Commentary on Matthew

This commentary on Matthew’s Gospel completes the coverage of the three-year Lectionary of Sunday Gospel Readings. I have tried to write the commentary in such a way that it does not suppose knowledge of the earlier commentaries on Mark and Luke. At the same time, I have sought to avoid duplicating what had been discussed more fully in the earlier works.

Over the centuries, Matthew’s Gospel became the one most used and quoted in Church circles – for better or for worse. It is more comprehensive than Mark’s Gospel, containing all the incidents referred to in Mark, and complementing them by including the teachings of Jesus omitted there. Also in its favour is its easy-to-follow structure. Five major collections of teachings are included within the narrative framework, with each collection throwing light on, and interpreting, the incidents preceding each of them. The five “discourses” reflect, perhaps, the five books of teachings attributed to Moses – the Books of the Pentateuch.

Certainly, previous acquaintance with Mark’s Gospel helps, since much of Matthew’s storyline was drawn directly from it, though adapted to suit his own purposes. It is also helpful, at times, to refer to Luke’s Gospel, and see how the two authors modified their material to apply the message of Jesus to meet the needs of their different audiences. In setting out the commentary, I have included references, where applicable, to the corresponding passages in the Gospels of Mark and Luke. Readers with the time and interest to compare the texts may find them helpful.

Matthew’s Gospel was strongly coloured by the congregation for whom he was writing. They were a community under pressure from mainstream Judaism, from whom they had been forced to separate. Matthew’s concern was to affirm their legitimacy by emphasising their uniqueness. He sought to underline their fidelity to the original spirit of Judaism, and insisted that Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets.

While still sensitive to the sheer sacredness of God, he was clear that Jesus, in his interpretation of the Torah, prized mercy above the requirements of ritual holiness. Following the example of Jesus, he was adamant that the undisputed priority of mercy was to be expressed in action, not just words.

Matthew’s emphasis on action led him to go along with, and at times even to reinforce, the tendency of the early Christian community to draw clear moral conclusions from the parables and other teachings of Jesus, rather than to leave them as open-ended invitations aimed at engaging the imagination and stimulating reflection.

In his desire to move his audience to action, Matthew was not slow to highlight, as further motivation, the promise of reward or, more often, the graphic threat of punishment.

With the destruction of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple by the Roman armies in the year 70 AD, mainstream Judaism had lost its point of reference. Many Pharisees worked hard to maintain the integrity and perseverance of the small Jewish communities scattered throughout the Diaspora . They believed that the Christian movement was a destabilising influence; and sought to destroy it.

Matthew wrote his Gospel within this climate of conflict and ostracism. The bitter clashes of his day led him to read back into the story of Jesus his personal feelings about Pharisees, and to highlight their role in the opposition that the Jewish leadership had shown earlier towards Jesus. Indeed, the depth of his pain led him to cast the Jewish crowds, in general, in a more negative light than Mark and Luke had done.

Over the centuries, unfortunately, an uninformed reading of Matthew’s Gospel was used to justify repeated outbreaks of anti-Semitism.

I have wanted to make this commentary a pastoral commentary. My observations, obviously, rely heavily on commentaries written by scholars and experts. I am indebted to them. Because of their rigorous scholarship over recent decades, readers today have an unprecedented opportunity to understand with greater reliability the mind and the heart of Jesus. However, in the interests of simplicity, I have chosen not to give footnotes or to acknowledge my sources. I do not believe that the readers of this commentary will have the time or the interest to follow up such references.

Colouring my interpretation are my fifty years of pastoral ministry, and the wonderful variety of experiences that that ministry has made possible. I believe that the people who first accepted the teaching of Jesus did so because the Spirit of God helped them to recognise how much it resonated with their deepest insights and longings. I hope that that same Spirit of God has enabled me to appreciate the relevance of Jesus in my life, and trust that those who read this commentary will find a similar exciting resonance.

I have entitled the commentary: Together on the Mountain. I have maintained the Together theme of the two previous commentaries: Christian life is essentially an adventure undertaken in company. On the Mountain was suggested by Matthew’s frequent choice of that location to highlight significant moments in the ministry of Jesus: It was on a high mountain that Matthew situated Jesus’ encounter with Satan. There, Satan showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour and promised him they could all be his, provided Jesus would fall down and worship him [4:8-9]. Jesus chose God’s Kingdom.

  • It was up the mountain that Jesus delivered his famous Sermon on the Mount, his outline of the life of discipleship in the new community [5:1].
  • Before presenting Jesus walking on water, and hinting at his unique relationship to God, Matthew said that, first, he went up the mountain by himself to pray [14:23]
  • It was up the mountain, somewhere Galilee, that Jesus sat down and exercised his ministry of healing, and fed the crowd of four thousand, thereby foreshadowing God’s outreach to the nations [15:29-39].
  • Similarly, it was up a high mountain that Jesus was transfigured before Peter, James and John, and that his message of suffering preceding death was confirmed by the Father [17:1-8].
  • On the Mount of Olives (possibly the only actual geographical mountain), he delivered his apocalyptic discourse to his disciples. Later in Gethsemane, situated on that same mountain, he entered into his time of trial and prayed earnestly to his Father.
  • Finally, it was on a mountain in Galilee that the risen Jesus appeared to the disciples and commissioned them to bring the Good News to the whole world.

Through the highs (and lows) of our lives, Jesus will continue to reveal himself to us.

I wish to thank those who helped me with the commentary:

  • Those who helped with the text itself: Fr Brendan Smith, for his early critique and suggestions; and Srs Emmanuel Cook and Rosemary Kelly, for later corrections.
  • The Parish Pastoral Team in Horsham, who have had to cover for my many hours working at the keyboard instead of at other pastoral activities.
  • Those who have encouraged me to keep writing, and have given me opportunities, over the past couple of years, to share my enthusiasm for the Gospels with a number of parish groups and teachers.
  • And Sr Anne McMillan for her artistic contribution to the cover.

I hope that all who read the commentary find the same stimulation and enjoyment that I have found in writing it.

John McKinnon
Horsham, Victoria
September 2007

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