What Makes the Gospel of Matthew Special?
On this feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist, let us meditate on the beautiful truths and insights about our faith presented in his gospel and manifested in his life.
The Life of St. Matthew
We know little about the life of Matthew the Evangelist. However, we know from the Gospels that he was a Galilean tax collector before being called by Jesus to be an apostle. He was also called Levi (Mk 2:14), and Jesus probably changed his name to Matthew, meaning “gift of Yahweh,” when He called him to His service. Matthew then held a meal at his house for Jesus and His disciples, along with tax collectors and sinners. Matthew witnessed the Resurrection and the Ascension, and was present in the Upper Room with the Apostles and Mary when the Holy Spirit descended upon them.
St. Irenaeus says that Matthew preached among the Hebrews. He later traveled to the south of the Caspian Sea, and possibly Syria, Macedonia, and the kingdom of the Parthians. St. Matthew wrote his gospel for the Hebrews, writing in their native language. Most ancient accounts say that St. Matthew was martyred, but we do not know how he was martyred.
As little as we know about the life of St. Matthew, there are several lessons we can learn from him about the moral and spiritual life. Before Christ called Matthew to be one of His Apostles, he was a tax collector or publican. The institutions that collected taxes on behalf of Rome in the provinces of the empire frequently abused this power. Therefore the locals, such as Matthew, who worked for these tax collecting institutions were hated by their neighbors. Despite this, Christ called Matthew to be one of His Apostles. He then ate a meal with other tax collectors and sinners at Matthew’s house.
No matter how sinful our life has been, Our Lord always calls us to His service with open and merciful arms. If we sincerely repent, He will forgive us all of our sins. So too, we should be willing to forgive others. Whenever we see someone who appears to be a greater sinner than ourselves, we must realize that it is the grace of God, and not our own excellence, that has preserved us from that depth of sin. We must also never become complacent with ourselves and stop striving for greater holiness. Indeed, one of the greatest obstacles to holiness for those of us who are religious is the prideful attitude by which we think that we are very holy and our neighbor is a sinner. On the contrary, if we honestly examine our lives, we will undoubtedly be able to find many offences and negligences. Our Lord always calls us to repentance and greater holiness, and if we do not continually make progress in the spiritual life, we will undoubtedly begin to slip into greater sin.
We should also follow St. Matthew’s example of preaching the Gospel to the unbelieving world. We should not be content with living our own devout but isolated lives; for man is by nature a social animal and he therefore must have concern for the common good. The way we behave in society, the choices we make, and indeed every aspect of our public and private lives should make clear the fact that we are Christians and live a joyful life in accord with the natural law. As much as people nowadays spend their time seeking pleasure and the affirmation of every proclivity they happen to have, they are not really happy. Pleasure and freedom from criticism and cognitive dissonance may very well lead to a temporary relief from feelings of anxiety, guilt, and shame. However, an abiding emptiness and restlessness remains that is an obstacle to true happiness, because no peace can last if it is not grounded in reality. If we, who do ground our lives in truth, behave with a genuine joy that proceeds from our faith and moral life, others will naturally be attracted to us and to our way of life. We should also remember to not give up on our society, but should strive to reform it by first reforming our hearts and our homes.
The Gospel of St. Matthew
St. Matthew wrote his gospel for the Jews, with the purpose of proving that Jesus was the Messiah and the founder of the Messianic kingdom that the Old Testament prophets foretold. He also showed that because the Jews rejected Jesus, the kingdom of God would be taken from them and given to the Gentiles.
Matthew proves that Jesus is the Messiah by connecting the elements of his gospel’s narrative to Old Testament scripture. For example, the prophet Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel” (Is 7:14). St. Matthew explicitly connects this prophecy to Jesus:
“Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which the Lord spoke by the prophet, saying: Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (Mt 1:22-23).
St. Matthew also shows that John the Baptist’s announcing of the coming of Jesus was foretold by the prophet Isaiah:
“And in those days cometh John the Baptist preaching in the desert of Judea. And saying: Do penance: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by Isaias the prophet, saying: A voice of one crying in the desert, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” (Mt 3:1-3)
The Old Testament prophets are full of prophecies of Christ’s Passion, and St. Matthew references them as he recounts the Passion. In the Psalms, King David writes: “O God my God, look upon me: why hast thou forsaken me?” and “They have numbered all my bones. And they have looked and stared upon me. They parted my garments amongst them; and upon my vesture they cast lots” (Ps 21:2, 18-19). St. Matthew relates the incident of the soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garments and references the words of the Psalmist quoted above. He also says: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying: Eli, Eli, lamma sabacthani? that is, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46) The Jews would have been familiar with the text of the Psalms, and so even if Matthew had not explicitly quoted them, he would have clearly conveyed to the Jews that Jesus’ Passion was the fulfillment of the words of David. St. Matthew shows that Christ Himself claimed to be the Messiah by relating this conversation between Jesus and Peter:
“Jesus saith to them: But whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered and said: Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answering, said to him: Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jona: because flesh and blood hath not revealed it to thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 16:15-17)
The Gospel of St. Matthew is full of such connections between the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament and the words and actions of Jesus, thus demonstrating to its Jewish audience that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the fulfillment of these prophecies.
St. Matthew also describes how the Jews insist that Jesus be crucified despite the protestations of Pilate, thus incurring the penalty of losing the Kingdom of God:
“Jesus saith to them: Have you never read in the Scriptures: The stone which the builders rejected, the same is become the head of the corner? By the Lord this has been done; and it is wonderful in our eyes. Therefore I say to you, that the kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and shall be given to a nation yielding the fruits thereof.” (Mt 21:42-43)
As tragic as it is that the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah, St. Matthew’s message that the Gospel and the Kingdom of God are then preached to the Gentiles should have a special place in our hearts as Americans: we are primarily descended from European ancestors and are therefore Gentiles. Because Jesus offered the Gospel and the Kingdom of God to the Gentiles, we now have the salvation of God available to us. This also helps us understand why we are called “catholic.” “Catholic” means universal, and indicates that the Church and God’s salvation are available to all peoples and nations and not only to the Jews.
God has no obligation to offer salvation to us. Heaven is far beyond our nature and ability to merit, and therefore it would not be unjust for God to not give us the opportunity to reach heaven. In fact, we have all sinned and therefore not only do not deserve heaven, but rather deserve hell. It is merely through the completely free and unmerited gift of God’s grace that He leads us to eternal life and knowledge of Him. God sent His Son to die to merit this grace for the salvation of all nations, as revealed by St. Matthew in his gospel. If we wish to progress in holiness and have the proper attitude towards God, we must be always aware of our total dependence upon the free gift of His grace for our salvation, and must never cease to give Him thanks for rescuing us from the abyss of sin that surrounds us.