A TASTE OF THE GOSPELS
Talks on the distinctive flavors of the four Gospels
given by Father Augustine Clark, retired Catholic priest assisting at Annunciation Catholic Church.
Click on the session to read the text for each talk.
TALK 1: FIRST WEEK OF LENT
Father, you gave us the gift of the gospels so that we might know your Son. Help us to seek Him there day by day, dawn by dawn. Make our search persevering, never wearied, never tired or bored; until we discover who He is for the human race: your beloved Son, our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
- MARK’S GOSPEL: THE RAW INGREDIENTS
The great disciplines of Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and I guess all of us have made room for those. Perhaps you’re trying to come to Mass more often, or attending the Stations of the Cross on Fridays. You’ve probably given up some favorite food, and you may have increased your giving, especially at this time to the Catholic Appeal. All of that is fruitful, but today Annunciation parish is adding one more element to our Lent program. Lent has traditionally been a time for instruction. In the early Church, catechumens who were preparing for baptism at Easter received special classes during Lent, and I’ve always made an effort to provide some kind of adult education in the parishes where I’ve served. Today I intend to speak for about half an hour and then we’ll have a few minutes for questions if you have any – and if I can answer them.
As some of you will know, I have been in Florida by now for over eighteen years. Before that my full-time work, although I was a priest, was as a teacher and administrator in a Benedictine school and my home was the monastery which was attached to the school. There are many beautiful things about the monastic life: the silence, the regular worship, the support of a community; and I still always visit them when I return to Britain in the summer for my vacation. But I’ll let you into a secret. One of the worst things about being a monk is having no access to a kitchen and never having the chance to prepare food for yourself or cook. I know that many of you would be delighted not to have to cook but you would probably miss it if the opportunity was altogether removed. We recognize that cooking is creative, almost an art form, and it’s also connected with culture: it’s a way in which an individual or a nation can express its identity. Since coming to Florida it’s not just key lime pie I’ve been introduced to; I’ve come to know pancit, the special noodles from the Philippines, Colombian arepas, Puerto Rican coquito, Vietnamese pho and Lebanese tabbouleh. Back in the monastery and school in England we missed that kind of variety because we had caterers, used to producing much the same food in institutions all over the country. Like the food you get in hospitals or on long-distance flights, it tended to be bland, lacking in flavor; and the same menu was repeated every three weeks, so if meatballs appeared you knew it must be Wednesday. I longed to have access to a kitchen and the chance to prepare something which would be different in flavor and style. Even here in America where so many people eat out, I think people still have a desire for freshly prepared food and I’m sure that is why cookery shows are so popular on television these days. I was amused back in 2015 when an ancient recipe book was discovered in the monastery library. It was part of a collection of books which had been saved from a great house which had been burned down by suffragettes (women who wanted the right to vote) in 1913. This was the cook’s private recipe book, handwritten in 1793, with favorite dishes to be served for the master of the house, including a stew of pigs’ ears and feet and turtle soup. The discovery was reported on T.V. and in the press and one of the monks, actually the priest who was ordained with me, was allowed into the kitchen to try out some of the recipes.
Well, today and over the next three weeks I want to introduce you to some flavors that you might not have noticed, the flavors of the gospels. We tend to think of the gospels as almost identical, doing more or less the same job. In fact we might have wondered why there are four gospels when one would have done perfectly well, and at various times writers have produced harmonies of the gospels, running them together. That’s not hard to do, especially for Matthew, Mark and Luke. It has always been clear that John’s gospel is very different in style, it stands apart and it is generally agreed that it was written somewhat later than the others. But the similarity of Matthew, Mark and Luke is so striking that they are called the synoptic gospels, an expression which means that they look the same at first glance. As I say, the similarity is striking but I want to persuade you that even with the synoptics identity is not the whole story. In the first three talks my aim is to look at each of those first three gospels and concentrate on their differences. In fact I’m convinced that the individuality of the gospels is a great gift to the Church, one of the signs of God’s inspiration of the Scriptures. We are missing out hugely if we do not pick up the distinctive flavor of each gospel.
I think it’s helpful to use the metaphor of food and cooking because each of the gospels is food for the spiritual life, providing a substantial diet. In fact I sometimes get annoyed when people come to me with new devotions which, they say, promise a quick route to sanctity. I first heard the story of Jesus when I was about five, and I know that after nearly seventy years of prayer and study I have by no means exhausted the nourishment which comes from the four gospels. Saint Jerome, who translated the Bible from Greek to Latin, said that “ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ”. In this season of Lent when our whole purpose is to return to Christ, it is appropriate that we should examine the gospels, which are the most important part of the Scriptures for Christians.
Nourishment is about more than calories and vitamins and minerals. Cooking is an art. The success of any meal depends on ingredients, preparation and presentation. You will know that the same ingredients do not always produce the same results. That’s why you can have barbecue cook-offs, where serious men use secret marinades and meat rubs to obtain the ideal taste. Even in Britain they hold competitions for the best sponge cake or strawberry jam. The ingredients may be identical but something about the preparation makes one version quite distinctive. It is the same with the gospels. You can say that the gospel writers set off with the same ingredients: the life of Jesus; but the final flavor of each product is not the same. Part of that, of course, is that we vary our preparation and presentation according to the audience. You present things differently for your family or for important guests. In fact if a mother gives her family a highly sophisticated meal instead of home cooking, they are unlikely to appreciate it; they may even be rather suspicious. Certainly, when we look at each of the gospels, we will note how they have been written in a special way, given a particular slant, for a distinct target audience.
Now you may expect me to start with Matthew’s gospel, the first in order in the New Testament, but many of you will know that it is generally agreed that Mark’s was the first gospel to be written. That makes us look at Mark, the author, in a new way. His gospel is the shortest, the least sophisticated, but instead of producing a poor version of what Matthew had done better, as people thought in the past, we now realize that Mark was the inventor of the gospel form. If you like, he was the master chef who created the original dish. Now we are all familiar these days with celebrity chefs, but how many of them have really managed to invent an original dish? Do they bear comparison with Escoffier, the inventor of the Peach Melba, or the man who – in a moment of haste before the battle – put together the first sandwich? And I would like to shake hands with the unsung hero who, after hours of deep pondering, came up with the first sausage. Who knows, that great creative genius may even have been a woman! But my point is that Mark was doing something new. The gospel format is not found anywhere else in ancient literature. Far from being the poor relation of the other evangelists, Mark is a genius.
Perhaps my stress on the novelty of Mark’s work is surprising. After all, isn’t the gospel a kind of biography? In fact the second century writer Justin Martyr referred to the gospels as the “memoirs of the apostles” which were read every Sunday in the churches. It would not be surprising if Mark set out to write a biography of Jesus. The disciples were getting old or were having their lives threatened by persecution. It would make sense to collect their eye-witness accounts into a coherent narrative – and we know that the biography was a recognized literary form in the Greco-Roman world. There is evidence that Mark had access to the memories of Peter; indeed, he may even have been living in Rome and acting as Peter’s secretary. Nevertheless, to consider his gospel as a mere “life of Jesus” (as the majority of people did in the nineteenth century) is notably to underestimate its originality. Ancient biographies never concentrate so much on the death of their leading character; they do not have the abrupt ending that Mark’s gospel does; and their typical characteristic is entertaining anecdotes – a feature strikingly absent from all the gospels.
So Mark was not attempting a straightforward historical account of the life and teaching of Jesus. If you look at the text of the gospel you will see that there is little reference to time or place. Very often the only connecting word you get between incidents is “then” or “immediately”, although that makes no sense if you take it literally. Many of the stories could be slotted in at any point in the whole without upsetting the narrative. Rather we have to take seriously the words which Mark placed at the very start: “The beginning of the Good News about Jesus Christ, the Son of God”. The gospel is not a story but a proclamation, bringing good news to those who hear it, just as Jesus was good news for those who first encountered him. Mark assumes that his readers will already know that Jesus is the Son of God; they are already Christians, not curious onlookers, already members of the Church who are used to hearing accounts of Jesus.
This brings us to look at Mark’s ingredients. A cook does not create a great meal out of thin air, and Mark also found materials ready to hand. You might think that he was making use of his own direct memory of Jesus, but of course Mark himself was not one of the disciples. He may, as I said, have used Peter’s memories but his main sources were stories of Jesus already circulating in the churches, in the local Christian communities. You have to remember that people at that time had a much greater capacity to recall and transmit accounts by word of mouth; stories of Jesus would have been told whenever Christians met together, either to demonstrate his power, as in miracle stories, or to illustrate a point, like the many passages which end with some significant words of Jesus. It as if the reading of the gospel and the homily of the present liturgy were somehow combined, because it is clear that these stories were not preserved as a clinical historical record, but because they had meaning and power for the people who heard them; they already reflect the Easter faith even when they are recounting events which happened before Easter; they are more preaching than history. In this way Mark had a lot of help. He may have been the creator of the final product, the gospel, but the ingredients were already nicely pre-packaged for him, as if the early Church was the Publix of its time. If we think of Mark as a chef, he didn’t have to go out into the fields and kill a cow or dig up some potatoes; rather he was able to find most of what he wanted in manageable quantities. Now it is possible that some of the ingredients of the gospel had already moved from being isolated stories to being collected into groups or even written down – even more neatly packaged. For example Mark Chapter 2 is a collection of stories where Jesus is in dispute with the Jewish authorities; perhaps they were already grouped together for the instruction of Jewish converts and Mark simply took the whole lot over. Likewise it is probable that the Passion Narrative, Chapters 14 and 15 in Mark, had already taken up its form before Mark’s time through constant recitation in the local churches, either as part of the catechesis of new members or in worship as a kind of combination of the creed and the Eucharistic prayer. These semi-prepared ingredients were available to Mark.
So what kind of meal has Mark produced? I think we would have to compare it to a Mediterranean meal, where some of the ingredients are left raw and others are not messed about with too much. It is as if traditions from the early Church are picked out and simply laid on a plate. That is, fragments of the preaching which the earliest Christians would have heard have been selected by Mark and strung together, in a minimally elaborated way, in the form of a life story. It is certainly unsophisticated by modern standards of biography because Mark gives no account at all of Jesus’ early life. And, as I said, Mark often puts one story after another, just placed side by side, without much effort to link them. The Greek word “euthus”, meaning “immediately” or “then” is used 43 times. Jesus did this, then he did that, then he did something else – and we are left guessing whether Mark is talking about the same day or months later. But however simple, Mark did it, and it is often the case that the simplest inventions are the most enduring. This “gospel”, an account of the good news of Jesus, was something new, a combination of preaching and a life story. And although Mark’s is the shortest and perhaps the least popular of the gospels we must be grateful for the divine inspiration which led him to do this new thing.
Now with the other gospel writers it is comparatively easy to pick up what is distinctive about them, their particular flavor, because we can compare them with Mark. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to dismiss Mark’s work as a flavorless compilation. Let us test it for flavor at two points. First, what picture does it give us of Jesus? This is the inner part of the gospel, because the way the gospel writers portray Jesus reveals something of their own inner lives, their own relationship with the Lord. Secondly, what moral teaching does the gospel contain? That is the outer aspect of the gospel, showing us how the Christian way is to be lived out.
Well, a taste test on the first point reveals that Mark is very distinctive. Although he describes Jesus as the Son of God in the first words of the gospel, he puts a huge emphasis on Jesus as a human being. We are to find the divinity of Jesus in his human life, as it were looking below the surface. Mark mentions Jesus’ human feelings, such as anger and grief (3, 5: “grieved to find them so obstinate, he looked angrily round at them”); and he is also more explicit than the other synoptic gospels about Jesus’ love (9, 36 and 10, 16: he “put his arms round” children; 10, 21: and when he saw the rich young man “Jesus looked steadily at him and loved him”). For Mark these human feelings are signs of God’s love. Human actions are also important. Obviously the many miracles of healing are signs of God’s triumph over evil, but even little details can be significant. Mark says that Jesus “made the twelve” (3, 14 and 3, 16), using the verb which the Greek Bible uses for creation. Mark wants to say that here is a new creation, the Church. Jesus’ human words also carry more meaning than is immediately apparent. When Jesus answers Caiaphas, he says “I am” (14, 62), a natural, colloquial response. Yet here again is the mystery of God: “I am” is the name of God revealed to Moses (Ex. 3, 14). Finally, Mark pays a lot of attention to Jesus’ passion. Death is the lowest point of human weakness, but for Mark precisely this dying in a human way is a moment of revelation (15, 39: Jesus dies in agony, crying out in a loud voice “My God, my God, why have you deserted me?”; but Mark makes it clear that the centurion “had seen how he died” and yet confessed “In truth this man was the Son of God”).
So the divine is revealed in the humanity of Jesus. This is what the disciples have got to understand – and Mark shows that they found it difficult. And this is what we disciples have to understand. The mystery of Jesus is offered to each of us, but we have to penetrate beneath the surface of the person of Jesus to find in his human life and death the “secret of the kingdom of God” (4, 11). Jesus for Mark is an ambiguous figure; we have to work to know him. Even the resurrection does not remove the mystery, for it seems likely that the original ending to the gospel is half way through the last chapter: the women find the empty tomb and see the angel but then the last verse reads: “And the women came out and ran away from the tomb because they were frightened out of their wits; and they said nothing to a soul, for they were afraid” (16, 8). Now it may be that the original ending of the gospel was lost because this is surprisingly abrupt, and later writers added verses to make a tidier and more confident conclusion, yet these mysterious last words do seem to fit in with Mark’s overall style.
The Jesus of Mark is a mystery, and perhaps he wrote in this way because he was writing for Christians who were being persecuted by the mighty force of the Roman Empire, Christians who needed to hang on to their faith even when the presence of God was not obvious. That setting in time of persecution, combined with the belief that the world was soon to end, may also explain the comparative lack of moral teaching in the gospel. Mark was not concerned to provide a handbook of moral guidance for Christian congregations; only one thing is necessary: to sense the overwhelming power and mystery of God and accept his rule.
So Mark’s simple gospel has a more robust flavor than we might have expected. It is a gospel for an embattled world, in which God is not obvious, and the Church is under attack. In that sense it is a gospel for today because the Christian faith on which America was founded is certainly under attack, directly by those who claim that any mention of God is an infringement of civil liberties and indirectly but still powerfully by the overwhelming materialism of our society. By coming here today to hear a talk on some two thousand year old documents when others are out having an early lunch or doing some shopping you are doing something which would be incomprehensible to many people you know. But have faith. Here in the community of the Church we come into contact with a deeper reality. In St. Mark’s gospel, you can hear “the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.
TALK 2: SECOND WEEK OF LENT
Father, you gave us the gift of the gospels so that we might know your Son. Help us to seek him there day by day, dawn by dawn. Make our search persevering, never wearied, never tired or bored; until we discover who He is for the human race: your beloved Son, our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
- MATTHEW’S GOSPEL: HOME COOKING
These talks are an examination of the four gospels, and in particular an attempt to search out the distinctive flavor of each one. Last week we looked at Mark’s gospel, what we believe to be the first gospel to be written, and we noted its simplicity and closeness to the original ingredients. Today we are asking what kind of spiritual nourishment, what kind of soul food, has been cooked up by Saint Matthew. Remember what goes into a good meal: the ingredients, the skill of the cook, and an awareness of the people and the occasion you are cooking for. And when we’re considering a gospel we are looking at the ingredients in the tradition of the Church which were available to the writer, we’re looking at the writer’s skill in combining those ingredients, and we’re looking at the way his creative task was influenced by his desire to please (or challenge) his anticipated audience.
So was Matthew a master chef or not? Well, here we have to reveal something embarrassing. Matthew was a cheat. We have to imagine him wanting to provide something really splendid for the Christians in his local church. And so he looked into that great supermarket of traditions about Jesus which the early Church was: all kinds of accounts about him, miracle stories and teachings and snippets of sermons, the great set piece of the Passion Narrative and stories of the resurrection appearances as well. It is very important to emphasize that the gospel writers drew on what was already there; they did not invent what they wrote. If they had, their works would certainly have been rejected because the stories of Jesus were well known among the first Christians. The oral tradition about Jesus was still alive and well. Nevertheless, if, as we believe, Matthew was one of the disciples, he also had his own memories to draw on. Thus there was a huge choice, and yet his roving eye kept on returning to one thing; and he succumbed to temptation. It may be a temptation to which you have given way as well. Instead of choosing fresh ingredients and being prepared to slave for hours over them Matthew, as it were, picked out for the heart of his offering a ready prepared meal. The fact is that Mathew was writing after Mark, and so there, freely available to him, was a ready-made gospel. Poor old Matthew; he couldn’t resist. He was like someone roaming through Publix and seeing something delicious on the shelves of the freezer cabinet.
Now I know you would never buy frozen lasagna or ready-made meatballs and serve them to friends; you would insist on making them from scratch. But Matthew shamelessly made use of Mark’s gospel. He was probably only writing ten to twenty years later, in the 80’s of the first century, which shows us how popular Mark’s written testimony had become. Only about 50 of Mark’s 662 verses – less than 10% – are not found in Matthew. So Matthew, although his gospel was preferred in the early Church and came to be printed first in the New Testament, was not truly a master chef. He was, as I’ve said, a cheat. But like many a user of semi-prepared stuff he was not going to admit that the meal was not his own work. Oh no! A little addition here, a little alteration to the flavoring there, and a new and much more extensive meal emerged. Matthew did a good re-hash or cover-up job and many people have found his gospel more palatable than Mark’s and more nourishing to the spiritual life. Matthew was also respected because he was an eyewitness to the events. Mark, you will remember, seems to be recording the memories of Saint Peter, acting as his secretary, but Matthew’s gospel records: “As Jesus was walking on from there he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax office, and he said to him ‘Follow me’” (9, 9). This is the man called Levi in Mark’s gospel, but any doubts we might have are cleared up when we get the list of the twelve disciples: one of them is identified as “Matthew the tax collector” (10, 3). The belief that this gospel was written by one of the twelve, the fact that it contained so much useful teaching for the Church, and the sense that it was more elegantly written than Mark’s was enough to put Matthew at the top of the list. Mark’s creative genius was forgotten and his gospel was relegated to a poor second place among the books of the New Testament.
What then are the additional ingredients that Matthew has provided to make up his much longer work (28 chapters to Mark’s 16)? Most noticeably there is an appetizer, which Mark did not think necessary. There are two chapters telling of the birth of Jesus, that is to say an increase in that biographical element which many readers would expect. Mark gets right into the story of the adult Jesus, with no mention of his infancy or childhood, but Matthew carefully explains his ancestry and – alone of all the gospel writers – presents the nativity from Joseph’s point of view and records the visit of the wise men, the Magi. Both those first chapters make it clear that Jesus is a king and a large part of the gospel is taken up with an explanation of the laws of the kingdom of God. Matthew also provides a sweet ending. You will remember how Mark’s effort was cut short while we were still hungry: in what we take to be the earliest text of the gospel there was no real explanation of the resurrection. Matthew adds that the women felt joy as well as fear, and the gospel concludes with Jesus meeting the eleven disciples and commanding them to go out and baptize; and the last words are those beautiful ones: “Know that I am with you always; yes, to the end of time” (28, 20). Matthew may have been a cheat, but he certainly had more sense of style and presentation than Mark.
The satisfying beginning and end of the gospel are the new ingredients which strike us immediately, but the most substantial new addition is the series of sayings or teachings of Jesus which Matthew uses right through the main course of the gospel. These sayings, not found in Mark, were also used by Luke so we can guess that they had been collected together and written down before the gospels were composed (they are sometimes called “Q”). You may be thinking by now that Matthew had no original ideas but there are a few unique ingredients which he picked out of the Church’s tradition, for example the account of the fate of Judas (27, 3-10) and the story of Pilate’s wife’s dream (27, 19). In fact Matthew has great respect for the Old Testament tradition of God revealing his will while someone is asleep: you’ll remember that Joseph learned about the conception of Jesus and the need to escape to Egypt in dreams.
However, Matthew’s real skill lies in the way he combined the ingredients and presented them to make his offering attractive. Every so often the narrative flow of the gospel stops and there is a substantial block of teaching. The first of these blocks is the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7) which begins “Then he began to speak. This is what he taught them” (5, 2) and ends “his teaching made a deep impression on the people, because he taught them with authority” (7, 28-29). There are five blocks of teaching in Matthew altogether, and one suggestion is that there is a parallel between these five discourses and the first five books of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch or Jewish law. Jesus on the Mount is the new Moses, giving new laws for God’s chosen people. And these laws have been lasting: much of what we think of as the Christian character or Christian morality is based on the teaching found in Matthew’s gospel.
So the Jesus of Matthew is like a Jewish rabbi, teaching the law, and in fact at many points the gospel has a strongly Jewish flavor – and we have to remember that this meant that it had the taste of home-cooking for the Jewish converts who made up the majority of the Church in those early years. Matthew is like a mother who is introducing a new dish into the family repertoire. It’s probably not wise to say “This is something you’ve never had before”; no, it’s better to reassure them that there is a lot which is familiar in this new experience. I’m sure I’ve heard mothers saying this sort of thing: “You know how much you love meatloaf. Well, this is a very special kind of meatloaf which they have in Greece. It’s called moussaka”. People have lamentably conservative tastes; you have to lead them on gently; and that is exactly what Matthew does, flavoring the novelty of the gospel with the reassuring taste of the familiar. Christians at the time were being persecuted both by the Roman authorities and by the Jews, so it must have been tempting for some of them to return to their Jewish roots. In such a setting Mathew wanted to show that Jesus and the Church were the true fulfillment of all the Jews had been waiting for. As we would say, the New Testament is the completion of the Old.
Look at his presentation of Jesus. Matthew doesn’t call him Son of God right at the beginning; that would be a shocking new idea for people of Jewish background. No, he gives “a genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham” (1, 1-17). He links Jesus to Israel’s great king David, to show that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah, and he underlines this in a subtle way that would only have been apparent to Jewish readers. The names in the genealogy are divided into three groups of 14. You may know that in Hebrew each letter of the alphabet has a numerical value. The Hebrew form of David adds up to fourteen, so this is another way of saying that Jesus is the rightful heir of David, Israel’s messianic king. Matthew also gives Jesus the deepest and most impeccable Jewish roots by tracing the line right back to Abraham, the father of Israel, and it may be that here there is a hint of newness as well. Abraham had been promised (Genesis 22, 18): “By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves”; this promise was about to come true because Israel’s refusal to recognize the Messiah would mean that the kingdom of God would be given to the Gentiles, that is be open to the whole world.
There is the same blend of the familiar and the new in Matthew’s picture of Jesus as a teacher and lawgiver. He speaks with the pattern: “You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors…but I say to you” (5, 21-48). Law plays a central role in the gospel, just as it did for the Jews, but Jesus actually sets a higher standard of ethical behavior which corrects or complements the Old Law given to the Jews by God (19, 16-21). For example the Jewish law had developed a system of divorce, but Jesus explains that divorce was never in God’s original plan; rather “what God has joined, man must not separate”. The Pharisees obviously come back at him and ask why, then, did Moses permit divorce. Jesus replies “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives” (and note that only men could get a divorce); but then Jesus adds “Now I say this to you: anyone who divorces his wife…and marries another is guilty of adultery”. “Now I say this to you”…Matthew’s point is that Jesus is more than a human rabbi, and more than someone like King Herod; only someone with divine authority could speak in this way.
But the most striking way in which Matthew reassures his readers is by his frequent use of the Old Testament. In a modern Bible you should look for the passages in italic writing; they are quotations from the Jewish Bible and they are often used in key places. For example in Chapter 2, Matthew nails down every key fact with a quotation: the birth in Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents, and the final move of the holy family to Nazareth are all shown to be fulfillments of prophecies in the Jewish Scriptures. In fact Matthew has even developed a special formula to express this sense of fulfillment; ten times we find: “(This took place) in order that what was declared by the prophet so-and-so might be fulfilled” (e.g. 1, 22; 2, 15; 2, 17; 2, 21). In other words Matthew wants to stress the continuity of God’s chosen people: Christians have not rejected their Jewish heritage, rather they have discovered its genuine fulfillment in the Church.
As I said, Matthew’s gospel is better organized than Mark’s, it is more sophisticated and extensive, and it has a strongly Jewish flavor. This suggests that it may have been written for recent Jewish converts who had broken away from the synagogue, and were perhaps being accused by their former brethren of abandoning the faith. He wants to reassure them that they have not rejected the familiar but are in fact following the authentic path of God’s purposes for Israel. So the radical newness of the gospel of Jesus is partly disguised by the familiar taste of home-cooking. Yet that taste is not home-cooking for us; few Christians today are converted Jews and so perhaps we miss the real flavor of this gospel. Nevertheless, it should remind us that our faith has the deepest roots, Jewish roots. Twenty three years ago we celebrated 2000 years of Christianity but we are the heirs of many of the values of Judaism, going back another thousand years or more. We need to discover again the values of the Jews because they are our values as well: the sense of God’s personal call to each of us and to us as a community, the awareness of God’s promises for the future, and a belief in God’s presence with his people. As Cardinal Lustiger, the former Archbishop of Paris and himself a convert, has said, “Christianity is a better way of being Jewish”.
However, Matthew’s home-cooking is not bland; there is a bite to it. His gospel also reminds us strongly of the demands of our faith. If we Christians are to be the chosen people, we must be a choosing people, choosing between right and wrong. One of Matthew’s favorite words is “righteous”, and that adjective and the noun “righteousness”, which are barely found in Mark and Luke, are used nine times by Matthew. One of those uses is in the forceful parable of the last judgment which is only found in this gospel. There the good and the bad are separated like sheep and goats. It’s so powerful because righteousness is not identified with strictly religious behavior but with simple acts of charity – feeding the hungry, visiting the sick – which any of us could do. The king in the parable explains: “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (25, 40); and the outcome of our action or inaction is quite clear: we will go to eternal life or to eternal punishment. It is also the Jesus of Matthew who gives us the warning: “Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (7, 21). We don’t like lukewarm food and it is clear that Matthew did not like lukewarm Christians: God’s kingdom is for the righteous.
And what message does Matthew have for us in this season of Lent? Surely it is to remind us of the cost of our Christianity. The blood of the covenant which was poured out on Good Friday was no longer the blood of the animal sacrifices which the Jewish law had demanded; it was the blood of the Lamb of God, “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26, 28). That is the truth we should remember in Lent when we pray the Stations of the Cross and recall even more powerfully when we come on Good Friday to venerate the wood of the Cross. That sacrifice of the only Son of God cries out for a response from the Father, and it cries out for a response from us. There’s a beautiful English hymn which is sung in Holy Week, “When I survey the wondrous cross on which the king of glory died”. It ends with these words, words which Saint Matthew would have understood: “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”.
TALK 3: FOURTH WEEK OF LENT
Father, you gave us the gift of the gospels so that we might know your Son. Help us to seek him there day by day, dawn by dawn. Make our search persevering, never wearied, never tired or bored; until we discover who He is for the human race: your beloved Son, our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
- LUKE’S GOSPEL: EXOTIC FUSION
So far we have looked at two gospels and noted their distinctive flavors. Mark’s gospel is short and raw. Matthew’s gospel is strongly Jewish in flavor so however familiar it may have been for the Jewish reader, it is rather foreign and challenging for us: for most of us the stress on law and duty and getting things right is intimidating. St. Luke’s gospel thus comes as a huge relief. At the end of his letter to the Colossians Paul speaks of “my dear friend Luke, the doctor” (4, 14) and in the second letter to Timothy a rather dispirited Paul notes that “only Luke is with me” (4, 10). That image of Luke as a caring doctor, the friend of Paul, seems to make sense. In comparison with the harsh severity of Matthew and the mysteriousness of Mark, Luke’s gospel has many attractive qualities. Here (and here only) we find the well-loved parables of the Good Samaritan (10, 29-37) and the Prodigal Son (15, 11-32); here are stories of Jesus’ concern for those on the fringes of society (a group which in those days included women); here are the three canticles, of Mary (1, 46-55), of Zechariah (1, 68-79) and of Simeon (2, 29-32), which priests and religious recite in the Divine Office every day.
So there are some well-chosen, tasty morsels in Luke’s spread. And be warned – it is a spread. We tend to forget that Luke is the author of both a gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. They are the two longest writings in the New Testament, each of them big enough to fill an ordinary papyrus roll of 31-32 feet. The need for two rolls meant that they came to be separated, with Acts coming after John’s gospel in printed Bibles. And yet they are really one work, so that the gospel needs to be seen as the prelude to the expansion of the Church. If Matthew tends to keep looking back over his shoulder, seeking confirmation in the tradition of the Old Testament, Luke looks to the future, beyond Jerusalem to Rome. Matthew seems to be concerned to keep Jews within the bounds of the Church; Luke realizes that the Church needs to open its arms to all – Jews and Gentiles alike – just as Jesus was open to everyone.
What, then, is the flavor of Luke’s gospel? I have to admit at this point that I’m not very familiar with the latest thing in food fashion. I don’t eat out in grand restaurants. I do, however, read the occasional restaurant review in the Orlando Sentinel or see something on T.V. and I know there is a vogue for something called “fusion cooking”, blending the traditions of different areas. It’s the kind of thing Bobby Flay does, combining good American ingredients with Creole or Mexican or Asian influences. That is not a bad description of what Luke has done and it explains his choice of ingredients and his combination of them. He likes to blend the old and the new, Jew and Gentile, Jerusalem and Rome, and amazingly it works! Luke truly is a creator: the spiritual nourishment his gospel provides is at least as much due to the work of the chef as it is to the basic ingredients; and his personality is present in a more obvious way than Mark’s or Matthew’s in their work. So at the beginning of the gospel we have a little bit of self-advertisement: “Seeing that many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have taken place among us, exactly as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, I in my turn, after going over the whole story from the beginning, have decided to write an ordered account”. This rather bombastic prologue is the kind of thing a classical historian would have written at the beginning of his work. It is a promise to do what others have done, but do it much better, and it is a fact that Luke’s Greek grammar and vocabulary are far more correct and artistic than that of the other gospel writers. That would make sense if Luke was a companion of Paul, living in the Greek-speaking areas of the Mediterranean. What he offers to a discerning public is skillfully blended and elegantly presented.
But let us look first of all at his use of ingredients, even though ingredients are secondary for him. Luke is like one of those modern master chefs whose presentation can make even something simple like grits look classy. Like Matthew he made use of Mark, but whereas Matthew used nearly the whole of the earlier gospel, Luke chooses only half of it; he is much freer in his use of it, cutting off and throwing away the parts that do not suit his purpose. For example, Mark is quite frank about the disciples’ lack of understanding; even their leader, Peter, is constantly putting his foot in it. Luke leaves out such passages and makes excuses for the disciples, implying that God had purposefully hidden the meaning of events from them. Unlike Mark, Luke wants to emphasize their dignity as apostles (9, 45; 18, 34; 23, 45), the pillars of the Church. So Mark is an important ingredient but Luke does not follow slavishly. Luke also appears to have had access to the collection of teachings which Matthew made a central part of his gospel: Luke shares with Matthew 230 verses which are not found in Mark. We don’t think Luke made use of Matthew’s gospel directly, so the assumption has been that there was an independent written source, concentrating on the teachings of Jesus, which both Matthew and Luke used. This source is called “Q” but again Luke has the confidence to add a little something or take something away to alter the flavor and make the teaching blend in with his grand design. Take, for example, the Beatitudes: the version in Luke is more practical, more down-to-earth than Matthew’s more spiritual, more strictly religious version. Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit” but Luke writes “Blessed are you who are poor”; Matthew has “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” but for Luke it is “Blessed are you who are hungry now”. This reflects perfectly Luke’s concern for the poor, the hungry, the humble, a group which includes Mary, the humble Mother of Jesus. And Luke follows up his Beatitudes with corresponding “woes”: “Woe to you who are rich…woe to you who have plenty to eat now”; Luke’s message of concern for the marginalized in society is quite revolutionary. And note how it is not an abstract comment about other people like Matthew’s “Blessed are those…” Luke says “Blessed (or cursed) are you” – he is talking directly to his audience, he is talking to us.
Luke adds his own unique ingredients as well. There are parallel birth and infancy narratives for John the Baptist and Jesus, and the story of Jesus’ birth is told from Mary’s point of view rather than from Joseph’s as in Matthew. Luke’s narrative has had a powerful influence on our vision of Jesus: the joyful mysteries of the rosary, with the annunciation, visitation, birth, presentation in the Temple, and finding in the Temple are all based on Luke. Less obvious is the fact that Luke has drawn on an independent Passion Narrative: of the 163 verses in which he describes the suffering and death of the Lord, only 20 are clearly dependent on Mark, while Matthew follows Mark very closely. That means we have two independent witnesses to the events which are the heart of our faith. Perhaps the account found in Mark was related by Saint Peter and the version in Luke was the story of the Passion which had been related to Saint Paul and was kept alive in the churches founded by him. Luke does not have the agonized cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” but instead he has Jesus call out “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing”; and just before his death Jesus forgives the penitent thief and assures him “Today you will be with me in paradise”. This is in keeping with the merciful image of Jesus found all through Luke’s gospel. Additionally, Luke alone includes the powerful resurrection appearance on the road to Emmaus and the tradition of the Ascension at the end of his gospel (24, 50-51) – an event which is described again at the beginning of Acts (1, 9).
It is not the ingredients which make Luke’s gospel distinctive, however. Rather, as I said, it is the skillful way they are put together to please a particular audience. Luke himself was probably a Gentile Christian, although well-versed in Jewish tradition, and he was writing for Gentiles – that is people who did not know Hebrew as many of Mark and Matthew’s readers probably did. He must have been aware that as the Church grew and the expected end of the world did not come, there was a need to make Christianity understandable for the Greco-Roman world. We see this in small details, as when he leaves out Semitic words such as “rabbi” which were included in Mark, replacing it with “Master”. But throughout the gospel there are certain strong themes which stress that God’s message in Jesus is inclusive, for everyone, for the whole world (14, 29). For example, like Matthew Luke gives us a genealogy of Jesus, but he goes back beyond David and Abraham to Adam, as if to stress Jesus’ kinship with all men and women (3, 23-38). Luke calls Jesus “Lord”, the title normally used by the early Christians for the risen Christ, and yet used only once each by Mark and Matthew (e.g. 7, 13; 10, 41; 12, 42; 13, 15). Jesus’ rule is more universal, not so tightly linked to the figure of the Jewish Messiah; in fact Luke’s idea of Jesus’ rule contrasts strongly with Matthew’s in being less external and institutional and more spiritual. Jesus himself is quickened by the Holy Spirit (1, 35) and it is clear that he is God’s son even before the public proclamation of sonship at his baptism. The role of the Holy Spirit is prominent throughout the gospel, as it will be in Acts. At least seventeen times in the gospel and fifty-seven times in the Acts of the Apostles the influence and guidance of the Spirit is mentioned. Only Luke records Jesus’ awareness that his public mission springs from the inspiration of the Spirit, so that he applies to himself Isaiah’s prophecy: “The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring good news to the poor” (4, 18). Luke sometimes presents Jesus as a prophet (24, 19), precisely because he is possessed by the Spirit. At his death, Jesus explicitly surrenders his spirit to the Father (23, 46). Finally, the risen Christ in Luke’s account announces the sending of the Spirit to give power to the disciples (Acts 1, 8). So, clearly, Luke was influenced by the experience of the early Church: his point of reference is Gentile Christians who had never known in the flesh the Jesus who walked in Galilee but who nevertheless knew Jesus spiritually as the Lord who pours out the Spirit on the Church.
That is not to say that Luke has removed all traces of Jewish flavor. That would be to falsify the origins of our faith. He still uses the scriptures of the Old Testament as justification. Also, the Holy City, Jerusalem, plays a special role in the gospel. For example Luke changes the order of the temptations from the way they are found in Matthew so that the last one, the climax, takes place in Jerusalem (4, 9). The large central section of the gospel (9, 51 – 18, 14), where Luke departs from the material taken over from Mark, is placed in the setting of a journey to Jerusalem. The gospel starts there, with Zechariah in the Temple (1, 15), and ends there: the post resurrection appearances and conversations do not take place in Galilee as in Mark and Matthew but in the city. Yet this centrality of Jerusalem is not narrowly parochial; the city is to be the springboard for preaching to the rest of the world, as Jesus explains to his disciples in his last instruction: repentance for the forgiveness of sins is to be preached to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem (25, 48); and so they are to stay in the city until the Holy Spirit comes (24, 49-53; Acts 1, 12).
The inclusiveness of the gospel is seen in Jesus’ welcome for the centurion whose servant is healed (7, 9) – Jesus says of him “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found faith as great as this”; in a similar way Jesus says “Your faith has saved you” to the Samaritan leper (17, 11-19), the only one of the ten who returned to give thanks. Luke is even sympathetic in his portrayal of Pilate, who is shown desperately trying to save Jesus from death (23, 4; 14; 20), which is contrasted with the abuse which Jesus receives from Herod (23, 11). Luke also stresses Jesus’ tenderness towards the lowly and the poor, following on from God the Father’s mercy to the barren Elizabeth and the humble Mary. The priority Luke’s gospel gives to the weak may be considered an independent confirmation of the tradition that he was a doctor, but to us there is also something modern about Luke’s interest in the gap between riches and poverty. We’ve already mentioned Luke’s different version of the Beatitudes; but note, too, that Luke alone has the powerful warning story of the rich man and the poor beggar Lazarus (16, 19-31).
The complementary aspect of this concern for the poor is the encouragement of generosity on the part of his followers. The Good Samaritan helps the man in need beyond all expectations (10, 29-37); and remember that the parable ends with Jesus saying “Go, and do the same yourself”. And Luke demonstrates that the essence of the Christian life lies not in one single transformation, but in a thousand small sacrifices. Perhaps that is why Luke changes Jesus’ invitation to take up the cross in Mark, where it is a once-for-all act, so that it becomes “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day” (9, 23).
So there is challenge in Luke’s gospel, but there is also great sweetness. The Jesus who encourages us to generosity is full of compassion himself. Dante described Luke as “scriba mansuetudinis Christi”, the recorder of Christ’s loving-kindness. Luke records Jesus’ love for sinners and acts of forgiveness (e.g. 7, 36-50), and he provides us with the unforgettable image of the father running out to embrace the prodigal son (15, 11-32). It’s not surprising that Pope Francis launched the Year of Mercy to coincide with the liturgical year when the Sunday Gospels were from Saint Luke; and when the time of my death comes it is the merciful Jesus of Luke that I hope to meet.
So there we have St. Luke’s offering, a daring fusion of the old and the new, with the sharpness of a real moral challenge but also the sweetness of God’s mercy as a constant undertone. And all this is beautifully presented, well-ordered, a real work of art. I imagine Luke would be impressed if he could witness the Easter Vigil which will be the conclusion of our Lent. As a historian he would appreciate that slow, majestic unfolding of God’s story in the readings, from the creation, through Abraham and the Exodus, to the promises of the prophets. As a craftsman Luke would admire the way they have been selected, to reflect the abiding love and mercy of God. Luke saw Jesus as the culmination of that history, and has him say “Up to the time of John it was the Law and the Prophets; from then onwards, the kingdom of God has been preached” (16, 16). But the preaching of Jesus and John is by no means the end: Jesus made a new beginning, so that the time of Israel and the time of Jesus are followed by the time of the Church, stretching from the Ascension to the end of all time. That vision meant that Luke’s story had to be continued with the Acts of the Apostles; and the fact that we are here means that the story still goes on. Luke’s “ordered account” is not just history. It remains true to the gospel tradition of providing a proclamation of the power of God and a challenge to those who choose to follow Jesus. Luke challenges us as well to look beyond the present moment. What can we do, how can we live, how can we cooperate with the Spirit as Jesus and the apostles did, so that the story will not end, so that the gospel will be heard anew by generations yet to come?
TALK 4: FIFTH WEEK OF LENT
Father, you gave us the gift of the gospels so that we might know your Son. Help us to seek him there day by day, dawn by dawn. Make our search persevering, never wearied, never tired or bored; until we discover who He is for the human race: your beloved Son, our loving Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
- JOHN’S GOSPEL: THE GREAT BANQUET
So far we have considered the three synoptic gospels, the gospels which have a great deal in common, even to the point of using identical words. You’ll remember that the similarities largely follow from the fact that Matthew and Luke were able to make use of the text of Mark’s gospel, the first to be written; but I hope I have been able to show that we will miss a lot if we treat them all as if they were the same thing. They are in fact three spiritual banquets, with different ingredients, put together in different ways, and aiming to produce a distinctive taste to please different consumers. We have looked at Mark’s simple, raw, slightly curious effort, designed to be an inspiration to Christians facing persecution on every side. We then considered Matthew’s traditional home-cooking, a gospel with a Jewish flavor meant to reassure Jewish converts that they were in the right place. Finally last week we examined Luke’s more sophisticated and daring offering, a gospel crafted to appeal to the Gentile world, to the Church of the future.
So I recommend that you spend time with each of the gospels to see if you can pick up the flavors of each one. That reminds me of an issue I should mention: people who come to the gospels thinking of them as historical accounts will probably find all these variants slightly worrying. But history is not what the gospel writers are about. The gospels are proclamation, the work of the Holy Spirit enabling each writer to portray Jesus in his own way, witnessing to his own encounter with the Lord. You certainly need to come to terms with that fact before you look at St. John’s gospel. He is quite explicit about his purpose and the selection he has carried out; at the end John writes: “There were many other signs that Jesus worked and the disciples saw, but they are not recorded in this book. These are recorded so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing this you may have life through his name” (20, 30-31). Here John states openly what is implicit for all of the evangelists: they want people to hear and read the life of Jesus not as a historical curiosity but as good news, something which changes lives.
It seems unlikely that John started his gospel completely from scratch because at some points he seems to borrow passages from Mark, using identical words; there are also apparent connections to Luke. But even so the overwhelming impression is one of difference between the fourth gospel and the three synoptic gospels. That makes us think that John had access to some unique source of traditions about Jesus, probably a particular church community where certain stories had been treasured and preserved. Often they are touching and dramatic moments: for example there is the miracle of the water changed into wine at Cana (every teenager’s favorite miracle), where Jesus says to his mother “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not yet come” (2, 4); there is Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus (11, 35); there is the washing of the disciples’ feet (13, 1-20); and there is the poignant scene at the cross where Jesus entrusts his mother and the beloved disciple to each other: “Woman, behold your son!”, “Behold your mother!” (19, 25-27). All these great moments are missing from the earlier gospels.
There are new words as well – whole dialogues between Jesus and individuals who are absent from the synoptic gospels but are well portrayed by John: in chapter 3 Nicodemus, the leading Pharisee who came to see Jesus by night; in chapter 4 the Samaritan woman at the well, who had managed to get through five husbands; and in chapter 5 the man who had been ill for 38 years, lying beside the pool waiting for the water to be disturbed. Very distinctive, too, are the overt claims which Jesus makes about himself. John records a series of “I am” sayings: “I am the bread of life” (6, 35), “I am the light of the world” (8, 12), “I am the good shepherd” (10, 11), “I am the resurrection” (11, 25), “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (14, 6), “I am the true vine” (15, 1). These words, using the “I am” which is the name of God in the Old Testament, are hugely significant as statements of Jesus’ divinity, yet they have no counterpart in the other gospels. In fact, some of the best-known and best-loved phrases in the Bible are found exclusively in John. Here is my own favorite: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (3, 16). In those few words there is a complete theology of the person and work of Jesus. Or what about these phrases: “You will learn the truth and the truth will make you free” (8, 32); “Love one another; just as I have loved you” (13, 34); “Peace I leave to you, my own peace I give you” (14, 27); “Eternal life is this: to know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (17, 3). How much poorer we would have been without John’s gospel.
But a great chef does not just rely on special ingredients, although some of you have doubtless had the privilege of paying an extra $20 on the bill for a sprinkling of caviar or a few shavings of truffle at some fancy restaurant. John shows himself a master chef in the way the ingredients are combined into a magnificent whole, not just laid down here and there as Mark did, but slaved over, worked on, until there is a true creation; not surprisingly, therefore, there is evidence that the gospel is more the work of a team, inspired by John, rather than of an individual. John provides a prologue and epilogue, like the little tasters which a great restaurant might provide at the beginning and end of the meal, although the prologue especially is very subtle. But the main body of the gospel has been compared to a great medieval cathedral. First, in chapters 2-12, there are some selected miracles or signs, their associated dialogues and several discourses involving individuals or groups of opponents; this is the public part of the gospel, rather like a cathedral nave. Then in chapters 13-17 there are the private discourses with the disciples, in the setting of Jesus’ last meal with them, although amazingly the institution of the Eucharist is not actually described; this is the private part of the gospel, for the chosen few, like the choir of a medieval cathedral, cut off from the public by a screen. Finally in chapters 18-20 there is the Passion Narrative and the account of the resurrection; this is the equivalent of the high altar, the holy place which is the reason for everything else being there.
So John does not so much provide a three course meal as three meals, of increasing richness. And I have to warn you that much of the gospel is so rich, so crammed with meaning, that it could give you spiritual indigestion. Mark’s gospel can be read right through at a sitting, but it would be foolish to do that with John. It has been said that John’s gospel is like a stream in which children can paddle and elephants swim. To use our culinary metaphor, the gospel is like a banquet where even the delicate can find some morsel to stimulate the palate, and the gourmet can indulge himself to his heart’s (and stomach’s) content. To be honest, the gospel deserves a whole series of talks to itself, but for the sake of your health let me offer you just a tasting at two points.
You may remember that I said in the first talk that the most important taste test is to see the portrait of Jesus given by each gospel. John wants us to understand first of all that Jesus is divine; he is the Word, whose origin is “in the beginning”. John doesn’t give us any information about the birth of Jesus in the first chapters of the gospel, as Matthew and Luke do. Instead he starts with a kind of poem which we call the Prologue to the gospel. Its message is unequivocal: “The Word was with God…and the Word was God” (1, 1). For John the details of the birth of Jesus pale into insignificance beside the fact that he is the Son of God from all eternity. It is the Word, the eternal Son, who has become flesh. And John’s preferred title for Jesus is not “Lord” or “Christ” but “the Son”, “the only Son who is nearest to the Father’s heart” (1, 18). John again and again points out the closeness of the relationship between the Father and the Son, stressing the similarity of their actions (5, 17-19), their knowledge (10, 15) and their love (15, 9-10), so that Jesus can say: “The Father and I are one” (10, 30). We are miles away from the mysterious Jesus of the synoptics whose divinity is often only hinted at. Nevertheless, John takes the Incarnation seriously: “The Word was made flesh”, he shared fully in the weakness of the human condition; “he lived among us” (1, 14), establishing a permanent relationship with humanity. And John more than any of the other evangelists, more even than Mark, mentions Jesus’ frailty and emotions: his exhaustion (4, 6), his sorrow (11, 33), his anguish (12, 27), his thirst (4, 7; 19, 28), even his tears (11, 35). Do you know the shortest verse in the Bible? It’s John 11, 35, just two words: “Jesus wept”. The Jesus of John also has a genuine human love for the beloved disciple (20, 2), for Martha and Mary (11, 5), and for Lazarus (11, 36). Finally, it is only through contact with the body of Jesus, in the context of a personal relationship, that Thomas can make his affirmation: “My Lord and my God” (20, 28).
The second taste test we have applied to the gospels is to look at their moral teaching, to gauge how the Christian life should be lived out, how we should relate to others. Mark has very little moral teaching, perhaps because the early Christians were expecting the world to end; but the longer the Church endured the greater need it had for guidelines. You will remember how Matthew’s gospel is full of laws, in the Jewish manner, while Luke demands special concern for the poor and marginalized. Well, in John – although it’s the latest of the gospels to be written – there is nothing of that: no teaching on marriage, divorce, property or the state. The central moral principle of the gospel, Jesus’ new commandment, is “love one another” (13, 34) – that is, love for one’s fellow Christians; love is not extended to the neighbor (Luke 10, 25-37), still less to the enemy (Matthew 5, 44).
So once again we see how this gospel has a very distinctive taste and style. How can we characterize it? I think it would have to be “nouvelle cuisine” because although John’s provision is extensive, truly a banquet, each part is beautifully crafted; it is full of elegance, artistry and exquisite detail, and it runs the risk at times of being a little self-indulgent. It is “nouvelle” also because the word “new” echoes around the other writings of John, most notably the Book of Revelation which closes the Bible. The Lord of the new commandment promises to “make all things new” (21, 5); there will be “a new heaven and a new earth” (21, 1), where God’s faithful people will be given “a new name” (3, 12) and will sing “a new song” (14, 3).
That is all to come, but John’s gospel itself is permeated with the promise of the resurrection: its message is that if we are disciples, we share something of this newness already. Just as the Jesus of the gospel is bursting with divine life, so we even now, in the midst of this imperfect world, are privileged to share his life. He gives his disciples “the bread of life” (6, 35) and promises “anyone who eats this bread will live for ever” (6, 51); even now we can live with the Godhead dwelling in us: “Anyone who loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make a home in him” (14, 23). And that is what we will be celebrating at Easter, the truth that now in this world we have God’s life in us. At the Masses of Easter we will renew that moment when we were born again through water and the Spirit (3, 5); we will be sprinkled with the living water (7, 37-39); we will eat “the living bread which has come down from heaven” (6, 51) and we will know his promise of eternal life (6, 54).
Before we leave behind the texts of the gospels let’s do one final and very simple taste test to remind ourselves of their distinctive flavors. How does each gospel writer depict the last moments of Jesus before he dies on the Cross? Even the very last moment is different in each gospel. Mark records the terrible cry “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” They are words of great power for Mark’s audience, the early Christians who at the time of the gospel were being persecuted by Jews and Romans alike. Perhaps they felt that God had forsaken them as they faced a cruel death themselves. And yet remember, for Mark it is in this very human Jesus that we are to find his divinity; so immediately after the moment of death he places the centurion’s confession “In truth this man was the Son of God” (15, 39). Matthew, typically, follows Mark very closely, recording the same final words (although in Hebrew rather than the original Aramaic) and the same centurion’s confession. But in between he places something new: “the earth quaked, the rocks were split, the tombs opened and the bodies of many holy people rose from the dead” (27, 52). This is Matthew’s dramatic way of saying that the death of Jesus is much more than a human death; it is the earth-shattering death of the Messiah; and it is in reaction to the earthquake, not to the death itself, that the centurion recognizes that Jesus is God’s Son. Luke leaves out the cry of abandonment “My God, My God”, as he typically leaves out Hebrew and Aramaic expressions, and perhaps because his mainly Gentile audience would not have picked up on the fact that it is a quotation from Psalm 22. For him the last words of Jesus are “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (23, 46). They are not words of abandonment but of supreme confidence in God as his loving Father, the merciful Father of us all. Finally John’s narrative of the death of Jesus, like his entire gospel, is very distinctive. The final words of Jesus are “It is finished”, as if to say his work is done. It is not an agonized cry but a calm statement of victory. And then John adds something which is unique to him, the piercing of the side of Jesus by a soldier’s spear. He records that blood and water came out and then the author of the gospel speaks in his own person “This is the evidence of one who saw it – true evidence, and he knows what he says is true – and he gives it so that you may believe as well” (19, 35). That, after all, is the purpose of all the evangelists; they want us to share what they have seen and experienced so that we, too, can believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
So, we come to the end of our survey of the four gospels. I hope you have found it interesting to discover the great richness of the different presentations of each writer. But I hope much more that it is not just an academic exercise – because each of us needs to write our own gospel, to write it in our own lives. As each of the evangelists transmitted the story of Jesus, it was flavored by their own vision and experience. They have given us the gospel, the good news, according to Mark, according to Matthew, Luke and John. And we must do the same. Read the gospels, absorb them, make them part of your life, but also reflect on where you have met Jesus yourself, in times of joy and times of sorrow. Read their version, but as a prelude to producing your version. Let God create in your life the gospel according to Augustine, according to Patti, to Pete, to Mary Ann, the gospel according to you. Then people will be able to read the good news in you, to meet the living Lord, and – as Saint John hoped – they will “believe as well”.
* Quotations in the talks are generally taken from the New Jerusalem Bible (1985), a Catholic translation admired for accuracy. The readings at Mass are taken from the New American Bible, revised edition (2010). For further reading I can recommend Graham N. Stanton, The Gospels and Jesus, Oxford University Press (2nd edition 2002). The first half covers much of the same ground as these talks and it is such a good book that it has remained in print for more than thirty years.