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Book Review: Matthew (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible)

Written by Anna Case-Winters and Reviewed by Lloyd Southwick

Matthew’s presentation of the life and teachings of Jesus is related to the struggles that his addressee church is wrestling with, at the time when Matthew probably wrote his gospel, probably between 70 and 107 a.d. Matthew’s community of believers is thought to have been Jewish, and was likely located in Syrian Antioch. These issues resonate “remarkably with challenges we face today.” They can be categorized as follows: conflict and division were problems for the community of faith; some members were insiders and others were outsiders; political and religious leaders were distrusted and discredited; most of the common people were powerless; cultures clashed. These issues allow an outline of the gospel that Matthew has given us.

In addition to verse-by-verse comments on the First Gospel, Anna Case-Winters (Professor of Theology, McCormick Theological Seminary, Chicago) offers us many Further Reflections, a feature that is common to this Belief series of commentaries. These excursuses range from two to sixteen pages. The Sermon on the Mount generates the most of these reflections from a single section (three) and the longest. They are substantial, helpful comments, and some of these will be considered in the rest of this review.

In commenting on Jesus’ baptism (3.1-17), Case-Winters mentions the “provocative insight” of Karl Barth that baptism is inextricably tied up with vocation, just as Jesus’ baptism came at the beginning of his call. This connection, Case-Winters says, has not been fully recognized by the church. Barth’s understanding is that baptism is ordination for ministry. All baptized Christians are consecrated, ordained, and dedicated to the ministry of the church. This view recognizes that God has claim upon the lives of all believers, a claim that is announced in the sacrament of baptism.

Peacemakers in Jesus’ 7th beatitude (5.9) are active promoters of peace. They work for justice and reconciliation, addressing the basic issues that lead to and sustain hostilities. The new reality they work for is in the direction of the Kingdom of God.

“[P]raying the Lord’s Prayer (6.9-13) is a subversive activity … praying for the overturning of the present order and the coming of God’s reign on earth in its place,” (Michael Crosby). To pray the prayer lightly is to disregard what we are saying (Frederick Buechner).

The center of Jesus’ message is the reign of God. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (4.17, NIV). Matthew 13 has seven parables on the reign of God (the sower, mustard seed, yeast, etc.), and throughout the Gospel are other parables with this central message. Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount (5.1-7.29) are in accord with the reign of the kingdom of God. In these teachings Jesus calls for the complete reordering of life and relationships. With mercy and justice/righteousness at the center of the kingdom, this new life will entail lives of love without limits or exclusions—including love of enemy. Jesus’ miracles of healing announce the presence of God’s kingdom, and with these healings he embraces those at the margins—the poor, sick, outcast, sinful, powerless. Jesus’ message addresses not only personal life but also religious, social, economic and political life. And the church too must keep this message of the reign of God at the center of its ministry.

In Jesus’ parable of the weeds and the wheat (13.24-30), judgment and mercy are held together, as they are also in other parables of judgment. As the Presbyterian Church (USA) “A Declaration of Faith” declares, “… God loves the whole world and wills the salvation of all humankind in Christ. … Knowing the righteous judgment of God in Christ, we urge all people to be reconciled to God, not exempting ourselves from the warnings. Constrained by God’s love in Christ, we have good hope for all people, not exempting the most unlikely from the promises. Judgment belongs to God and not to us. We are sure that God’s future for every person will be both merciful and just.”

The Lord’s Supper in 26.20-29 has tremendous theological significance. Matthew makes clear the Passover setting of the meal, which Jesus emphasizes with his declaration, “This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (NIV). The meal is shared with sinners. Peter denied his Lord, Judas betrayed him, and all forsook him at his arrest. “Here we remember that we are all deniers/betrayers/deserters.” Here we share bread, wine, and forgiveness. In this sacrament we receive the benefits of the grace God extends to us in Christ. Calvin and Luther agreed that there is a “real connection between the sign and the thing signified.” In her discussion of the views of faith and the Lord’s Supper among Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli, Case-Winters summarizes, “There is no question of whether Christ is really present in the sacrament; the question is whether we are really present.” With respect to the Table as a communion event, Calvin said that we cannot separate communion with Christ from communion with one another in Christ. He emphasized that this communion extends beyond the sacrament in church to our daily interactions with one another: as we treat one another we treat our Lord. The Table is one of reconciliation: as Jesus taught that before bringing a gift to the altar, “first be reconciled to your brother or sister” (5.24, NRSV). Reaching across the world to our fellow churches of all denominations emphasizes our basic unity in Christ, regardless of theological differences. At the Table we offer up our very selves as living sacrifices, worshiping God with transformed lives. Anglican theologian Rowan Williams has called us in this act a new species of human, Homo eucharisticus. This transformed life is characterized by justice and generosity; as we venerate the sacramental Body and Blood of Christ, we must also seriously respect our neighbor. The Lord’s Supper anticipates the coming reign of God, looking forward to the messianic banquet. In this new age all the nations are to be included (28.19-20). In Mathew, Jesus makes a definite connection between his feeding miracles and the Last Supper. In all of these events, the Lord uses the same language: “takes,” “blesses,” “breaks,” “gives.” And at the messianic banquet, which the Lord’s Supper anticipates, no one goes away hungry. “There is plenty for all and more to share …. Everyone is gathered at God’s table of plenty … all at that table are pushed back and satisfied and enjoying one another” (Michael Winters).

Case-Winters’ Matthew is an enlightening, thoughtful, challenging commentary on the First Gospel. Check it out from the Covenant Library!

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