Thought for the day
We could ask how is the Risen Lord with us? The New Testament and the church tradition offer a rich array of “presences.” Christ is present in the neighbour in need, in created reality beautiful and awe-inspiring, whenever the disciples gather, in the word proclaimed, in the sacrament celebrated and through the Holy Spirit. Perhaps we do not always feel this presence, but the words of Jesus are a guarantee that no matter what is going on in my life or my community or my church, he is with us, our Emmanuel.
Emmanuel—God with us—we thank you that you are indeed always with us. Help us to find you and recognise where you truly are and not just where we want you to be. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Matt 28:16 So the eleven disciples went to Galilee to the mountain Jesus had designated. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came up and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
All four Gospels have different ways of bringing the story to a close. The most stark is Mark, which originally ended with the enigmatic and impossible 16:8. Luke shows the disciples continuing to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Gospel began and where the Acts will begin. The final blessing takes place in Bethany in this Gospel. John’s Gospel, has in effect, two endings, both highly significant: 20:30-31 and all of chapter 21. Today’s passage is Matthew’s closure of the Gospel story, a closure which is really an opening. The location, words and gestures are all unique to Matthew. The timing (Easter Sunday?) seems unclear.
Kind of writing
Properly speaking, this final scene of the Gospel is a peroration, that is, a final summing up or résumé. It synthesises the identity of Jesus in this Gospel, in the light of the resurrection. It portrays the mission of the Church, especially baptism. It promises the continued presence-in-absence of the Risen Lord.
Old Testament background
(i) In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a new Moses-type figure. This is very clear from Matt 1-2. Within the Gospel itself, Jesus’ central teaching is given from a mountain (Matt 5-7), just as Moses gave his teaching on Mount Sinai. Finally, just as Moses went up a mountain (Mount Nebo, within sight of the Holy Land) before his final departure (Deut 34:1-2), likewise Jesus from a mountain, this time within the Holy Land, makes his final appearance.
(ii) The phrase “I am with you” or “I will be with you” has a tremendous echo in the Old Testament: Noah, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon, Isaiah and so on are all given this promise. It is especially rich in the book of Jeremiah (Jer 1:8, 19; 15:20; 30:11; 42:11; 46:28):
Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.” (Jer 1:8)
(iii) Behind this lies the name of God as revealed to Moses.
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’” (Ex 3:13–14) That in turn is taken up is a special way by the prophet Isaiah (cited in Matt 1:22-23), because Immanuel means literally God (El) with us (immanu).
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Is 7:14).
(iv) The extraordinary claim to authority echoes a significant OT text:
As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed. (Dan 7:13–14)
New Testament foreground
(i) Authority: in this Gospel the teaching and actions of Jesus enjoy a special authority which causes a reaction (Matt 7:29; 8:9; 9:6, 8; 10:1; 21:23-24, 27; 28:18). This authority, in turn, is given is a special way to Peter (16:18).
(ii) Mountains have a symbolic function in this gospel, as their frequency in comparison with the other Gospels shows (12-7-6-4).
(iii) Worship:“Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” (Matt. 2:2) Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (Matt. 2:8) On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt. 2:11) And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:33) Suddenly Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. (Matt. 28:9)
(iv) End of the age: this expression is found only in this Gospel, reflecting the continued commitment to end-time hope: …and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. (Matt. 13:39-40) So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous. (Matt. 13:49 ) When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” (Matt. 24:3) “…and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this. (1 Th 5:23–24)
Verse 16 That is, the Twelve minus Judas. Galilee—Mark’s Gospel promised they would see the Risen Lord in Galilee. This probably means that on the Gentile mission, they would experience the Second Coming. However, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, already it was clear that there would be a “time of the Church”, with some rudimentary structures. So, in this Gospel, the function of the Galilee appearance changes to a commission to continue the mission.
Verse 17 A reassuring feature of the resurrection appearance narratives is the initial doubt of the recipients. Worship of Jesus began early and is noted in the Gospel of Matthew from the start.
Verse 18 Heaven and earth, as a combined expression, occur in this Gospel more frequently than in the others (24-4-10-4). This is the universal, even cosmic authority of the Risen Lord as shown in Matthew 25 especially.
Verse 19 This is the first mention of baptism since Jesus’ own baptism (Matt 3:6, 11, 13-14, 16). As we see from Romans 6, Christian baptism is essentially different from the baptism of John. The Trinity, as a doctrine, is present in nuce in the NT, although rare. It took several centuries before the Church proposed what we would recognise as the Trinity. However, the seeds are present in texts such as this one. Disciples are mentioned very frequently in this Gospel (74-48-40-79).
Verse 20 There is a great deal of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel, collected into five great speeches (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25). The “being with” echoes the name given to Jesus uniquely in this Gospel: “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’” (Matt 1:22-23) Verse 10 This mysterious (mystic?) phrase takes us back to an earlier verse: All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. (John 16:15) Intriguingly, Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.’ (Luke 15:31)
Pointers for prayer
1. It is time for Jesus to return to his Father. He meets his disciples for the last time. His final words give them direction for their future. Perhaps you can recall such parting moments in your own life - leaving home, school, college, training, the death of a loved one. What was that like for you? Was there an occasion when words spoken then gave you direction for your future?
2. Perhaps you can identify with Jesus in the story, when as a parent, teacher, or in some other way you sent someone on his/her way in life knowing you would not be with him or her as in the past. When did the way you parted help the other to make his or her own way in life?
3. Jesus told his disciples that although he would not be with them as in the past he would be with them in a new way right through their lives. Have there been times when you were reassured by the love and support of another even though s/he was not physically present with you?
4. In parting with his disciples Jesus gave them a mission for the future. Where, when and how did you get a sense of the meaning and purpose of your own life? How does that sustain you now? Is there any way in which that purpose ties in with the mission given to the eleven to make disciples of all the nations?
5. Matthew’s Gospel begins by introducing Jesus as “Emmanuel – God with us” and ends with the promise of Jesus to be with his disciples until the end of time. That promise is also to us. What are the things which help you to be aware of the presence of Jesus with you on life’s journey?
God of majesty, yours is the power that raised Christ from death, yours the glory that exalted him to your right hand. By the mystery of the Ascension, sustain our hope as we bear witness to our baptism.
By the perpetual outpouring of your Spirit confirm your Church in its mission of salvation. Grant this through Jesus Christ, the first-born from the dead, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.