Chances are, you know Matthew’s Gospel better than you know the other three. It contains the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer. It highlights the ministry of Peter. In it, Jesus urges the disciple to works of mercy because “what you do to the least you do to me.” It records stories about the birth of Jesus, the coming of the magi, the flight into Egypt, and the slaughter of the innocents. Its account of the death of Christ thunders with an earthquake. For centuries, Matthew’s popular Gospel dominated the Scripture readings Catholics heard at Mass. But when the lectionary was revised in 1969, it became associated with the first of a three-year cycle of readings. During ordinary time of year A, we expect to hear Matthew when we attend Sunday Mass.
Most people assume that the author of this Gospel was the tax collector who decided to follow Jesus. However, this is not likely. Many Scripture scholars believe the Gospel was written late in the first century by an anonymous Jewish Christian who lived at Antioch in Syria. The author borrowed much of Mark’s Gospel– a pointless method if the writer had been an eyewitness to the events. The Gospel circulated long before the name “Matthew” became attached to it.
Matthew’s Gospel seems intended for an audience of Christians very familiar with the Jewish way of life: believers who came from a prosperous area, but who were threatened by persecution. Its central message is embedded in the title associated with Jesus at his birth, “Emmanuel,” “God is with us.” In Jesus, God is with us. To Jesus, we respond as disciples. The writer of Matthew’s Gospel is sometimes symbolized as a man or an angel, recalling the genealogy that opens the book. Even though this Gospel was probably written after Mark’s, it appears first in the New Testament and first in the lectionary cycle.
-Fr. Paul Turner