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Our Sunday readings during this liturgical year are taken primarily from Matthew. Perhaps an overview of Matthew’s gospel will help the preacher interpret the individual texts as we encounter them these upcoming Sundays. Parish scripture groups that focus on the upcoming Sunday readings and the RCIA community may also find these reflections helpful.

There is a stress in Matthew on Jesus’s teaching. Even its structure reveals the centrality of Jesus’ words. The gospel is divided into five sections, each featuring a major discourse by Jesus. (This division into five is reminiscent of the Pentateuch’s five books.)

The Sermon on the Mount, chapters 5-7; the missionary instructions, chapter 10; the parables, chapter 13; discipline among the members of the community, chapter 18; the coming of the kingdom, chapters 24-25. Each section is distinctly marked off with the same type of ending, "When Jesus finished this discourse..." (7:28; 11:1; 13;33: 19:1; 26:1).

These discourses express the central message of the gospel: Jesus preached the coming of the reign of God to the Jewish people. He was rejected by many, but accepted by others. Those who heard and followed him formed a new Israel, which included the Gentiles, to whom the gospel was subsequently preached. Those who accepted Jesus’ teachings were to act on them–bear "good fruit" (21:43) and if they did, they would enter the kingdom in its fullness when the present age ends and Christ returns.

The gospel was written first of all for the Jewish Christian community. Thus, there is a strong fulfillment theme throughout: Jesus fulfilled the promises of the Hebrew scriptures, the Old Testament, through his teachings and life. Thus, one can see why Matthew has his five-fold division, it is a way to stress Jesus’ teachings. While Matthew’s Jesus was not merely a replacement for Moses (5:17), nevertheless, the disciples are called upon to surpass the behavior of those who merely keep the letter of the Law, but not its spirit (5:20).

There is a strong anti-Pharisaical polemic in Matthew and the preacher must be careful not to suggest an anti-Jewish message when preaching from this gospel. Jesus strongly criticizes the hypocrisy of the religious leadership, but Matthew is writing for the early church and his main concern is that such hypocrisy not be found among its leaders. Because Jewish Christians were expelled from their synagogues, Matthew is also distancing the early church from its roots in Judaism.

One perspective on this gospel is to see it as a book of teachings for church leaders to aid them in their instructions in the community. Thus, the emphasis Matthew places on what Jesus taught and the importance of obedience to his teachings. He stresses good deeds as the sign that we have accepted Jesus; our actions will reveal the depth of our faith commitment. This emphasis on doing what Jesus taught suggests that Matthew wrote for a church that had grown weary or complacent in its waiting for the Lord’s return. When Christ does come, this gospel teaches, we will be judged by our deeds. The community must "do" God’s will (7:21) and follow Jesus’ commands (7: 24,26). Just claiming to be a member will not be enough, we must perform the works that show our lives have born good fruit (7:15-23). And there’s the trap for the preacher!

With so much emphasis in this gospel on deeds, the preacher is tempted to moralize, using the Matthew texts as merely presenting an ethical code of behavior. As we follow the lead of the gospel and stress deeds, we may convey the impression that all one has to do is accumulate good works and thus earn our reward. We have to balance the strong works-orientation of this gospel with its underlying message of grace. Remember this is a "gospel" and so we are invited first to receive the gift of being God’s children. This new relationship is the source and power for a whole new way of life, exemplified by our actions, which are "light" and "salt" for the world. We can’t be a fruitful disciples on our own, for the call to righteousness that pervades this gospel is beyond mere human effort. Grace is the subtext for all that Matthew’s gospel asks us to do. How else would it be possible to love enemies and forgive "seventy times seven times" (18:22)?

What will help in the interpretation of Matthew’s gospel is to use Mark as a reference. Matthew relied heavily on Mark’s gospel, but reshaped the material to suit his purposes. Though he may use a story from Mark, he often adds to it, in order to make sure to communicate Jesus’ teaching for us to know and then act on them. So, we preachers should compare material common to both writers and note how Matthew alters and expands on the details. In making this comparison we would learn what perspective Matthew has on Jesus’ words and actions and the difference his insights should make in our lives.

Important Themes in Matthew:

1. The gospel opens with a "genealogy," thus placing emphasis on where Jesus came from and who he is. We soon learn that Jesus is "God with us" (1:23). This Emmanuel theme characterizes the gospel and the book ends with Jesus’ promise to stay with his church forever (28:20).

2. Jesus teaches his summary of the Law – love of God and love of neighbor. In Matthew Jesus stresses that we must be obedient to the Law, as he interprets it, in an intense and totally committed way.

3. In this gospel there is special concern for the community of believers – the church. (E.g. Chapter 18 addresses church life and order.) God has, through Jesus, created a new Israel, but it is open to all. Members must be concerned for "straying sheep" and for the "little ones." We must protect and welcome these "little ones," who are without status and power in the community. At the same time, all members are to be like the "little ones," in renouncing rank and privilege for themselves.

4. Forgiveness must be a hallmark of this church and therefore a sign of God’s mercy to all. Matthew’s community was mixed, consisting first of Jewish and then Gentile Christians. There seems to have been conflict and lapses among the members (Cf. Parable of the weeds and wheat 13: 24-30). So, in this gospel, Jesus calls for fidelity and perseverance as they await his return. The preacher will find this gospel helpful for addressing local and universal issues that continue to split the church.

4. Central to the gospel is the theme of the "kingdom of heaven." The proclamation of the kingdom unifies the whole gospel. Jesus preaches "the gospel of the kingdom" and we are called to take up the message and preach it to the world. The miracles, performed after the Sermon on the Mount, are his words enfleshed. So, if we believe what Jesus preached, then we too must put his words into act. Early in the gospel we already know Jesus’ identity (2:1-12), the question Matthew puts to us isn’t, "Who is Jesus?" but, "Will you follow him."

5 The cross and the resurrection. Jesus’ life and mission ended in collapse at the cross. But Matthew shows that Jesus knew what awaited him in Jerusalem. Jesus begins teaching about the cross right after Peter’s confession (16: 21ff). Matthew shows us that the cross must be seen through the lens of the resurrection. Because of their faith in the resurrection, the disciples came together and, empowered by the presence of the risen Lord in their midst ("God with us"), went forth to preach and teach the message of the kingdom they had received from Christ.

----Jude Siciliano, OP - Promoter of Preaching, Southern Dominican Province, USA

Preaching Essay Archive

Just click on an Essay title below to read it.
(The latest submissions are listed first.)

• Preaching Mark 2023 •
• Preaching Mark 2022 •
• Even the Hymns Preach •
• Advent 2018 •
• Preaching Luke •
• The Journey Through Lent •
• A New Year - A Time To Choose •
• Called To Continue Our Journey As Peacemakers •
• Easter: A Call To Renew Our Faith •
• Fan Into Flame •
• Grieving Our Losses •
• The Importance of Inter-Religious Sharing •
• Are We Living In Pentecost Times? •
• Living With Gratitude and Hope •
• “Lumen Fidei” – the Call and the Challenge •
• What is the "New Evangelization"? •
• Pentecost •
• Inculturated Liturgy Challenges Preaching to Flower •
• Preaching Lent - Year C •
• Reflection - Psalm 127 •
• Reaching Youth Today •
• The Need To Reclaim And Live With Moral Courage •
• The Sacred Triduum •
• Welcoming the Stranger •
• Working for Peace •

Blessings on your preaching.

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