Thomas D. Stegman SJ
In this first of a five-part series on what the New Testament teaches about faith, Thomas D. Stegman, SJ – associate professor of New Testament at Boston College School of Theology and ministry – sets forth Matthew’s distinctive understanding.
Pope Benedict XVI’s declaration of a ‘Year of Faith’ includes the invitation to Catholics to examine and reflect on the documents of Vatican II and on the Church’s Catechism. Another source for study and reflection on faith is Sacred Scripture, especially the revelation of God’s love through Jesus Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit as recounted in the New Testament. While it is possible to paint in broad brush strokes what the New Testament as a whole teaches about faith, there are advantages to paying close attention to distinctive features in the various writings. This series focuses on the five major witnesses of the New Testament: the evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, as well as the apostle Paul. The intent is to highlight particular emphases found in the texts rather than to offer an exhaustive treatment.
We start with the first writing in the New Testament canon, the gospel of Matthew. According to Matthew, faith involves righteousness, discipleship, community, and compassion for the ‘least ones.’
The theme of righteousness is prominent in Matthew’s gospel. When John the Baptist hesitates to baptise Jesus, the latter exhorts him to do so ‘for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness’ (3.15). Near the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls blessed those ‘who hunger and thirst for righteousness’ (5.6), and then calls blessed those ‘who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness’ (5.10). A few verses later, Jesus teaches his followers that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (5.20). As the Sermon continues, Jesus exhorts, ‘seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness’ (6.33).
‘Righteousness,’ for Matthew, means living in accord with God’s will. He draws on Jewish covenant theology, whereby righteousness entails being in right relationship with God (the vertical axis of covenant relationship) and with other people (the horizontal axis). Faith thus involves, first and foremost, attending to the ways of God as members of his people. And in Matthew’s gospel, the ways of God are taught by Jesus, particularly in the aforementioned Sermon on the Mount (5.1–7.29). This Sermon opens with the eight Beatitudes, and it is no accident that the first one – ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (5.3) – refers to the blessedness of realising the truth of one’s being before God. That is, those who are poor in spirit recognise that they stand before God with open hands, as recipients of his abundant blessings. All they have and possess, their very life breath, comes from God. Authentic appropriation of this truth results in increased gratitude and praise to God, as well as in the growing inspiration and desire to share one’s blessings with others. Notice how this first beatitude thereby attends to the vertical and horizontal dimensions of covenant relationship, that is, of righteousness.
In fact, the beatitudes set forth the fundamental attitudes, values, and dispositions that lie at the core faith. The Matthean Jesus calls ‘the clean of heart’ blessed (5.8) because they are the ones who have a single-minded devotion to God, a devotion that impels them to love and serve God as Father at all times (22.37–38). Such devotion leads to integrity of heart that manifests itself in a strong commitment to work for justice (5.4) and peace (5.9). Having opened their hearts to God’s love and mercy, they are able to look at and treat others with mercy (5.7). Single-minded devotion to God ultimately enables people to conduct themselves like their heavenly Father, who sends the sun to shine on the good and the bad, and pours rain on the just and the unjust (5.45). In other words, faithfulness to God means expanding the circle of the recipients of their love and care – again, note both dimensions of covenantal righteousness.
Matthew recognises that growth in righteousness does not happen easily or quickly. It is necessary to practice the ways of faith. Thus he advocates the traditional Jewish practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (6.1–18). Prayer inculcates single-minded devotion and love for God. It is an essential means for offering praise to God and for seeking what is needed to commit to enacting his will. Fasting instills the truth that the deepest human longings can only be filled by God, and expunges the toxins that result from vain attempts to find other means of fulfillment. It also catalyzes ‘hunger’ for righteousness (5.6). Almsgiving directs people outward to respond in love and compassion to others, especially in their need. Practicing the traditional acts of piety is necessary to begin to realize one of Jesus’ most challenging exhortations: to grow in perfection after the likeness of God the Father (5.48). Indeed, it is no stretch to say that, when it comes to growing in faith that enacts righteousness, for Matthew ‘practice makes perfect.’
As is the case with the other gospels, for Matthew faith is intricately connected to the life of discipleship, and the basic demand of discipleship is to heed Jesus’ command, ‘Follow me’ (e.g., 4.19; 9.9). Matthew’s unique contribution to the issue of discipleship is the importance he attaches to Jesus’ disciples being good learners. In fact, the word for ‘disciple,’ mathe–te–s, denotes ‘one who learns through the instruction of another.’ In the Matthean version of the explanation of the Parable of the Sower, Jesus teaches that ‘the seed sown on rich soil is the one who hears the word and understands it’ (13.23). At the end of the parables discourse, Jesus asks the disciples whether they have understood what he taught. When they respond ‘yes,’ Jesus compares the ideal disciple – whom he describes as ‘instructed (mathe–teutheis) in the kingdom of heaven’ – to the head of a household who brings from his treasure both the new and the old (13.51–52).
So what, precisely, are Jesus’ disciples to learn? We noted above that Jesus teaches the ways of God. More specifically, Matthew presents him as one who did not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets but to fulfill them (5.17). Jesus does so, in part, as the definitive teacher of Torah who reveals the fullest meaning of the Law and the Prophets (and thereby illustrates what bringing forth ‘the new and old’ means). As God’s Son, he teaches a greater righteousness (5.20) because he calls for a more radical obedience to God and to his will for humanity. An illustration of Jesus’ authoritative teaching is 5.21–48, where he ‘radicalizes’ (in the sense of getting at the root) Torah in three ways. First, he focuses on the interior condition that will bear fruit in proper actions and behaviour; thus he warns against the dangers of giving rein to anger and lust. Second, Jesus demands absolute adherence to fidelity in relationships and commitment to truth telling; thus he condemns the pursuit of ‘loopholes’ that mitigate such fidelity and commitment. Third, he calls for heroic non-retaliation and love for enemies; thus he teaches a magnanimity that goes beyond any prior known code of conduct.
Following the way of discipleship as a learner of Jesus’ ‘Torah’ is not easy – either in understanding it or in heeding it. It is little wonder that he acknowledges that the way of faith that leads to life is ‘narrow’ and ‘hard’ to enter (7.13–14). Nevertheless, Jesus also teaches, ‘with God all things are possible’ (19.26). And the parables – another ‘curriculum’ the disciples must learn – offer grounds for hope. (Matthew contains 17 parables, ten of which are found only in his gospel.) For example, Jesus teaches that when his way, the way of the kingdom, is received with open minds and hearts, the blessings and growth that follow are superabundant (13.8; 13.31–33). Jesus’ parables reveal, among other things, that God’s merciful compassion and generous love are beyond human expectation and calculation (18.23–27; 20:1–16).
A major reason why Matthew emphasizes the importance of learning Jesus’ ‘Torah’ for the life of faith becomes apparent at the end of the gospel. There the risen Jesus commissions his followers to ‘make disciples (mathe–teusate, from the same verb in 13.51) of all nations’ (28.19). This involves not only baptising but also ‘teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you’ (28.20). The learners must, in turn, become teachers of Jesus’ ‘Torah,’ the way of faith. To be sure, the Magisterium, the official teaching office of the Church, has a special role to play in carrying out Jesus’ commission. But the most eloquent means for teaching others about Jesus’ ways is to embody his ‘Torah’ within the concrete circumstances and exigencies of life. In this manner, all of Jesus’ followers are called to be teachers, witnesses to the way of life-giving faith he taught. It is not without reason that, earlier in the gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to be ‘the salt of the earth’ (5.13) and ‘the light of the world’ (5.14).
Another particular emphasis for Matthew vis-à-vis faith is the role played by the ekkle–sia (‘church’). His is the only gospel in which this term is found (16.18; 18.17). It is as members of the ekkle–sia that people’s faith is nurtured, developed, and lived. Moreover, it is as ekkle–sia – that is, as the community of faith – that ‘the light of the world’ shines most brightly. Matthew’s covenant theology is once again evident, as God calls into being a people qua community to show forth his holiness (cf. Lev 19.2). Jesus begins his discourse on life in the ekkle–sia (18.1–35) with a call to greatness. According to Jesus, true greatness entails, paradoxically, becoming like children – growing in humility, in reliance on God, and in mutual loving service of one another (18.1–5). The members of the community of faith are to have a particular care and concern for the mikroi (‘little ones’), the most vulnerable and marginalised members of society (18.10–14). And because the call to grow in holiness, to be ‘light’ for others, is so crucial, the ekkle–sia is to be the place where fraternal correction is taken seriously (18.15–20).
In the context of instructing what to do with a wayward brother or sister, Jesus teaches that the ekkle–sia has been given the authority ‘to bind and to loose’ (18.18), the same prerogative bestowed on Peter, the ‘rock’ (petra) on which the Church is built, when he received the ‘keys of the kingdom’ (16.19). For Matthew, the fundamental meaning of ‘binding and loosing’ is the authority to faithfully interpret and enact Jesus’ ‘Torah,’ the way of faith referred to in the previous section. Because Jesus’ way is truly life-giving and burden-lifting (11.28–30), the community of faith constantly recalls his teaching that what God desires first and foremost from his people is mercy, not sacrifice (9.13; 12.7; cf. Hos 6.6). The ekkle–sia is to be the place where mercy and forgiveness are practiced. Extending mercy and mutual forgiveness to one another is imperative because all the members of the community of faith are the beneficiaries of God’s healing and reconciling love (18.21–35). Practicing mercy (5.7) toward others authentically manifests the appropriation of God’s mercy (18.32–33). As Jesus says near the end of the Sermon on the Mount, one can discern the quality of the tree by the fruit it bears (7.17–20).
One of the images Matthew employs for the ekkle–sia is the boat tossed about in the stormy sea (8.23–27; 14.22–33). While the challenge of following Jesus’ ‘Torah’ is difficult enough in its own right, the community of faith must also make its way through the midst of external forces that constantly threaten it (aggressive anti-religious forces, rampant materialism, cynicism and helplessness in the face of systemic political and economic complexities, etc.). The ekkle–sia perseveres, dependent on the efficacy of Jesus’ promise to Peter that ‘the powers of death’ will not prevail against it (16.18). The vignette involving Peter trying to walk on the water is instructive for the life of faith. He succeeds as long as he keeps his eyes fixed on Jesus and relies on Jesus’ power (14.28–32), no matter how strong the winds and engulfing the waves.
The scene of Peter on the water raises a pertinent question regarding faith: how can the community of believers keep their eyes on Jesus when he is no longer present (at least as he was in his life and ministry). Matthew’s gospel insists that Jesus is Emmanuel, ‘God-with-us.’ This was revealed to Joseph after Mary’s conception, as Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of the Isaian prophecy (1.23; Isa 7.14). Moreover, at the end of the gospel, the risen Jesus assures his disciples, ‘Behold, I am with you all days, until the close of the ages’ (28.20). But how is he present? One way is in the community of faith, especially when its members gather together in Jesus’ name for prayer (18.20). Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, Sacrosanctum
Concilium, lists four ways or modalities in which Jesus is present at the Eucharistic celebration: in the person of the minister, in the Eucharistic sacrament, in the proclaimed Word, and in the praying community (SC, 7). In connection with the latter, the document cites Matthew 18.20. An important implication is that the members of the ekkle–sia are to recognise and serve the presence of Jesus in one another.
Matthew offers another way in which Jesus is present among us. In his final discourse, where he discusses ‘the last things’ and how people should live in the present (24.1–25.46), Jesus offers a series of teachings and parables. The climactic parable, unique to Matthew’s gospel, reveals what will take place when Jesus comes in glory for the final judgment (25.31–46). People will be judged on the basis of their response to and compassionate care for those most in need – the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. But observe in this connection that Jesus does not speak in the third person; rather, he says, ‘I was hungry ... I was thirsty ... .’ That is, Jesus identifies himself with the most vulnerable, forlorn, and despised. Emmanuel is found in them. His face is revealed in theirs. And the basis of final judgment – that is, the adjudication of one’s life of faith – is whether or not one will have recognised and served Jesus by giving welcome, nourishment, clothing, and comfort to those with whom he so closely identifies. The Matthean Jesus thereby clarifies that the life of faith must ultimately bear fruit in loving service of ‘the least ones’ who are Jesus’ dear brothers and sisters. Matthew’s covenant theology is again evident, just as the litmus test for Israel’s fidelity to God was her care for the widows, orphans, and resident aliens (e.g., Deut 24.17).
The gospel of Matthew contains much material for prayerful study and reflection in this ‘Year of Faith.’ Matthew’s vision of the life of faith, influenced as it is by covenant fidelity, calls for living in right relationship with God and with others, learning and embodying Jesus’ ‘Torah’ as a community of faith, and recognising and serving Emmanuel in the ‘least ones.’ In doing so, the ekkle–sia becomes the true ‘light of the world.’