What do we know of Matthew? I am referring to the one who wrote “Matthew’s Gospel”, the initial contribution we find as we open our New Testament. He is to us what he allows us to know of him in this Gospel.
What can we ever know of another person? We have what they give to us of themselves, from out of their own life, their words and their deeds. It is a fragile as any inter-personal, inter-human communication.
There is a recorded saying of Jesus that Matthew gives us that may help us deepen our appreciation for how he views himself, and thus how he presents himself to us.
Jesus is recorded as having just finished telling some parables about the Kingdom of Heaven, about how God’s purposes for the Son of Man will be sorted (the wheat separated from the weeds) at the appointed time. Having affirmed that this will involve “weeping and gnashing of teeth”, Jesus turns to his disciples:
“Have you indeed understood all these things?” he asked, their reply being, “Yes, we have.” And to that reply he gave this further comment to them: “And so it is, then a teacher of the law becomes a student in the kingdom of heaven, he will resemble the master of a household who draws forth from his treasure, new things as well as old.” (Matthew 13:51-52).
It is, admittedly, an indirect clue as to how Matthew saw himself in the writing of this Gospel, but this Gospel is, in fact, the only source we now have for our knowledge of him. We have good reason to suppose that Matthew is the tax-collector whose part in the back-story of this Gospel began when Jesus called him as recorded in 9:9-13. We learn from Mark that his other name was Levi, son of Alphaeus, who then threw a party for Jesus (Mark 2:13-17). But Matthew’s account doesn’t tell us that; he simply indicates that this was the occasion by which Jesus gained a reputation from the Pharisees for consorting with undesirables, with tax-collectors and sinners.
These indications are similar circumstances to what we confront when we meet a person who is so concerned with what he is teaching that he turns our attention away from himself. By mentioning that Matthew the tax-collector followed Jesus, this account of the Good News may also be telling us of the impact of the ministry of John the Baptist (Luke 3:10-14) upon himself. Later on in this Gospel that teaching is confirmed when tax-collecting and tax-paying is affirmed in Jerusalem’s temple in dramatic fashion (22:15-22).
Matthew’s account of his adherence to Jesus comes after Jesus’ preparation, his 40-day trial in the wilderness, the account of the Sermon on the Mount. It suggests that what Jesus was busy with took place within John’s movement across the Galilean region. A repentant spirit had taken hold of many people. Jesus’ teaching even commended the faith of a Roman Centurion (8:5-13). This was something big.
In confronting the religious leaders, those claiming to hold the title deeds to Israel’s sacred traditions, this Teacher was certainly continuing the public critique of religious hypocrisy that John had initiated “You breed of snakes” (see 3:7 for John; 12:33 and 23:34 for Jesus). But more than that. Yes Jesus was busy in a self-disciplining way of life that not only gave strict formal assent to what the Law and the Prophets had announced concerning the works of the Lord’s Anointed. But he was also teaching in a way that relieved people’s anxieties about God’s love and favour toward them. He commended the faith of a Canaanite mother, in distress at her child’s chronic condition (15:21-28). He showed mercy to his hometown by revisiting there even though the people had previously tried to execute him and remained deeply resentful of his teaching and person (13:54-58 cf Luke 4:14-30 when his ministry was inaugurated).
Matthew’s Gospel is written as an account of a Divine visitation about which the author is in no doubt. He is the tax-collector who has become a student, an amanuensis, in the Kingdom of God, and this is his story of what is old and what is new. This is his attempt to give a cogent, palpable account, presumably for the people of Galilee who, having been stirred by God’s Spirit under the teaching of John, desperately clung to the teaching of “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and who needed to know the Good News of Jesus’ Resurrection after his trial and crucifixion.
The visitation had taken place in the fields, and on the roads of Galilee, within its villages and towns, as this Rabbi disclosed his mission as the Son of Man.
John’s disciples were no doubt distraught and disoriented (11:2). This was evidence of basic injustice. His imprisonment must have raised questions for them. Some disciples he had re-directed to follow Jesus. But of the others, no doubt, some went to him pleading for his advice as to what they could do. And meanwhile, understandably, John is prone to doubts himself. Was not a fire of cleansing on the way? Was not that what he had proclaimed? (3:1-12) What is he to make of his own imprisonment? Has it all been a wonderful, heroic failure? Well, he tells his disciples, you better go and ask Jesus. Ask him. He’s the One in whom I have rested my hopes.
And Matthew the tax-collector, no doubt impressed by John’s invitation to tax-collectors to get ready for the Kingdom of Heaven breaking out in human history, is writing his Gospel to confirm his faith that John’s ministry in the desert was continued and fulfilled by Jesus and his works.
It was this service performed by Jesus in Galilee, this body of teaching of which Matthew had become the Kingdom-of-God scribe, that would assist all those who came to belief in Israel’s Messiah, who had come to trust that His work was completed in Jerusalem despite his betrayal, trial, the denial of his closest disciples, and death. That work with the stamp of approval from God raising him from the grave, completed and retained its meaningful character for the proclamation of forgiveness of sins in the Kingdom of Heaven – this is what Jesus’ resurrection and ascension announces. The disciples of Galilee needed to hear this Good News, they needed to hear again that the Kingdom of God had truly come and has been made known in their midst by the Person elected by God the Father to be their King.
And indeed Matthew is suggesting this is truly Good News directly for tax-collectors and tax-payers, for those employed in collecting taxes for Caesar or for that matter in any other lawful authority. This is because the Kingdom of God is a regime that not only invites and requires one’s opened-up civil and political efforts to proclaim, advocate and implement public justice, but can be utterly relied upon for every detail of one’s life, not just for the accountant’s office, or the bank ledger, or the tax office records, but of blessing to your household, your marriage, your children, your neighbourhood, school, hospital, marketplace … your taxes are due for the administration of your transport, rubbish collection, water supply, public health, security. Your love for God is called for because the God and Father of Jesus Christ who makes all this, and more, available, is your Maker, your Ruler, your King. These too are the avenues of his love to you and all the world.
Those who, upon hearing this “old, old story”, want so much to believe it because the story brings to mind how much they have stuffed up their lives and the lives of others. They have so often broken their own strict standards of conduct and become hypocrites in their own eyes, let alone anyone else’s. They feel guilty, “unclean”, in need of being put right, their lives straightened out. They know all too well that they can pretend to believe to show off their piety. These are those who, when it comes down to it, simply want to believe. To them Matthew’s Gospel seems to be saying, and also to us in the 21st century, something like the following:
Well don’t try to work out all that happened in Jerusalem, as if a full historical record is what you need. I have recounted that in the latter portions of my Gospel; and you can’t deepen your understanding by ignoring these accounts, brief though they be. But, faith in God, as Jesus taught it, is not some kind of self-imposed self-hypnosis – instead take what I have written there and look again at what is recorded of what Jesus taught from the outset, from John the Baptist, and get a sense of how he was alert to what the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms were saying about the Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 42 and Matthew 12:18-21) and the impending treatment that would be meted out to him.
Matthew’s Gospel, like that of Mark, and in contrast with Luke and John, seems to end so abruptly. But if we read Matthew’s account from the outset we may then get that sense that he is trying to suggest to us that the way to deal with this “religious conundrum” is to work backwards as it were from where you are now. For the Galileans who were still caught up with Jesus’ parables, poetry and teaching – the Sermon on the Mount in particular – it meant being instructed about how God’s purposes were fulfilled in what transpired when Jesus “went up” to Jerusalem. He had taught his disciples to help them understand his works, the works his Father was pleased to take and complete.
If we go to Matthew’s Gospel seeking to appreciate how the Christian Church was inaugurated by the fulfilment of the coming of the Spirit with wind and fire at Pentecost, we will note what John the Baptist proclaimed prior to Jesus’ baptism, and what Jesus said about the disciplined waiting of the apostles to receive the new life he had made available (Acts 1:4-5 and Matthew 3:11-17). Pentecost thus needs to be appreciated in terms of the apostles’ teaching of Jesus ascension to God’s right hand; and if with Jesus’ ascension to God’s right hand then we need to confront Jesus’ resurrection; and if with his resurrection then with his crucifixion; and if with his crucifixion then with his trial; and if with his trial, then how he was left on his own; and if his being left on his own then by his betrayal; and if by his betrayal by what he had continued to teach in the temple infuriating those who believed they owned Israel’s bequest of “religious capital”; and then by his teaching, the teaching he had first enunciated and developed when he began his ministry in Galilee after John was arrested. This is the literary flow that can be detected in the Gospel of Matthew, presumably Matthew the tax-collector, the follower of Jesus who came to see tax-collection as meaningful public action in the Kingdom of God.