by Rev. Julian Duckworth
While Matthews’ gospel is the first in order, it is almost definitely an equal second in time, along with Luke, to Mark as the first gospel. A lot of what is in Mark is also in Matthew – and Luke – and yet there is a lot that is also unique to Matthew. Large parts of Matthew’s gospel are very familiar, like the Sermon on the Mount (5-7) which is also in Luke but rather different. 10 is a chapter on sending out the apostles and how they will be received or rejected. 13 is the chapter of the Parables of the Kingdom, beginning with the Sower. 20 opens with the parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. 25 – after Jesus has entered Jerusalem – is the chapter with three major parables: the wise and foolish virgins, the talents, and the sheep and the goats. Like the other three gospels, the last part is devoted to an account of the arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – the ‘Passion’. And along with Luke, Matthew has a Nativity story in 1-2, but whereas Luke’s is very quiet, Matthew’s account is very troublesome all the way through. Joseph is disturbed, the wise men from the East encounter Herod who orders the massacre of children, and the family flee to Egypt, only returning to Nazareth when it is safe.
If you have a Bible that puts the Lord’s word in red print, you will see that much of Matthew consists of long discourses or teachings. There are basically five of these: 5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25, some of which have already been referred to. Matthew seems to deliberately arrange his gospel for specific reasons. It is generally thought that he wrote the gospel primarily for the Jews and there are very many quotations from the Old Testament which are shown to be fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus. Another feature of Matthew is his ‘neat teaching’ method; for example, in 10.39 Jesus says, “He who finds his life will lose it and he who loses his life for My sake will find it.” This is very typical of the way in which Matthew puts a profound idea in the form of a paradox or even a mathematical equation for the reader to learn and consider. Another example is that “the first shall be last, and the last first.” (19.30 and 20.16) And a third major feature of Matthew’s arrangement is his constant grouping of things into three’s: in the Lord’s Prayer there is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory; the wise men bring gold, frankincense and myrrh; in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks of turning the other cheek, giving away your cloak and going the second mile.
The Sermon on the Mount (5-7) has been called the greatest sermon ever given, and it is about normal sermon length too! But its content is astounding; not a word is wasted and so many central teachings are contained in just three chapters. It opens with Jesus going up a mountain, sitting down (which would have been unusual as a teacher normally stood and spoke to seated disciples) and the disciples then came to him. He gives the Beatitudes or blessings – there are nine of them. Each one is in the same format of a particular quality that brings blessing or more accurately, happiness, followed by what this quality will lead to. “Blessed are the poor in spirit …for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” The sequence of these nine blessings is also remarkable: the first three involve a recognition of being without something – being in spiritual poverty, mourning, meekness or quietness, because these take us away from our pride into the essential humility that is needed for our relationship with God to begin. The fourth is the first positive move of hungering and thirsting for the things of God. The fifth, sixth and seventh are then ideal qualities of mercy, purity and peacefulness, and finally the eighth and ninth are important reminders that spiritual life always involves various trials and temptations with their need to challenge our commitment to the Lord, to be real about it, and to see if we mean it.
Each of the three chapters of the sermon has a memorable passage. In 5 it is the Beatitudes. In 6 it is the Lord’s Prayer. In 7 it is the Golden Rule: “Whatever you want men to do to you, you also do to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. (7.12)” This law comes in virtually every religion and culture the world over, but Jesus uniquely puts it in the positive rather than the negative “do not do to others” suggesting our need to be fully involved in community with others rather than holding back.
Matthew is a powerful, structured, well-crafted and methodical teaching gospel inviting us to read and understand. It is very well placed in the order we have it, because it leads on to Mark which is a gospel of action and energy which runs at an almost exhausting and exhilarating speed.