs. 24-25. It’s easy to spot because the writer wraps up each set by saying: “When Jesus had finished saying these things…” Moses, the great Law Giver, wrote (they say) the first five books of the Law, the Torah. Jesus, the fulfillment of the Law, records five teachings. Jesus is the New Moses. That’s why Matthew tell us Jesus “went up the mountain” (5:1) to gave the beatitudes, like Moses went up Mount Sinai. (In this same story, Luke says Jesus was sitting on the ground; Lk. 6:17.)
Why is Matthew listed first? The leading idea is that Matthew is the only gospel to use the word “church,” and since it was the church that put together the New Testament they put it first. The first story, they said, should be the one that deals with community organization and management.
But Matthew’s “church” isn’t an institution, or anything with worldly power. “Church” means community, a gathering of people. And that’s the last distinctive thing about Matthew I’ll mention. Read Matthew 18:15-20. Not only is this the famous “…where two or three are gathered, I will be in the midst of them” (only found in Matthew), it’s a teaching about how to resolve conflict and maintain the bonds of fellowship in a community of people who are supposed to love God and neighbor. Dealing with interpersonal issues is equally a part of our good news calling — that’s what Matthew teaches, which is pretty good reason for it to be included as the first of our New Testament gospels.
So why does this matter?
Our bible gives us four snapshots of Jesus, called gospels, and we’ll spend the majority of this next year with Matthew’s take. We’ll learn what Matthew wants to emphasize as important. In so doing, you are encouraged to figure out what about Jesus matters to you, why Jesus matters to you, and to offer your own ‘take’ on Jesus, too.
The gospels weren’t written (only) as a story. The gospels were written to start something in you. The Jesus story and experience needs to come through your story and your life, too — which is a longer way of describing what we call, in shorthand: faith.