Each of the four New Testament “Good News” texts was written to present the message and person of Jesus — the Messiah, the Human One and Son of God, the Christ — to a specific audience. Depending upon the “audience” and its specific needs, elements mentioned or stressed in one text are minimized or even ignored in another. Last week we saw that Mark makes no mention of a virgin birth or about Jesus’ infancy. Matthew and Luke do indeed mention a virgin birth; but their accounts of Jesus’ infancy are imaginative and quite different in some details. I would stress again that the “Gospels” are about the meaning of the Christ-event. And even though they are anchored in the historic Jesus (Yeshua) of Nazareth, they are not strictly-speaking historical accounts.
Last week I stressed that the Good News According to Mark was designed for Gentile Christians in Rome, and composed by an anonymous author, some time after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. Mark’s Gentile Christians in Rome faced and feared persecution and death at the hands of Roman authorities.
The Good News According to Matthew, was edited by an anonymous Hebrew-Christian in the mid-80s CE. As I wrote in my “Distorted Understandings of God?” November 1st blog article, in the text of Matthew 22:1-14 we see a negative Matthew who displays violence, vengeance, and calls for divine retribution on enemies. But we also see a positive Matthew in 5:1-11, who displays the highest possible Christian consciousness in the Sermon on the Mount: unconditional love, compassion, forgiveness, boundless generosity, and the grace of God that we see in the total non-violence of Jesus (Yeshua) who lived his life non-violently, and died the same way, never seeking violence or retribution against his murderers.
Unfortunately for us, the final Matthew text editor mixed up the positive and the negative. A vital key, therefore, to understanding Matthew lies in understanding the textual puzzle of the final version of Matthew: containing 54 direct citations from the Hebrew Scriptures, 262 allusions, and many verbal parallels. It also borrows and misquotes or misinterprets some Hebrew Scriptures. It even misquotes prophets, incorrectly applying prophecies to Jesus, or quoting non-existent prophets, and prophecies. The final text, for example has the family of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus take a circuitous route through Egypt, to get to Nazareth (for Luke, they already lived there). Matthew 2:23 informs us: “In this way, what was said through the prophets was fulfilled. ‘He shall be called a Nazorean.’” The fact that this passage does not even exist in the Hebrew Scriptures didn’t seem to faze the Matthew scribe who wrote it.
[An aside…Reading the Scriptures a biblical commentary can be helpful. It is something a parish or local library should have in its book collection. One which I like is The Jerome Biblical Commentary for the Twenty-First Century, published on 27 January 2022 by Bloomsbury Publishing: it is edited by John J. Collins, Gina Hens-Piazza, Barbara Reid OP and Donald Senior CP.]
The most probable location for the Matthean community was Antioch, whose ruins today lie close to Antakya, Turkey. The community was strongly Hebrew-Christian. There were Gentile Christian members, but they were expected to obey Hebrew religious norms. Some scholars say even circumcision. The Matthean Jesus came, therefore, “not to abolish the Law, but to fulfil it” (Matthew 5:17).
As one reads the text, it is important to remember that Matthew was composed for Hebrew-Christian instructional purposes. The stress is on the “Hebrew” element. Matthew therefore has Jesus born in Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Hebrew King David, who lived c. 1000 BCE. In Luke, Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem in order to satisfy an imperial command that all individuals return to their ancestral towns so that all could be taxed. We will take a closer look at this in a
couple weeks, when we examine the Jesus Infancy Narratives.
The text of Matthew does not consider Christianity as something that involved a definite break with the Hebrew religion. Instead, it views Christianity as a continuation and fulfillment of that which had been set forth in the literature of the Hebrew Scriptures. Not for a moment does Matthew suggest that Jesus changed or set aside the requirements of the Mosaic Law.
Matthew contains five sermons of Jesus (Matthew 5:1-7:29; 10:1-42; 13:1-52; 18:1-35; and 23:1 through 25:46) which, for the evangelist’s audience symbolized the five books of the Torah. In the first of these, the “Sermon on Mount,” the rabbi Jesus, like a new Moses, presents his definitive teaching about the Torah. Notice how he so often says “you have heard it said of old . . . but I say to you . . .” (Matthew 5:21-22) Rabbi Jesus takes a teaching found in the Torah and then intensifies and expands on it.
For Matthew Jesus is the great embodiment of all preceding Hebrew history. In Chapter 1, the text begins with “A genealogy of Jesus Christ, Son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1-17). Then Matthew’s genealogy features four notable Hebrew women, a number of passages that relate Jesus to prophetic texts, and allusions to famous Hebrew men of the past. Note for instance that Jesus, like Moses, was rescued as an infant from a murderous king (Matthew 2:16-18). In Matthew’s creative narration, Jesus is also the New Moses and his ministry begins with three temptations in the desert. They correspond to the experiences of Israel in the desert, after the Exodus. As the New Moses, Jesus is God’s great liberator. Unlike Luke, who traces Jesus’s ancestry back to Adam, father of the human race, Matthew traces it only back to Abraham, father of the Hebrew tradition.
What strikes me, as I re-read the Good News According to Matthew, is Jesus the rabbi: the great
teacher. And I conclude this week’s reflection with my own translation and contemporary reflection on Matthew 5:1-10, where Jesus goes up a hill with his disciples and begins to teach what we have come to know as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Most scholars suggest the final editor of Matthew collected a number of Jesus sayings and put them together in this “Sermon on the Mount.”
This collection of Jesus sayings is truly a charter for Christian life today. The greek word makarioi often translated as “blessed” means as well “fortunate.” I find it wonderful advice for authentic Christian living. Truly how fortunate are those who live in the Spirit of Jesus. The “Sermon on the Mount” is truly a Charter for Christian Life:
Matthew 5:3 — How fortunate are those people, who are humble in spirit.
The humble in spirit realize that greatness is achieved through service not domination. Power and control over people have no place in the community of faith. The humble in spirit realize they are not masters of the universe. They understand they cannot survive on their own.
Matthew 5:4 — How fortunate are those who grieve for they shall be comforted.
Many people grieve in sorrow today: people in frightening war situations, people suffering abuse, job loss, broken relationships, cancer, infertility, or a terminal illness. Jesus assures all, even if they cannot see it at the moment, that they are not abandoned. The historical Jesus knew abandonment, suffering, and a painful death. He overcame them. He travels with all of his contemporary followers. Their life is not meaningless.
Matthew 5:5 — How fortunate are the gentle.
The gentle are the meek: those people who can make room for someone else, even for the “losers.” They are neither so arrogant nor so self-centered that they see only what they want to see. Arrogant and crude belittling of other people has no place in the words and behavior of those who claim to be followers of Christ – even when they sit in high political office or wear colorful clerical uniforms. “You know that among the pagans the rulers lord it over them; and their great men make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you.” (Matthew 20:25-26)
Matthew 5:6 — How fortunate are those who want justice, mercy and truth in this world.
We are fortunate if we have high ideals, strong values, noble goals, and the motivation to build up what is best in others and in ourselves. But the temptations are strong: to conform, to do what everyone else does, to simply read the news and then not rock the boat.
Matthew 5:7 – How fortunate are those who show mercy to others.
Merciful love is assistance without conditions. Genuine Christians are not fear mongers who scapegoat Hispanics, feminists, blacks, gays, or immigrants.
Matthew 5:8 — How fortunate are the pure of heart.
The pure of heart are honest-hearted. They are not two-faced, with hidden agendas or secret desires to advance themselves by using and abusing other people. The pure of heart honor and search for truth. They do not fabricate self-serving “facts.”
Matthew 5:9 — How fortunate are those who work for peace.
Those who work for peace do not erect walls. They do not launch oppressive trade wars. They are bridge builders. They cooperate rather than compete. They struggle to resolve political, social, and religious polarization through tolerance, dialogue, and mutual respect. To paraphrase, in a contemporary way, Matthew 25:52, “put your guns away, for all who draw their guns will perish by guns.”
Matthew 5:10 — How fortunate are those who suffer persecution because they truly live the Gospel.
There are a lot of phony Christians in high places these days, who love to denigrate and oppress their critics. They profess love of Christ. In reality they love only themselves. Matthew’s Jesus is adamant about this. He spoke of religious leaders who wore impressive religious garments and talked about God’s values but never lived God’s values. “Do not do what they do,” Jesus said “for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see. (Matthew 23:3-5)
I will continue the Gospels discussion next week, with a look at Luke, whose focus is quite different from that of Matthew.
P. S. Happy Thanksgiving to my U.S. American followers!
And today I have as well my annual request for Another Voice donations, which help me cover blog, internet, and computer costs, and supplement my retirement income. I will repeat the announcement until early December. Your consideration is greatly appreciated.
There are three ways readers can contribute:
- With US dollars check, from a US bank, sent to: Dr. John A. Dick, Geldenaaksebaan 85A 3001 Heverlee — BELGIUM
- By ZELLE using: email@example.com
- By credit card or PayPal. Simply click on this link: