Praying from the Gospel of Matthew: Chapters 1-16
Matthew’s gospel gives important information about the origin and birth of Jesus Christ, so it’s an important gospel to read in Advent. We’re also going to read it most Sundays this coming year.
Matthew’s gospel is the Church’s first Catechism, the most popular gospel read in the early Church.
Where and when was it written?
It was written probably around 90 AD scholars suggest, and they offer three possible places: Antioch in Syria, Sepphoris near Nazareth and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. When the gospel was written, these cities had become centers for Jewish leaders who had fled from Jerusalem after the destruction of the city and its temple in 70 AD. From these cities, they were trying to rebuild Judaism after the tragedy of 70 AD.
In their efforts to rebuild they came into conflict with the followers of Jesus Christ who saw him as the new hope for his people and for all the world. The Gospel of Matthew reflects the deep conflict between these two groups. The sharp critique of the scribes and pharisees in the 23rd chapter of Matthew is an example of the contentious spirit that must have existed on both sides.
Galilee and Judea
Matthew’s gospel focuses on two places of Jesus’ life and ministry: Galilee and Judea. He was raised in Nazareth of Galilee. Joseph tells the story of his origins there. After his baptism by John, Jesus spent some years in Capernaum, along the Sea of Galilee; he called others to follow him, and taught and performed great wonders in that region. Matthew’s gospel recalls the origins and ministry of Jesus in Galilee in the first 16 chapters of his gospel. His sources are the tax-collectors and fishermen who followed Jesus during this period. Peter speaks for them all as he calls Jesus “the Messiah, Son of the Living God.” (Chapter 16)
In the remaining chapters, Matthew’s gospel recalls Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, to Judea, where he will die and rise again. Afterwards, he sends his followers into the whole world to preach and baptize.
In Jesus’ time in Galilee, Herod Antipas (4 BC-39 AD), son of the infamous Herod the Great, who put the children of Bethlehem to death at the time of Jesus’ birth, ruled the region from his newly-built capital of Tiberias, only a few miles from Capernaum. His influence is important in the Gospel of Mattew even though he is mentioned only a few times in the New Testament. He ordered John the Baptist beheaded and later wondered if Jesus might be John come back from the dead. Jesus called him “that Fox.”
Later in Jerusalem, Herod came to celebrate the Passover and Pontius Pilate sent Jesus to him before passing the death sentence, but Jesus wouldn’t say a word to him. One interesting connection to Herod: Johanna, wife of Herod’s steward Cusa, was a follower of Jesus who stood with Mary and the other women at his cross.
Like his father, Herod the Great, Herod Antipas loved to build, and his splendid Greco-Roman city of Tiberias arose from 20 and 27 AD, while Jesus lived in Nazareth. It was a typical Roman city, with a Roman gate, stadium, spacious squares with marble statues, a grand palace with a golden roof and a large synagogue. To pay for it, and other big building projects in Galilee –Sepphoris, Caesaria Maritima– Herod sent his tax-collectors into the cities and towns of Galilee–places like Capernaum and Nazareth– to squeeze the fishermen and farmers for whatever they could get.
Herod was intent on exploiting the rich resources of Galilee and building up its economic potential, but for that he needed money. Herod and his tax collectors weren’t popular among the people.
Highlights of the Gospel of Matthew
The highpoint of Matthew’s Gospel is found in chapter 16. At Caesaria Philippi Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” “Some say you are John the Baptist, some say you are Elijah,” they answer. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks them. Peter answers “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Peter’s strong confession would be fiercely disputed by the Jewish authorities from Tiberias in the year 90, and others before them during the time of Jesus himself.
We recognized some of their objections. Jesus came from nearby, inconspicuous Nazareth where his own neighbors rejected him. Did he really rise from the dead? Rumors were that his disciples stole his body from the tomb. Perhaps he resembled Elijah, or John the Baptist, or one of the prophets, but he could be a false prophet too.
The Jewish authorities would also question the credentials of the chief followers of Jesus– uneducated fishermen and unpopular tax-collectors. How could they be authentic teachers in Israel?
Modern scriptural studies, by pointing out the real life situations that influenced the creation of our gospels, help us understand them better. Our gospels didn’t drop down from heaven, they came from people struggling over the questions Jesus asked Peter: “Who do people say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” The gospels were written to answer his critics then; even now, we can appreciate these old disputes.
For example, Matthew’s gospel speaks to questions about the origins of Jesus, born of a virgin and conceived through the power of the Holy Spirit. Matthew’s gospel begins with a genealogy tracing Jesus back the David. He is a son of David. Joseph attests to his davidic origins, inspired by an angel. He testifies to Mary’s virginity. He guards the Child and Mary against the powers of darkness
Matthew’s Jesus speaks to the crowds from a mountain, like Moses, not just in a synagogue like the Pharisees. The gospel is filled with Old Testament references and miracles backing up his claims. Matthew’s gospel challenges the story that after his resurrection his body was stolen by his own disciples.
Matthew’s witnesses are ordinary people like Joseph, the just man, Peter, the fisherman, and Matthew, the tax-collector. “Flesh and blood” hasn’t revealed Jesus to them, but the Father in heaven. He has made them his star witnesses.
Did the Christians Lose in Galilee?
I think the followers of Jesus lost the battle with the new Jewish establishment in Galilee at the end of the 1st century, and many moved on to other places. Only some remained in Galilee. The final words of Jesus to his eleven disciples in Matthew’s gospel seem to indicate a call to other places.
“The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them. When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted. Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” Mt 28, 16-20
Our church is ever on the move, but we are empowered to go with it to wherever the Spirit leads.
Here are two biographies of leading characters in Matthew’s gospel: Joseph and Peter.
Joseph, the Foster Father of Jesus http://www.cptryon.org/holylives/nt/joseph/index.html
Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” http://www.cptryon.org/holylives/nt/peter/index.html