The Gospel of Matthew is dense, complex and beautiful, as well as thrilling, instructive, shocking and, at turns, terrifying.

When presented with such a text, it’s no wonder some of us struggle to sit down with it. It’s not like reading a novel; it requires perhaps a little more perseverance, but the rewards are still great. With Matthew’s Gospel, as with the others, we might not go more than a few sentences without being confused or moved by something. Beneath the seemingly ordinary words there are ancient resonances, subtle call-backs to a history with which we moderns are not so familiar.

What could we possibly draw from such an ancient text? How could we possibly live as Jesus intended in 21st-century cities and suburbs? Have we not also moved on a bit from his more controversial moral teachings?

On the contrary. Even if we’re not scholars, there are things we can look out for and themes to pay attention to that can make our experience of reading Matthew’s Gospel so much richer.

Don’t skip the genealogy

Dr Rosemary Canavan, Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Catholic Theological College, says that if we want to gain a fuller understanding of Matthew, we must pay close attention to the beginning and the end since they frame everything that comes in the middle.

The gospel begins:

Roll [or book, from the Greek biblos] of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham … (1:1).

And it ends:

Jesus came up and spoke to them. He said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, make disciples of all nations; baptise them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teach them to observe everything I have commanded you. And look, I am with you always till the end of time (28:18–20).

The first verses of Matthew list the famous genealogy, and although we might be tempted to skip through them, Dr Canavan urges us not to: ‘It’s sort of the point!’ In fact, although the word often gets translated as ‘genealogy’, she says another fitting word for it is actually ‘genesis’.

‘It harks back to Genesis. It’s like the genesis, or the beginning, of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham,’ she says.

The author is trying to show his readers how Jesus was connected to the story of Israel and to God, and to God’s covenant with Abraham. Even more tellingly, the fact that each section of the genealogy contains ‘seven times seven’ generations infers that Jesus is the completion and fulfilment of Israel’s story, the completion of their vocation, the fulfilment of God’s plan for them.

‘It’s a fabulous piece of writing,’ Dr Canavan says.

If we look at the end, too, we see this fulfilment play out. The story starts with Israel’s founding father, Abraham, and it ends with the Great Commission, Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations. What we might miss, however, is that the Great Commission echoes the covenant God made with Abraham, which was also meant to be for all nations (Genesis 17). From beginning to end, Jesus is depicted as the fulfilment of Israel’s vocation as originally intended by God.

Many of the parables and stories spread throughout Matthew reflect this growing understanding that the message of salvation was meant to be universal. Dr Canavan points as just one example to the story of the Canaanite woman, to whom Jesus says something very strange: ‘I was sent only to the sheep of the House of Israel’ (Matthew 15:24). By the end of that story, however, the woman’s faith is recognised.

‘I think what we’re hearing is the conflict and tension of the chosen people of God understanding that they’re not in a walled city and the only ones to be saved, but this is for all,’ she says. ‘This is for everybody.’

As we read the Gospel of Matthew, Dr Canavan suggests we be ‘attuned’ to this growing understanding to help get the most out of the stories. Throughout, there are so many clues we can look for that point to this larger theme. But reading the gospel like this is more than just detective work. It has real implications for us today.

‘The conflict we have now is not between Jews and Gentiles,’ she says. ‘But there are people who are excluded from our communities … My question would be, who are the “Gentiles” today?’

Matthew the Evangelist icon
Russian Orthodox icon of St Matthew (19th century).

Jesus, the teacher

A unique feature of Matthew’s account is how didactic it is. It contains more of Jesus’ teachings and sayings than any other gospel, famously including the Sermon on the Mount.

Dr Canavan says that the teaching ‘discourses’ in Matthew are actually placed in ‘strategic positions’ within the narrative, and the inclusion of five such discourses is meant to mirror the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.

These discourses in Matthew are as follows:

  • The Sermon on the Mount (5:1–7:28)
  • The Missionary Discourse (10:1–42)
  • The Parable Discourse (13:1–23)
  • The Community Discourse (17:22–18:35)
  • The Apocalyptic (or End Times) Discourse (24:1–25:46)

‘We can see Jesus “the teacher” in action in these sections,’ Dr Canavan says. ‘Particularly in the parables and beyond, the disciples become the audience, where the parables are explained and where the disciples are also begging to understand more.’

Instead of reading Matthew all the way through at once, Dr Canavan suggests understanding these sections and being alert to themes that Matthew keeps picking up in different ways across the sections.

Jesus spends a lot of time instructing his disciples, teaching them how to live and pray according to the kingdom of heaven—or perhaps a better word for us, Dr Canavan suggests, might be the ‘reign’ of heaven. How does a community live and pray when Christ is their king? How different might they look from their surrounding culture and society? These are the sorts of things we can learn from Christ’s teaching discourses.

Traditionally, the symbol associated with Matthew is that of the ‘divine man’, suggesting that when we sit down to hear Jesus speak, we’re not just learning from an ordinary man. It is God himself speaking.

Bloch Sermon On The Mount
‘The Sermon on the Mount’ by Carl Bloch (1834–1890).

Focus on the ‘little ones’

One theme that Dr Canavan also draws attention to in Matthew is the constant reference by Jesus to the ‘little ones’, or the ‘least of these’.

Not only is there a command to serve ‘the least of these’ (25:31–46), but there is also an invitation to become like little children (18:3), to welcome the little children (18:5) and to serve the ‘little ones’ who are his disciples (10:42). There are several other instances of this phrase occurring, often at the climax of different chapters or sections.

This theme is one that crosses ‘the divide of years and context’, Dr Canavan says, and might be especially prescient for our world today, which seems to be in a state of constant crisis:

This is the revelation of who Jesus is as the Messiah and the Son of God; Jesus, who proclaims in word and deed the kingdom of heaven in the first century and to us today, offering each of us a place to come and rest: ‘Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest’ (11:28).

‘We know our world has so many pressures,’ Dr Canavan says, ‘and those pressures are greatest for the “little ones”. When we read the Gospel of Matthew, we have a chance to hear our call to live out our mission of proclaiming the Good News, and also to find comfort in the compassion of Jesus.’

Rest for the weary. Healing for the broken. Forgiveness for the sinner. A place at the table for the least of these. Life lived in faithful discipleship to Christ, the Messiah.

These are some of the ways in which Matthew shows us who Jesus is and how we might live within the reign of God.