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Matthew's Gospel:
Get the Message

by Brian Singer-Towns

Last summer, I spent a couple of days in Las Vegas as part of our family vacation. The city is everything you see in the movies, colorful, noisy and packed with people winning and losing money! There are lots of shows, many featuring Elvis impersonators, Madonna impersonators and other look-alikes.

We are attracted to famous people. It seems that, if we cannot experience the original person, we want someone close. What does this have to do with the Gospel of Matthew? Well, some people at the time the Gospel was written didn't believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah (the Hebrew word for savior). They thought he was impersonating the real Messiah who was yet to arrive. The author of Matthew needed to make a case that Jesus had power and authority that only the Son of God could have.

At the same time the author of Matthew (whom we will simply call Matthew in this Youth Update) gives evidence that Jesus followed the tradition of the great leaders of Judaism: Abraham, Moses and King David. The place where the Gospel was written was primarily a Jewish community. To convince Jewish people to believe in Jesus, Matthew wanted to show how Jesus resembled their great leaders, even though he was much greater than any of them.

The Gospel helped the community to put their faith in Jesus as the Savior. It can help us do so, too! This Youth Update shows how.

This Gospel's Design

One reason the Gospel of Matthew is the first Gospel in the New Testament is because an old tradition held that it was the first Gospel written. Most people now believe that the Gospel of Mark has that distinction.

Mark most likely was written first because the authors of Matthew and Luke used Mark as a primary source in creating their Gospels. Still, Matthew has a place of honor in the Catholic Church. Because the writing is so clear and the stories and teachings are so powerful, it is quoted more often in Church teachings than any of the other Gospels.

The Gospel of Matthew has a clear outline once you know what to look for. An introduction (prologue) explains Jesus' origin and infancy. A dramatic climax tells the story of Jesus' suffering, death and resurrection.

In between, Matthew seems to be divided into five parts, organized around five speeches (sometimes called discourses) by Jesus. Each part ends with the words "When Jesus had finished this discourse" or something similar.

Before you read any further I want to say this: It is more important to read the Gospel of Matthew than to read this Youth Update! The Gospel is a powerful work of literature. As Scripture, it is inspired by God, which means that God will speak to you through its words. Try to have your Bible close by so you can look up passages noted in this Youth Update.

Jesus' Family Tree

Have you ever heard your parents tell stories about when you were born? Births are powerful events and sometimes people see special meaning in the circumstances surrounding them.

This is certainly true of Jesus' birth. There are two parts to the birth story: a genealogy, or list of the ancestors of Jesus, and then the story itself. Let's take a closer look at the list of ancestors in Chapter One.

The list begins with Abraham. This Old Testament figure is honored because he demonstrated complete faith in God, even being willing to sacrifice his son at God's command. By linking Abraham to Jesus, the Gospel prepares us to see that Jesus had even greater faith in God, because Jesus actually gave up his own life.

Farther down the list, King David is prominently mentioned. David was the strongest and most successful warrior and king in Israel's history. Like David, Jesus is a warrior, but the battle he wins is over sin and death.

If you read closely, you will find the names of four women in the list. This is unusual in a society where women were second-class citizens. But even stranger is that three of these women were not Israelites but had married into the Jewish faith.

It is possible the author is preparing us for the key role of Mary as the mother of Jesus in God's plan of salvation. But it also reflects the experience of the early Christians that gentiles (non-Jews) seemed more willing to accept Jesus as savior than many Jews.

Jesus as Teacher

People are often surprised that preparing to go to college takes as much effort as being there. Preparing for ministry is also like that. In the first part of Matthew (Chapters 3—7) we see Jesus preparing for his active ministry.

We are introduced to John the Baptist who baptizes Jesus. Then Jesus is led into the desert where Satan tempts him. The 40 days he spends there recall the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert, developing total trust in God.

Jesus' growing reputation gives him an opportunity to deliver a remarkable speech that we call the Sermon on the Mount. Chapters 5—7 are the Cliffs Notes of Jesus' teaching.

In this speech he gives us the Beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer. Delivering the sermon from a mountaintop makes Jesus seem like Moses who received the original Jewish Law from God on Mount Sinai.

Jesus doesn't simply repeat the old teaching and he doesn't dismiss it, either. Instead he asks for a deeper and more challenging observance.

The Old Law forbids murder but Jesus teaches that hanging on to anger is wrong. The Old Law forbids adultery but Jesus teaches that nurturing lust is sinful. His authority and confidence in reinterpreting the Jewish Law make it clear that Jesus is more than just another wandering preacher.

Miracle Worker

The first part of the Gospel of Matthew presents Jesus as a powerful teacher and preacher. In part two, Chapters 8—10, the Gospel presents Jesus as a powerful miracle worker.

Skim over the paragraph headings in Chapters Eight and Nine in your Bible. You will notice that Jesus performs nine miracles organized into three sets of three. What do these miracles tell us about Jesus?

First, they tell us that he backed up his powerful words with powerful deeds. The Gospel message isn't just nice words about the future but makes a difference now.

Second, they establish Jesus' authority over all creation, including nature, demons and even sin. These miracles help confirm Jesus' divinity as the Son of God. This part concludes in Chapter 10, with what is sometimes called the mission sermon. Jesus gives this speech to the 12 apostles as he sends them out to share his mission.

Jesus' words warn of persecution and of division within families. His warnings reflect the rejection and persecution the Christian community was experiencing at the time the Gospel was written.

The Opposition

I have sometimes been ridiculed because of my strong stance against violence and revenge. When you take a stand based on your Christian values, you may be questioned or even attacked.

Jesus experienced this. Earlier, Jesus had warned his followers about persecution. Now he encounters it himself in the third part of the Gospel (11: 1—13:52).

The Pharisees were a group concerned with strictly observing the Jewish Law. They could not accept Jesus' new interpretation of it.

For example, read Matthew 12:9-14. In this encounter the Pharisees are upset because Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and the Law doesn't allow work on the Sabbath.

Jesus gives a convincing response that apparently leaves them speechless. But instead of being won over, they became more opposed to Jesus.

Jesus' teaching in this part of the Gospel takes the form of several parables rather than a long speech. These parables illustrate what God's Kingdom is like and often take a surprising twist.

The parable of the seed shows that not everyone will respond to the Gospel message and bear fruit. The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast explain that the Kingdom will experience huge growth from small beginnings.

Qualities of Church

The fourth section of Matthew, 13:54—18:35, is a collection of stories and teachings that provide a basis for understanding what the Church should be like. While lots of things are going on in these chapters, let's focus on three.

First, these stories clearly show that the Church is founded on the belief that Jesus is the Son of God, the Messiah. The stories of walking on water, Peter's statement of faith and the Transfiguration (a visible spiritual change) all make that point. You can find these declarations of belief in Jesus in verses 14:33, 16:16 and 17:5.

Second, we see that Peter has a special role in founding the Church. Peter is the one who asks to walk on water with Jesus (14:28). He is given divine knowledge of Jesus' identity (16:17). He is at the Transfiguration (17:1) and he is the one who asks Jesus about forgiveness (18:21). Jesus provides for leadership and authority among his followers. This has become the basis for the role of the pope and bishops today.

Third, forgiveness and reconciliation must balance authority in the Church. Look at Jesus' instruction on how to respond to someone who has committed an offense against you in 18:15-18. It directs that we should give each other several opportunities for dialogue and reconciliation. This teaching reminds us that when our relationships with friends and family get rocky we should try more than once to resolve the problems that divide us.

Up to Jerusalem

Teens sometimes challenge authority in their attempt to understand—or even point out—the truth at the heart of many of our traditions. Jesus not only did this but also pointed out when the authorities' practices went against God's truth.

Part five, Chapters 19—25, describes the escalating tension between Jesus and the authorities in the final weeks of his life. This tension culminates when Jesus casts the money-changers and the vendors selling animals for sacrifice out of the Temple. These people were making a scandalous profit from selling animals needed for people's annual religious duty. The chief priests of the Temple were in on this scam.

Matthew justifies Jesus' dramatic actions by appealing, once again, to the Jewish Scriptures (our Old Testament). If you look at verses in Chapters 21 and 22, you will see frequent quotes from the Old Testament.

Jesus' last great speech in Chapters 24 and 25 is a teaching on the future of the Kingdom of God. It is often called the eschatological sermon (eschatological means end times).

The Catholic Church does not try to make predictions about the end of the world from the prophecies of wars, famines, earthquakes and the coming of the Son of Man contained in Chapter 24. But the parables of the 10 virgins, the talents and the final judgment in Chapter 25 help us understand what Jesus meant. Though there are times when our world seems shaken to the core, if we live each day in service to others we will always be ready to meet the Lord.

The End—Not

Scholars believe that the author of Matthew used the Gospel of Mark as a primary source of material in creating the Gospel. Knowing this can help us understand the author's intentions by looking at what he added to or changed from Mark. This is especially true for the familiar stories of Jesus' Last Supper, arrest, trial, execution and Resurrection.

For example, read the story of Jesus' crucifixion and death in both Mark 15:21-41 and Matthew 27:32-56. Did you notice any differences?

Matthew adds the detail that the wine was mixed with gall (bitter flavoring) to match the prophecy of Psalm 69:22. And while in Mark only the Roman centurion proclaims Jesus to be the Son of God, in Matthew it is both the centurion and his men, emphasizing that many gentiles came to believe in Jesus.

Looking at these differences between Mark and Matthew helps us understand the themes Matthew wants to make clear. Knowing that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies and that even many gentiles recognized him as the Messiah helped the first readers of the Gospel come to believe in Jesus as the Messiah.

Meeting Jesus

This overview of the Gospel of Matthew is only a glimpse into the Gospel's presentation of Jesus Christ's life and mission. One of the most powerful ways to meet Jesus is to read the Gospels.

As you read this Gospel, ask yourself what image of Jesus emerges for you. Can you also exclaim with Peter, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God!" (16:16)?

The Gospel of Matthew concludes with this command, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations" (28:19). Those words are meant not just for those first disciples but also for us. What you learn about Jesus through the Gospel will help you share your faith with others.

Brian Singer-Towns is an author and editor for St. Mary's Press and has worked with youth—including his own teenage sons—for many years. He is the general editor of the Catholic Youth Bible.

Ursuline Academy (Blue Ash, Ohio) religious studies teacher Mary Koenig-Clapp invited two freshman classes to review this issue. Thirty-five young women read, commented extensively on the manuscript and posed questions for the author.


You say, "the author of Matthew." If it wasn't Matthew, who was it?


There is an old tradition that the Gospel was written by the apostle Matthew, the tax collector. But recent findings have raised questions about whether the tradition is accurate. Also, since Matthew was an eyewitness to Jesus' life, why would he have to rely so heavily on the Gospel of Mark to write his Gospel? The most honest thing is to acknowledge that we don't know for sure who the author was.


If Jesus performed all these miracles why didn't people believe that he was God?


For one thing, Jesus wasn't the only one performing miracles. We do have stories of other miracle workers from his time. And some Jewish people expected the Messiah to be a mighty warrior who would defeat the Romans, so Jesus didn't fit their mold. Ultimately, it is a mystery why some believed and some didn't. The same is true today.


What does the Gospel of Matthew have that other Gospels don't? What does it leave out that the others include?


Let's just look at one area, the birth stories. Matthew is the only Gospel that tells about the wise men, the star, the Holy Family's escape to Egypt and Herod's massacre of the infants. Luke is the only Gospel that tells about the angel's visit to Mary, the birth in the manger, and the shepherds and the angel choir. Mark and John have no stories about Jesus' birth.


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