It might be one of the most familiar of the Gospels, but the Gospel of Matthew also feels like one of the least exciting. Mark has a very direct and appealing style. Luke gives us a flowing narrative that is both easy to read and memorable. John’s account is rich in poetry. So how might Matthew’s gospel speak to us? And who does it speak to?
In our guest blog today, John Holdsworth imagines what a journalist might learn from Matthew’s gospel.
Jo had always wanted to be a journalist, a career which combined her interest in the world at large with a facility for language in a most satisfying way. In her thirtieth year she was on the lowest rung of the journalistic ladder, working with a national daily, and living with Olly. Olly gave every impression of having already exhausted one career. He had been something in the city, which he described as spending long days watching screens, shouting a lot and waving his hands about occasionally. On his thirtieth birthday he had decided there must be more to life than this and had walked out of his job and started to do a degree in theology.
Their after dinner (or more precisely, after pizza) conversations often centered on their differing claims to inhabit the real world. Jo’s evidence was the current edition of her paper. She could hardly understand why someone as intelligent as Olly could still live in what she considered to be a cross between a mediaeval world and some fantasy game of dungeons and dragons. Last Tuesday’s slightly wine-fuelled conversation was a case in point.
After some initial sparring, Jo opened the day’s paper at a random page and noted the main stories. They were about Brexit, #MeToo, and a transgender conundrum. “What do your ancient books about God have to say about that?” she asked, “because that’s the real world: that’s what people are really concerned about.”
Olly thought for a moment and then began his response. “You have to remember,” he said, “that people like the Gospel writers, and indeed Jesus himself, were not journalists. It was not their intention to offer a commentary on the day to day concerns of first century Palestinians. The key documents, the Gospels, are not oracles that can be appealed to in order to provide an answer to specific modern questions quite outside their time and culture. As their name suggests they are documents, innovative in their own time, which seek to describe good news. If what they said were to be regarded as good news by those who read their stuff, then it had to respond to something that their hearers needed or even longed to hear, and that could be and indeed still can be, vary varied.”
“At one level there were very practical bits of good news that some people needed to hear. In Mathew’s Gospel for example – and let’s stick with him – in chapter 25 he makes the point very strongly that if you are hungry, it is good news that someone is willing to feed you. If you are homeless, it is good news that someone is prepared to find you a bed, if you are without dignity it is good news that there are those who treat you with dignity and provide the practical accompaniments to that. But there are also more sophisticated needs, and even fears, that good news can satisfy. There are people who need to be forgiven, who yearn for reconciliation, who just need a second chance in life, and of course, people who really need to be loved.” “Absolutely,” said Jo.
Olly continued. ”So you have to read the Gospels as responses to those needs, longings, yearnings. All of them are things that impede enjoyment and prevent living life to the full. And the Gospels chart ways to live life to the full. That is Jesus’s stated aim. So the question to ask is not: what does the New Testament say about this or that. The question is what lies behind the current concerns in the news. Are there longings that need to be met with good news, and if so, what good news does the Gospel have to offer? Are you with me so far?” Jo said she was. “So, as a journalist, what fears or needs underlie the news stories you’ve just pointed to, do you think?”
Jo said that she had been writing a piece that she was rather pleased with that had in fact made links between those these issues and some others, around the issue of identity. Left-behind communities whose members had formerly found their identity in their work; now that the work had gone, were clinging to a nationalist ethnic identity as security instead, she had written. “Me too” was a way of asserting identity and therefore worth and dignity, and transgender people were in one sense abandoning one identity, but claiming true identity. All of them had fears that society had somehow either downgraded them or marginalized them. “Right, now we’re getting somewhere,” said Olly. ”So your question really is: what does the New Testament have to say to such people that would be good news to them?”
He answered his own question. “The community to which Matthew was writing also had identity issues. What did it mean to be a Jew who was Christian? What commitment were you making as a non-Jew to a religious tradition that was unquestionably Jewish? How could you have an international religion that had no ethnic definition? Was some new kind of identity possible based on belonging to a community bound together by belief? Matthew’s Gospel deals with all these issues, but is also at one with a general New Testament message that true God-willed human community is possible, and that a new social concept called an ekklesia, could embody that, with the values that had been part of the Jewish tradition of the Kingdom of Heaven. Such communities would be inclusive though diverse, and would put love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, sharing, sacrifice and lust for life at the centre of what you might call their prospectus.”#
In Everyday Conversations with Matthew, published this month, John Holdsworth imagines the kind of people who might benefit from ‘talking’ to the gospel. What questions could they bring to Matthew’s account?
How might a young student be inspired by the sermon on the Mount? How can environmentalists, anxious for the future of the world, connect with Matthew’s concerns about the End?
These everyday conversations are predicated on a belief that connections are possible; that there are ways of seeing the pastoral or practical usefulness of the text, and, ultimately that there is some point in reading, preaching and teaching from Matthew’s gospel.