Our new liturgical year, with Matthew’s Gospel at the centre, began on the first Sunday of Advent. However, our continuous reading of that Gospel really starts this Sunday. The passage chosen is taken from chapter 4. It offers us the foundational proclamation of Jesus and the start of the mission.
Such an opening scene may provide a moment to say something about Matthew’s Gospel so as to help people engage with it over the next 10 months or so. For this Gospel, the relationship with the mother religion, Judaism, is crucial. The evangelist presents Jesus and his message against a rich background of major figures and themes of the Old Testament: Abraham, Moses, David, many prophets, Psalms, the Exodus, the Exile, righteousness and so forth. While profoundly rooted in Judaism, something has happened because this Gospel can be starkly negative about the mother faith. In this Gospel only, do we hear the words “his blood be upon us and upon our children.” Whatever the writer’s original intention in recording/composing these words the trial of Jesus, we must not forget the catastrophic consequences for Jews down the centuries.
So what did happen? The most probable scenario is a recent sectarian break with Judaism. “Sectarian” is used here sociologically: a group which has broken away from a larger group. The resulting relationship with the larger group is paradoxical. They feel raw and resentful — like all breakaway groups. At the same time, they claim to be the authentic realisation of what the parent group had failed to be, in their view. (In this Week of Prayer for Christian unity, we may note the parallels with the Lutheran reform.)
It is likely that a major literary project such as Matthew’s expanded edition of Mark took place in a large and wealthy urban context. Only in Matthew’s gospel do we find this verse: So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. (Matt 4:24) Many scholars conclude that the Gospel was written in Antioch-on-the-Orontes in Syria. At the time, Antioch (present-day Antakya) was the third largest city of the Roman Empire with a very large Jewish population.
You may listen to the Gospel notes here: https://soundcloud.com/user-679942596/ot03a17.
This poem has been offered before but it is still good and captures, I think, the energy of Jesus’ proclamation. The Kingdom (by RS Thomas)
It’s a long way off but inside it There are quite different things going on: Festivals at which the poor man Is king and the consumptive is Healed; mirrors in which the blind look At themselves and love looks at them Back; and industry is for mending The bent bones and the minds fractured By life. It’s a long way off, but to get There takes no time and admission Is free, if you will purge yourself Of desire, and present yourself with Your need only and the simple offering Of your faith, green as a leaf.
With very best wishes to all,
Kieran J. O’Mahony, OSA