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)" | Ignatius Insight
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
God's definitive words and deeds, which fulfill and surpass the
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
with a formula such as "And when Jesus finished these sayings"
There may well be an important theological point being made here
through this structural arrangement, namely, that the Gospel is
and foremost about the interactive encounter between Jesus and
humanity, portrayed in a narrative. All subsequent words of
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
the four thousand, about Peter's confession and his commission, and
about the Transfiguration. Clearly, these are all events that
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
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
Son and Wisdom of the Father in whom event and word, prayer and
deed, are one. Christ Jesus is no mere brilliant teacher and
prophet; he is the divine Son made flesh, the person who, all at
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
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
world. When the Gospel is proclaimed in the praying assembly of
believers, we participate in the living memory of the Church from
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
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. 
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.
fact, evangelion constitutes a genre all its own, a surprising
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
Hence, he is proposing to his listeners an objective reality of
but offered as kerygma, that is, as a proclamation that bears
witness to the radical difference that reality has already made in
life. Whether this encounter with Jesus of Nazareth occurs literally
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.
 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
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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