Friday, October 12, 2007

The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1)

2008 is the Year of Matthew – meaning the main gospel followed in the RCL (3-year cycle) lectionary is the Gospel according to St. Matthew. This Gospel is the first in the order of the New Testament, but many scholars think it was written after the Gospel according to St. Mark and uses the latter gospel as one of its main sources. One interesting thing to do as a preacher is to lay a passage from Matthew side by side with its parallel in Mark’s Gospel. A careful look at the words which are exactly the same, which are similar, and which are different can be instructive. Sometimes it seems as though Matthew is like any writer doing a lot of copying: he shortens Mark seemingly with no particular purpose than saving ink, time, and papyrus space. But other times a change in word here or a retelling of an incident there makes us wonder if some theological point is being made.

One reason why Matthew may have been placed before the other gospels in the New Testament is its strong connections with the Old Testament, particularly its placement of Jesus' genealogy at the beginning, and its regular placement of citations of Old Testament prophecies alongside events in Jesus' life with the message that Jesus has fulfilled this and that prophecy. Whether that is the reason for Matthew being first, it remains true that Matthew's Gospel is strongly connected to the Old Testament.

Further, and this is a key to understanding it, Matthew's Gospel has a strong Jewish character. But the Jewishness of Matthew's Gospel is puzzling: sometimes it seems very favourable to Jews (e.g. when Jesus upholds, extends, and claims to fulfil the Law of Moses in his teaching known as the Sermon on the Mount (ch. 5-7); othertimes it seems very critical of Jews (e.g. when Jesus lambasts the Scribes and Pharisees (ch. 23)). A possible solution to the puzzle is to think of Jesus being involved in a kind of turf war over the Mosaic heritage of Jews in first century Israel: 'this is the correct understanding of God's word through Moses,' says Jesus, 'take care not to follow the false understanding of groups such as the Pharisees and Scribes.'

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