The first verses tell us a lot about this gospel. It begins with a genealogy of Jesus, but while the Gospel of Luke traces Jesus' ancestry all the way back to Adam, Matthew starts with Abraham. Written for a community of early Jewish Christians, Matthew solidifies Jesus' lineage by starting with the father of the Jews. Matthew also strays from custom by including five women in the genealogy. In a male-centric culture, this was quite a break from tradition. The list includes Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Their inclusion may point to one of the broad messages of the New Testament: All are welcome and beloved in the kingdom of God.
While Luke is the most well-known nativity story, we hear quite a bit about Jesus' early days in Matthew as well. Christmas pageant directors around the world give thanks for this version of the nativity, which is the only one to include the story of the Magi or Wise Men bearing gifts for the baby Jesus. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, also has a slightly more prominent storyline in Matthew, with angels appearing to him three times. In the second appearance, an angel urges Joseph to take his young family and flee to Egypt to escape persecution from Herod (another story heard only in Matthew).
After an angel appears to Joseph a third time, assuring him that it’s safe to return to Israel, he returns with his family. We hit the fast-forward button and quickly meet another main character: John the Baptist of the locust-and-honey diet fame. We’re crossing gospel streams here, but remember that John and Jesus go way back: John leaped in the womb of his mother Elizabeth, when the pregnant Mary visited her cousin. Back in Matthew, John is clad in camel's hair and leather and baptizing people in the river Jordan. Although people want to proclaim him as a prophet or even the messiah, John knows better: "one who is more powerful than I is coming after me."
Though John proclaims he is not worthy to carry the sandals of Jesus, he abides by the request of Jesus to baptize him. The heavens open, and the Spirit of God descends like a dove.
But Matthew doesn’t give us much time to revel in this moment. In the text, the next thing we learn is Jesus being led by the Spirit into the wilderness to fast for forty days and forty nights. Satan tempts Jesus with bread, power, and glory, and Jesus, despite being famished, has the strength to resist: “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”
We move quickly into Jesus’ public ministry. First, he gathers his disciples, including Simon Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and he travels throughout Galilee, teaching and preaching and healing. Even without Twitter, his fame grows, and people seek him out.
Before a great crowd, Jesus begins the famous Sermon on the Mount, the first of the five discourses (or set of teachings) in the Gospel of Matthew. Much of this text probably sounds familiar. The Sermon on the Mount is one of the most widely quoted and well-known passages in scripture. It is the longest continual teaching of Jesus, and it's generally perceived as a roadmap for the moral, faithful life. This text is considered wisdom literature, peppered with poetic terms and imagery. It's also helpful to remember that Jesus was teaching and preaching to a culture that relied on word of mouth, so these missives were meant to be remembered and shared.
Jesus opens with what we today call the Beatitudes, taken from the Latin
or “blessed are.” While versions of the Beatitudes can be found in both Luke and Matthew, the ones from the Gospel of Matthew tend to have a more spiritual focus. For instance, Matthew records, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” while Luke says, “Blessed are you who are poor.” Matthew has nine blessings; Luke has four—and follows them with a series of “woes” or warnings.
This whole section of Matthew is so rich and full of meaning that we could spend days on each sentence. What does Jesus mean that we are salt? How do we put our lamp for all to see and practice our piety with humility?
Jesus turns so much upside down, such as the values of the world. He takes the laws of the Old Testament and casts them in the light of the New Testament’s focus on mercy and salvation. He calls upon us to love our neighbors…and our enemies, to resist evildoers and to turn not one, but both cheeks—and donate a cloak. Give gratefully, but in secret. Pray without ceasing, but not so others can hear you.
The Sermon on the Mount sets high ethical standards—unattainable, really, by any of us. But Jesus isn't setting us up for failure but instead explaining to us that the children of God should act like God, and then giving the guidebook for how to do so.
At the end of our reading for the week, Jesus gives us a lifeline. Even if we can’t remember all of the other things he has said in the Sermon on the Mount, the Lord’s Prayer suffices. In Jesus’ time and today and always, let us “pray then in this way.”