Stephen Westerholm, Understanding Matthew: The Early Christian Worldview of the First Gospel. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006. 166 pp. Paper. ISBN: 0-8010-2738-3. $16.99.
Stephen Westerholm is a Canadian who earned his B.A. and M.A. at the University of Toronto and his Th.D. from the University of Lund in Sweden. He teaches at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.
Since I have been preaching through Matthew in morning worship services, I hoped, in reviewing this book, that I would find help for my sermons. I was especially intrigued by the subtitle. I thought, perhaps, I would find insights into the world of Matthew's time. However, the book's title does not accurately reflect its content.
Here is Westerholm's basic understanding of the message from the gospel of Matthew: "Jesus (Matthew wants us to know) is a fit object of devotion and discipleship" (14). He illustrates and supports this approach to the study of Matthew with references to the life and writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer because: "Bonhoeffer was concerned not only to understand but also to practice the kind of discipleship prescribed in Matthew's Gospel; as a result, there is much in his story to illuminate the study of Matthew." Westerholm does stress "at the outset that Bonhoeffer's approach is only one of the ways in which the Gospel can profitably be read" (9). He also says, "Matthew wrote, as Bonhoeffer wrote, not to inform readers of the nature of Christian discipleship but to summon them to a life of discipleship. Readers who fail to note the difference, whatever their grasp of Matthean themes, will have fundamentally misunderstood the Gospel" (16).
Westerholm discusses, defines and illustrates worldviews in chapter one, explaining that is it important to understand the worldview of others from their own perspective. He concludes the chapter stating "the goal of a book such as this is that every reader will begin to understand how Matthew made sense of things, and to see how it makes sense to make sense of things that way" (26).
Westerholm then deals with Jesus' admonition in Matthew 6:24-34 where Jesus teaches his disciples not to worry because the benevolent God will take care of them. He hopes his readers "may begin to see how for Matthew, Jesus, and millions of others, the world is charged with the glory and goodness of God. For Jesus, God's goodness is palpably real, and it governed his whole way of thinking" (37). Westerholm says, "The limitless goodwill of the Father in heaven is the point of Jesus' words" (38).
However, according to Westerholm, "the need for trust (or `faith') in God is stated repeatedly throughout Matthew's Gospel. It is Jesus' most basic requirement. God's benevolence is assured; if people fail to experience God's favor, it is only because they fail to trust him sufficiently to bring their needs to him: `According to your faith let it be done to you'" (38). Westerholm believes that sensing and trusting the limitless goodness of God causes one to love him and to devote oneself to God's service, and that one must trust God even when bad things happen (39, 40). He supports and illustrates these themes with stories from Bonhoeffer's life, excerpts from his book, Discipleship, and letters written to family and friends during his experience in a Nazi prison.
In "making sense of Jesus' demands" for human behavior found in Matthew's gospel, Westerholm puts it bluntly, "Jesus wants people to be good" (48). And for people who should be good as God their Father is good, the smallest evil is a sin against goodness (50). To help the reader understand Jesus' vision of goodness, Westerholm offers the following explanations of his demands: (1) "Jesus is telling his followers how to behave in a society that is far from ideal"; (2) Jesus expresses his requirements of a good life in parables, not literally; (3) Jesus understands goodness as qualities from the heart, inspired by the vision of the goodness of God; (4) Jesus is concerned whether one sides "with the goodness of God or with the evil that opposes it"; (5) Jesus' requirements for goodness are not for practical ends to make the world a better place, but are how one must live if he acknowledges the good God as his Father; (6) Jesus defines what is good for humans by the nature and purposes of the God who created them; (7) Jesus portrays God as extending to his children unlimited forgiveness and promises them God's forgiveness as long as they forgive others. "Forgiveness is denied only to those who refuse to let the goodness of God shape their own response to their fellow human beings" (51-55).
In tying the Jesus of Matthew's gospel to the history of the Jews, Westerholm focuses on "four moments in Israel's past that shaped Jesus' (and Matthew's) understanding of their present": (1) the call of AbrahamGod's response to human waywardness, making Abraham's offspring his people to display his goodness to the nations; (2) parallels between Moses and Jesus with Jesus affirming and fulfilling the Mosaic law, correcting where Israel failed; (3) David and his descendantsGod promised to be a father to the kings descended from David and Jesus is called Son of David, therefore he is Son of God; (4) the Babylonian Exile and the promises of restoration and peace that were yet unfulfilled (63-78). Westerholm explains that Matthew makes the point that all of Israel's history is "summed up and reaches its climax in the life and proclamation of Jesus" and that "with Jesus, the reign of God is dawning" (78, 79).
Westerholm interprets Jesus' proclamation in Matthew that "the kingdom of heaven has come near" to mean "God's goodness must assert itself"; and that "God is about to put things right and establish his righteous rule on earth" (82). He emphasizes, "The invitation to God's kingdom is extended to allbut it is an offer; the God who made people with minds of their own forces his kingdom on no one" (83). He also says, "No one is to be excluded who desires to be there. Past sins are no problem, provided people are willing to leave their past behind and come" (83). Westerholm says God is anxious to forgive, but each one must decide. And if one decides to join God's kingdom, he "must adopt a lifestyle in keeping with God's goodness, as Jesus demanded" (85). "People determine their destiny" (94).
In relating Jesus' acts of healing to "manifestations of the power of God's kingdom," Westerholm says: "As Jesus extends the invitation to the kingdom to all who will enter, so he makes available its power to all who seek it in faith. The faith of those who turn to God as their only source of aid is always rewarded by divine interventions" (92).
Westerholm believes that a new age will come when Jesus returns to earth. "All are now invited to the kingdom; but if the new age of goodness is not quickly to revert to the corruption of the old, only those willing to side with the good can gain entrance" (94). "It is not for us to choose what is good for ourselves, although we all must choose whether we will do what is good or what is evil" (109).
Westerholm perceives a conflict in the person of Jesus in Matthew's gospel that he cannot resolve. Jesus "assumes the prerogatives of God yet is distinguished from God" (113). He figures Matthew deals with this problem by calling Jesus, God's "Son". "As God's Son he is distinct from the God who is his Father, yet free to speak on his Father's behalf and to claim the same allegiance that is due his Father" (113).
Summarizing his understanding of Matthew, Westerholm writes: "The mission of Jesus is to reclaim the world for Goodness by goodness. All the powers of Goodness are at his disposal, and they exceed by far the forces of evil; but love can only triumph through love" (122). "Everything in Matthew hinges on the truth of the claims that Goodnessnot chaos, indifference, or evillies at the source of all life, that Goodness must therefore prevail in the end, and that Jesus is the One through whom divine Goodness reclaims its creation" (123). "The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of Jesus, but it is meant to inspire its readers to a life of discipleship. Jesus' call to discipleship is thus a summons to share, for the love of Goodness, in the fate of goodness in the worldwith the assurance that the world does not have the last word" (124).
By now you can see that Westerholm does not rely on redemptive history or biblical theology to control his thinking; rather he is envisioning that Goodness must conquer evil in the reign of Jesus Christ. I am afraid that this book was of no help in preparing my sermons on Matthew.
J. Peter Vosteen