Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Gospel According to St. Matthew, for 7th Graders

Tuesday was the feast of St. Matthew, and it was also the third meeting of my Seventh-Grade Bible Study on the Gospel of Matthew. We meet in the cozy attic space on the third floor of the Federal-era parish office building (once the rectory), not in a classroom, because we are not a class. We do not have quizzes or textbooks or homework. No one is required to read in public. Each attendee has a notebook and a pen in case doodling helps them to listen, but no one has to take notes or write if they don't want to. What we do is read Matthew, chapter by chapter.

When I first started in on religious education with this grade level, someone told me, "Oh, this is an exciting time. They have so many questions!" Friends, today's seventh-graders do not have so many questions. What they want most of all is not to stand out in any way. They do not want to venture an opinion that can be criticized. They do not want to sound stupid. They do not want to sound smart. And they do not know enough to have even formulated questions.

Perhaps you are a catechist at St. Brag's School for Gifted Tweens, and your experience is different. I can only speak from my near-decade of working in religious ed. with your average public-schooled middle-American middle-schoolers. They do not need more classroom time. They are glutted with school, even and especially when it's virtually miserable. They need something gentle, led by someone gentle. They need to hear, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourself. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."

And they need to hear it from Christ's own mouth, not rehashed in a textbook or explained by a glossy video course. They need to meet God as he wants us to know him: through the humanity of Jesus. And -- get this! -- some people even wrote books in which Jesus's actual deeds and words are preserved in the fascinating format of a story, not a textbook or a manual of ethics. This story is universally appealing. You don't have to be super-intelligent to understand it, or already pious. It transcends all racial differences and class lines and age groups. It is literally how God wants us to understand him.

We are not using a prescribed study guide or a packaged program. These things are all very well and good, and necessary in certain contexts, but it is vitally important for kids to see that reading the scripture is not the domain of professional Catholics --  that someone in their very parish can just open up the Bible and talk about it. The DRE wisely requires me to submit notes a week ahead of time on points I want to draw out of each chapter as we read, which keeps me honest in actually preparing for Bible study and not just winging it each week because I can.

So far we've covered the first four chapters of Matthew. I read a section, and then we go back for a deep dive, verse by verse if it comes to that. I do all the reading, because I know most of my kids are petrified by the idea of reading in front of others, and I am running a Bible study, not a boot camp for self-esteem. (This is no hardship for me because I love reading out loud, and since we're all wearing masks it helps that I'm loud and enunciate clearly.) I ask questions and see if I get any answers, and if not I answer the questions myself. Once a class I will go around and ask each person to tell me something about what we've read so far, even if it's just one word. Sometimes it is only one word, but this past week I got complete sentences, and even some laughs and jokes about the eating of locusts and wild honey. 

This is exactly the engagement I expected with this study, and I am well-pleased. The kids are content to listen to the word of God, and what more can I want? The Word itself is living and effective, taking root in a way that no words of mine could ever do. Some sections, like the genealogy in the first chapter, do need more in-depth explanation, but for the most part, Matthew is not inaccessible. He has a good narrative, and he tells it engagingly. Jesus walks by the shore and says, "Follow me" -- and we do.

Here are my notes on Matthew 1-4. We have three meetings a month through April or May, which is slightly more than one chapter a week. I have it all mapped out week by week, but I don't think much more than a month ahead for planning purposes. I'm very excited for October, when we'll read Matthew 5-7: the Sermon on the Mount.


First Class: Introductions and Matthew Ch. 1


Gather, name tags, get Bibles and get settled.


Begin Introductions



Do you have much experience reading the Bible? Does your family read the Bible? Tell me one thing you know about the Bible.


Introduction to Bible Study

What is the Bible? The Inspired Word of God, written by human authors influenced by their own times and places, but always through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

“Bible” comes from the Greek word “biblios”, meaning “library”. It’s not meant to be read straight through from beginning to end, but like a library, books are in different sections and genres, and have different purposes. And some are easier to understand than others.

What are the parts of the Bible? It is centered on Jesus, with the Old Testament pointing to him, the New Testament examining how to live life through him. (Other kinds of books: historical, Wisdom, Prophets, Epistles, etc.)

What are the Gospels? The heart of the Bible, the “Good News”: the accounts of Jesus’s life and deeds and words. Some of them are written by eyewitnesses; others are accounts written by people who interviewed those who knew Jesus.

Jesus is how God chooses to reveal Himself to us. His words are God literally speaking to us. The best way to come to know Jesus is through His own words, and that’s what we’ll be reading in the Gospel of Matthew.

Questions answered throughout.

Introduction to Matthew

Who wrote the four Gospels? Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

Scholars disagree on which book came first -- the consensus used to be Mark, but there is good evidence that Matthew’s Gospel was actually the first written. 

Who is Matthew? A Jewish man, a disciple of Jesus, writing about what he has heard and has seen with his own eyes for a Jewish audience.  A former tax collector for the Romans -- one of the outcasts whom Jesus welcomed and forgave. Since Matthew is Jewish, he is always making connections to the Old Testament prophecies and stories.

Matthew’s theme is “God With Us”. He starts the book with Jesus’s title of Emmanuel, which means “God With Us”; he ends the Gospel with Jesus telling his disciples, “I will be with you always” (Matt. 28:20). This is Good News!


Matthew, Chapter 1

Read aloud and discuss as we go. Questions answered throughout. (Any of these talking points can be skipped or glossed over for time. New points can be addressed as the Spirit moves, or in answer to questions.)


Why does Matthew mention David and Abraham at the very beginning of the book? Have you heard these names before? What do you know about them?

David is the great king of Israel, who truly joined the scattered tribes into a strong country. He was a man after God’s own heart -- not because he was sinless, but because he repented again and again. God promised that David’s line would never end, and that the Messiah (the promised Jewish savior) would come from David’s descendants. David was also a poet who wrote many of the Psalms that prophecy about the Messiah’s coming. Every Jewish man, woman, and child prayed the words of David.

Abraham is the father of the Jewish people. His faith in God was so great that he believed, against all earthly evidence, that God would found a great nation through him. God made a covenant with Abraham to be faithful to him and to his descendants forever.

David represents the earthly glory of Israel; Abraham represents its spiritual glory.

Family tree: Do you know your genealogy? The Jewish people loved family trees and tracing their line back to a glorious ancestor. Are all these people in Matthew 1:2-16 glorious? Are they all good? Are they all famous? Jesus comes from a mixed human family just like all of us.

Four women (besides Mary) mentioned in Jesus’s genealogy, all quite different. All bore children in ways that were strange or unexpected. Some weren’t even Jewish. But they all point toward Mary in different ways.

Three sections of the genealogy: the patriarchs, the kings, and the decline after the Babylonian Exile. The Exile was as important and somber to the Jews of Jesus’s time as the Holocaust is to the Jewish people now. It was a story of earthly persecution and sorrow. Most of the names in this section aren’t mentioned anywhere else. The line of the kings seems to be ended.

Why the focus on repeated sets of fourteen generations? Numbers are important to Matthew’s Jewish readers, and the Hebrew letters of David’s name have a numerical value of 14. 


Have you ever heard this story of Jesus’s birth? What’s the usual story we hear about an angel announcing Jesus’s coming?

Betrothed: The Jewish marriage ceremony has two parts: betrothal and wedding. Betrothal is far more binding, legally and morally, than our modern engagement. After a betrothal, the couple was considered man and wife, but did not yet live together. They formed a new household after the wedding. Matthew is emphasizing that Mary was not yet living with Joseph when she conceived Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no question of Jesus having a human father.

Joseph is called “righteous”, the same word used of Abraham. Abraham is praised in the Old Testament for his great faith in God. Joseph is faithful to God’s commands in the Jewish law, but he’s also faithful to God’s message to him in a dream -- the same way that some of the people mentioned in the genealogy also believed messages in dreams.

Jesus! It means “God saves.” What do we need to be saved from? Why is this good news?

“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet” (1:22) -- Matthew drawing connections with the Old Testament. Find Isaiah 7:14.


Wrap up, answer questions, dismiss.


Matthew Chapters 2-3


Arrival, name tags, attendance, greeting


Check in with kids, review last week’s chapter: what do they remember? What has helped them in the past week?


Chapter 2

(Read aloud, answer questions throughout. Talking points may be elaborated on, or skipped for time or because the kids bring up different points.)

Have you heard the story of the three wise men before? What do you remember?

What details here are new to you? Does anything stand out?

We don’t know much about the magi from the East (does Matthew tell us how many there are?), but Herod is referenced in other historical documents and records. Jesus is rooted in our history. He’s not a mythical character or a fiction. Since we know that Herod died in 4 B.C, we know that Jesus was born before that, probably around 7-6 B.C. The monk who compiled our current calendar a few hundred years after Jesus was born was off on his dates by a few years!

More Old Testament reference! Our Bible helps us find other verses that are referenced -- can you find that section? Who can find Micah 5:1? 2 Samuel 5:2?

An angel appears several times in a dream in the first chapters of Matthew. Is that the same way that an angel appeared to Mary? Check Luke Chapter 1.

Joseph takes Mary and Jesus to safety in Egypt, and then brings them back again to Israel. Can you remember any other references to Egypt, any stories that all Jewish people might know? Any references to rulers trying to kill baby boys? Any baby boys who were saved from death who grew up to set their people free? Try Exodus Chapter 1.

Where does the Holy Family settle? A great city? A rich town? Nazareth is hicktown, country territory, looked down on (John 1:46). Jesus is not positioned as a great ruler. He is from somewhere small and despised, and so, as Bishop Barron says, he slips under the guard of the rulers of this world.


Chapter 3

Something new is starting! Let’s fast-forward about 30 years.

Why start with John? What do you already know about John the Baptist?

More prophets! Where can we find this prophecy from Isaiah? (Isaiah 40:3)

Do you think all the people are going out to hear John out of curiosity, or do you think his message is drawing them? How does he tell us to prepare for the kingdom of heaven? What does it sound like John thinks the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven will be like?

Why do John’s clothes matter? Another Old Testament reference, to the great prophet Elijah. 2 Kings 1:8. Why is the comparison with Elijah so important? Let’s check the very last verse of the Malachi, the very last prophecy in the Old Testament: Malachi 3:23-24.

The Jordan River is also an important place in the history of Israel. It’s the river that Joshua led the Israelites across as they entered the Promised Land after they left Egypt. And it’s where Elijah handed on his ministry to his even-greater successor, the prophet Elisha. 

Have you been to a baptism? Tell me about it. Each sacrament uses physical material -- what’s the material of baptism? (Water)

Why does Jesus want to get baptized? Jesus shares in our human nature, and he sets an example for us -- he says it is “fitting” to get baptized, appropriate for someone with a human nature to be baptized. His being God is what blesses natural water and gives it the power to wash us free not only of dirt on our bodies, but of original sin, the weakness of our fallen human nature. 

Can you find each person of the Holy Trinity in Jesus’s baptism?


Wrap up, dismissal


Matthew Chapter 4


Greetings, name tags, set-up

Read Matthew 9:9-13 -- the conversion of Matthew, for the feast of St. Matthew.

Recap of Matthew 1-3:

What does the name “Jesus” mean?

Why is Matthew always bringing up what the prophets say? 

How many Magi were there?

Where did Joseph take Mary and Joseph to escape from King Herod?

What did John the Baptist wear?


Chapter 4

V. 1: The Spirit leads Jesus into the desert. Why is the desert an important place in the Bible?

The Israelites were tempted in the desert after they left Egypt, and they did worship a false god that they made -- a golden calf. Jesus does not succumb to the temptation of boredom to create a new god to worship.

Why does Jesus go into the desert? He's just been anointed by the Spirit, as his ancestor David was anointed king -- and like a king, he's going out to do battle. With whom? With the devil.

V. 2: Forty days and forty nights. What’s the significance of forty? The Israelites spent forty years wandering in the desert after they left Egypt before they were allowed to enter the promised land. Moses spent forty days and forty nights in God’s presence on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments. 

He fasted, and he was hungry. Jesus is like us. He gets hungry, thirsty, tired. But he never loses sight of his Father.

V. 3-4: First temptation -- bodily hunger and appeal to pride (first sin) -- turn stones into bread, if you’re really the Son of God. Jesus doesn’t fall into this all-or-nothing trap. As always, he ignores false choices and goes straight to the main point. He does not use his power for his own comfort or to make himself look good. He uses it to glorify his Father.

Who is the word that comes from the mouth of God? Jesus himself. (John 1:1)

V. 5-7: Second temptation -- big dramatic gesture, proof-texting scripture -- throw yourself down because the Bible says God will protect you. Jesus answers with a more directly applicable scripture passage. He doesn’t bother to argue with the devil about his interpretation of the Bible -- always a waste of time!

V. 8-10: Third temptation -- earthly power in exchange for humiliation. The devil acts like the kingdoms of the earth are actually his to give, and for the first time he asks Jesus to do something directly contrary to scripture. Jesus tells him to leave, and quotes a scripture passage where God commands that only he be worshiped. Satan is a liar, but he has no power over Jesus, and must leave when he is commanded.

Angels minister to Jesus after temptation. They will also minister to us! Ask for their help!

V. 12: John the Baptist gets arrested. We’ll hear more of his story in chapters 11 and 14.

Jesus goes to Galilee to start his ministry -- he begins with the least significant people in Israel. 

V. 13: Why is “Zebulun and Napthali” significant? They’re the names of two of the twelve tribes of Israel, named after Abraham’s grandson Jacob’s family. (Jacob saw an angel in a dream, who gave him a new name: Israel.) The Jewish people divided into twelve tribes based on Jacob’s descendants. Jesus was from the tribe of Judah, like his ancestor King David.

V. 16: “The people who sit in darkness” -- do you know what that’s like? Have you ever felt dark, blue, unhappy, weighted down? Did you long to see a great light? Jesus fulfills this prophecy.

V. 17: Who else preached that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand? John the Baptist. But Jesus is the Word of God. John could only prophesy. Jesus’s word effects what it says.

V. 18: Jesus sees Simon and Andrew at their work and calls them out of ordinary life. Are you waiting for Jesus to call you in some extraordinary way? Do you think that you have to be different or special or worthy before Jesus will call you?

“Casting their nets” -- how did fishing work? The nets picked up a lot of fish, if there were any fish in the area to be caught. This is way that Jesus works as well: he casts a wide net and brings in everyone. He’s not picky!

At once they followed him. Why are the apostles considered saints? Not because they’re perfect, but because they listen to Jesus. 

V. 21: Simon and Andrew were casting their nets; James and John are mending their nets. What’s the difference here? Maybe the active life and the contemplative life -- we see that distinction other places in the gospels (Martha and Mary). 

Why do they all follow Jesus without even knowing him? There is something about him. We see that all through the gospels. What is there about Jesus that attracts you to him? Is he interesting to you? Do you love him? As we read the gospel, pay attention to the character of Jesus. Learn to love him. He is lovable.

V. 23: teaching, proclaiming the gospel of the Kingdom, curing: this is what God does on earth. This is how God wants us to know him. He makes what was broken whole. Where Jesus is, is the kingdom of Heaven. 


Antoinette said...

Thank you for serving and helping kids get to know the Bible. I appreciate your outline.

mandamum said...

Thanks for this!

Kathleen said...

How refreshing!