PREACHING MATTHEW - YEAR A, 2020
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
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