Understanding Matthew: the Early Christian Worldview of the First Gospel. By Stephen Westerholm


Pp. 160 , Baker Academic , 2006 , $18.00 .

The beginning of this book surprises. It starts with the coming to power in Germany of Adolf Hitler in 1932. What has this to do with the gospel of Matthew? Because it was the gospel of Matthew that inspired Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose view of the church and of Christian discipleship owed so much to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.

But there is work to be done before we can turn to Matthew or even Bonhoeffer. The first chapter is ‘Of Worldviews and Perspectives’. We begin with the view of the Psalmist according to whom ‘the earth and all its inhabitants who love peace and justice can rejoice in the assurance that God puts things right in the world’. This is hardly the worldview of many in our own world, who might well see reality as an accident of evolution, but it is close to that of Matthew. This book wants to show how Matthew made sense of things, and that it makes sense to see things his way (p. 26).

To help us understand Matthew and his worldview, our author goes straight to words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. ‘No Worry, No Fear’ is the title of his second chapter. Only those who live in the world which Jesus inhabited can share his lack of concern for life, food, drink and clothing (Matthew 6:24–34). His is a world ‘charged with the glory and goodness of God’ (p. 37). Often the realities of our cruel world make this hard to grasp, but Bonhoeffer glimpsed it in his prison cell where he could write of the God ‘who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives’ (p. 45). We remain in the Sermon on the Mount for next chapter entitled, ‘Who Does That?’, which struggles with Jesus' instructions that we are to ‘turn the other cheek’ if any one strikes us on one cheek (Matthew 5:38–39). Because we lack Jesus' vision of good and do not see the evil that he saw, we fail to draw lines which divide the good from the bad as he did. We readily admit the wrongfulness of murder and adultery; but Jesus saw how these have their roots in calling another a fool and in the lustful look. Jesus sided with the goodness of God in showing unending patience with sinners and with disciples who too easily failed. But the teaching of Jesus does not mean that we do not have to deal with evil. This chapter concludes with Bonhoeffer reflecting on his decision to join the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. ‘Doing nothing while the Nazis murdered any whom they deemed undesirable, was simply not an option’ (p. 57).

The central chapters show how our author is a master in the school of Matthew. In the chapter ‘Dialogue with the Almighty’, he demonstrates how. ‘All Israel's history… is summed up and reaches its climax in the life and proclamation of Jesus’ (p. 78). The story of Jesus started long before his birth, as his genealogy illustrates (Matthew 1:1–18); explicit and implicit references to the figures of Abraham, Moses and David, and to the period of the Babylonian exile, are detailed. With Jesus came the ‘Dawn of a New Age’, the title of the chapter about the Kingdom which Jesus preached. ‘To participate in the new age, we must adopt its goodness as our lifestyle’ (p. 87). The cross ‘brings to a climax the hostility which Gods kingdom encounters in the world’ (p.97). The final scene of the Gospel shows how this kingdom must be proclaimed throughout the world (p. 104).

A chapter on ‘The Lord of the Disciple’ follows, ‘Nowhere in the sacred scriptures of the Jews does a human being (prophet, priest, or king) demand personal allegiance like this’ (p. 107). As for ‘The Life of the Disciple’, the disciple is one who must obey Jesus, follow Jesus and belong to a community that is the church. Greatness in the kingdom is measured in service and not in power (p. 125). ‘The life to which disciples are called’ is, above all, ‘a life in Jesus' presence’ (p. 129).

The final chapter is called, ‘The Story of Matthew’, where we are given the story of Jesus as Matthew gave it. Matthew makes no direct application to the present, because this is the responsibility of the reader of the Gospel. ‘The choices people faced when they encountered Jesus are, in effect, the perennial choices people must make for or against God’ (pp. 143–144).

At times the readers may wonder what sort of book this is. Is it a work of parenesis or preaching? Like a good homily, it contains homely illustrations and offers comic book figures like Barney and Beulah, Bernie and Bertha in the chapter on different worldviews. It challenges Christian response in the world of today through its frequent references to the life, letters and death of Bonhoeffer confronted with tyranny and godlessness in Nazi Germany. Is it a work of scholarship? Although it contains a good index, it has no bibliography. Although it gives many footnotes, it fails to mention other scholars, and lacks cross references to other gospels. But our author writes with a sure hand about Matthew. This is clearly a gospel which he loves; he has obviously read about widely and he has much to teach us all about it.