A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Gospel of Matthew (Part 2)

J McHugh

by Joe McHugh

In chapters 1 and 2, with the action of Mary’s conception of Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, God himself began the plot of Matthew’s Gospel.

God kept Mary a virgin despite conception so that it would be clear who Jesus is – none other than God’s Son. In the ensuing chapters, Matthew expands this basic message.

Chapters 3-4

The Baptism of Jesus

John the Baptist appears in clothing reminiscent of the prophet Elijah. John speaks a prophetic message of repentance and symbolic washing away of sins. Many people did come to John and were baptized by him. But when Pharisees and Sadducees come to John, he denounces them. Clearly John had strong views about the religious leaders, for he considered their repentance insincere. John calls them “You brood of vipers,” a saying Jesus himself will use of them (12:34; 23:33).

Then Jesus comes to John for baptism. The Baptist is startled and says that it should be the other way round. Jesus should be baptizing John, for Jesus is the greater. Many scholars think that some disciples of John may have still been around in the late first century, claiming that their master John was the Messiah. Matthew will have none of that. Jesus’ answer to John is that it is necessary to fulfil God’s plan: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness.” As Jesus comes out of the water, God’s voice from heaven proclaims, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” The Father confirms Jesus’ identity, of which we learned in chapter 1.

The Temptation in the Wilderness

Jesus’ acceptance of his mission must first be tested. None other than the Spirit leads Jesus into the Judean wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In earlier times the devil or “Satan” was thought of as a member of the heavenly court (not an evil spirit), a prosecutor who tests humans. (See Job 1-2.)

By the time of Jesus, however, the devil was thought of as an evil spirit, indeed the chief of evil spirits, the ruler of this world. Will Jesus, the Son of God, continue to “fulfil all righteousness”? The devil’s first two temptations begin, “If you are the Son of God…” The devil is testing the identity of Jesus we heard proclaimed in the baptism scene. By the time of the third temptation, the devil has accepted Jesus’ identity but offers him a different path, rule over all the kingdoms of this world “if you will fall down and worship me.” But Jesus commands Satan to be gone. Jesus’ answers to the devil are all from the book of Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16; 6:13), in which Moses recounts Israel’s forty years in the wilderness, a time in which they often rebelled against God. But Jesus will not rebel. He will follow the Father’s will, not that of Satan.

Chapters 5-7

The Sermon on the Mount

I learned the Beatitudes in grade school. I thought of eight groups of people who were blessed. But I have learned that there is only one group being addressed in eight aspects. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” This is the group that is described in several ways. There are different Greek words for different classes of poor people. Matthew uses a word here that does not mean the working poor who were the majority of Galileans. Rather he chooses a word that means those with no means of support, those who were totally dependent on God and knew it. “Those who mourn,” “the meek,” etc. are the “poor in spirit.” Those who are blessed are those who look forward to the kingdom of heaven and therefore are blessed even now.

Much of the material in the great sermon in Matthew is found in various places in Luke and Mark. Matthew has collected many sayings of Jesus into a single sermon. But Matthew also includes materials that are uniquely his own. These often reflect the fact that Matthew and his community were Torah-observant. And so, in Matthew, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.”

Jesus then gives six examples of the higher righteousness, saying, “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” These examples are usually called the antitheses, for Jesus contrasts a traditional commandment with his new deeper interpretation. In this way Jesus shows that his preaching is the fulfilment of the Torah. (We will examine the “divorce exception” when it appears again in chapter 19.)

In the central portion of the Sermon we find Jesus teaching about prayer. We are told not to rattle on as the pagans do. God knows our needs. Jesus then offers the “Our Father,” the model of all prayer.

The first three petitions ask God to establish his kingdom in power. The remaining petitions focus on our needs. First we acknowledge God as our loving Father and pray that his rule be established here on earth. Then we pray that God give us “our daily bread.” Bread was the staple food, so “bread” can stand for all we need physically and, by extension, in other aspects of our lives. By asking for our daily bread we express our radical trust that God cares for us. We also ask for forgiveness from God in proportion to our willingness to forgive others. And we ask for protection from Satan’s schemes against us.

The Sermon moves on to warnings against judging another while ignoring one’s own sins. Jesus also teaches the Golden Rule, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” The Sermon concludes with three contrasts (Two Ways, Two Kinds of Fruit, Two Builders) that explain how we are to live as Jesus’ disciples.


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