Liturgy Lines: What’s Special about Matthew?

by Elizabeth Harrington. 

This article originally appeared at Liturgy Brisbane on February 10th, 2017.

In this Year A of the 3-year liturgical cycle, the Gospel readings at Sunday Mass are taken from Matthew. Matthew is the first Gospel in the bible because at the time when the New Testament was formed it was believed to be the oldest of the four. It is now accepted that Mark’s Gospel was written first. Because Matthew’s gospel refers to the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 and is mentioned in documents written at the turn of the century, it can be dated somewhere in the period 80AD to 90AD.

The earliest manuscripts did not identify an author, but for some unknown reason the name Matthew later became attached. For centuries, Christians assumed that this was Matthew the tax collector who became an apostle. However, an eyewitness to the events in the gospel would not have relied on second-hand sources as this account clearly does, so it is unlikely to have been written by the apostle Matthew.

The writer was almost certainly a Jewish Christian because one of the main purposes of the work is to provide consolation to those wrestling with the problem of reconciling their Jewish heritage with their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. At the time this gospel was written, there was a growing controversy between Matthew’s community and Jewish religious authorities. This divide between the two groups is reflected in Matthew’s account of the controversies between Jesus and the religious authorities. Whilst Jesus no doubt experienced conflict with religious authorities, it is important to keep in mind that the issues that Matthew is addressing are those of his own day.

Matthew presents Jesus as the authoritative and definitive interpreter of the Law. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus quotes six times from the Law and in each case adds ‘but I say to you, …’. More than only interpreter, Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Law and the prophets. In total Matthew quotes from the Jewish scriptures 61 times. In 40 of these references, the writer indicates that the passage has been fulfilled in Jesus.

The distinctive image of Jesus that Matthew’s gospel presents is that of teacher. This is most evident in the way the writer has arranged his material. Matthew collects the speeches of Jesus into five extended sermons. The first of these is the most famous – the Sermon on the Mount, which we are currently hearing at Sunday Masses. The others are: the Mission Sermon, addressed to the apostles as Jesus sends them out to preach; the Sermon in Parables, a collection of parables all about the kingdom of heaven; the Sermon on the Church, which addresses explicitly the concerns of his latter day church; Sermon on the End Times. Each of these five sections concludes with a similar phrase: ‘When Jesus had finished these words/commands/parables …’.

The evangelist Matthew is depicted symbolically as the figure of a man because of Matthew’s emphasis on the incarnation and on the humanity of Christ. Matthew’s gospel begins with the reassurance that Jesus has come to be with us, and concludes with Christ’s promise to remain with us until the end of time.

“Liturgy Lines” are short 500-word essays on liturgical topics written by Elizabeth Harrington, Liturgy Brisbane’s education officer. They have been published every week in The Catholic Leader since 1999.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Harrington, Archdiocese of Brisbane.

Share:

6 comments

  1. There’s a line here that got me to thinking in a different way than typical New Testament 101:

    “The evangelist Matthew is depicted symbolically as the figure of a man because of Matthew’s emphasis on the incarnation and on the humanity of Christ.”

    Perhaps we could contrast this with the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark?The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is, on deeper reflection, a very high order of Christology, though readers/hearers might find that obscured by the “lower” literary style of Mark’s Gospel. The Jesus of the Gospel of Mark is no ordinary human, but a meteoric intervention into the ordinary world. Think “Deep Impact: The Gospel Edition”.

  2. There is, conversely the Griesbach or two-gospel hypotheses which posit that Matthew and Luke are older than Mark; Mark’s gospel is a distillation or redaction of the other two. Not a lot of adherents, but I actually know a couple – one nearly had me convinced in a Year B homily.

    Doing some scriptural research recently for a Lenten article on “Kyrie, eleison” I was surprised that the only gospel passages in which “Kyrios” is used specifically in the formulation are all from Matthew. In the healing of the two blind men (Bartimeus in Mark, one blind man in Luke), Matthew adds “Lord” to “Son of David” – rather than “Lord” in the other parallel accounts, Mk/Lk use “Teacher.”

    Does anyone know if there’s a specifically Jewish reason this may be? It could just be an evangelist’s fingerprint.

      1. @Lee Bacchi:
        Lee – I meant specifically in the formula that contains the expression “have mercy [on me]” – that seems to be a distinctive feature of Matthew.

      2. @Alan Hommerding:
        Perhaps this is a simplistic response, Alan, but I always thought of those formulations in Matthew as indebted to the Psalms. E.g. Psalms 6, 40, 51, 57, 123…. While of course there are scriptural references in the other gospels, drawing upon the psalmic tradition in this way seems appropriate for Matthew.

      3. @Tim Gabrielli:
        I’d thought of the psalter connection, too. More precisely, I was wondering if there was a Jewish ritual/liturgical reason. Of course, the presence of the formulation in psalms that came from different times/sources is a good indicator that it was a recognized prayer formula.
        And Luke uses the “have mercy” formulation when the rich man is imploring Abraham, and when the tax collector is praying in humility. But the address is not to Jesus in either of those instances.
        For Matthew, this could possibly be another covert allusion to Jesus’ divinity, alongside the magi and the Apostles (at the end of the Gospel) who “worship” Jesus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *