What Matthew Meant to Convey, Then and Today

Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew by Edward P. Sri Emmaus Road Press, 1999 160 pages, $9.95

Apologetics readers may recall Edward Sri, assistant professor of religious studies at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., as one of the contributors to the same publisher's Catholic for a Reason.

Here Sri examines the exegetical highlights of the good news according to St. Matthew in 11 concise chapters. “The King's Anointing,” “Putting the Kingdom into Action” and “Keys to the Kingdom” are among the topics he focuses on, emphasizing Matthew's presentation of Jesus as the true king of Israel for whom the oppressed Israelites had been waiting since the collapse of the Davidic dynasty. That the restored kingdom goes beyond the Israelites’ every expectation is the point of the book, and of that Gospel. The restored Kingdom is, in fact, the Roman Catholic Church.

In a direct, highly readable style, Sri familiarizes the reader with the first-century Jewish mentality which, sculpted by the Old Testament and the historical experience of the people of God, constituted the context in which Jesus taught and acted. What he did and said can't really be grasped apart from that mentality. Sri shows exceptional awareness of this, and of the fact that the modern reader of Matthew brings to the text his own set of contemporary assumptions.

The Son of God was raised by Joseph of Nazareth, a workingman, and his wife; Sri keeps us focused on this simple reality as he sets out to explain how the whole of Matthew's Gospel must have impacted ancient Jews. “Ever since the first sin, when Adam and Eve ‘hid themselves from the presence of the Lord’ (Genesis 3:8), God has been working to restore communion with sinful humanity,” writes Sri. “And God planned to use Israel as His chosen people and the Davidic king as their leader and representative in order to reach the nations and gather all people back into communion with the one true God. But without their kingdom, without a Davidic king, and still suffering under foreign domination, some first-century Jews might have wondered what happened to God's great promises for their nation and felt somewhat abandoned.”

Moving adroitly from Matthew's worldview to ours, Sri sets the staggering meaning of Jesus’ words and deeds in sharp relief. He notes, for example, the way the Evangelist gets the contemporary reader to envision what a Jew at the time of Jesus would have experienced in Jerusalem: “Imagine gazing upon a building which makes up about one-fourth of an entire city and occupies an area equivalent to thirty-five football fields. That's what Jewish pilgrims would see when they approached the gigantic Temple to worship the one true God.” Not even the big-budget cinematography in Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, where Jesus as a youth looks with knowing eyes at the entrance of the Temple, leaves one as awestruck as this factual description.

The Son of God was raised by Joseph of Nazareth, a workingman, and his wife.

Sri extends his description of the first-century Jews’ theology, as well, commenting on Matthew 9:2, where Jesus tells the paralytic that his sins are forgiven: The scribes “believed that only God could forgive sins and He did so through the Temple priests and the Temple sacrifices. ‘Who does this man think he is, forgiving sins apart from the Temple?’ they would ask. Thus, in the simple action of saying, ‘your sins are forgiven,’ Jesus claimed to do only what God could do. And He was saying to the Jews, ‘What you used to get at the Temple in Jerusalem and the levitical priesthood you can get right here, right now, with Me.’ In one broad stroke, Jesus bypassed the Temple system altogether and proclaimed Himself the source of forgiveness of sins. Jesus made Himself the new Temple, hinting that the days of the Temple in Jerusalem might be coming to an end. No wonder the scribes were so upset!”

Sri uses this technique of “translation,” of restating for the modern reader what Jesus’ remarks meant for their original hearers, frequently. “When Jesus is understood in His historical context,” Sri insists, “we will see more clearly that practically every move He made is charged with great meaning and sheds light on His overall plan to build His kingdom.”

Sri proves this thesis ably, and the book provides a worthwhile guide on that score alone. However, he has added study questions at the end of each chapter — some to reinforce the history lessons, others to stimulate thought and discussion on how Christ can build his Kingdom in our lives and hearts today. The questions seem to hit the mark squarely on the history side, where reiterating points can aid in memorization, but they meet with mixed results on the life-application front. The problem with the questions in the latter category is that they seem oversimplified vis- a-vis the treatment they're given in the text. For example, following an examination of Jesus’ habit of eating with sinners, a detail rich with evangelical and ecumenical implications, readers are asked to consider: “Specifically, how can you challenge yourself to extend fellowship to those who might not share the same values, interests, and ideas as you do?”

In spite of these shortcomings as a life-application guide, Sri's Mystery is a useful aid to understanding Catholic heritage — and a worthy addition to Emmaus Road's growing catalogue.

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.