Journeying the Year of Matthew: Reflections …

15 June, 2011

John Littleton's book provides readers with an overview of the Gospel of Matthew, (Sundays, Year A) It would be useful for priests preparing a homily for the Sunday Mass.

THE BOOK:
matthewlittletonThis book provides readers with an overview of the Gospel of Matthew, (Sundays, Year A)  It would be useful for priests preparing a homily for the Sunday Mass.

THE AUTHOR:
John Littleton is a priest of the diocese of Cashel and Emly. He is the Moderator of the Priory Instute, Tallaght, Dublin. He has co-edited with Eamon Maher What being Catholic means to me (Columba 2009) and The Dublin/Murphy Report: A watershed for Irish Catholicism (Columba 2010).

CONTENTS

Preface

PART I: INTRODUCING THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO MATTHEW
Jesus Christ: the fulfilment of the Law, and the Prophets

PART II: REFLECTIONS

The Season of Advent
First Sunday of Advent
Second Sunday of Advent
Third Sunday of Advent
Fourth Sunday of Advent

The Season of Christmas
The Nativity of Our Lord
The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph
Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Second Sunday after Christmas
The Epiphany of the Lord
The Baptism of the Lord

The Season of Lent
First Sunday of Lent
Second Sunday of Lent
Third Sunday of Lent
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Passion Sunday (Palm Sunday)

The Season of Easter
Easter Sunday
Second Sunday of Easter
Third Sunday of Easter
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Sixth Sunday of Easter
The Ascension of the Lord
Seventh Sunday of Easter
Pentecost Sunday

Some Feasts of the Lord in Ordinary Time
The Most Holy Trinity
The Body and Blood of Jesus

Sundays in Ordinary Time
Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King

Holy Days and Some Other Feasts
2 February: The Presentation of the Lord
15 August: The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary
14 September: The Triumph of the Cross
1 November: All Saints
2 November: Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed
8 December: The Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Appendix

150 pp. The Columba Press. To purchase this book online, go to www.columba.ie

Preface
The Gospel is Good News and the purpose of this book is to provide readers with an overview of the Gospel according to Matthew, which is proclaimed during Year A of the Church’s liturgical cycle. After introducing some of the principal themes of Matthew’s Gospel, a series of reflections on the gospel readings is presented for each Sunday and major feast during the year.

The reflections focus on the relevance of Matthew’s Gospel for everyday life and will be helpful to priests and laity wishing to engage more fully with the word of God. They will be particularly useful to members of prayer groups, Bible-study classes and lectio divina gatherings preparing for the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word during the Sunday liturgy. A helpful appendix at the end of the book indicates the order for the gospel readings for the Sundays in Ordinary time.

The reflections form the substantial part of the book. Before each one, the reference for the relevant gospel reading is listed. Then after each reflection, a suitable phrase or short passage from the gospel is offered as an aid to personal prayer and meditation.

The scripture quotations throughout the book are taken from The Jerusalem Bible which, regrettably in some instances, does not employ gender-inclusive language, because that is the version of the scriptures that is generally used in lectionaries and, as such, the version with which most people are familiar.

While the reflections may be read without necessarily referring to the gospel texts, it is recommended that readers also use their Bibles or missals. Otherwise, individual gospel phrases could be taken out of context. Also, because the word of God is inexhaustible, it is impossible to be totally comprehensive in any given reflection. Hopefully, the reflections presented here will inspire readers to develop their own thoughts on the Gospel of Matthew.

Finally, earlier versions of some of the reflections were published in The Catholic Times and in the Tipperary Star, and an earlier version of the introductory essay was published in Scripture in Church.


INTRODUCTION
Jesus Christ:
The Fulfilment of the Law and the Prophets

On most Sundays (except during Lent and Easter, when the readings are chosen from the Gospel according to John) and on quite a few of the more significant feasts during Year A of the three-year liturgical cycle, we listen to extracts from the Gospel according to Matthew being proclaimed in our celebrations of the Eucharist, and we ponder the implications of Matthew’s message for everyday Christian living. Thus we are doing exactly what the pilgrim People of God are called to do: we are journeying towards our true and final destiny (that is, heaven), while being guided, encouraged and challenged by the wisdom and lessons of Matthew’s Gospel.

Gospel: Good News for Believers
The Gospel of Matthew, like those of Mark, Luke and John, is indeed Good News, even though, according to Seán P. Kealy, ‘Matthew does not have Mark’s vivid realism, Luke’s sheer gentle beauty or John’s lofty mysticism’ (1). Matthew’s Gospel was most probably written during the decade 80-90 AD and, now as then, is intended to offer Christians hope as they are confronted by the various trials and tribulations of life. In this context, we need to understand that Matthew’s Gospel, like other biblical books, is not primarily an historical document providing readers with accurate biographical information, facts and figures about Jesus of Nazareth (although, undoubtedly, it contains some historical details).

Instead, Matthew’s Gospel is first and foremost a faith document that was written post-Calvary for the spiritual benefits of those who, having become believers in the Risen Christ, had committed themselves to his teaching and example. Scripture scholars often describe the gospels as having been written through ‘Resurrection-tinted spectacles’, implying that the evangelists worked from the particular perspective of belief in the Risen Lord. Therefore, the Gospel of Matthew, like the other three gospels, is essentially a faith document that bears witness to the Resurrection, thereby acknowledging that Jesus is Lord and that, having been raised from the dead, he is alive and active in the Christian community which is animated by his abiding presence (see Mt 18:20; 28:20). Philip Fogarty confirms this principle when he argues that ‘the purpose of the gospels was, above all, to engender a response of faith and to bring salvation’ (2).

Matthew: What is Distinctive?
The Gospel according to Matthew is effectively a major reworking of the earlier Mark’s Gospel, incorporating the vast majority of verses (600 of 661) from Mark. Moreover, Matthew’s Gospel includes an infancy narrative, thus making it more a pseudo-biography of Jesus than Mark’s Gospel. Matthew’s stories about the birth of Jesus – especially the wise men travelling from the east (see Mt 2:1), the significance of Bethlehem as a location (see Mt 2:6), the flight into Egypt (see Mt 2:14-15) and the settling in Nazareth (see Mt 2:23) – emphasise the messianic and divine status of Jesus. So, in a sense, geography is at the service of theology.

Although Matthew’s Gospel has much in common with the other gospels, especially the other two synoptics (3), it also has some unique characteristics. Central to these is the Jewish-Christian community for whom it was most likely written. And because this gospel was written predominantly for Christians with a Jewish background, it frequently refers to the Hebrew scriptures and to the fulfilment of their prophecies in and through Jesus (4).

Therefore, the Gospel according to Matthew presents Jesus as the new Moses, who liberates his people from slavery to sin. Hence, for example, the focus on the genealogy of Jesus at the beginning (see Mt 1:1-17), and the parallel between Jesus’ preaching of the Beatitudes on the hill (see Mt 5:1-12) and Moses’ reception of the Ten Commandments (also known as the Decalogue) on Mount Sinai (see Exod 20:1-17). But Jesus is not merely another Moses, although Moses was unquestionably the greatest leader of the Israelites.

According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is the fulfilment of the Torah and the Prophets, the realisation of God’s promise to send the Messiah. Not surprisingly, then, Jesus said unambiguously: ‘Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish but to complete them’ (Mt 5:17). That is why Jesus regularly referred to the established Jewish norms and customs, and then proceeded to claim that his teaching transcended them. Jesus is the Messiah who inaugurated the rule (or kingdom) of God here on earth.

Prophecy and Fulfilment
To appreciate this, we must understand that Matthew devised the notion of an inextricable link between prophecy and fulfilment, as if it were intrinsic to prophecy that it has a future dimension. Crucially, this reference to the future was not inherent to the activity of prophecy, which was really concerned with ‘speaking out’ on behalf of God in the present – although the prophets also warned the people about future punishment if God’s commandments were not obeyed, but in the context of the present. Matthew portrayed the major events in Jesus’ life as if they were in a prophecy-fulfilment arrangement. For example, in Matthew’s infancy narrative, we read five times: ‘this was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken through the prophet’ (Mt 1:22; 2:5; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23).

By doing this, Matthew added a future orientation to prophecy that it did not originally have. However, Matthew’s purpose in doing so was to reassure those Jewish people who had begun to recognise Jesus as the Messiah that the path they were following was closely related to the events of the Hebrew Bible. In this way, the Gospel according to Matthew countered the judgement of the Jewish religious authorities that any Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah or, worse, as the Son of God, were not only separating themselves from the traditions of Israel but from the God of Israel too. As Donald Senior suggests, ‘like skilled preachers, the evangelists told their stories of Jesus in such a way that they would touch the concerns and hopes of their audience’ (5).

Significantly, Matthew’s Gospel changed the Markan phrase ‘kingdom of God’ to ‘kingdom of heaven’, considering that Mark’s copious use of the name God was too irreverent. This suggests again that the Gospel of Matthew was written for those who belonged to the particular strand of the Jewish tradition which emphasised the transcendence of God rather than his immanence (6).

There are several other noteworthy distinctions between the Gospel of Matthew and the other gospels. Rob Esdaile has summarised thern: (7)

  • the infancy description of the visit of the Magi (see Mt 2:112);
  • the flight into Egypt and the murder of the Innocents (see Mt 2:13-23);
  • the longer form of the Beatitudes (see Mt 5:3-12) [see also Lk 6:20-23];
  • the Matthean antitheses (see Mt 5:21-47);
  • the best-known version of the Lord’s Prayer (see Mt 6:9-15) [see also Lk 11:1-4];
  • the invitation to the overburdened to seek rest (see Mt 11:2830);
  • the parables of the hidden treasure, the pearl and the dragnet (see Mt 13:44-50);
  • the more detailed account of Peter’s confession (see Mt 16:1619) [see also Jn 6:69];
  • the parables of the unforgiving debtor, the vineyard labourers, the two sons, and the sheep and the goats (see Mt 18:2335; 20:1-16; 21:28-32; 25:31-46).

The Sermon on the Mount
The Sermon on the Mount (see Mt 5-7), which begins with the Beatitudes, is pivotal to the Gospel of Matthew because it enunciates Jesus ethical teaching. It is a marvellous example of how Jesus understood the development of the old covenant in the new. That development was expressed by Jesus when he spoke about ‘these words of mine’ (Mt 7:24, 26) implying that his words went beyond those of the Ten Commandments. Accordingly, it is no longer sufficient to adhere to the external law, so to speak, because God looks into the heart and his people are now ready to understand that. It is no longer adequate not to kill another person. Now people must learn to control the anger that leads to such killing. Neither is it enough not to commit adultery. People must now learn to control their senses and discipline the desires that lead to adultery. In this way, Matthew’s Gospel still challenges us to ‘do the will of [the] Father in heaven’ (Mt 7:21) and to ‘be perfect just as [our] heavenly Father is perfect’ (Mt 5:48).

Peter and the Church
Notably, Matthew’s Gospel, which is often known as the Gospel of the Church, reveals Peter’s unique leadership role. Because of the faith he professed in Christ, Peter was personally appointed to lead the emerging Church. Peter was given a key position of authority in the Church (which Catholics now call the Papacy). While Jesus told Peter that the reason he was able to recognise Jesus’ divinity was because he was specially graced by God (see Mt 16:17), Jesus also rebuked him for opposing his passion. On the one hand, Jesus gave Peter the keys of the kingdom (see Mt 16:19), whereas, on the other hand, he said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but [human]‘ (Mt 16:23). This is a reminder that Peter, like us, was weak and fickle. Peter was appointed by Christ to lead his Church, but Peter was not impeccable. he was a weak human being who, nevertheless, was used by God to build up the Church on earth.

Conclusion: the Journey Motif in Matthew’s Gospel
Matthew’s Gospel adopts the journey motif found in Mark’s Gospel and records Jesus’ journeys. He began his public ministry in Galilee and travelled towards Jerusalem. Significantly, it could be argued that there is a certain symbolism here: the journey was not only geographical but was really symbolic of Jesus’ return to the Father (8). Once more, it could be claimed that geography is at the service of theology.

Matthew’s Gospel is a reinterpretation of the Torah for Jewish Christians. The role of the modern reader is to reinterpret Matthew for today, in each new geographical and historical era, just as the Old Testament prophets did with the Torah. A meditative reading of the text of Matthew will help to make sense of the implications of Matthew’s message for everyday Christian living.

Recommended Reading
Christ, Jennifer, Journeying with Matthew preparation for each Sunday liturgy, New York: Paulist Press, 2007
Esdaile, Rob, ‘A year with Matthew’, The Pastoral Review, 3 (6), 2007, pp 12-16
Fogarty, Philip, According, to Matthew, Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2007
Harrington, Wilfrid J., Matthew – sage theologian: the Jesus of Matthew, Dublin: The Columba Press, 1988.
Kealy, Sean P., ‘On reading Matthew’, Scripture in Church, 26 (103), 1996, pp 348-352
Senior, Donald, What are they saying about Matthew? New York: Paulist Press, 1983


The Season of Advent

First Sunday of Advent
Gospel reading: Matthew 24:37-44

Reflection
Christmas begins earlier every year in the secular world. Many shops and businesses compete to have the first and the biggest display of Christmas lights and decorations. Advertisements for Christmas toys commence in October. People are posting Christmas cards before the end of November and children are taken to visit Santa Claus early in December. Therefore, it is not surprising that some people feel that Christmas is an anticlimax because it has ended almost before it has begun.

In the Christian context, however, and especially in the liturgical year, Christmas does not begin until 25 December and it is preceded by several weeks of waiting and preparation during the season of Advent. Our focus in Advent is on waiting in hope for the fulfilment of God’s promise to send the Messiah and on preparing for the Second Coming of Christ on the Last Day when all the nations will be assembled before him.

Our Christian hope is incomplete without this understanding of Advent. Advent is not just about preparing to commemorate the birth of the baby Jesus. Crucially, it is a time of spiritual preparation for welcoming Christ into our lives at Christmas, but also a time of preparation for the last judgement. Basically, during Advent the Church invites us not to be lured into a false sense of Christmas that is unrelated to the real meaning, of Christmas, which is the Incarnation, that is, God becoming human in the person of Jesus, and to Christ’s Second Coining. The season of Advent begins today.

Advent is the great season of hope in the Church’s liturgical year. Thus we are challenged to be hope-filled people awaiting the Lord’s coming into our live,, and into the world. However, there is an important difference between the secular and Christian understandings of hope.

The secular sense of hope, which is most accurately expressed as wishful thinking, lacks surety or certainty. To be hopeful in the secular sense is to articulate a desire or a wish that may or may not be realised. For example, when we say, ‘We hope that our business will not become bankrupt’, our wish is for success in business but we cannot be certain that there will be success.

In sharp contrast, Christian hope is a virtue and it expresses certainty based on God’s promise to be faithful to us in all circumstances. For instance, when we say, ‘We hope in the resurrection of the dead’, we are not simply engaging in wishful thinking. We are articulating and communicating a certainty that is based on our faith.

Jesus told his disciples: ‘You too must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect’ (Mt 24:44). He says the same to each one of us. In doing so, he exhorts us to make this particular Advent the beginning of a lifelong Advent — a lifetime of waiting in Christian hope for the Lord’s Second Coming, whenever that will be, while undergoing conversion from sin to living in God’s presence.

We hope for the Lord’s coming. This means that, as Christians, we are sure that he is coming. There is no doubt. The season of Advent provides us with an annual opportunity to deepen our waiting in hope for the realisation of God’s saving promise in Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour.

For meditation
So stay awake, because you do not know the day when your master is coming. (Mt 24:42).

Second Sunday of Advent
Gospel reading: Matthew 3:1-12

Reflection
John the Baptist was the last in a long line of prophets who foretold the coming of the Messiah. He prepared the way for the Messiah by alerting God’s people to the Messiah’s impending arrival and by challenging them to change their lives by repenting for their sins. A radical abandonment of sinful living was required because God was going to communicate with his people directly through his Son, Jesus, the Messiah.

John’s ministry focused on preaching conversion and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Repentance is a fundamental change of heart, or attitude, which results in leaving sin behind and embracing God’s freely shared life and love. Such change is only possible with the gift of God’s grace. There was urgency in John’s preaching about repentance. The time for repentance, he said, is now, not in the future. Repentance through prayer, fasting and charitable works leads to conversion, and conversion is an important aspect of people’s preparation if they are to meet Christ when he comes.

John understood from his own experience in the wilderness, where he spent a long time in prayer and reflection, that repentance and conversion were absolutely necessary. Otherwise their hearts would remain closed by sinful preoccupations and they would not be able to recognise the Messiah when he arrived. And, if they could not recognise him, neither would they be able to acknowledge him as the fulfilment of God’s promise to liberate his people. Without a ‘change-of-heart’ (metanoia in the original Greek), a turning back towards God, there could be no appreciation of the Messiah’s presence among them.

We learn from the gospels that John fasted and did penance, wore camel hair and ate locusts and wild honey. So there was a strong witness dimension in his efforts to prepare the way for Christ to come into the people’s lives. He was courageous and unapologetic in how he spoke. This witness and courage provided him with great credibility and, consequently, many people felt invited to consider seriously the relevance of his message because they noticed how he had taken it to heart himself. But his preaching made him unpopular with some people because they could not accept the truth, and remained unrepentant.

In what ways are we repentant people? How do we demonstrate our sincerity as witnesses to the teaching of Christ and the Church? What does it mean to be courageous and unapologetic about our convictions? The reality is that some of us are unrepentant for our sins. We are reluctant to speak about our faith and share it with others. Advent challenges us to become people of hope and expectation as we await Christ’s coming.

As we prepare for Christmas, how will we prepare ourselves and help others to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah? If we follow the example of John the Baptist, we will truly be Advent people.

For meditation
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand. (Mt 3:2)


NOTES

1. Seán P. Kealy, ‘On reading Matthew’, Scripture in Church, 26 (103), 1996, p 348
2. Philip Fogarty, According to Matthew, Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2007,p5
3. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are usually referred to as the synoptic gospels or synoptics (from the Greek syn, meaning together, and opsis, meaning appearance) because they share many common parables and accounts in addition to a general agreement on the sequence of events.
4. See Donald Senior, What are they saying about Matthew? New York: Paulist Press, 1983, pp 37-46
5. Donald Senior, What are they saying about Matthew? p 5
6. The transcendence of God refers to the otherness of God whose existence goes beyond the universe and is not to be identified with it. The immanence of God refers to God’s presence everywhere and in everything.
7. See Rob Esdaile, ‘A Year with Matthew’, The Pastoral Review, 3 (6), 2007, p 13
8. This reminds us of the quest that is at the heart of Christianity.

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