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John, Matthew, and Jesus’ Mission

We were discussing the Gospel (Matthew 9:36—10:8) read on the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time last year. Matthew writes about Jesus’ missionary discourse. The Twelve Apostles are restricted in their mission when Jesus says, “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” Later Jesus says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24). Only after the death and resurrection of Jesus does the mission extend to non-Jews and Samaritans (Matthew 28:19).

But then the question came up about the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in the Samaritan town of Sychar (John 4:1-42). We are told that Jesus stayed with the Samaritans for two days and through his own spoken word many came to faith. This account strongly reflects the Church’s post-resurrection mission to Samaria as described in Acts 8:4-25.

We are left in a dilemma, not knowing how to reconcile these two opposite Gospels by Matthew and John. Would you be so kind as to comment?

Start with the realization that each Gospel has its own author, intended audience and purpose. Each author tells Jesus’ story from his own viewpoint, selecting and recounting events and sayings in Jesus’ life to make his points and convey the lessons he wishes.

Further, the Gospels were written after the death and resurrection of Christ. The evangelist told the story of Jesus in the light of post-resurrection events and faith. He described past events with knowledge and understanding that came from the present or future.

There can hardly be any doubt that Jesus saw his mission during his lifetime as directed to the Jews. As Alexander Jones in The Gospel According to St. Matthew puts it, “Israel was to be the first beneficiary of the messianic offer, Romans 1:16; so the apostles are not yet to walk the roads leading to non-Jewish districts–neither northwards to pagan Syria nor south to Samaria, mixed in population and diluted in Yahwism….”

After the Resurrection the mission of Jesus passes from Israel to the whole world. In the passage in John concerning the Samaritan woman, commentators see a kind of “prophetic future.” It looks forward to the command of Jesus at the end of Matthew (28:19-20) to make disciples of all nations and the words of Jesus in the Acts of the Apostles at the time of the Ascension, Acts 1:8, “You will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

The same is true of the incident with the Caananite woman in Matthew 15. The personal concern of Jesus is his mission to Israel. Yielding to the woman’s plea looks forward to the Church’s mission after the crucifixion, says Daniel Harrington, S.J., in The Collegeville Bible Commentary on Matthew.

I think you might compare the incident with the Samaritan woman to other actions of Christ in the Gospels. When his mother comes to him at the wedding feast of Cana pleading the case of the couple who have run out of wine, Jesus pronounces that his hour has not yet come. But, moved by the plea and faith of Mary, he acts. When he encounters a Samaritan among the 10 lepers, he heals (Luke 17:11-19), even though his mission is to Israel and not to Samaritans. Moved by the faith of a gentile centurion, Jesus heals the man’s servant (Matthew 8:5-13) in anticipation of the graces to come through Jesus’ death and resurrection.

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