The Gospel of Matthew:
Marriage and Israel’s Story
Part Two: October 2022
Wedding feast images continued
Last month we reflected on the invitation to the wedding feast, the disrespect shown to the king by declining his invitation, and the inappropriate dress for a wedding celebration. This month we continue with the wedding feast imagery in Matthew (15:29–37 and 25:1–13), and then we reflect on marriage and the resurrection (22:23–33). We conclude our reflections on Matthew’s Gospel with three meditations on marriage and mission.
It is helpful to set the stage for the challenges that Jesus was to face in the passages we will examine this month. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ triumphant entrance into Jerusalem (21:1–11) is followed by his dramatic entrance into the Temple (21:12–13). There, he drove out the money changers and those who were selling animals for sacrifice in the Temple, thus disrupting the sacrificial system and, in a symbolic way, indicating that the Temple and the whole sacrificial system would come to an end. And it did, when the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD 70. Matthew then recounts a series of challenges on the part of the chief priests, elders, and Pharisees about his authority to do these things (21:23). In that context, Jesus told several parables, one of which was about a landowner, his vineyard, and the wicked tenants who would be deposed. It was in that same context that he told the parable of the wedding banquet that we examined last month.
After Jesus amazed the crowd with his response to their question about paying taxes (give to Caesar what is Caesar’s), the Sadducees attempted to discredit both Jesus and the Pharisees, who also believed in resurrection, by posing a ridiculous hypothetical question about the woman who was married to seven brothers. The Sadducees’ question is based on the command in the Torah about the Levirate law of marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5–10). According to this law, if a man dies childless, his brother must marry the widow and produce an heir for him. The purpose of the Levirate law was to continue family in an age when death was the norm. But Jesus knew that in the new creation, there would be no more death; hence, there would no longer be a need for procreation—one of the primary purposes of marriage. The Sadducees were misunderstanding the need for the law. It was the wrong question.
When the Pharisees realized that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they took a turn at trying to trap Jesus, by asking which part of the law was the greatest (22:34–40). Jesus then silenced them by asking them a question that they could not answer (22:41–46). That was followed by his devastating indictment of their hypocrisy (23:1–39).
Marriage and mission
We have a vital mission as married couples! Our marriages are not simply for our own good. Our marriages, as St. Paul says, are intended to make the love of Christ for his bride the Church visible in the world. Our love makes the love of the persons in the Trinity itself more visible. Our marriages are intended to serve others: our children, our neighborhoods, our local churches, and others in need. What can that look like? What did it look like in the early church?
Christians presented to the world a new way to live human life, and a new family model that became one of the principal factors in evangelization. A second-century Christian wrote a letter to someone called Diognetus. In it, he says that the Christians “marry as everyone else does and have children, but they do not abandon the newborns; they have a common table, but not a common bed” (V:6–7). In his Apology, Justin Martyr, an early Christian apologist and philosopher, reminded the emperors that they multiplied the laws about the family, which proved to be incapable of stopping its collapse. He then invited them to come to see Christian families, and promised that they would be convinced that Christians were Rome’s better allies in the reform of society, not her enemies.
But it wasn’t just family life that was different. Two devastating epidemics hit the Roman Empire. One lasted from AD 165 until AD 180, and another occurred in AD 251. The first plague, which killed between a quarter and a third of the population, was possibly smallpox; the second, equally as devastating, may have been measles.
Imagine being in a city stinking of death, piles of dead bodies all around, homes abandoned, the sick left to fend for themselves. All around you, your family and friends are dropping. You can never be sure if or when you will fall sick too. Your priests have confessed ignorance about what the gods are doing; your philosophers are of no help either. Your most famous physician is coping with the epidemic by leaving Rome and hiding out at his country estate.
But Christians have hope. And they have love. They do not appear to fear; rather, they act as if giving their life for the sake of caring for their sick brethren is the equivalent of martyrdom. Many of them die as they live out Matthew 25:34–40. But because they give basic nursing care to the sick, both their own people and their pagan neighbors, many of the sick recover!
Conscientious nursing care, as simple as providing food and water, cut the mortality rate of these plagues by at least two-thirds. Although many Christians died, the believers survived at a much higher rate than their pagan neighbors. And their pagan neighbors survived at a much higher rate than those who did not have Christian neighbors or relatives. The Christians did not fear death because they believed in the resurrection. They put into practice our Lord’s command to love one another.
. An apology is an explanation or defense of the Christian life usually in response to persecution. This letter dates from the second or third century. Both the author and the recipient are unknown.
. For further discussion see Cardinal Reniero Cantalamessa’s 5th Lenten homily: “The Armor of Light.” Cantalamessa's 5th Lenten homily: The armor of light (aleteia.org). downloaded 9/2/2022.