The Gospel of Matthew (Pope Francis) - A Review

THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW: A Spiritual and Pastoral Reading.By Pope Francis. Foreword by Daniel P. Horan, OFM. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2020. Xiii + 215 pages.  

The Gospel of Matthew reveals a Jesus who is deeply rooted in Judaism. The author draws deeply from the Old Testament to describe and define the ministry of Jesus, from beginning to end. The Jesus who appears in these pages is deeply embedded in Jewish life, but he’s also not afraid to challenge the status quo. We encounter powerful visions of the Christian faith in the Sermon on the Mount and in the parables of Jesus, especially the parable of the Last Judgment. We go to the cross with Jesus and then watch as he’s resurrected, and before he departs, he commissions the church to make disciples of the world. It’s been a foundational message. It might not have been the first written, but it’s the first Gospel we encounter as we pick up the New Testament. Many excellent commentaries explore this Gospel. Some deeply exegetical and others deeply theological. I look to them for guidance when I take up this Gospel in my preaching and teaching. While this particular book, which draws on the writings, speeches, and sermons of Pope Francis is not a commentary it offers insight into the message of Jesus as revealed in Matthew’s Gospel. The book’s subtitle lets us know that what we will encounter here is "a spiritual and pastoral reading."

Before we get to this reading of Matthew’s Gospel, we need to acknowledge the mixed reviews this Pope has garnered, both inside and outside the Roman Catholic Church. While many of us have welcomed his pastoral demeanor and openness to change, others view him (mostly from within the church) as a threat to the traditions of the church. Some even view him as a heretic. So, not everyone will find this book appealing, because it offers a very pastoral and spiritual reading of the Gospel. He’s not a liberal Protestant, but there is much to be appreciated here, even for liberal Protestants who might want him to go much further on matters liberal Protestants care about. What I discovered in reading this book, is not only a way of reading Matthew’s understanding of Jesus but also Francis’ own vision of his calling as Pope. What I discovered in its pages is not only the presence of a church leader who isn't afraid to ruffle feathers but a man who is a deeply spiritual and compassionate person. In other words, he is a good witness for the faith.

Once again, this isn't a commentary. It’s also not a sustained reading of the Gospel. That is, Francis didn’t sit down with the Gospel of Matthew and write a book about the Gospel. Rather this is a collection of reflections written or spoken by the Pope over the years that touch upon Matthew’s Gospel. They’ve been carefully gathered and edited in such a way that one can move through Gospel with Francis as a guide.  Sometimes the reflections do have an exegetical dimension, and at other times there is a degree of distance between the passage and the comments present on the page. For the most part, however, the editors have done an excellent job of piecing together a coherent exploration of this Gospel. Most importantly this reading is pastoral, which is a reflection of Francis' own demeanor.

As you read through these reflections you will see Francis' deep spirituality, his pastoral intent, and his commitment to justice. It also reflects his evangelical inclinations, and by that, I mean his desire to proclaim the good news of Jesus. As the author of the introduction to the book notes, the book is intended to draw the reader "closer to Jesus and to discover the hidden treasure in the words of the Gospel, words that can make the heart burn again today" (pp. xi-xii).

It’s difficult to speak here about the flow of the book. You have to read it for what it is, a collection of reflections that reveal both the person of the author (Pope Francis) and its object (Jesus). You will be drawn to Matthew's text, but more importantly, I think you’ll be drawn into Jesus as you read the text and ponder Francis’ interpretations. You will catch his missional spirit. Consider this word in a reflection linked to Matthew 7:24-27, in which Francis writes of the charge Jesus gives to each of us: “

He asks us to be missionary disciples, men and women who radiate the truth, beauty, and life-changing power of the Gospel; men and women who are channels of God’s grace, who enable his mercy, kindness, and truth to become the building blocks of a house that stands firm, a house that is a home, where brothers and sisters at last live in harmony and mutual respect, in obedience to the will of the true God who has shown us, in Jesus, the way to that freedom and peace for which all hearts long. (p. 87).  

You will also gain insight into Francis' own spiritual identity and you will gain a new understanding of the word present in the Gospel, From that, comes a calling, as Francis reveals in the closing paragraph, which reflects on Matthew 28:19: "Every Christian is challenged, here and now, to be actively engaged in evangelization; indeed, anyone who has truly experienced God's saving love does not need much time or lengthy training to go out and proclaim that love." Yes, "every Christian is a missionary to the extent that he or she has encountered the love of God in Crist Jesus" (p. 243). That is Francis.

                If you’re looking for a commentary on Matthew go elsewhere. If you’re looking for preaching helps you may want to go elsewhere. If you want to catch a sense of God’s vision for the world, as revealed both in the Gospel and a modern disciple of Jesus, then this reading of Matthew will prove attractive.


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