Thursday, October 31

Illuminating the Gospel of Matthew

The Gospel of Matthew is believed to have been written - according to traditions as early as Irenaeus and Papias in the 2nd century - by Matthew the tax collector, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, although there is much debate about this identification on both sides of the scholarly field. The gospel betrays a very heavy Jewish background, as Eduard Schweizer writes (The Good News according to Matthew, p. 16), "The Jewish background is plain. Jewish customs are familiar to everyone (...15:5), the debate about the law is a central question (...5:17-20), and the Sabbath is still observed (...24:20). The dispute with the Pharisees serves primarily as a warning to the community (...24-25); but a reference to leading representatives of the Synagogue is not far below the surface. Above all, the method of learned interpretation of the Law, which "looses" and "binds," was still central for Matthew and his community." This article is not intended to be a thorough exploration of the gospel of Matthew, but brief thoughts worth considering when reading Matthew's gospel - in particular, how various Jewish understandings help illuminate passages in Matthew's work.

Matthew evidently portrays Jesus as a type of “new Moses” in various passages of his gospel. Matthew 1:21 says, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Of interest is the fact that Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the Lord saves. Compared to Moses, both Jesus and Moses were sent to “save [their] people.” While Moses was sent to save his people by bringing them out of Egypt, Jesus was sent to save His people by bringing them out of the kingdom of darkness and into the kingdom of light, by sacrificing Himself as the infinite being and paying in full the infinite payment for sin. Similarly, both the ruler of Moses’ time and the ruler of Jesus’ time sought to kill the Hebrew males (Exodus 1:22; Matthew 2:16-18), which led to an exodus of sorts by Joseph, Mary and Jesus into Egypt, instead of going out of Egypt. During Jesus’ baptism, the Father voiced His approval of the Son (3:17), just as God was with Moses in his ministry. Where Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days, Moses and the Israelites wandered the wilderness for forty years. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus says, “Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”

The Law and the Prophets was the Jewish phrase for what we know today as the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. As such, Jesus was claiming that the Law, which Jewish tradition held was written by Moses, was to be fulfilled by Him. Throughout chapter 5 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus harkens back to various commandments given to the Israelites, more specifically to Moses, at Mount Sinai. Mathew 6:11, which says, “Give us today our daily bread,” may have been a reference to manna. If that is the case, Jesus’ audience would have understood that this section of the prayer formula was an appeal to God’s daily care of them, just as He cared for the Israelites in the desert (cf. 6:25). Lastly, just as Moses taught the Israelites to beware of false prophets, so too did Jesus (Matthew 7:15-20). In a sense, Moses was looking forward to the Messiah, and Jesus was looking back to Moses, as Moses was awaiting the One who would fulfill the Law, and Jesus was affirming that He was the fulfillment. This, at least, is the Jewish understanding.

Various passages in Matthew’s gospel (8:5-13; 13:1-9; 15:21-28; 20:1-16) seemingly reflect ethnic and religious tensions between the Jews and the Gentiles. In Matthew 8:5-13, we see a centurion (likely Roman in ethnicity) who asks Jesus to heal his suffering servant. Jesus inquires, “Shall I come and heal him?” The centurion replies that he would have Jesus only say the word, and his servant would be healed. From Jesus’ inquiry, the man’s faith was drawn out of him, and Jesus said to those following Him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith” (8:10). Jesus speaks, and “his servant was healed at that very moment [or hour].” In Matthew 13:9, after conveying the parable of the sower, Jesus states, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.” Jesus was not limiting the message to the Jewish audience, it seems, something which the Jews may not have been comfortable with. Matthew 15:21-28 records the account of the Canaanite woman. She cries out for Jesus’ help, but He did not speak to her. His disciples said to Him, “Send her away because she cries out after us.” Jesus replied to them, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” But the women came to Jesus then, knelt before Him, and asked for His help. He replied, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

The term “dogs” in the Jewish context was a word of contempt used for Gentiles. Jesus was evidently using the Jew’s tendency to look down on Gentiles to illicit the woman’s faith, and it worked, as she replied, “Yes it is, Lord. Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” As a result, Jesus said to the woman, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” Various parables told by Jesus as well as the requests of the centurion and the Canaanite women demonstrate that Jesus was not barred by ethnic barriers, and while He was sent first to the Israelites, an underlying theme can be observed: you do not have to be Jewish to have Jesus as Savior and Healer, but you simply have to have faith (see Hebrews 11:6).

Another consideration when examining Matthew's gospel is the Lord's prayer. The Lord’s prayer is the infamous prayer formula given by Jesus to His disciples. It was not intended to be recited word-for-word, but was, as noted, a kind of formula for prayer, a sort of way in which we can structure our prayers, a type of pattern. Matthew’s model says, “Our father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one [or evil]” (6:9-13). Some late manuscripts of Matthew add, “for yours in the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” Dr. Luke’s version says, “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And do not bring us into temptation” (Luke 11:2-4). Dr. Luke’s version is shorter than Matthew’s and omits a few lines, although some manuscripts also have “Our father in heaven,” “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” and “temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” These lines may have been included in some manuscripts to have a longer version like Matthew’s, but even if the two prayer differ, it is a non-issue, because Jesus was teaching about a pattern, or a structure, of how to pray.

Matthew did not record every word that Dr. Luke did, and conversely. This is good, too, as it would show possible collusion if everything in the two gospels was exactly the same. As Christian and non-Christian scholars generally hold that Mark’s gospel was written first (c.AD 40-65),  and Matthew and Dr. Luke used material from Mark, it would be beneficial to examine Mark’s version. Simply put, Mark’s gospel does not record a pattern/structured version of the Lord’s prayer. The closest connection is found in Mark 11:25, which says, “And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive them, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” From Mark’s text, we could conceivably construct the following: “Our father in heaven, forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who have sinned against us.”

Yet another consideration when examining Matthew's gospel is the infamous feeding of the 5000. The text of Matthew 14:13-21 does not actually state that Jesus multiplied the 5000. It is worth noting that this miracle (feeding the 5000) is recorded in all four gospels, although more details are provided in one than another. It should also be noted that although 5000 are mentioned, it was “five thousand men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). The actual number has been estimated somewhere around 10,000-20,000 people. However, if the people actually fed themselves, why did Jesus immediately leave so as to get away from the crowds? Elsewhere in the gospels, when Jesus performed certain miracles, the crowds attempted to come and make Him king, as their expectations for the Messiah were different than His actual mission at the First Coming of Jesus. This is seen in John’s gospel, “Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself” (John 6:15). Some skeptics believed that people simply shared the food that was available. If the people simply fed themselves, why did they want to make Jesus king? If, however, He actually performed a miracle to merit the crowd calling Jesus “the Prophet who is to come into the world” (John 8:20), this would further elucidate the matter.

Now, 2nd Kings 4:42-44 records the account of Elisha, which conveys, “A man came from Baal Shalishah, bringing the man of God twenty loaves of barley bread baked from the first ripe grain, along with some heads of new grain. ‘Give it to the people to eat,’ Elisha said. ‘How can I set this before a hundred men?’ his servant asked. But Elisha answered, ‘Give it to the people to eat. For this is what the LORD says: ‘They will eat and have some left over.’’ Then he set it before them, and they ate and had some left over, according to the word of the LORD.” With this in mind, Jesus’ Jewish audience, if indeed He had performed a miracle, would likely have recalled this miracle of Elisha, and, seeing that the crowd was much more than a hundred men, may have taken this as a sign of his Prophet status.

A final consideration in light of the narrative’s interpretation of the miracle can be found in Matthew 16:8-10, “Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked, ‘You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Don’t you remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? Or the seven loaves for the four thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered?” Granted, if the narrative’s interpretation of the miracle is correct, He may have been trying to remind His disciples about the lesson of goodwill and sharing among others, but given the context, it would seem more likely that Jesus was appealing to some sort or miracle as a way to bring His status to the forefront of the disciple’s mind.

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