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In this Catholic Update we will explore a few of the ways that the Gospel of Matthew addresses the topics of Christian discipleship and how the Church should exist in the world. These issues are just as important today as they were when the Gospel was originally written.

Making Disciples: Matthew's Gospel and the Christian Community
By: John R. Barker, O.F.M.

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This year Catholics will be hearing the Gospel of Matthew proclaimed on the Sundays of Ordinary Time. In this Catholic Update we will explore a few of the ways that the Gospel of Matthew addresses the topics of Christian discipleship and how the Church should exist in the world. These issues are just as important today as they were when the Gospel was originally written.

The Gospel of Matthew was written for a community of Christians that was seeking to understand how to live together as a Church. It needed guidance on how to be disciples of Jesus Christ and how to be an effective, communal sign to the world of the power and grace of God’s kingdom.

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Matthew’s has sometimes been called the “Gospel of the Church.” More than any other Gospel, it regularly focuses not only on the meaning and purpose of discipleship, but also on the nature and role of the community of disciples—the Church—in God’s plan of salvation. In fact, it is the only Gospel to actually use the Greek word for “church” (ekklesia, the origin of the English word ecclesiastical) when referring to the followers of Jesus (16:18; 18:17).

In Matthew, we gain a clear sense that the followers of Jesus are not meant to be a collection of individual disciples, enjoying their private relationship with him. Rather, they are to be a community, united to one another and to Christ for the proclamation of God’s kingdom. Consequently, the Gospel pays close attention to such things as Church discipline and mission.

The Gospel of Matthew is generally thought to have been composed for a community of Christians in Antioch, in northern Syria, some time between 80 and 90 a.d. Although the Gospel has been traditionally identified with the apostle Matthew, it seems more likely, given the late date of its composition, that it was written by someone else, perhaps a disciple or protégé of Matthew. Perhaps the community for which the Gospel was written was founded by the apostle or felt some other strong connection to him.

In any case, the evangelist—whom we will continue to call Matthew, according to tradition—seems to have based his Gospel in part on the Gospel of Mark (written a few years earlier). There is also a collection of traditional sayings of Jesus (which the Gospel of Luke also seems to have had), in addition to some material that is peculiar to his own Gospel.

In a truly creative fidelity to the traditions he had received, Matthew crafted a Gospel designed to answer the particular needs of his own community. For example, there is a tremendous emphasis in Matthew’s Gospel on the interpretation and status of the Jewish Law. We see this especially in the Sermon on the Mount (5:17-48). In other places Jesus takes positions on issues that were important and controversial among Jews in the first century, such as Sabbath observance (12:1-14) and ritual purity (15:1-20).

This, as well as the repeated emphasis that Jesus and the events of his life fulfill the Jewish Scriptures, marks this Gospel as deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition. This suggests that most of the members of Matthew’s community were Jewish Christians, for whom such questions as Jesus’ proper messianic credentials and his authority to give sometimes radical interpretations of Jewish Law would have been important.

Matthew assures those who have come to the Church from within the Jewish tradition that Jesus is, indeed, the authentic Messiah of the God of Israel and authoritative interpreter of God’s Law. Closely related to questions of the Law, but of interest to both gentile and Jewish members of Matthew’s community, are Jesus’ teachings on ethics and standards of behavior.

Along with his understanding of the purpose and therefore the meaning of discipleship, Jesus’ instructions on behavior go to the heart of what it means to be a Church. Why the Church exists and how it exists are together related to the one, all-encompassing reality: the kingdom of God.

Why a Church?

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by calling disciples (4:18-22). As he walks along the Sea of Galilee, he spots Peter and his brother Andrew, two fishermen. Those of us who have heard this story many times may fail to notice how astounding this call to discipleship is. Jesus does not entice the brothers with promises, saying, “Come, follow me, and your sins will be forgiven and your life here and in the hereafter will be better.” Instead, he tells them bluntly that he has a job for them: “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (4:19, NAB).

The call to discipleship is for the purpose of making more disciples! So important is the work of making disciples that the Gospel ends with what is often called the Great Commission, in which the Risen Lord commands his disciples to go and “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). Quite literally, from beginning to end, Jesus’ earthly ministry has been concerned with making disciples, and so it must be, he says, for his followers.

The Church, according to Matthew, must be about the business of enlarging its numbers. This is not for its own sake but because it is a community with a mission, which is to proclaim the kingdom of God (or, as Matthew prefers to call it, the kingdom of heaven).

In the Sermon on the Mount, his first discourse to his disciples, Jesus informs them that they are “the salt of the earth” and “the light of the world” (5:13, 14). This exhortation makes it clear that being disciples of Jesus is meant to have an effect well beyond themselves or even their community: They are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Moreover, these metaphors highlight the vital importance of the disciples.

Light and salt are necessary for human life. Salt, in particular, was an extremely important commodity in the ancient world, being used for the preservation of food as well as for seasoning it. Proclaiming the kingdom of heaven—in this case by doing “good deeds” that cause others to praise God—is not a task to be taken lightly, and it is certainly not an optional activity. It is the whole point of Christian discipleship. The very lives of the disciples should announce the reality of God’s grace and invite others to embrace his kingdom.

This is why so much of Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with ethics, that is, with how Christians are expected to act. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ disciples are exhorted to “hunger and thirst for righteousness”; to be peacemakers, clean of heart, and merciful (5:6-9); to avoid retaliation but instead to love those who hate us (5:38-48); to refrain from judging others (7:1-5). Why? Because this is the way God is. Because this is what the kingdom of God looks like. How are others going to know about the mercy and love of God—and bedrawn to turn to God themselves—if they do not see the disciples of God’s Messiah acting with mercy and love?

It matters very much what the Church looks like to those outside of it, because the Church does not exist for itself. The Church—that is, we who make up the Church—exist in order to bring glory to God and to draw others to that glory. This is fundamental to Jesus’ vision of the Church and to the meaning of discipleship as we find it in Matthew’s Gospel.

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A perfect Church?

All of this could very well lead one to believe that Jesus actually expected his disciples always to be perfect reflections of the kingdom of God. But Matthew assures his readers that this is not the case. Of course, the

standards of the kingdom of God are an ideal for which we should strive—and strive very mightily—to attain. We must never give up the fight to be good disciples. But Jesus was not naïve enough to think that his disciples were without their flaws. He knew that his Church would be marked by human frailty, from its most obscure members to its most prominent leaders.

In Matthew’s Gospel, we do not see Jesus searching high and low for the cream of the ethical crop, for those with the most highly developed faith in God, or for the finest examples of religious observance he can find. Peter and Andrew were just two fishermen.

Matthew, the namesake of the Gospel, was a tax collector. The brief notice of his call to discipleship is immediately followed by the scene where Jesus is dining with “tax collectors and sinners,” dubious behavior on his part as far as the Pharisees were concerned. In response to their question about this, Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” and announces that he has come to call
not the righteous, but sinners (9:9-13).

The invitation to discipleship is an act of mercy! It is extended not to those who merit it in any way, but to those who need it (“those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do”).

Here is another thing we must understand about being a Christian: Discipleship is not only a call to work for God’s kingdom; it is first of all a gracious invitation into that kingdom, where forgiveness and healing of the  sinful heart are possible. We come into the Church as flawed human beings in need of God’s gracious mercy.

Even Jesus’ most important disciples were subject to fear and doubt, a problem they seem to have never completely gotten over. In a storm at sea, when they cry out to Jesus in fear for their lives, he chides them for having so little faith in his power to protect them (8:23-27).

In a second scene on the water, Jesus calls Peter out to walk on the water, but Peter begins to sink out of fear and, once again, Jesus rebukes a disciple for lack of faith.

But despite this, the disciples demonstrate that they have gained some understanding, proclaiming to Jesus, “Truly, you are the Son of God” (14:22-33). Even a lack of faith does not prevent Jesus’ disciples from proclaiming what they know to be true.

Later, at Caesarea Philippi, Peter announces that he knows that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s recognition of Jesus’ most fundamental identity, revealed to Peter by the “heavenly Father,” prompts Jesus to proclaim, “You are Peter, and upon this rock [petra] I will build my church...” (16:13-18).

In the very next passage, Peter rebukes Jesus when he announces that he must die in Jerusalem. In response, Jesus chastises Peter for thinking “not as God does, but as human beings do” (16:21-23).

Yet Peter remains close to Jesus, being witness to his transfiguration (17:1-8). And, of course, Peter famously denies Jesus three times during his passion. His career with Jesus is marked both by shadow and light, but Jesus maintains his faith in Peter’s ability to carry out the Christian mission as a leader
of the Church.

We can draw any number of conclusions from Matthew’s portrayal of his closest disciples, and especially of Peter. For our purposes here it is important to note that the evangelist is attentive to both the strengths and the weaknesses of Jesus’ closest companions.

We can take Peter and the other disciples as both symbols of and models for all Christian disciples, including those entrusted with any kind of leadership in the Church. The demands of discipleship are great, but inhuman perfection is not one of them.

We will, as the first disciples sometimes did, succumb to our own particular weaknesses, whether they are moral failings or doubts and fears. While these cannot be ignored or hypocritically denied, they do not absolutely prevent us from being true disciples.

Even in their doubts and fears, when they failed to rise to the occasion as Jesus would wish them to, Peter and the other disciples knew and were able to proclaim that Jesus was “the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

When the Church proclaims the kingdom of God, the lordship of Jesus Christ is an essential part of that proclamation. Indeed it is the center of it, on which everything else depends. Christian discipleship means both a commitment to living the values of the kingdom of God and to proclaiming Jesus as God’s Messiah.
Even flawed disciples can do that.

A reconciling Church

An imperfect community of disciples is always in need of conversion and healing. This, too, is a sign of God’s kingdom, for it exemplifies God’s own merciful concern for the wayward and the lost.

In a passage found only in Matthew (18:15-17), Jesus teaches his disciples that sinners must be dealt with firmly, but always in a way that calls them back to the community with dignity and love.

“If your brother [that is, another Christian] sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” If he listens, the problem is solved.

If he does not, he should be approached again with one or two “witnesses” (either to witness to the sin or perhaps to his unwillingness to repent) and once again exhorted.
If he persists in his sin, only then should the larger community (the “church”) be told. If he still does not repent, then the church has no recourse but to remove him from the community.

We see here that sin is, on the one hand, not to be ignored; it truly damages the community. On the other hand, everything must be done to preserve the bonds of that community.

The passage is immediately preceded by Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep (18:10-14), which expresses God’s concern for every single sinner who is “lost.” It is immediately followed by Peter’s question about the limits of forgiveness, to which Jesus responds, in effect, that since every member of the Church is a recipient of God’s merciful forgiveness, every member must be willing to extend that same forgiveness to others. (18:21-35). This is how the kingdom of God works.

Each of these two passages highlights a significant aspect of the kingdom of God. First, it is marked by a concern for sinners who have left the fold. It is not acceptable to simply let them go off. All members of the Church, no matter how sinful, are valuable, and their eventual return to the flock is of utmost importance.

Second, relations among Christians must be marked by a willingness to forgive each other. This is rooted not in their own virtue, but in the mercy of God. God’s concern for all members of the Church, and God’s willingness to forgive those who seek forgiveness, must be reflected in the life of every community of disciples.

Matthew would have his listeners of every age understand something absolutely fundamental about the Christian community. It is meant to be a sign to each other—and to the world—of the gracious mercy, healing forgiveness and powerful love of God. This is why we have been called, this is our mission, this is why we are the Church.

John R. Barker, O.F.M., is a doctoral student at Boston College. He has an M.A. in theology from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. His article “Key to the Gospel of Luke” was published in  St. Anthony Messenger.

NEXT: Wondrous Encounters: Lent Day by Day (by Richard Rohr, O.F.M.)

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