The Word Among Us

June 2008 Issue

Getting More out of Matthew

A different kind of commentary shows how.

By: Bert Ghezzi

For the past month, I have been reading a portion of Matthew’s Gospel during my morning prayer. I’ve done this before, on my own, but this time around, I have a guide to accompany me: George Martin’s new book, Bringing the Gospel of Matthew to Life. Martin, a popular and reliable biblical commentator, not only unpacks the meaning of the text for me, he also illuminates it with insights that have practical consequences for my life.

He helps me to understand the words on the page as they were originally meant by Matthew; he also helps me see how I should change my life to become a more loving Christian and follower of Jesus.

So That’s What It Means! Of course, sometimes the meaning of a gospel verse is clear. When Jesus says, “Pray for those who persecute you,” we know exactly what we must do. But it requires more effort to understand the beatitude “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3,44). This verse has always intrigued me. Here’s Martin’s take on it (boldfaced words are those from Matthew’s gospel):

Jesus proclaims that the poor in spirit are blessed because they will be part of God’s reign when it is established. But Jesus says more than that: He says that the poor in spirit are in a blessed condition now because theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The poor in spirit already participate in God’s reign because their recognition that they are fragile and empty allows God to have unimpeded reign in their lives.

Jesus’ pronouncement is a shocking reversal of our usual way of thinking. We do not enter into God’s reign by what we have or do, but by realizing what we do not have and cannot do, and by our turning to God in our emptiness.

Something to Think About. Interspersed in Martin’s discussion are questions designed to lead us into prayer. I lingered over the one that follows his comments on the “poor in spirit” beatitude: When have I turned to God in my emptiness?

As I reflected on it, I came to see that being “poor in spirit” isn’t necessarily about how much wealth I have but about how I can rely more on God. I think about that now, when I confront my compulsion to keep things under my control—when I feel I have to win an argument, or I get irritable when I am crossed. I need to acknowledge the emptiness of my self-concern and turn the matter over to God.

Among the many helpful features of this book are its one hundred short essays that describe the culture of ancient Judaism and the first-century world. These “backgrounds” are placed where they are relevant to something mentioned in that part of the gospel.

Sometimes the “backgrounds” are thought provoking. Did you know, for example, that “a beatitude does not call down God’s blessing on a person”? Neither did I. Rather, “it declares that the person is already fortunate in the eyes of God because of what the beatitude praises him or her for being or doing.” And of course, the “background” sections are always informative: It was interesting to learn, for instance, that there are about sixty beatitudes in the Old Testament and twenty-eight in the New, and that Psalm 1 “is an extended beatitude.”

For easy reference, the full text of the New American Bible translation of Matthew is included in this commentary. In addition, Martin sets Matthew in the context of the whole Bible by providing both New Testament parallels and Old Testament references for each passage; sometimes he inserts an especially illustrative Old Testament quote.

Lifelong Learner. Like many “cradle” Catholics, George Martin did not read the Bible regularly growing up. Then in 1964, when he was twenty-four years old, he decided to read Scripture for fifteen minutes a day during Lent. The habit stuck.

But Martin came to writing about Scripture quite by “accident” (although the Holy Spirit certainly had something to do with it!). Thirty-five years ago, he was responsible for sending out fliers for a monthly prayer meeting. Since the backs of the fliers were empty, he began including some thoughts about Scripture passages. His reflections grew in popularity and eventually became the monthly “Your Word” column in New Covenant magazine. Then from 1979 to 1991, he published and edited the Scripture magazine God’s Word Today. He also wrote the bestselling Reading Scripture as the Word of God, which remains popular with Catholics to this day.

Martin is retired now and lives in Florida. But as he says in his dedication to his first gospel commentary, Bringing the Gospel of Mark to Life, his idea of retirement is to continue writing about Scripture. His gift is to convey the best insights of modern Scripture scholarship in a way that the average Catholic can understand—so he studies the myriad views of the most respected Catholic scholars on each passage of the gospel before he begins his writing. As a result, his love of Scripture and his passion that Catholics reap its benefits are evident throughout this book.

As I slowly pray my way through Bringing the Gospel of Matthew to Life, I am taking away many new insights. For example, I learned why Matthew included four women in the genealogy of Jesus, what the saltiness of salt really has to do with discipleship, and why Jesus submitted to John’s baptism.

But I am not just acquiring information, important as that is. With Martin’s help, Jesus is being revealed to me in a deeper way that draws me closer to him and helps me to love him more. This is the true gift of the word of God.

Bert Ghezzi is the author of The Heart of a Saint.