Reading the Gospel of Matthew is a journey into creative tension experienced by a predominantly Jewish exiled community of the early church. In fact Matthew. the author who understood the heart of that community, held out this tension, between the pastoral and the prophetic, “in the way in which he portrays the call to a mission to both Jews and Gentiles.” (see Transforming Mission, by David J. Bosch, p. 82)
The embattled and refugee community of Jewish followers of Jesus Christ mid-80 AD, probably living in Syria, were faced with internal and external pressures, a struggle for their identity and purpose. Pressure from Jews who did not believe the message that changed everything and that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah culminated in the extremely conservative Jewish 12th Benediction read aloud in synagogues (Temple worship had ended with its complete destruction) at the end of the first century:
“Let the Nazarenes (Christians) and the heretics be destroyed in a moment…Let their names be expurgated from the Book of Life and not be entered with those of the just.”
Pressures from within the Jewish Christian community involved questions of adherence to the Law and table fellowship came with the growing numbers of Gentiles that had come to faith in Christ.
Matthew wades into this arena of controversy to communicate with pastoral encouragement to a community facing a serious identity crisis. Central to his message, however, is an overarching missionary identity. Matthew encourages his fellow believers to see the opportunities for missionary witness and service in their context.
This first Gospel is written to a primarily Jewish audience. But Matthew instructs his community to no longer think of themselves as an isolated separate group of Jews; he tells them in no uncertain terms that they are the Church of Christ. (This is the only gospel in which we find the word ecclesia, “church.”) To communicate this identity however, Matthew again holds together a dynamic tension, presenting both a pastoral concern and a missionary outreach. Matthew employs Old Testament scriptures to redefine their community as the “true Israel” and to prove that Jesus is the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.
Matthew combats the rabbinical teachings of the day with Jesus’ parables, such as the “Tenants”, declaring: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.” It appears, according to Bosch, that it is Matthew who first took up the “theme of the substitution of Israel by a new covenant people.” (62)
Though this approach may contribute to anti-Semite views, it’s clear Matthew is no anti-Semite. Instead, he is navigating tragic circumstances of his community, including Israel’s failure to be a light to the Gentiles, with his belief that God has and will continue to act in history.
Readers will notice the tension, especially how Matthew portrays Jesus’ repeated words of commitment go only “to the lost children of Israel” and his repeated actions reaching out to the Gentiles, such as the Centurian, the Syrophenecian, and the Samaritan. Matthew is a master at showing how to live amid the tension of historic change taking place in Christian community.
Matthew does not direct his people to cease their identity, either inwardly or outwardly, as children of Israel. However, Matthew’s gospel is infused with the missionary call of his community, and every believer, to make disciples of all nations.
Matthew indeed takes the notion of discipleship beyond the traditional preparation to become a “Rabbi”. To be a disciple of Jesus means to become a life-long follower of Jesus Christ, identifying with the “Twelve” in all our weaknesses and lack of faith. This “teaching” for followers is not merely the modern intellectual enterprise either; it’s an appeal to the will of the follower and a call to submit to God’s will. This teaching does not take place in a classroom, bowing down to a human teacher, and certainly not in a church pew a few hours a week. This teaching takes place as we “worship” (fall prostrate) before Jesus as followers and obey the mission to take this message and life-transforming love of neighbors to all the world. In other words, orthopraxis becomes the critical yardstick for orthodoxy. This “theme of discipleship is central to Matthew’s gospel and to Matthew’s understanding of church and mission.” (73)
Again, Matthew is presenting a message that is both pastoral and missionary. Pastorally, he holds up the first disciples, with all their blunders (“little faith”, “afraid”) as models for us to follow. His missionary message is urging us to “make disciples” that will follow their example.
Matthew writes this first gospel story a generation after the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ in order to clarify his community’s identity as a community on mission to both the Jews and the Gentiles. Christians find their true identity in the creative tension between Law and Spirit, Church and Mission, pastoral and missionary; the place and posture in which we may truly follow Christ in mission, in communicating to others a new way of life, including a way of following Jesus in a full surrender individually and witness corporately.