Jesus: true teacher of the Torah
By Biagio Mazza
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
Matthew has been called the first Gospel, as well as the Gospel of the Church. Even though Matthew is the Gospel for the lectionary cycle A, we are just getting to the meat of the Gospel in the readings for Ordinary Time. So what does Matthew have to say to us in our day and age as we strive to take on the mind and heart of Jesus?
To understand Matthew and his message we must first understand the situation or context of Matthew's community - one which is undergoing a change in identity and direction, much like today's Catholic Christian community.
After the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Romans, the Pharisees led a centralizing movement in Judaism to try to focus the identity of Jews and Judaism in light of the temple's loss. For a religion based on animal sacrifice and focused on temple worship, what direction is needed when the temple is no more? This is the question the Pharisees were addressing. Pharisaic Judaism came into being by making the table at home a substitute for the temple altar, by organizing and further developing their liturgical calendar of feasts and seasons, and by clearly stating what does and doesn't make a person a Jew. This continues to be the lens through which modern-day Judaism is viewed. This centralization movement also rejected and marginalized those Jews who accepted Jesus as Messiah.
Matthew's Jewish community has accepted Jesus as the Messiah and the Resurrected Son of God. They value their upbringing as Jews - their Torah, their rituals, their identity. They feel that Jesus is what the Torah, prophets and writings have been pointing to, the long-awaited Messiah. Yet they are in conflict with the dominant Jewish viewpoint that Jesus is not the long-awaited Messiah.
This situation creates an identity crisis for Matthew's Jewish community. Whom are they to believe and follow: Moses, as articulated and interpreted by the Pharisees, or Jesus, as articulated and taught by their faith community? Who are the correct, proper and authoritative teachers - the Pharisees or Jesus' disciples? They do not want to reject their Jewishness, for it is the very core of their faith lives. Yet it is a Jewishness now viewed through the Jesus lens. What are they to do, think, feel, act? Matthew fashions this Gospel story of Jesus to address these crucial issues and concerns.
The flow and sequence of the Gospel story directly addresses the concerns of Matthew's Jewish community. The first part of Matthew's prologue is a genealogy establishing Jesus as a Jew among Jews, from the line of Abraham, a descendent from the envied house of David. Jesus is a Jew par excellence in touch with the heart of Judaism and its spirituality of exile and return. At the same time Jesus is identified as Emmanuel, "God with us," who will accomplish the role of the Messiah, to save the people. The name "Jesus" actually means "God saves."
This salvation is intended for all of God's people, not just the Jews. As a result, Matthew's community must be that living light to which all will be attracted. This is the faith stance of Matthew's community and what Matthew wants his fellow Jews to hold on to. This will demand great openness, courage and faith. It will create much tension and stress, forcing believers to let go of secure space and relationships, yet it will eventually yield great fruit. Matthew assures them that they are not alone in this. Jesus, "God with us," is their constant support and presence for all time.
Jesus is then presented as one like Moses acting on behalf of the people. Yet Jesus is greater than Moses, giving a deeper, more expansive version of the Torah in the sermon on the mount (Mt. 5-7), as well as in the other four major discourses that occur in the Gospel (Mt. 10, 13, 18, 23-25). Jesus not only teaches, his primary role in Matthew's Gospel, but also acts with constant care and concern for others, most especially the least and lowest of people (Mt. 8-9, 25). With diligent care Jesus gathers around him those who will listen to the teacher and Lord, understand all that the teacher says and does, and then prepare to go and do the same. In Matthew 10 and especially in 28:18-20, these followers of Jesus are commissioned to carry out all that he has said and done, to the ends of the earth. They have the authority of Jesus given him from the Father, and the assurance that Jesus would be with them till the end of time. (Again the word play on Emmanuel, "God with us.")
In other words, for Matthew's community, Jesus and his followers are the true, legitimate, authoritative teachers, in line with the best of Judaism, challenging the community to model itself on Jesus, the true teacher of Torah. Ultimately for Matthew, Jesus, in every word and deed, is the very embodiment of Torah, the perfection of prophecy even greater than Moses the prophet, and the best expression and personification of wisdom, even greater than Solomon. Jews accepting Jesus as Messiah should have no doubts about the authenticity of Jesus' message and the reliability of his call. Jesus backs his message with divine authority and endless presence in our midst: "Whenever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them" (18a,20); and "I will be with you till the end of time" (28-20).
Twenty-one of the possible 34 Sundays in ordinary time contain teaching material, stressing Jesus' role as the authoritative and reliable teacher. What do we learn from the teachings of Jesus in Matthew? Our clue should come from this stress on Jesus as teacher and Lord. First and foremost, be true to the fullness and authenticity of your tradition. Don't narrow it down or view it while wearing blinders. God's love is for all, the just and unjust, so don't restrict God with your closed attitude and perceptions. Forgive those who maltreat you, just the way the Lord has forgiven you. Trust in the community of the Church, all and not just a select few, that together we will be true to the mission of God as expressed in Jesus. Most of all, know that the depth of our relationship with God will be measured by the way we treat one another, most especially the least of our brothers and sisters: "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me"(25:40). Above all, love as the Lord loves - unconditionally, totally and without reservation - for such is the kingdom of heaven.
Such messages are at the heart of the Gospel. If we pay attention to them, make them our meat during this deepening time of the liturgical year, then we, and through us the whole of creation, will be as "scribes educated for the kingdom of heaven" (13:51-52).
Reprinted with permission from the Christian Initiation newsletter, April/May 1999, No. 35. Biagio Mazza is a member of the teaching staff of the Center for Pastoral Life and Ministry of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.