Gospel of Matthew Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
The Gospel of Matthew is primarily embraced by Christians. But does that mean that people of other faiths have nothing to say about it? No way.
Though contemporary Jewish people don't accept Matthew's main proposition—that Jesus is the Jewish messiah—Judaism is still front and center in this gospel. As Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine puts it, "I think Jews need to know this material, because […] much of the New Testament is actually Jewish literature" (source).
Reading Matthew's Gospel is like peeking through a window into the state of 1st-century Judaism. You have a picture of a community that was once part of Judaism, but is slowly breaking off. You also have a portrayal of a popular Jewish group—the Pharisees—from an entirely different perspective. Pretty fascinating stuff.
The one big negative about Matthew's Gospel is the way it's been used against the Jewish community over the years. For example, the moment during Jesus's trial when Matthew portrays the religious authorities and the other Jews in the crowd calling out, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (27:25) has been used by anti-Semites throughout history. It not only lets them label 1st-century Jews as "Christ killers," but they think it gives them license to blame all Jews (past, present, and future) for the crime.
Um, we're gonna go out on a limb and say they're wrong.
If you think that Matthew's Gospel is anti-Jewish, then you're forgetting one tiny little fact: Matthew, Jesus, and his followers were Jewish. You'll see Jesus mixing with other Jews, teaching in the temple, quoting the Torah, debating Jewish law, and even celebrating Passover. So, yeah, we're pretty sure that Matthew was not intending to lump all Jews for all time in with the mean group at Jesus's trial.
Most Christians probably don't know how much Muslims dig Jesus. In true name-dropping form, the Qur'an mentions him about 25 times, as 'Iesa, a prophet and messenger. Muslims claim that the gospels actually lay the groundwork for Muhammad to introduce Islam to the world (3:3) and that all Muslims must believe in what Jesus has revealed (3:84).
But there is that whole crucifixion discrepancy. What's the difference? Well, Muslims don't think Jesus was ever crucified. Here's how it goes down in the Qur'an:
[The enemies of Jesus would boast,] "Indeed, we have killed the Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, the messenger of Allah." And they did not kill him, nor did they crucify him; but [another] was made to resemble him to them. […] And they did not kill him, for certain. Rather, Allah raised him to Himself. (4:157-58)
Basically, Muslims think Jesus is far too cool to have been executed. Instead, Islamic tradition teaches that Allah just made it look like Jesus died on the cross, even though he actually ascended into heaven unharmed. The whole crucifixion story means that someone faithful would be allowed to suffer and die, and Muslims don't think God would let that fly.
One other thing. You know the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit situation that the Gospel of John goes on about? Muslims don't agree with that tenet of Christian faith either. They tend to be pretty firm about there being only one God:
Do not say, "Three," desist—It is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. (4:171)
Translation: it's a no-go for the Trinity.
Roman Catholic Perspective
Catholics are into Matthew's Gospel because it's the basis for a lot of great Catholic doctrine. Take the special authority Jesus gives to his favorite disciple:
"You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church […] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (16:18-19)
Catholics think of this moment as the institution of the church. This is the exact point at which Jesus decided that this whole messiah thing should keep on going. Jesus even appointed Peter as the first Pope in there somewhere. Or at least that's what Catholics believe. (Psst. Don't tell the current Pope, but Peter was married when he took the gig.)
The Catechism of the Catholic Church also says that "The power to 'bind and loose' connotes the authority to absolve sins, to pronounce doctrinal judgments, and to make disciplinary decisions in the Church." This means that the Church is effectively Jesus's divine enforcer on earth. It's a pretty big responsibility.
Of course, Matthew also mentions the virgin birth, which is a huge deal to Catholics. Again, the Catechism says, "The Gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility." Okay, that's sounds like what we're used to hearing. But, Catholics also take the whole virgin thing a little bit farther.
Not only do they believe that Mary conceived without ever having sex, but that even Mary herself was conceived without the "stain of original sin." It's called the Immaculate Conception and its one of the four dogmas the Church teaches about Mary. It also means one extra vacation day in Italy.
On top of that, Catholics believe that Mary is "ever-virginal." The basic idea is that, even after she had Jesus, and even after she married Joseph, Mary never, ever (even once in her life as a married woman) had sex. As the Church puts it, "The deepening of faith in the virginal motherhood led the Church to confess Mary's real and perpetual virginity even in the act of giving birth to the Son of God made man." So there you go.
Protestants have quite a bit to say about the Catholic interpretation of these passages.
Sure, Protestants are down with the virgin birth, but they don't think that Mary abstained from sex for the rest of her life. We're guessing Joseph wouldn't have liked that so much. Matthew's Gospel is probably on their side for this one, too.
Matthew says that Joseph "had no marital relations with [Mary] until she had borne a son" (1:25). Most Protestants would say "until" is the key word there. He also mentions Jesus's brothers by name—James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (13:55). Unless those were virgin births, too, that's some pretty tough evidence to refute.
Many Protestants also point to this passage, unique to Matthew: "Call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven" (23:9). They believe this contradicts the Catholic tradition of calling priests "Father." Of course, Protestants still call their male parent a "father," too, so they're slacking a bit on this one.
Protestants also find some support for the idea of (big theological idea alert!) justification by faith in Matthew's Gospel. This just basically means that Protestant Christians (like Lutherans) tend to believe that all you have to do is put your faith in Jesus, and God will be happy. Catholics, on the other hand, think you need to believe and do lots of good stuff here on earth. Just being faithful won't cut it.
Matthew's pretty divided on the issue. At times, he seems to support the idea that good deeds alone won't get you to the pearly gates: "Many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not […] do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers'" (7:22-23). There's also the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the landowner gives generously to those who haven't worked as hard (20:1-16).
On the other hand, Matthew also emphasizes our actions a whole lot. "Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works" (5:16). There's also this gem: "The Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done" (16:27).
Who's right? Who's wrong? Only the Big Guy knows for sure.
Baha'i places Jesus in a group alongside some other huge names in the business like Moses, Buddha, and Muhammad. Some real heavy-hitters. And they all get to be part of a pretty exclusive club: manifestations of God. This basically means they're divine messengers who have a little something extra that regular human being don't.
The oneness of religion is a huge concept in the Baha'i faith. So it makes sense that the sacred texts of the world religions would also be important in Baha'i. One of their sacred scriptures, The Kitab-i-Iqan, even talks about the second coming of Jesus as described in The Gospel of Matthew (The Kitab-i-Iqan, 24). It's always nice to get a shout-out.