The Gospel According to St. Matthew

by Marjorie FARQUHARSON (1977)

Matthew’s gospel treats Christ as king.

He has come to announce the Kingdom of God to the world, and to explain to men how history will progress and Kingdom of God will be established on earth. The Gospel is recounted in a way which emphasises this point most of all. When Christ predicts his death, he simply states that he will be killed and on the third day “raised up again” and will go before the disciples to Galilee. At the end of the gospel he meets them in Galilee, and announces that he will be with them until history ends. The doubts and grief of the disciples following the crucifixion are not dealt with. This gospel illuminated the future and points to the inevitability and imminence of the Kingdom of God.

Christ is related very much to the history of Israel and the traditions of the Old testament. His origins are traced back through the 14 generations to King David and then through the 14 to Abraham. In this gospel he is transfigured and appears on the mountain top with Moses and Elijah. John the Baptist plays a large role in the text, both as a re-embodiment of Elijah and as the “light in the darkness” which according to the prophets is historically necessary before Christ appears. John is the only person to whom Christ seems humanly close in this gospel, and when he is executed, Christ retires in great distress.

Because it presents Christ as King, Matthew’s gospel is a very political one. Christ on three occasions appears as literal King of the Jews. When he is a baby, the wise men ask, “Where is he that is born the King of the Jews?”, and when he is crucified, the sign is written ironically above his cross. In this gospel too, he enters Jerusalem on a donkey and announces “Behold, thy king cometh unto thee, meek and sitting upon an ass.”

Much of this gospel then is devoted to the conflict between Jesus and the political and religious authorities. It is here that he points to the coin and makes a clear division of men’s responsibilities: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. Christ appears often as a revolutionary figure. This is the gospel where he declares:”I came not to send peace, but a sword “. He wants to break down old family ties and make a universal family, he casts the salesmen out of the church, and he promises to tear down the temple and rebuild it within three days. On several occasions he is described arguing with the religious authorities on very specific issues: on swearing by the temple, on eating with unwashed hands, on working on the Sabbath, on life after death – and Christ always opposes the view that is based on habit, or intellectualism.

Consequently, a great deal of this gospel is devoted to Christ’s teaching people an alternative way of living their life. He offers quite specific advice about divorce, on settling differences with enemies, as well as on how to pray. In this respect, he appears as “one who has come to fulfil and break the law,” although it is a different law from that of the established church.. He establishes the codes which people must follow if they are to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. The beatitudes occupy a prominent place in this gospel.

Although people are allowed dual responsibilities to the State and to God, it is God who must have priority. Christ repeatedly talks of the Kingdom of Heaven as “a treasure” and urges people to give up everything they have, in order to gain what is real, – for the people who save themselves will be lost. Such a commitment obviously demands faith, and this the essential teaching in Matthew’s gospel. Repeated miracles show the power of faith: Christ walking on the water, stilling the storm, and several non-Jews are cured “because their faith has helped them”. The parable of the mustard seed is used more than once to illustrate the power which a little faith can exert.

Because of this emphasis on faith, “the child” plays a central role in this gospel. People are asked to have the same sort of unquestioning faith that a child can have, if they are to become part of the Kingdom of Heaven. In this gospel, Christ specially draws children to him. Christ too appears as a child at the beginning of the gospel, where he is named “Emmanuel – or God with us”. From the start then, children are closely identified with the presence of God and the Kingdom of Heaven. Trivial intellectualising, building a comfortable nest-egg, and worrying frantically how things will turn out – are all denial of faith, and are all dealt with in this gospel.

Another image which permeates this gospel, is one of sickness. On a literal level there are the blind, lepers and dumb whom Christ heals. On another level, the whole age is described as sick. A sick age always looks for signs, Christ says and Saduccees are false prophets who do not interpret what is happening properly and are blind to the real fulfilment of the Old Testament Prophecies which is taking place before their eyes. When justifying his eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, Christ tells the Pharisees that as he is a physician, of course he must go where the sick are. This is a paradox throughout the gospel. It is only the physically sick and those near to them who have the faith to come to Christ and be healed. It is healthy, rich, clever and powerful, who are really sick because they can trust to nothing except themselves and their positions and possessions. In Matthew’s gospel, a political sickness is shown to be a spiritual as well. A recurrent phrase in the gospel is “But when he saw the multitudes he was moved with compassion on them and healed their sick”.