Weekly Bible Reflection
MATTHEW'S COMMUNITIES OF JUSTICE
Many scholars think Matthew’s gospel was written in Syrian Antioch about 80 - 90 AD. At that time, Antioch was a wealthy city and had experienced a major influx of refugees. The arrival of these displaced peoples increased ethnic and social tensions that fuelled civil unrest in the city.
The Christian church in Antioch was, by this time, 40 years old and well established. It had been formed by the first Christians who went to Antioch to escape Saul’s persecution in Jerusalem at the time of the stoning of Stephen in 36AD. Under the leadership of Barnabas, Manaen, Simeon & Lucius the church had grown large, and Paul ministered there in 47AD. Many of the Christians in Antioch were themselves immigrants, who gradually absorbed the attitudes and values of the surrounding culture. These often conflicted with the attitudes and values of Jesus. Matthew’s household churches had to work out how to relate to the urban culture and to its inequalities. Opinions differed within the church, so Matthew’s Jesus offers some guidelines.
Learning to live with diversity
Members of the Christian community in Antioch experienced some painful transitions: from rural to urban, from Aramaic to Greek speaking and from being solely escaping Judean Christians to being ethnically diverse as Gentiles embraced the gospel and joined the community.
Judean Christians in Antioch had great difficulty accepting and living in unity with these Gentile sisters and brothers. Antioch was where Paul failed to save Gentile converts from having to meet the requirements of Jewish Law (see Galatians 2:11f). Two generations on, Matthew takes a more conciliatory approach. His Jesus gives followers the authority to bind and to loose the commandments of the Law. The community is encouraged to re-interpret them in the light of the arrival of God’s reign.
Matthew is the only gospel where the word ‘church’ is used (Greek: ekklesia) and it is used to describe an ethnically mixed community and it’s the only gospel to tell the story of the wise men. It was the Gentile wise men from the East who discovered where to find Jesus. They represent the Gentile converts who had come to adore Jesus and had learned how to live in Matthew's community.
Poverty and Inequality
Unlike Luke’s community, Matthew's household churches were well off materially with rich and poor living together. Matthew’s Jesus says that the rich can enter the kingdom if they thirst after justice and act justly. He shows Jesus wanting people to practice God's justice by rich and poor sharing resources. He calls Christians back to first principles, to participate in what God is growing through outward expressions of love and justice, mutual forgiveness and sharing.
Image of the church - communities of justice
Matthew’s Jesus teaches that the primary task of the church is to do justice to the poor. The church is to be a community of justice - a reconciled, inclusive, hospitable community of equality, justice and collegiality. The Christian community cannot be based on race, blood, status or wealth, but on doing the will of God (12:46 - 50).
Following the prologue (1:1 – 2:23) Matthew can be read as five 'books' or ‘sermons’ that describe life in the household in terms of:
- justice in its own life (2:24 - 7:29)
- its mission (8:1 - 11:1)
- God's reign in the form of parables (11:2 - 13:53)
- its own order and discipline (13:54 - 19:1)
- Israel and obedience through just deeds (19:2 - 26:1)
The gospel ends with the passion, death and resurrection story (26:2 – 28:20).
So let us journey with Matthew open to what the Spirit is saying to our ‘households of faith’ as Jesus invites us to ‘reorder’ our lives as joyful participants in the reign of God.