Letter from the Vicar (February 2011/March 2011)
This year, the anniversary of the publication of the Authorised Version, I hope we will pay even more attention to the Bible than usual.
I want to start the ball rolling by writing about the gospel that forms the core of our reading this year, the Gospel according to St Matthew. Matthew, the first of the four gospels. Matthew, also called Levi, the sinning tax collector called by Jesus. Matthew the apostle. Matthew whose symbol is the heavenly man. For most of this ecclesiastical year we shall be concentrating on his gospel and its account of the words and works of Jesus. The only good story I know which brings this gospel in at all - and that rather tenuously - concerns a visit Henry Ford, the car manufacturer, paid to Dublin in the course of which he offered a donation of £1,000 towards the cost of a new hospital. The Dublin Times accidentally on purpose announced he had promised £10,000 and praised his generosity. To avoid the bad impression it would have made Ford agreed to the larger amount. He did, however, make a condition. When the new hospital was opened it should have an appropriate text in the entrance hall. This was what he chose: Matthew 25. verse 35 “I was a stranger and you took me in.”
It is commonly held nowadays that Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels after Mark and were dependent upon him, though they had other material including some material unique to each of the gospels. As well as that Matthew, like Mark and Luke, has his own particular slant. So as we read Matthew week by week this year what should we look out for, what should we expect him to be giving us?
The first thing to be said is that this gospel was very much written for a Jewish audience. Legends about the apostle Matthew tell us that among the apostles he was one of the most committed to spreading the good news about Jesus to his own people. Legends or no, this is certainly borne out in the gospel of his name. How does he do this? Well, first, he is keen to prove that Jesus is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy. If John’s catch phrase is ‘verily, verily I say unto you’ and Mark’s is the rather more humble ‘kai palin’, ‘and then’, Matthew’s must be ‘all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying ...’ which occurs in the gospel no less than 16 times. The birth and name of Jesus, the flight into Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, the home at Nazareth, the use of parables, the triumphal entry in to Jerusalem and so on and so on, all these are depicted by Matthew as fulfilling the Old Testament. In Matthew the respect in which Jesus held the teaching of the scribes and the Pharisees is noted, alongside his severe criticisms of them. After all among his contemporaries Jesus, like Paul, was relatively close in belief and outlook to this group, though in this gospel, above all, his condemnation of their failure to live up to their own ideals is underlined.
The second important characteristic of Matthew’s gospel is its strong interest in the Church. Indeed Matthew is the only one of the synoptic writers to use the word ‘church’ at all. This might seem to sit rather awkwardly alongside the Jewishness of the gospel, but in Matthew’s Judaism the crucial issue was that of the Messiah. If Jesus truly was the Messiah, as he believed, then those who accepted him as such were the inheritors of the kingdom and took on the mantle of the old Israel. It was the Church who had so accepted him. Matthew includes the saying that the gates of hell will never prevail against the Church, he it is who gives the teaching on Peter as the foundation stone of the church and this gospel tells us that disputes among Christians are to be settled by the church. (in chapters 16 & 18)
The third and perhaps the greatest characteristic of Matthew is that it is a teaching gospel. This is related to its character as a church gospel, because it is plain that the writer expected it to be used by the church to teach the way of the Lord Jesus Christ. To help the reader Matthew groups teachings of Jesus which may originally have been given at various times and places together into solid blocks. The best known of these is, of course, the Sermon on the Mount, which is in chapters 5 - 7. We also see this grouping of material in chapter 10, the duties of the leaders of the kingdom, chapter 13, the Parables of the Kingdom, chapter 18, greatness and forgiveness in the kingdom and chapters 24 & 25, the second coming. The teaching character of Matthew is also related to the Jewishness of the gospel because if you study it carefully you realise that the whole of the gospel is a kind of re-run of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. As well as the fives of Matthew’s gospel, there are also a fair few threes and sevens, all significant symbolic numbers in Judaism, but also, more practically, helpful for remembering in an age when getting hold of a written document was very hard.
The final thing to be said about this gospel is that in Matthew’s particular way he proclaims the kingship of Jesus. He is son of David - he uses this title far more than in any other gospel - even the wise men seek the king of the Jews; he accepts the title of king before Pilate; he teaches in a regal manner. Matthew presents to us a picture of Jesus as the man born to be king even more than is the case in the other gospels. As we begin now week by week to read of his ministry in this great gospel we need to ask to open our minds and hearts to encounter him as our personal Lord and King. Let us this year go to Matthew and find there Jesus, the one who fulfils the prophecies of the Old Testament and yet goes far beyond them bringing not only them to completeness and fulfilment, but fulfilment and completeness to every aspect of life. Let us go to Matthew and find there Jesus, the lord of the Church, who must reign in every aspect and nook and cranny of this church’s life and our life as part of the church. Let us go to Matthew and find in the gospel the kingly teaching of Jesus and let us take that teaching to heart and apply it to every aspect of our own lives, the life of the church and the world. Let us go to Matthew and encounter Jesus, the king of all time and eternity.