Matthew

The apostle Matthew was a tax collector, and one of the Gospels bears his name. Like Mark's, the book was written anonymously and the name attached to it later. Maybe it contains some of Matthew's recollections buried in it somewhere. Maybe not. In any case, it's the man who wrote it who's of chief interesthere, and all we know about him is what his book tells us. He didn't write it from scratch, but included virtually all of Mark in it plus a collection of the sayings of Jesus that seems to have been floating around plus some other material peculiar to him. It's what he did with it all that tells the kind of man he was.

What he did with it especially was to show that if, on the one hand, faith in Jesus was as new as a newborn babe, on the other hand, it was as old as the hills. As very likely a Jew himself, Matthew knew his Torah, and according to him Jesus was what the Torah was all about, whether anybody knew it or not. Much of his life was foretold there, Matthew keeps saying, and he loved to give examples. "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel," the prophet Isaiah had said, and Matthew nailed his idea that Mary was a virgin to that (Matthew 1:23). Jesus was born at Bethlehem, and that's just where the prophet Micah had said he'd be born (2:6). Hosea was the one who predicted the flight into Egypt when Jesus was still on his mother's knee (2:15), and it was Zechariah who said he'd come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey like a king great in his humbleness and humble in his greatness (21:5). But things like this were mere window dressing compared with the main thing Matthew wanted to say.

The main thing he wanted to say was that, although Jesus was born in the sticks and never had two cents to rub together and was ignored by just about everybody who mattered and was strung up in the end between two crooks, he was the same Messiah, the same Christ, the same Anointed of the Lord, that for centuries Israel had been waiting for with tears in its eyes. Everything Matthew wrote was aimed at convincing people that this was so and that to accept it was to find eternal life and that to deny it was to be like the Pharisees to whom Jesus said, "Woe to you . . . sons of those who murdered the prophets . . . you serpents, you brood of vipers, how areyou to escape being sentenced to hell?" (23:29-33). Nobody loved the Jews more than Matthew did, writing till he was blue in the face so they would believe and be saved, but nobody was harder on them either. It was Matthew who added to Mark's account the terrible words they spoke when Pilate washed his hands of the whole grim business: "His blood be on us and on our children" (27:25).

Jesus was the Messiah, Matthew said, and he was also a second Moses, giving his Sermon on the Mount just as Moses had brought the tablets down from Mt. Sinai, but taking the fierce old stone and making pure gold of it. "You have heard that it was said 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,' but I say to you, do not resist one who is evil" (5:38-39). "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbors and hate your enemies,' but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (5:43-44). As Matthew saw it, Jesus came not to drown the old law out, as the Jews supposed, but to make it sing anew, like an angel.

It worried him a little the way in Mark's Gospel the Son of God sometimes sounds so much like anybody's son, and he did what he could to make him sound more godly. Where Mark wrote that when Jesus healed the leper, he was "moved with pity" (Mark 1:41), Matthew leaves out the pity and says he just healed him. When Mark says he looked at the people who objected to miracles on the Sabbath "with anger, grieved at their hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5), Matthew leaves that out too. He won't let him "sigh deeply" when they ask him for a sign (Mark 8:12), and Mark's "he could do no mighty work" in his own hometown (Mark 6:5) becomes just "he did not" do any in Matthew (13:58). "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone," Jesus says in Mark to the man who greets him that way (Mark 10:18), and Matthew tinkers with it till it reads, "Why do you ask me about what is good?" (19:17). You can't blame him for tinkering really. He can't help retouching thephotograph when he loves its subject so-making the warts a little less wartlike, the miracles a little more miraculous-and in the end he lets him at least die like a man as well as like a God with the same dark cry that Mark reports-"My God, my God, why have you let me down?" (27:46).

Mark ends his Gospel with the women tearing out of the empty tomb in terror. Things were happening beyond their power to cope with, "and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid" (Mark 16:8). But in Matthew the angel tells them not to be. "Don't be afraid," he says (28:5). There was no reason to be afraid, Matthew says. It was all set down right there in the Torah if you just knew how to read it right. Hadn't Isaiah written, "He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets; he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick"? (12:19-20). Such a man as that, so gentle and kind, was bound to come to such an end. There was no need to be afraid. And yet wasn't it written also, "The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region of the shadow of death, light has dawned" (4:16)? Dawned for the gentle man himself, and for the frightened women, and dawned for everyone else too who would only hear and believe.

The women took the angel's word to heart apparently because, though "they departed quickly from the tomb with fear," Matthew says, they departed also with "great joy" and ran to tell the disciples what had happened because they couldn't hold it in any longer (28:8). And just in case there should be any question as to what their great joy was all about, Matthew ends his Gospel with words that explain it. "Lo, I am with you always," Jesus says, "even unto the end of the world" (28:20), and for once Matthew felt that no Old Testament reference was necessary.

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words