At 4 PM Eastern Standard Time this coming Saturday, November 26, the Roman Catholic Church opens the new Church Year with the Vigil Mass of the First Sunday of Advent [or, in monasteries and abbeys, with First Vespers or Evening Prayer to begin the next day’s—Sunday’s--solemnity of the First Sunday of Advent. The beginning of the new Church year this weekend immerses us in the Gospel of St. Matthew, the “official Gospel” for the Liturgical year of 2023. With a few exceptions, all the Saturday night/Sunday Masses for the next year will feature the proclamation of the Gospel of Matthew. Which raises the question: who is Saint Matthew, what is his “message,’ and how is he different from the other three Gospels of the Church?
Over the last decade I have made it a habit to purchase a new English text and commentary on the “Gospel of the Year” as defined in the Roman Missal and calendar. The Church rotates between Matthew [Year A], Mark [Year B], and Luke [Year C, which we are finishing this week before Saturday]. St. John’s Gospel, which has a unique layout different from the other three, is used for special feasts such as Holy Thursday and Good Friday.] This year I selected R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew from the series “The New International Commentary on the New Testament,” a series with a long association with Eerdmans Publishers. My selection by R.T. France is rated in the top 1% of all books marketed by Amazon, and #75 of all published biblical commentaries as of this writing.
My St. Matthew Commentary from Dr. France runs to 1223 pages—and I say this not to impress you or frighten you off from Bible study—but simply to illustrate how much there is to know about Jesus and to destroy any illusion that we all know him intimately. I jumped the gun a bit and started my St. Matthew commentary last week. My wife Margaret, who holds an Ivy League doctorate, is a voracious reader and no intellectual slouch, looked at the book on my lap and exclaimed, “You’re not going to read the whole thing, are you?” To which I sarcastically replied, “Well, not before supper.” I explained that I was reading and reflecting upon a few pages of commentary a day—by my math, about five pages a day should get me through the year. It takes me an hour or thereabouts to do that, depending on my meditation on the text. In three years, I will research and find another text on Matthew, either a newer one with more recent scholarship or an ancient one from the Church Fathers. When can one say you have learned everything to know about Jesus, which is the healthy attitude of your local Protestant church which holds “Sunday Bible School” and Wednesday night study religiously and without end.
What do we know about the origins of the Gospel of St. Matthew?
For much of the Church’s history it was believed that Matthew’s Gospel was the first Gospel, both chronologically and theologically. In fact, it was long called “The Gospel of the Church.” In many older churches you can still see stained glass windows portraying St. Matthew pouring over his desk with an angel whispering into his ear. Matthew was long identified with the tax collector Levi in both the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and thus an eyewitness to the words and deeds of Jesus.
However, around 1800, Protestant scholars in the modern era began to study the scriptures using historical method; in 1943 Pope Pius XII approved of Catholic biblical scholars working with their Protestant confreres and using their methodologies. By the mid-twentieth century the general hypothesis held that only one Gospel was written before 70 A.D., the year the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. That Gospel was Mark, the shortest. Generally, it is agreed that the Gospels after Mark, including Matthew’s, used several sources;  the material in Mark’s Gospel itself;  a “Q source” of independent sayings and narratives of Jesus available to Matthew and Luke, but not to Mark; and  the Holy Spirit’s unique inspiration of each Gospel writer which—taken together--form the official Church canon or collection of what can be known of Jesus Christ, and what we are required to believe.
The dating of this Gospel is generally given in the 80’s A.D., very close to the composition of St. Luke’s Gospel. St. John’s Gospel is dated even later, closer to 100 A.D. St. Mark, as noted above, was probably written before the fall of Jerusalem, based on careful analysis of the text, possibly around 65 A.D. The earliest book of the New Testament, Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, goes back as far as 50 A.D. The late dating of St. Matthew’s Gospel makes it unlikely that the author is the same person as the Levi in the Gospel.
It is likely that this Gospel was written in Syria or Palestine, locations where Christians and Jews lived in proximity.
What inspired St. Matthew to write this Gospel?
Given that Jesus himself lived and died as a Jew, that his apostles were Jews, that the earliest apostolic sermons were addressed to fellow Jews to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah, and that the earliest Christians understood themselves to be faithful Jews who worshipped in the Temple and celebrated Eucharist, St. Matthew felt compelled to compose a sweeping description of God’s plan for the Jews—and ultimately for all humanity--in the light of the life and death of Jesus. The evangelist describes Jesus as the “New Moses” who has “not come to destroy the Law but to bring it to completion.” Consequently St. Matthew’s story of the Christ is the unfolding of the full Hebrew Scripture fulfillment in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. There are close to one hundred allusions to the Old Testament or specific mentions of “in fulfillment of the Scriptures” in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus is portrayed in this Gospel as “the new Moses,” a theme which continues throughout the text. Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy of Jesus which begins with Abraham and proceeds to Joseph, the husband of Mary. Matthew’s Christmas narrative is a smorgasbord of Hebrew imagery centered around Moses and Jesus. Possibly the most dramatic portrayal of Jesus in the Mosaic role is St. Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount,” the bridge between the legal tradition of the Old Law and the New Law of the coming reign of the Father. Jesus did not eliminate the Ten Commandments, but he put forward of new ethic of God’s deliverance, the Eight Beatitudes, followed by three chapters depicting a new way of life in God’s era of salvation.
The moral teaching of Jesus in this Gospel is a radical departure from an ethic of simple observance. No living person can ever claim that “I loved enough” or “forgave enough” or “cared enough” in the lifestyle Jesus puts forward in this Gospel. As the late theologian Hans Kung observed, “Christianity is the only religion in the world that calls its members to be perfect as God is perfect.”
A proclamation such as this from Jesus, even given in perfect love, is an indictment of the religious and political status quo. Many of Jesus’ Jewish listeners—and certainly all the Jewish Temple leadership—heard this preaching as dangerously subversive. [In my private moments, I think many Catholics would find St. Matthew dangerously subversive—if they troubled themselves to study him.] St. Matthew’s Gospel reflects a time when Christians—particularly Jewish converts to Jesus—were feeling betrayal at being shunned and even persecuted by Jews who did not accept Jesus. Devout Jews, on the other hand, saw Christianity as blasphemous—the idea that the omnipotent God whose name they would not even utter out of devotion was put to death in hideous disfigurement on the cross was a bridge too far for many. We know from the Acts of the Apostles of the martyrdoms of the deacon Stephen and James, Bishop of Jerusalem within a generation of Jesus’ death.
This situation led through the centuries and even today to a sad antisemitism based upon certain texts in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Christians felt free to persecute Jews for the crime of deicide or “killing God.” Only Matthew quotes the infamous cries of a Jewish mob before Pontius Pilate: “Let his blood be upon us and upon our children.” [Matthew 27:25] In 1964 Vatican II formally rejected a literal interpretation of Matthew’s text in Chapter 27.
It is to your advantage not to go it alone.
When you read the Gospel of Matthew—or any text from the Bible—you are reading literature between two and three thousand years old, originating from a distant culture, translated countless times through history, and, in the case of Catholicism, interpreted without interruption since the days of Pentecost. Pope Francis has drawn new insights from the Scriptures, for example, in his major encyclicals.
To best encounter the inner meaning of Scripture, read with assistance. In the best of all worlds, take a refresher course on the Gospels if it is offered in your parish or diocese by a priest, deacon, or teacher certified by your local bishop. If you live near a Catholic college or university, call the religious education or theology office to see what the school offers for interested lay Catholics. [If they say “nothing,” write to the president of the college. Catholic schools are supposed to serve as leaven in their communities.]
A word about Bible study groups—they are as useful as the theological qualifications of the person leading them and the program employed. As one of my professors used to say, avoid any group that is “a pooling of ignorance.”
If you are looking for an on-line study guide to Saint Matthew’s Gospel, check with your parish’s religious education or faith formation officer for advice. The internet is strewn with litter, and it is very easy to get snared in a website or YouTube project which is little more than fantasy or heresy. One of my diocesan students was almost cheated out of $400 by a catechetical impostor on-line. There are so many pop-ups pseudo-Catholic education sites that the American bishops have given up attempting to monitor them.
Of course, you will want a Bible. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops lists those approved for Catholic private and public use. I recommend the New American Bible as this is the text used by the U.S. Bishops’ site and public worship, particularly at Mass. I recommend you buy a paperback edition, so that you can liberally use your pen [or in my case, markers] to make notes. Don’t use the family heirloom, LOL.
However, if you buy a good commentary to help you, the Gospel text should be included. I got burned just once in my life. I bought a pricey text to study St. Mark’s Gospel, and while it contained a great deal of explanatory material, I had to use a separate Bible along with it. The good news here is that there are several good Catholic publishers who produce Bible study guides, including Paulist Press and Liturgical Press.
I will suggest three commentaries from my own library but check with your parish to see if it has other suggestions for reading the Gospel of Matthew. For beginners, there is The Gospel According to Matthew  by Barbara Reid. For the intermediate reader, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew  by Daniel Harrington, SJ. For the professional reader, The Gospel of Matthew (The New International Commentary on the New Testament)  by R.T. France cited above is captivating; I am tackling it this year…or it is tackling me! Those of you who have had success with other commentaries on St. Matthew, please message me and I will add them to the list.
I should add here that good theology books, like quality anything, are not cheap. When you visit publishers’ sites to find quality works, you might gulp at the listed price. But consider three things:  If you purchase from the publisher a pricey work like R.T. France’s The Gospel of Matthew, which I am reading now, you will keep it for many years on your working bookshelf. That’s what I always remind my wife.  You can often find a better price at other sites such as Amazon, which will network you to used book dealers around the country, usually at significant savings. France’s commentary, currently $73.00, is available on Amazon Prime for $49.00 with the free overnight shipping as of this morning.  If you are employed by the church, see if you can get a continuation allowance for your purchases; or, talk to your tax consultant about using your purchases as a deduction.
We have a great year ahead of us, probing one of the most majestic pieces of inspired literature. May the Holy Spirit be with you.