It was a turbulent world in which Matthew, a Jewish Christian, wrote his Gospel. The Roman Empire, with its massive military power, reigned supreme over the Jewish people of Palestine. In response to a recent Jewish revolt Roman forces had destroyed Jerusalem, slaughtered its people, and demolished the Jewish temple, centerpiece of Jewish religious life. The battered Jewish community was struggling to reshape its existence in a shattered world. They also struggled over basic questions of Jewish identity and practice in energetic debate with an emerging Jewish movement claiming Jesus of Nazareth as Jewish Messiah. What did it mean to be faithful Jews? Who were God’s true children?
Matthew’s Gospel clearly reflects both this intra-Jewish conflict and the plight of the Jewish people under their Roman overlords. An important concept for Matthew is dikaiosyne (“justice” or “righteousness”), a central theme within the Sermon on the Mount and throughout Matthew’s Gospel. This double-sided term expresses Matthew’s perspectives on God, on Jesus as Messiah, and on Jesus’ disciples.
First of all, for Matthew, justice-righteousness is a central attribute of who God is and how God acts. Jesus calls his disciples to seek “the kingdom of God and his righteousness” above all earthly needs (Matt 6:33). And in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples about God the “landowner” who hires vineyard workers and pays them “whatever is right” (Matt 20:4). As Matthew sees it, justice, or righteousness, is a concept with origins in God’s very character and actions.
But Matthew also attributes this same justice or righteousness to Jesus’ identity and ministry. When John the Baptist hesitates to baptize him, Jesus responds, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15). Jesus views his entire ministry as one that exhibits the righteousness of God. Jesus’ blessing on those who are “persecuted for righteousness’ sake” (Matt 5:10) is in fact a blessing on those who suffer persecution on “my account” (Matt 5:11). Even Roman outsiders recognize Jesus as a righteous man who has “done no evil” (compare Matt 27:23).
Ultimately, Matthew associates justice-righteousness with the mission and the character of Jesus’ followers. Jesus calls his disciples to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt 6:33), and he blesses those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:6). This justice is above all a way of life. Jesus commends John the Baptist as one “who came…in the way of righteousness” (Matt 21:32).
And this is a challenging vocation. Jesus calls his disciples to a justice-righteousness that “exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees” (Matt 5:20). And he illustrates this life in vivid and wide-ranging terms. On the one hand dikaiosyne is the collective term for almsgiving, prayers, and fasting (Matt 6:1-18). But this justice-righteousness also feeds the hungry, gives drink to the thirsty, welcomes strangers, clothes the naked, attends to the sick, and visits the imprisoned (Matt 25:31-46). And it “fulfills the law” in extraordinary ways by forbidding anger, lust, divorce, and oaths, and by calling Jesus’ followers not to “resist [the] evildoer” but instead to “love [their] enemies” and to “pray for those who persecute [them]” (Matt 5:17-48).