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Matthew's focus on Jesus' words

Matthew's focus on Jesus' words

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The final author of ‘Matthew's’ Gospel was, in all likelihood, a hellenised Christian scribe in Antioch. Following scholarly convention, we will simply refer to the Gospel’s author as ‘Matthew’.

Matthew composed his Gospel around five sermons of Jesus. This by itself shows how important Jesus’ teaching is in Matthew’s eyes. (See the composition of Matthew’s Gospel)

It is striking that he has not many passages of his own dealing with events of Jesus’ life, but that he did preserve fourteen of Jesus’ parables and six instructions which we do not find in the other Gospels. (See Matthew’s proper passages) All this proves one thing: Matthew was more interested in Jesus’ teaching than in the details of Jesus’ life.

In his Gospel, Matthew gave the first place to Jesus’ sayings. He used the narrative sections mainly as the setting for these sayings. That is why Papias could say that Matthew made a collections of Jesus’ words (see Tradition of Matthew’s authorship).

Now it is of the greatest importance to recognize Matthew’s interest in Jesus’ words; otherwise we might misunderstand his purpose.

Let us take one example: did Jesus really speak all these beautiful sayings in Mt 5-7 on one occasion? The answer is: No. Matthew has collected many sayings of Jesus Christ, which Jesus must have spoken on different occasions, and put them in one sermon: the Sermon on the Mount. The teaching is truly Jesus’ teaching, but the "setting" and the “putting them all together”was done by Matthew. It is as if Matthew has condensed many sermons on sanctity spoken by Christ into the one Sermon on the Mount.

This is nothing extraordinary: we do the same today by collecting various statements of famous authors in one book, even though they were made on different occasions. In the same way we collect ’select poems’ of great writers, ’letters’ of politicians and ‘speeches’ of leaders. The Sermon on the Mount is such a collection of select sayings of Jesus.

Matthew’s special interest in Jesus’ sayings also led to another characteristic trait of his writing. Whenever he narrates events, he trends to abbreviate them. See how Matthew and Mark report the same event.

Matthew 9: 1-8 Mark 2: 1-12
Jesus got into the boat, went back across the lake, and came to his own town. A few days later Jesus came back to Capharnaum, and the news spread that he was at home.
Some people brought him a paralyzed man lying on a bed. So many people came together that there wasn’t any room left, not even out in front of the door. Jesus was preaching the message to them, when some people came bringing him a paralyzed man - four of them were carrying him. Because of the crowd, however, they could not get him to Jesus. So they made a hole in the roof right above the place where Jesus was. When they had made an opening, they let the man down, lying on his mat.
Jesus saw how much faith they had, and said to the paralyzed man: "Courage, my Son; your sins are forgiven!" Jesus saw how much faith they had, and said to the paralyzed man: "My son, your sins are forgiven!
Then some teachers of the Law said to themselves: “This man is talking against God!” “ Some teachers of the law who were sitting there thought to themselves: How does he dare to talk against God like this? No man can forgive sins; only God can!”
Jesus knew what they were thinking and said: “Why are you thinking such evil things? Is it easier to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Get up and walk’? I will prove to you then that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins’. At once Jesus knew their secret thoughts, so he said to them:“Why do you think such things? Is it easier to say to this paralyzed man: ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your mat and walk’? I will prove to you then that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”.
So he said to the paralyzed man. “Get up, pick up your bed, and go home!” So he said to the paralyzed man:“I tell you, get up, pick up your mat and go home!”
The man got up and went home. While they all watched, the man got up, picked up his mat and hurried away.

Many details of the story are purposely omitted by Matthew. He doesn’t tell us about the great rush to hear Jesus’ preaching; he does not say that the paralyzed man was carried by four friends; he does not even mention the extraordinary way in which they bring the paralyzed man to Jesus’ feet. Matthew makes the story as short as possible. His real interest does not lie in the first part of the narrative which recounts the circumstances, but in Jesus’ words.

Jesus’ words are not abbreviated. For Jesus’ words are the important thing for Matthew.

Other outstanding examples of Matthew’s tendency to shorten narration are the following passages:

exorcising the Gerasenes Mt 8:24-34 Mk 5:1-20
raising Jairus’ daughter Mt 9:18-26 Mk 5:21-43
John the Baptist’s death Mt 14: 1-12 Mk 6:14-29
the cure of the epileptic Mt 17:14-21 Mk 9:13-28
the question of the law Mt 22:34-40 Mk 12:28-34
preparing the last Supper Mt 26: 17-20 Mk 14: 12-17

Matthew’s Gospel presents us with a comprehensive ‘scheme’ of Jesus’ life: from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection. But throughout the Gospel we should remember to pay special attention to Jesus as the greatest teacher of humankind. For this is what Matthew, under inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wants to stress in his Gospel edition.

John Wijngaards

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