By Fr Brian McCarthy
This article aims to give a general overview of St Matthew’s Gospel. Later ones will explore some of its more important features.
Matthew was one of the twelve Apostles. He collected customs duty on goods that were being shipped along the trade route through Capernaum, the lakeside town at the centre of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. Because the taxes were collected on behalf of the Romans, the occupying power, they were heartily detested, and the collectors (the “publicans”) were despised by the rest of the population, but that didn’t stop Jesus from calling him to follow him. Matthew’s own account indicates that Jesus’ invitation “Follow me” came to him quite unexpectedly, but he responded promptly to it.
Tradition asserts that his was the first account of Jesus’ life, written in Aramaic. It was promptly translated into Greek, which is the version we have today. Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, giver of the New Law and Teacher of the New Israel, the Church. Consequently he gives great importance to recording exactly what Jesus said, unlike for example St Luke, who tends to paraphrase the longer teachings of Matthew. The original structure of the Aramaic expressions is apparent at every turn, so we can be sure we are getting the very words used by Jesus.
In the Gospels one often encounters different versions of the same parable. This is because Jesus preached all over the Holy Land, and like any preacher he repeated the same things over and over again. A good speaker may tell the same story many times, but each time will do so in a slightly different way, and later on each group of hearers will insist that their version is the “authentic” version.
Matthew arranges his material thematically, so for example all Jesus’ teaching on prayer is found in one place, his teaching on penance in another, and so on, which makes it very easy to find things. It is said that St Dominic used to carry St Matthew’s Gospel with him on his travels because it was very easy to preach from.
Sections of teaching are interwoven with sections of narrative—cures, conversations, people’s reactions. The events, therefore, are not in chronological sequence, unlike e.g. St John, who continually gives us places, dates and circumstantial details. He presents Jesus’ life as a journey from Galilee to Jerusalem, and so Jesus only arrives in Jerusalem at the end. We know from St John that Jesus visited the Holy City many times, over a period of at least three years and probably more. The effect of Matthew’s structure is to focus the reader’s attention squarely on our Lord’s Passion, the goal to which he is travelling all during his public ministry: the narrative flies like an arrow to its target. Along the way Jesus repeatedly warns his disciples what is going to happen when he gets there, but they fail to understand the import of his words.
The central event in the Gospel is the conversation Jesus has with his Apostles in Caesarea Philippi, where he asks them the question: “Who do men say that the Son of Man is?” and answered by St Peter, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”. This is always the fundamental question people ask about Christ, and requires faith to find the full answer.
All the Gospels describe Jesus’ passion and death in considerable detail, because his death and resurrection are the central message of Christianity. St Paul reminds us that “it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (Acts 17:3). Meditation on Christ’s passion is central to all Christian prayer, and it is made present to us sacramentally when we attend Mass. We are invited to share it by accepting the difficulties of life; but when we do, we discover that Jesus is there with us: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).
The Gospel ends with the command to “Go teach all nations” and to baptise those who believe: Jesus’ mission continues in his Body, the Church.