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The Gospel of St. Matthew: The Unity of the Life of Jesus | Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis | From the Introduction to Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word (Vol. II): Meditations on the Gospel According to St. Matthew

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The Gospel according to St. Matthew is not a text simply stringing together haphazard events and occasions that present Jesus teaching valuable and true things. Beyond this, the Gospel text portrays the unity of Jesus' whole life. Very likely the earliest nucleus of the Gospel text is what is now its conclusion, that is, the narrative of Jesus' Passion, death, and Resurrection, which narrative no doubt constituted the heart and substance of the primitive oral kerygma, or "proclamation" of the faith by the apostles and their successors. Everything else in the Gospel text came later, composed to show how everything in Jesus' life and teaching eventually had to lead to his atoning death out of love.

In Matthew's Gospel we see how, against all obstacles and opposition, Jesus moves with a sovereign sweep from the promises of God in the Old Testament, fulfilling them in his Incarnation as Messiah, to his identity as a man who does divine things and speaks divine words (parables, miracles, encounters, discourses), to the culmination of the story in his Passion, death, and Resurrection, and, finally, to the conclusion of the story in Jesus commissioning the apostles to do what they have seen him do and teach what they have seen him teach. In the end, they are to become what they have seen him be.

Thus, the main message of Matthew's Gospel is that we are not saved by detached "doctrines" or "truths", but by the whole life of this man, Jesus of Nazareth, in all its fullness and unity. All Christian theology is but a systematic reflection on this life, on everything it reveals about God and us and on everything this revelation implies for our own future life and behavior.

In the Gospel, Jesus Christ the person and his action in our lives have absolute primacy over anyone's teaching about Jesus Christ.

A comparison of the very beginning of the text with its very end may serve to detail the overarching unity of Matthew's Gospel and its fundamental message. At 1:23 Matthew inserts a quotation from the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14): "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (a name which means 'God with us')." If we then turn to the last sentence in Matthew, we read: "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (28:20). Now, these are words that only an incarnate God can speak with truth, and we suddenly realize that everything between these two quotations-the promise and its everlasting fulfillment--is meant by Matthew to represent an unfolding of what it means for "God to be with us" in the person of Jesus. Between these two passages there are five major sections of the Gospel, perhaps symbolic of the five books of the Pentateuch that constitute the Torah. Matthew's Gospel, thus, through its symbolic structure, is apparently claiming to contain God's definitive words and deeds, which fulfill and surpass the Torah but only through the presence and action of Jesus, the living Word made flesh: "It was said to you .... But I say to you" (cf. Mt 5:21-22, 27-28, 31-34, 38-39, 43-44).

Many other such layers of deliberate structuring may be discovered in Matthew's Gospel. It is possible to describe its total design as follows: The text consists of a body in five major segments, preceded by an introduction (Jesus' genealogy and infancy, 1:1-2:23) and culminating in the heart of the Gospel-the Passion, death, and Resurrection narrative (26:1-28:20). Each of the five central sections (3:1-7:29; 8:1-10:42; 11:1-13:52 13:53-18:35; and 19:1-25:46) may in turn be subdivided into a "narrative" and a "discourse" component (see tabulation on page 329), and it is possible to detect a correspondence between the events of the narrative and the theme of the discourse that follows it. And each of these five sections concludes with a formula such as "And when Jesus finished these sayings" (7:28).

There may well be an important theological point being made here through this structural arrangement, namely, that the Gospel is first and foremost about the interactive encounter between Jesus and humanity, portrayed in a narrative. All subsequent words of teaching and instruction, even those coming from Jesus himself, are but a persuasive reflection that seeks to delve more deeply into that primordial encounter in order to help the reader make it his own.

For instance, in the fourth central section (13:53-17:27) we read in the narrative portion about the feeding of the five thousand, then of the four thousand, about Peter's confession and his commission, and about the Transfiguration. Clearly, these are all events that portray different aspects of "church"--how Jesus fashions a community of believers out of the random scattering of humanity. What then follows in the discourse portion of section four is a formal exhortation sometimes called the "Sermon on the Church" (18:1-35), which deals with the qualifications for membership in the Kingdom, fraternal relations of either scandal or edification, and above all forgiveness.

Such a structural feature as we here describe--this thematic correspondence between "narrative" and "discourse" in each section--reminds us from a fresh angle that the Gospel is never mere philosophizing but always a portrayal of the Word incarnate, the eternal Son and Wisdom of the Father in whom event and word, prayer and deed, are one. Christ Jesus is no mere brilliant teacher and itinerant prophet; he is the divine Son made flesh, the person who, all at once, is cosmic Event, Word of truth, and Deed of salvation, and this dynamic richness of identity in Jesus is what the Gospel manifests at each step, both in its individual parts and in its total structure.

If, in our imagination, we put the Gospel text back into its original context of oral transmission, before it evolved into the form of a written text, we will begin to see its character as the record of an encounter between persons. The Gospel is not primarily words written in a book: this is only the final stage of a process that began with Jesus' real historical presence and interaction with people in the world. When the Gospel is proclaimed in the praying assembly of believers, we participate in the living memory of the Church from the beginning, the Church that was so careful to communicate in a living way and hand down to each generation of Christians the treasure of her experience of the Lord's presence in her midst.

The Gospel is a living tradition, something alive in our hearts and memory insofar as we are Christians, something continually shaping and nourishing our faith, thoughts, and deeds. This is why the Gospel is never more itself than when it is publicly proclaimed, heard, and commented upon during the Liturgy of the Word.

For instance, when we hear the Gospel of the Beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12) proclaimed on a given Sunday, we sense that that is the original setting in which the Gospel was meant to be read. Such a text communicates to us, not a historical sketch of someone who lived in the past and is interesting for a number of good reasons. Rather, such a text evokes a presence, not only by stimulating the power of imagination and memory, but by the power of the sacramental action of the Church in the Eucharist. The words of Matthew's Gospel are inseparable from the Eucharistic Sacrifice, because in his Gospel Matthew is proclaiming an event and a person that want to become a saving reality here and now in my life and in the life of all mankind. [3]

We must conclude, then, that the genre of the Gospel is not that of pure "history"; but neither is it that of myth, fairy tale, or legend. In fact, evangelion constitutes a genre all its own, a surprising novelty in the literature of the ancient world. Matthew does not seek to be "objective" in a scientific or legal sense. He is writing as one whose life has been drastically changed by the encounter with Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, he is proposing to his listeners an objective reality of history, but offered as kerygma, that is, as a proclamation that bears personal witness to the radical difference that reality has already made in his life. Whether this encounter with Jesus of Nazareth occurs literally in the flesh or spiritually through the faith of the Church is not as important as the fact that it does take place.

We, living twenty-one centuries later, are at no disadvantage! We should not want to answer questions that the evangelists themselves did not raise: the color of Jesus' eyes and hair, his height, and so on. Nor is it essential to ask: Did this or that occur precisely in the way described in the text? The historical nucleus obviously at the very center of the Gospel narrative is inseparable, in keeping with the genre of the evangelion or "good news", from the response of faith with which Matthew presents it so as to persuade his listeners to enter into the same experience of encounter with Jesus. This encounter will hopefully result in the transformation of their lives. When we approach the text of Matthew we must come to share in his own faith if we are fully to understand what he has written.


[3] The unity of word, sacrament, and Christian life as constituting the total Mystery of Christ has seldom been explored so profoundly as in Jean Corbon, The Wellspring of Worship (Mahwah, NJ.: Paulist Press, 1988; new edition by Ignatius Press, 2005).

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Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature and Theology from Emory University. His areas of interest include liturgy and liturgical texts, Georg Trakl's poetry, the Gospel of Matthew, French and German poetry of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Greek and Roman classics, and Dante. He is the author of Fire of Mercy, Heart of the Word, a two-volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, Love's Sacred Order: The Four Loves Revisited, and The Way of the Disciple. He has also translated numerous works for Ignatius Press, including numerous books by Hans Urs von Balthasar.

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