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The Compassion of God

ISS Reports


Seminar delivered by Fr Brendan Byrne, SJ, on September 3, 2003

Gospel of Matthew: Summary Statement

The First Gospel, no less than the other three, has as its primary focus the presentation of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Yet, because of its continuing dialogue with Judaism, it is very much concerned to present Jesus as the authoritative Interpreter of the Jewish Law (Torah). Jesus has not come to abolish the Torah¨not in respect to one letter or even one stroke of a letter; he has come to bring it to perfection (5:17-18).

For this reason Matthew begins his account of Jesus' public ministry with the long Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7). Here, with an authority greater than that of Moses, Jesus promulgates the way of life that is to characterise his disciples: they are to live the Torah brought to perfection and interpreted according to "what God wants". What God wants is indicated in a key text from one of the prophets of Israel: Hosea 6:6, "What I want is mercy, not sacrifice". The importance of this text for Matthew is evident in the fact Jesus twice makes explicit appeal to it in situations of conflict (9:13; 12:7). The supreme test of valid interpretation of the Torah and right action in accordance with it is whether such action displays the mercy towards fellow human beings that Jesus sees to be characteristic of the willl and action of God. The measure of "perfection"–of perfect faithfulness (righteousness) in keeping the Torah–is, then: "to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect" (5:48). Later in the Gospel, in the same spirit, Jesus will excoriate the scribes and Pharisees for tithing tiny herbs but neglecting what he calls the "weightier matters of the Torah: justice, mercy and faith" (23:23). He will also insist that the "greatest commandment of the Torah" is the twin commandment to love God and to love one's neighbour as oneself (22:34-40).

The heart is, in fact, the seat of the "surpassing righteousness" (5:19) that Jesus requires. Whereas the Torah in its older interpretation said simply, "You must not kill", Jesus' interpretation goes to the heart: to cut off the anger that is the beginning of murderous intent (5:21-26). Likewise, where the Torah said "You shall not commit adultery", for Jesus the battle begins in the basic attitude which a man has towards a woman in his heart (5:27).

This presentation of Jesus as Interpreter of the Law goes along with a distinctive view of the human condition. Matthew–more precisely, Matthew's Jesus–sees humanity as burdened, burdened by many things but especially by sickness and alienation from God. It is precisely such a vision that forms the context for the Great Sermon (Matthew 5-7). Jesus addresses his disciples in the presence of "all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics and paralytics, ... great crowds from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan" (4:24-25). Shaped by the Torah as he now interprets it, beginning with the Beatitudes (5:1-12), the disciples, are to be the kind of people who can be "Salt" (5:13) and "Light" (5:14) for this burdened world.

Above all, the Gospel presents Jesus himself–in his outreach to sinners, his celebration of mercy, his healing and his teaching–as the one who bears and lifts humanity's burdens (11:28-30). In this he fulfils the role of the Servant of Isaiah who bore the sicknesses of many (8:17; cf. Isa 53:4; 12:15-21; cf. Isa 42:1-4). He is the Son of Man who "has come not to be served but to serve and (again, like the Servant) give his life as a ransom for many" (20:28). Jesus not only teaches the Torah; in this respect he models it in his own behaviour and ministry. The negative portrayal of the "burdening-imposing" teaching of the scribes and Pharisees (23:4) forms the foil against which stands out the "burden-lifting" interpretation and action of Jesus.

But, along with the stress upon acceptance and mercy, Matthew's Gospel is also one of high moral demand. Faith is not something of words alone. It must issue forth in action (7:24-28). What is intolerable above all is hypocrisy: a mismatch between what one says and what one does, between what appears on the outside and what lies in the heart. There is, then, much denunciation and warning in the Gospel. But it is always important to see who is denounced and for what cause. The chief target of Jesus' wrath is not sinfulness in general but hypocrisy and failure to treat others with the understanding, mercy and forgiveness that one has oneself received from God (18:21-35). In the end at the great judgment, the sole qualification for entrance into eternal life will be whether one has performed acts of mercy towards "the least" of Jesus' brothers and sisters (25:31-46).

Matthew's Gospel is also above all the Gospel of the Church. At the beginning of the story, in the annunciation of his birth, Joseph had been informed that the son to be born to Mary would be called "Emmanuel", that is, "God is with us" (1:23). This sense of "God with us" in the presence of Jesus pervades the Gospel. It is because he is Emmanuel that Jesus can offer an interpretation of the Torah more authoritative than that of Moses. Because he is Emmanuel Jesus can claim that "a greater than the Temple is here" (12:6). In the time when, following his death, he will no longer be physically present with them, he will be there as risen Lord "where two or three are gathered in (his) name" (18:20). That is why whatever disciplinary decisions they make ("binding and loosing") on earth will be binding not only on earth but also in heaven (18:18-20), as will also the determinations regarding teaching made by Peter in his role as "rock" foundation of the Church (16:19). In the great Commission that concludes the Gospel (28:16-20), the risen Lord empowers the Church for its mission to "make disciples of all the nations" with the assurance that his own authoritative presence lies behind its communal life and structures.

This last great scene indicates the Gentile world as the community's primary field of mission. Thus the Gospel, which has so stressed the Jewish roots of the Christian Church and depicts Jesus' own mission as directed solely to the "lost sheep of the house of Israel" (15:24), ends on this note of outreach to the wider Gentile world. Hints that this is the way things would go are not, however, lacking from the very beginning. The coming of wise men from the East to pay homage and bring gifts to the infant King of the Jews already foreshadows the later outreach (2:1-12). Later hints and suggestions are also there to indicate that Jesus the Jewish Messiah is the the Son of David "in whom the Gentiles will hope" (12:21). The great task of Matthew, as scribe trained for the Kingdom of Heaven, who knows how to bring out of his treasure things both new and old (13:52), is to show how the way in which the saving events have gone¨the Messiah who has come to give his life as a ransom for many, the Messiah in whom the Gentiles will hope¨is in fact in accord with the design of God for the messianic age as indicated in the scriptures of Israel. Hence Matthew, the most "scribal" of all the evangelists, is also the most concerned to point out again and again how events and features of Jesus' life fulfil what was stated by the prophets.

Thus Matthew's Gospel is one that looks in two directions: back to the Jewish matrix of Christianity, forward to the evangelisation of the Gentile world. Matthew's task is to hold the two together in one unified vision of God's people. His genius, like that of the scribe described in 13:52, is to have brought out of his treasure things both new and old.

The 'Burden-Bearing' Christology
of Matthew's Gospel

It is generally agreed that the dominant christological perception of Matthew's Gospel is that of Jesus as "Son of God". The First Gospel certainly presents Jesus as the Davidic Messiah of conventional expectation but, in line with the wider New Testament tradition, does so with "Messiah" greatly enhanced and deepened by the sense of Jesus' unique filial status in relation to God.

Within this christological pattern, a distinctive feature of Matthew's gospel is to that of presenting Jesus as the bearer of humanity's burdens. The Gospel brings out this function positively by the way it depicts the 'burden-lifting' teaching and practice of Jesus, negatively by the way it presents, by way of contrast, the 'burden-imposing' teaching and practice of other religious leaders (scribes and Pharisees), with whom he is increasingly in conflict as the narrative proceeds.

Various features and patterns characteristic of Matthew's gospel assist in creating this 'burden-lifting' impression:

Associating Jesus with the role of the Isaianic "Servant"
Using "shepherding" language of him
Portraying him in the guise of divine Wisdom
Stressing the priority of mercy in divine-human and inter-human relations (especially by appeal to Hos 6:6: "What I want is mercy not sacrifice" [Matt 9:13; 12:7]).
Depicting Jesus' rulership as lowly, gentle, non-threatening
Highlighting Jesus' ministry of healing (Gk: therapeuein) all kinds of diseases and afflictions [Matt. uses therapeuein 16 times (cf. Mark: 5 times)]


1:23b ROLE OF JESUS: "...And they shall name him Emmanuel", which means, "God is with us"
2:6 REPONSE TO WISE MEN: 'And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler (Micah 5:2) who is to shepherd (poimanei) my people Israel'(2 Sam 5.2).
3:17 FOLLOWING BAPTISM: And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son (huios), the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased".
[Isa 42:1: Here is my servant (pais), whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights].
4:12-16 SUMMARY STATEMENT: 12. Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14. so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
15. "Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles– 16. the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned" (Isa 8:23–9:1).
4:23-25 SUMMARY STATEMENT: 23. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing (therapeuoµn) every disease and every sickness among the people. 24 So his fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured (etherapeusen) them. 25 And great crowds followed him from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judea, and from beyond the Jordan.
5:1-2 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2 Then, opening his mouth, he began to teach them, saying:

There follows the Sermon on the Mount: The Sermon tells the Disciples of Jesus who they are to be for the sake of the rest of the world (i.e., to be its Salt and its Light)
5:3-48 3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. ...

13 "You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
14 "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.
15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. ...

20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

21 "You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.'
22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; ...
23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. ...

27 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. ...

38 "You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.'
39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.

43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'
44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
8:16-17 SUMMARY STATEMENT ('Servant' reference): 16. That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured (etherapeusen) all who were sick [not paralleled in Mark 1:34].
17. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases" [Isa 53:4a].
9:10-13 CELEBRATORY MEAL FOLLOWING THE CALL OF MATTHEW: 10. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. 11. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" 12. But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 13a. Go and learn what this means, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" [Hos 6:6; not paralleled in Mark 2:17; Luke 5:21].
13b. For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
9:35-36 SUMMARY STATEMENT: 35.Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues (parallel Mark 6:6b), and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing (therapeuoµn) every disease and every sickness. 36 When he saw the crowds, he had compassion (esplangchnistheµ) for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (parallel Mark 6:34b).
[Num 27:16-17: "Let the Lord, ..., appoint someone over the congregation who ... shall lead them out and bring them in, so that the congregation of the Lord may not be like sheep without a shepherd"].
11:28-30 WISDOM INVITATION: 28. "Come to me, all you that are weary (kopiomntes) and are carrying heavy burdens (pephortismenoi), and I will give you rest (anapausoµ hymas). 29. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am meek (praus) and humble in heart, and you will find rest (anapausis) for your souls." [Not paralleled in Luke 10:21-22].
12:5-7 PLUCKING CORN ON SABBATH (Matt 12:1-8; parallel Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5). 5. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the Temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6. I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
7. But if you had known what this means, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice" [Hos 6:6; not paralleled in Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4 ] you would not have condemned the guiltless.
[Neg. criticism from Pharisees; 2nd use of Hos 6:6 (cf. 9:13)]
12:15-21 SUMMARY STATEMENT ('Servant' reference):
15. When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, 16. and he ordered them not to make him known.
17. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
18. "Here is my Servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased (eudokeµsen). I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. 19. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. 20. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick until he brings justice to victory. 21. And in his name the Gentiles will hope"
[Isa 42:1-4; quotation stresses non-threatening nature of the Servant]
14:13-14 SUMMARY STATEMENT (Before feeding of 5000):
13. Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion (esplangchnistheµ) for them and cured (etherapeusen) their sick.
15:29-32 SUMMARY STATEMENT (Before feeding of 4000):
29 After Jesus had left that place, he passed along the Sea of Galilee, and he went up the mountain, where he sat down. 30 Great crowds came to him, bringing with them the lame, the maimed, the blind, the mute, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he cured (etherapeusen) them, 31 so that the crowd was amazed when they saw the mute speaking, the maimed whole, the lame walking, and the blind seeing. And they praised the God of Israel.
32 Then Jesus called his disciples to him and said, "I have compassion (splangchnizomai) for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat; and I do not want to send them away hungry, for they might faint on the way".
33. "Should you not have had mercy (eleeµsai) on your fellow slave, as I had mercy (eµleeµsa) on you?".
2. The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3. therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4. They tie up heavy burdens (phortia barea), hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
23. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy (eleos) and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others.
28:19-20 THE GREAT COMMISSION: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."


Boring, M. E. "Gospel of Matthew" in New Interpreters Bible 8.87-505, pp. 280-81; Excursus: "Matthean Christology", pp. 357-61, esp. 359-61 (Titles).

Davies, W. E. &
Allison, D. A.
Gospel according to St. Matthew (ICC): Vol 1: 337-44; Vol. 2: 37-38, 322-29; Vol 3: 94-100.

Harringon, D. The Gospel of Matthew (Sacra Pagina 1; Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 181.

Hill, D. "Son and Servant: An Essay on Matthean Christology", Journal for the Study of the New Testament 6 (1980) 2-16.

Senior, D. What Are They Saying About Matthew? (rev. ed.; New York: Paulist, 1996) 78, 84-85.

Brendan Byrne, S.J.

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