Weekday Readings (Cycle 1), Weeks 12-22
The Mass Readings, following the Irish Liturgical Calendar. Bible texts are from the NRSV (New Revised Standard Version).
These have already appeared on the website of the Association of Catholic Priests, in the homily resources section edited by Fr Pat Rogers, Dublin, Ireland. Many of the Gospel based reflections are from Fr. Martin Hogan, edited here with his permission.
God calls Abram to "go to the land that I will show you." This brings blessing on all mankind.
Now the Lord said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."
So Abram went, as the Lord had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran. Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At that time the Canaanites were in the land. Then the Lord appeared to Abram, and said, "To your offspring I will give this land." So he built there an altar to the Lord, who had appeared to him. From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the Lord and invoked the name of the Lord. And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.
Our judgment on others determines our own judgment by God.
Jesus said to his disciples: "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbour, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour's eye."
Abram's call by God to move to another country marks the beginning of Israel's salvation history, the monumental moment when this rugged nomad was called to migrate to the land of promise and eventually become a sign of blessing for everyone on earth. But centuries later, the tragic story of the ten northern tribes comes to a fiery end when their capital city, Samaria, is stormed and captured by the Assyrians. The people left alive after the ordeal of a three year siege are marched into exile and historical oblivion. By this stern judgment of God, most of Abram's descendants were suppressed by a gentile nation for whom they were supposed to be a blessing. Yet, in the gospel we are told not to judge others. Is God, we wonder, above his own law of compassion and forgiveness?
The mystery of divine providence cannot be explained in any clear and simple way, why some are chosen and others seem unchosen. At times the question is squarely faced in the Bible--for instance in today's reading from 2 Kings, without the answer being utterly persuasive. Yes, the northern tribes did not keep God's commandments; but the single remaining tribe of Judah did not keep the commandments all that faithfully, either. Jerusalem, their capital, was also razed to the ground (2 Kings 25) but they survived the Babylonian exile and became a remnant group who rebuilt the Holy City and prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
Another attempt to explain divine election and non-election is made in the Book of Deuteronomy: It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you, for you are the smallest of all nations. It was because the Lord loved you, that he brought you out with his strong hand from the place of slavery (Deut 7:7-8). From this text we see that a non-negotiable element for survival is a sense of humble gratitude. The proud person, as today's reading says, is "stiff-necked." Humility receives each gift and blessing continuously as a gift, never as an absolute possession. Whatever is received as a gift is easily shared with other needy persons. Humility quickly leads to generosity, generosity to trust in God, and trust in God to a profound sense of prayer and adoration.
Abram left Haran in upper Syria, going into an unknown land and leaving behind his relatives and his home and everything he knew, for the sake of a promise and a blessing. Even the new land was also to remain promised, never completely possessed. God said to Israel, "The land is mine; you are but aliens who have become my tenants" (Lev 25:23). Land was to be shared, so that no one would be homeless among God's people. Never to possess but always to receive as a gift meant that Israel was to be "the smallest of all nations."
For "the smallest" to be anything else but humble would be ridiculous. This humble people can hardly stand high enough to see what is happening, and so cannot be judgmental towards others. They already have a plank in their eyes when they dare to judge their neighbours, who turn out to be more righteous with only a speck in their eyes. Humble persons will not lose the promised land, the divine blessing, for God always remembers his promise in their regard. Humility means strength in God and kindliness towards one's neighbour, and its tests are: a good heart to think well of one's neighbour, generosity in sharing with them, always trusting God and going forward willingly, at God's call.
We don't often think of Jesus as showing a sense of humour. But something of his humour comes across in today's gospel. He paints an odd picture--amusing because it is ridiculous and incongruous--of someone with a plank in his or her eye struggling to take a splinter out of someone else's eye. Yet, behind the humour there is a serious point. Jesus is alerting us to the human tendency to be very aware of the failings of others while at the same time being blind to our own failings. In a sense, wagging the finger at the perceived failings of others is always a strong temptation for all of us. I was struck the other evening by an exchange on RTE between an Irish bishop and a certain well known correspondent of a well known newspaper. What remained with me after the exchange was not anything either of them said but the sight of the correspondent continually wagging his finger at the bishop in the course of the exchange. Bishops, of course, have done their own share of finger wagging in the past, as, indeed, we all have. In today's gospel, Jesus encourages us to be constantly looking at ourselves when we come to turn the spotlight on others. We need to be in touch with our own humanity before we can comment on the humanity on others, and, it is probably true to say that the more we know ourselves the less inclined we will be to judge or accuse others.
The herdsmen of Abram and Lot quarrel, and the two groups go their separate ways
Now Abram was very rich in livestock, in silver, and in gold. Now Lot, who went with Abram, also had flocks and herds and tents, so that the land could not support both of them living together; for their possessions were so great that they could not live together, and there was strife between the herders of Abram's livestock and the herders of Lot's livestock. At that time the Canaanites and the Perizzites lived in the land.
Then Abram said to Lot, "Let there be no strife between you and me, and between your herders and my herders; for we are kindred. Is not the whole land before you? Separate yourself from me. If you take he left hand, then I will go to the right; or if you take the right hand, then I will go to the left." Lot looked about him, and saw that the plain of the Jordan was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar; this was before the Lord had destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. So Lot chose for himself all the plain of the Jordan, and Lot journeyed eastward; thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the Plain and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the people of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.
The Lord said to Abram, after Lot had separated from him, "Raise your eyes now, and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth; so that if one can count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Rise up, walk through the length and the breadth of the land, for I will give it to you." So Abram moved his tent, and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron; and there he built an altar to the Lord.
Various warnings, towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount
Jesus said to his disciples: "Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you."
"In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it."
Today's texts manifest the age-old truth that in life people often cope better in pursuing their hopes than with having too much leisure or luxury. People who must work hard and pass through all the stages of developing a business, a farm, or a family inheritance, generally show more care and appreciation for the results of their work, and deeper joy in their creativity, than the next generation who receive it on a golden platter.
Isn't it possible to be trapped by our own success if it comes too early? We tend to make our worst mistakes when we have the money and the leisure to do so, and even family members turn against each other in the flush of prosperity. Today's Scripture not only reflects our common difficulty in dealing with success, education and achievement; it also advises us on a way out of this impasse. Abram's first goal was not wealth, prestige, honour or security, but peace. He said to Lot, "Let there be no strife between your herdsmen and mine, for we are relatives." This peace is marked with dignity and love and the sense of family, leading to the generous and gracious offer: "If you prefer the left, I will go to the right; if you prefer the right, I will go to the left." Abram shows quiet reflection and good judgment, an approach that illustrates the advice of Jesus, not to toss your pearls before swine, or to follow the wide and easy way to damnation.
The image of the narrow gate and the hard road in the gospel suggests that being Jesus' disciple will make demands on us. Whereas we can saunter through a wide gate without much thought, to get through a narrow gate we have to concentrate and focus our attention. It takes a certain amount of concentration and alertness to get through a narrow gate. Jesus is reminding us that being a follower of his requires a degree of deliberation and attentiveness on our part; it doesn't happen automatically. The adjective "narrow" tends to have a pejorative meaning in our culture. No one wants to be considered narrow; we like to think of ourselves as broad minded. The gospel today suggests that a certain narrowness is called for in the following of the Lord, in the sense that it often means excluding all kinds of pathways that are well trod. Saying "yes" to the Lord's way requires saying "no" to a lot of other ways. But Jesus also declares that this narrowing down which following him entails ultimately leads to a great expansiveness, the great expanse of God's life. The gate may be narrow buy what is beyond has a length, breath, width and depth which surpasses knowledge.
God's promise of descendants to Abraham is renewed
After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, "Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great." But Abram said, "O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?" And Abram said, "You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir." But the word of the Lord came to him, "This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir."
He brought him outside and said, "Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then he said to him, "So shall your descendants be." And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
Then he said to him, "I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess." But he said, "O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?" He said to him, "Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon." He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two. And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram, and a deep and terrifying darkness descended upon him. When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. AbrahamOn that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, "To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates
A warning against false prophets
Jesus said to his disciples:"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? In the same way, every good tree bears good fruit, but the bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will know them by their fruits."
When Jesus stated that a good tree is known by its good fruit, he was referring to the annual fruit harvest rather than to a single harvest, once for all time. At the same time he warned how some people could be misled, “Be on guard against false prophets… You will know them by their deeds.” We need to be attentive not to compromise our faith and our convictions, little by little, in the face of daily temptations. Continuing the analogy of the fruit tree, we know that a tree generally does not die in a single moment but rather decays gradually from within.
Such was the trial of Abram. Over the long years of his marriage with Sarah, no child had been conceived, so he complained to God, “What good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?” He repeated his question, for the long testing of his confidence in the Lord was getting the better of him. Why keep on hoping against hope (Rom 4:18)? Abram’s dream not only churned up his doubts but also reached still more deeply into his heart and helped him persevere. After dividing the sacrificial animals on two sides, he saw a smoking brazier and a flaming torch pass between the pieces. But first birds of prey swooped down and Abram had to stay with the sacrifice and persistently drive off the birds. Even though doubts and hesitation were almost destroying his faith, he stayed with them and persevered.
Then under the symbol of smoke and fire, the Lord passed between the divided animals, whose blood, flowing between the two sides, with God in between, symbolise the bond of life between God and his servant Abram. Within this intimate moment, Abram shared his agony with God, and he believed – not merely with intellectual assent but rather with surrender of his whole self to God, his joys and ambitions, his entire span of life on earth. Here was a tree that bore good fruit, retaining its health and vigor all through the years!
Jesus draws attention to the gap there can often be between appearance and reality. Just as there can be more to some people than meets the eye, so there can be less to some people than meets the eye. It is that second situation that Jesus highlights in the gospel. He speaks of those who look like sheep but underneath are ravenous wolves. They project an attractive image but it is false and deceptive. Where our hearts are does not always correspond to how we appear to others. Jesus declares that the real test of where our hearts are is the kind of fruit that our lives bear. 'You will be able to tell them by their fruits.' St Paul used that same language of 'fruit' when, in his letter to the Galatians, he speaks about the 'fruit of the Spirit' – 'love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.' Even though Paul lists different qualities, he doesn't speak of 'fruits' but of 'fruit.' There is one fruit of the Spirit which can be described in all these different ways; the term which best describes this one fruit is the first term in Paul's list, 'love.' If our lives bear that kind of fruit, our heart belongs to God. We are like the 'sound tree' Jesus refers to in the gospel.
Hagar is driven out, but an angel is sent to rescue her
Now Sarai, Abram's wife, bore him no children. She had an Egyptian slave-girl whose name was Hagar, and Sarai said to Abram, "You see that the Lord has prevented me from bearing children; go in to my slave-girl; it may be that I shall obtain children by her." And Abram listened to the voice of Sarai. So, after Abram had lived ten years in the land of Canaan, Sarai, Abram's wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife. He went in to Hagar, and she conceived; and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked with contempt on her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, "May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!" But Abram said to Sarai, "Your slave-girl is in your power; do to her as you please." Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she ran away from her.
The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the desert, the spring on the way to Shur. And he said, "Hagar, slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?" She said, "I am running away from my mistress Sarai." The angel of the Lord said to her, "Return to your mistress, and submit to her." The angel of the Lord also said to her, "I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude." And the angel of the Lord said to her, "Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the Lord has given heed to your affliction. He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone's hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin."
Hagar bore Abram a son; and Abram named his son, whom Hagar bore, Ishmael. Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.
Hearing God's word and acting upon it
Jesus said to his disciples, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'
"Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell--and great was its fall!"
Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Abram and Sarah followed the custom of their time, when children were the surest way to secure ones human rights and dignity into old age. After many years of childless marriage, Sarah turns in desperation to the local custom that allowed a surrogate wife to bear her child. Yet once the Egyptian maidservant Hagar conceives, she scorns her mistress for being childless; and Sarah now blamed this humiliation on Abram. Following the custom that it was the wife's place to look after the female servants, Abram tries to solve the problem by opting out, "Your maid is in your power. Do to her whatever you please." We may disapprove of both Abram and Sarah in this case; but God is more compassionate and cares for Hagar and her child Ishmael. This child too was to receive a promise of protection and a future, a future that was to bring much sorrow and trouble to Abram's other offspring. Even today, the Arabs descended from Ishmael, and the Jews descended from Isaac are deeply suspicious and antagonistic towards one another.
Problems that burden people often begin when they act in hasty disregard for the feelings of others. Like Abram we can opt out of a difficult situation. Or like Sarah and Hagar we can spoil the chances of a peaceful life by envy and spite. Yet, even amid painful consequences of our faults we are asked to recognize the purifying hand of God. These things are written for our instruction and moral edification.
God can help us correct our faults, changing our perspective so that our former enemy is seen as actually a neighbour, a member of our extended human family, just as Ishmael, the father of the Arabs, and Isaac, the father of the Jews, were brothers. The eucharist which unites us around the same table reminds us of our larger family ties, sharing the same food and the same sacred traditions, the same Lord Jesus in whom there is "neither Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal 3:28). The house of peace is built on the rock of Christ where we are all one family, one blood. We must do much more than simply say "my brother, my sister" or "Lord, Lord!" It is not enough to make one single lavish display of goodwill and then think we can forget all about our neighbour. A house of mere words will not last; it is built on sand and will be easily washed away at the next storm. Jesus calls us to do the will of our heavenly Father, his Father and ours. We enter the kingdom of God, the secure house of faithful love, by doing the will of God continuously and faithfully.
The two houses Jesus describes in today's gospel looked the same. To the external observer, there would have appeared to be no difference between them. Yet, there was a crucial difference between them, even though it was not immediately visible. It only became visible when the storm struck. It was only then that it became evident that these two identical houses were resting on very different foundations. One house withstood the storm, and the other collapsed. In the case of these two houses, what was invisible was far more significant that what was visible. The gospel reading suggests that the same can apply when it comes to our lives. Two lives can look much the same, but, in reality, one can be much more vulnerable than the other. Jesus declares that the surest foundation for our lives consists in the hearing and the doing of his word. He is the rock and if we build our lives on him, on his values and attitudes as expressed in his word and in his life, then our lives will be solidly rooted and we will come through the storms that inevitable come our way in life.
Abram's name is changed. The promised child will be God's special gift
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram again, and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless." God said to Abraam, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised.
God said to Abraham, "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her." Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?" And Abraham said to God, "O that Ishmael might live in your sight!" God said, "No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year." And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.
A leper is cured by Jesus and then is ordered to fulfill the ritual gift.
When Jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him; and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean." He stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, "I do choose. Be made clean!" Immediately his leprosy was cleansed. Then Jesus said to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that Moses commanded, as a testimony to them."
Some laws are to be kept and other laws are to be disregarded--in certain circumstance. When Jesus cured the man of some type of contagious skin disease , he reminded him, "See to it that you tell no one. Go and show yourself to the priest and offer the gift Moses preScribed. That should be the proof they need." We can't help wondering, couldn't the priests get along without the gift from a poor man who because of his leprosy had been long out of work? The gift was very small, but served to show that the former outcast was taken back into the full community of Israel. The leper would also be allowed come into the temple again, after years of enforced absence. He would sense a return of self-respect and dignity, and there would be great rejoicing in the offering of his gift.
Laws, as we shall see, are sometimes also disregarded, for good reason. Tradition prohibited a devout Jew from touching anyone legally unclean; lepers were among the most unclean, and were the untouchables. On hearing the leper's passionate plea, "Sir, if you want to, you can cure me!" Jesus chose to set aside tradition and the law, and in a movement of compassion, stretched out and touched him--and cured him. In that miraculous moment, Jesus became ceremonially unclean and therefore was barred from entering the house of God along with the former leper. But was not a disdainful breaking of the law; Jesus went around or above it, swept by the supreme law of compassion. One must keep laws in the spirit of their origin, which is the merciful goodness of God.
This same compassionate God allowed Jerusalem, the holy capital city of his covenanted people, to be destroyed, its temple burnt to the ground, the survivors of the long siege to be deported, with only a remnant left behind. There is a deep mystery here. Jesus, too, who healed the leper, would weep over Jerusalem as he announced its second destruction, this time by the Romans (Luke 19:41). And yet hope continues to spring up, for "Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing" (Ps 126:5). The elderly couple--the ancient Jerusalem--will give birth to new life. Such is the covenant law of a compassionate God.
Lepers in the time of Jesus were the untouchables. They could not be touched for fear of contagion; through touch, their disease could pass to other members of the community. The community protected itself by ensuring that lepers lives apart, with only other lepers for company. In today's gospel, however, Jesus did not hesitate to touch the leper. He would not be contaminated by the leper's touch, rather, his touch would heal the leper. The leper had approached Jesus with the, understandably, very tentative request, "If you want to, you can cure me." But there was nothing tentative about Jesus' response, "Of course I want to." The gospels reveal a Jesus who does not hesitate to touch our lives, even the most unattractive parts of our lives. The risen Lord has no fear of being contaminated by us; he does not avoid the murkiness of our lives. He enters fully into the dark and forbidding places of our personal and communal lives, with his healing and life-giving presence. His passionate concern for our well-being knows no barriers. The Lord wants to touch our lives as they are, not as they should be or could be. All that is required for him to do that is for us to approach him, as the leper did, although we can be afford to be more confident in our approach than he was.
The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, "My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on - since you have come to your servant." So they said, "Do as you have said." And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, "Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes." Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, "Where is your wife Sarah?" And he said, "There, in the tent." Then one said, "I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son." And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, "After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?" The Lord said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son." But Sarah denied, saying, "I did not laugh"; for she was afraid. He said, "Oh yes, you did laugh."
When Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, appealing to him and saying, "Lord, my servant is lying at home paralyzed, in terrible distress." And he said to him, "I will come and cure him." The centurion answered, "Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only speak the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes, and to another, 'Come,' and he comes, and to my slave, 'Do this,' and the slave does it." When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, "Truly I tell you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." And to the centurion Jesus said, "Go; let it be done for you according to your faith." And the servant was healed in that hour.
When Jesus entered Peter's house, he saw his mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever; he touched her hand, and the fever left her, and she got up and began to serve him.
That evening they brought to him many who were possessed with demons; and he cast out the spirits with a word, and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah, "He took our infirmities and bore our diseases."
Long before he fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy of the suffering servant by his death on the cross, Jesus had been living out the prophetic words by his daily responses to people. It seems he could not pass by a sick person, without being moved to compassion. The one asking for help might be a foreigner, even one of the despised Roman occupation force, or a leper, a poor widow, a demented person roaming the countryside or a close friend like Peter's mother-in-law. It made no difference, the nationality, the sex, the social level, the mental or moral condition. What mattered was human misery which became a burden on the heart of Jesus.
Jesus looked for trusting faith as the condition for a cure, an attitude missing among the people of his home town of Nazareth where he could work very few miracles (Mark 6:5). Through his miracles he came to be known most of all as a man of compassion, reaching out to suffering people. As we read in Isaiah, he was "accustomed to infirmity" because the sick gravitated towards him. Many passages from Isaiah 53 read like a commentary on the public ministry of Jesus.
He thus aligned himself with a long biblical tradition, in which God's servants were conspicuous for their attention towards strangers and sinners, towards the sick and defenseless. Today, we read how Abraham could not let travellers pass by his tent without bathing their feet and then satisfying their hunger with a special banquet. They in turn could not pass by the lonely sterility of Abraham and Sarah's marriage, and so they promised that a child would be conceived by the aged couple.
For most of the gospel story Jesus meets with and dialogues with those of his own race and people, Jews. Today's gospel is one of the relatively few places where Jesus is portrayed as entering into conversation with a pagan. This man was no ordinary pagan; he was a Roman centurion, man of authority, a commander in the occupying army. He came to Jesus as a man who was used to giving orders; he knew the power of his own word. Yet, he recognized that the word of this prophet from Nazareth had a power which even his word did not have. "Just give the word," he said to Jesus, "and my servant will be cured." A version of what that centurion said to Jesus has made its way into our Eucharist, "only say the word and I shall be healed." How strange that the words of a Roman centurion would come to form part of the church's Eucharist. Yet, this Roman centurion was clearly a man of great faith in Jesus, as Jesus remarks in response, "nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this." The gospel suggests that faith can be found in unexpected places, unexpected people. It is not always where we expect it to be, and it can be where we least expect it. This pagan centurion calls out to us through the pages of the gospel to entrust ourselves to the healing and life-giving power of the Lord's word, as he did.
Abraham argues with God to spare the wicked cities of the plain
Then the men set out from there, and they looked toward Sodom; and Abraham went with them to set them on their way. The Lord said, "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him." Then the Lord said, "How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know."
So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, "Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?" And the Lord said, "If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake." Abraham answered, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?" And he said, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." Again he spoke to him, "Suppose forty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of forty I will not do it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there." He answered, "I will not do it, if I find thirty there." He said, "Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there." He answered, "For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it." Then he said, "Oh do not let the Lord be angy if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there." He answered, "For the sake of ten I will not destroy it." And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
Jesus utters an unworldly challenge, to let the dead bury the dead
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
The Genesis story shows Abraham bargaining with God to have the wicked cities spared. He begins at fifty, asking God to spare the cities if fifty innocent people can be found there. He speaks up again, pleading for their survival if forty-five innocent are found. The haggling continues and Abraham gradually pares the number down to ten. At that the Lord closes the conversation and leaves. This conversation between Abraham and the living God is a classic piece of literature that reveals significant aspects of biblical faith: the freedom of people to argue with God and God's patient willingness to bear with such jostling. Even though this account reveals God's immanent closeness is to his people and theirs to God, still God's sovereignty remains and he closes the conversation when he wills to do so. The most conspicuous point, nonetheless, is the intuition of a personal, compassionate God.
So when we come to the harsh statement of Jesus, "Let the dead bury their dead", we want to argue with God as Abraham did. Even though our bargaining power may not be as great as Abraham's, we still feel that justice and common decency are on our side. As we argue with Jesus, we recall how after his own sorrowful death on Calvary, his friends took care of his burial. If a saying like this stirs reflection, or even provokes an argument with God, Jesus has achieved his objective in speaking such a baffling paradox which was not followed at his own death. The Scriptures evidently are intended more as a book of meditation and reflection than as a simple answer book.
Even though we may argue with God, a ray of hope always remains, for he always wants to give healing and life.
Today's gospel begins with the scene of 'great crowds all about Jesus. It was in thist context that a Jewish scribe came up and declared that he would follow Jesus wherever he went. Who wouldn't want to be a follower of someone who healed the sick in such great numbers and who generated such excitement? We can almost sense the enthusiasm of the scribe in the way he addressed Jesus. In his response to this well-meaning scribe, Jesus was very honest and direct, 'the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' It is as if Jesus was saying to him, 'it won't always be like this. There are troubling times ahead. The way of the cross lies ahead.' Jesus was aware that many who started to follow him with great enthusiasm in good times would fall away from him in bad times. In our own lives too there are times when all seems well, and there are other times when everything seems to be falling apart. The Lord looks to us to have as much enthusiasm for him in the dark times as in the good times. Like the promise the couple make to each other on the day of the marriage, he looks to us to give ourselves to him and all he stands for, 'for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, all the days of our lives.' In other words, he asks us to be faithful, regardless of the circumstances of our lives, knowing that he will be faithful to us.
Before destroying the decadent cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, God saved Lot and his family for Abraham's sake.
When morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, "Get up, take your wife and your two daughters who are here, or else you will be consumed in the punishment of the city." But he lingered; so the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and left him outside the city. When they had brought them outside, they said, "Flee for your life; do not look back or stop anywhere in the Plain; flee to the hills, or else you will be consumed." And Lot said to them, "Oh, no, my lords; your servant has found favour with you, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills, for fear the disaster will overtake me and I die. Look, that city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there--is it not a little one?--an my life will be saved!" He said to him, "Very well, I grant you this favour too, and will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Hurry, escape there, for I can do nothing until you arrive there." Therefore the city was called Zoar. The sun had risen on the earth when Lot came to Zoar.
Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven; and he overthrew those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. But Lot's wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.
Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the Plain and saw the smoke of the land going up like the smoke of a furnace. So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the Plain, God remembered Abraham, and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow, when he overthrew he cities in which Lot had settled.
Jesus calms the storm on the lake; the apostles see him in a completely new light.
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?"
In face of natural disasters, such as earthquake and volcanic eruptions at Sodom and Gomorrah or a fierce storm on the Lake of Galilee, God saves those who trust in him and those for whom others pray. By Abraham's prayer Lot, his wife and two daughters are led to safety by an angel; the disciples in the boat are amazed at Jesus' power over the wind and the waves. But if people persist in sinful behaviour, unwilling to give up living off others' inhuman working conditions, then prophets like Amos are impelled by God to cry out in the name of the poor.
If people cannot disentangle themselves from base sexual practices, not even the prayer of someone like Abraham can save them and they are swallowed up in a fiery grave, which only Lot and his family managed to escape. Events like storms at sea, earthquakes, and natural catastrophe are closely linked to the story of salvation for all of us. In face of such natural calamities we need not be passive victims but can be saved by the strength of faith and prayer.
This faith and prayer must have a steady quality--not "on again, off again." Lot's hesitation almost costs him and his family their lives. The entire family had to be dragged out of the sinful city and led to safety. On the way, Lot's wife looked back, and she was turned into a pillar of salt. This story probably comes from a weird, salt column at the southwestern edge of the Dead Sea. From one angle it resembles a person standing in an awkward position and gazing perpetually on the desolate landscape of this area.
Our faith in divine providence and our prayerful disposition enables us to rise above storms and disturbances and not be swept into utter panic. As we note, the storm continues, even after the disciples waken Jesus. He asks, "Where is your courage?" The storm still rages but this time they turn anew to Jesus, not in frantic fear but in humble trust and dedication. Then he addresses the winds and the sea to calm them. Whoever "wakes up" the presence of Jesus in our heart--even if in desperation--and stays with him long enough, will gain a new self-assurance from his presence, and inner peace.
The gospel suggests that the onset of this particular storm on the Sea of Galilee was sudden--"without warning a storm broke over the lake." We know from our own life experience that our own personal circumstances can change without warning. We can suddenly find ourselves in the midst of some raging personal storm. One day all is well; the next day we are in crisis. To that extent the gospel today speaks to our own personal experience. Matthew's way of telling the story of the storm at sea links it much more closely to the experience of the people who made up the church than Mark's way of telling the same story. The cry of the disciples in Matthew's account, "Save us, Lord, we are going down" is very much the cry of those for whom Matthew was writing his gospel. It is the cry of us all at some time in our lives. Matthew seeks to reassure us that the Lord will respond to such a cry; our prayer for help in vulnerable times will not go unanswered. The Lord is stronger than the storm that threatens, and in turning towards the Lord, we will draw from his strength.
Abraham drives out the slave-wife Hagar and her son
Sarah noticed the son whom Hagar the Egyptian had borne to Abraham playing with her son Isaac; so she demanded of Abraham: "Drive out that slave and her son! No son of that slave is going to share the inheritance with my son Isaac!" Abraham was greatly distressed, especially on account of his son Ishmael. But God said to Abraham, "Do not be distressed about the boy or about your slave woman. Heed the demands of Sarah, no matter what she is asking of you; for it is through Isaac that descendants shall bear your name. As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a great nation of him also, since he too is your offspring."
Early the next morning Abraham got some bread and a skin of water and gave them to Hagar. Then, placing the child on her back, he sent her away. As she roamed aimlessly in the desert of Beersheba, the water in the skin was used up. So she put the child down under a shrub, and then went and sat down opposite him, about a bowshot away; for she said to herself, "Let me not watch to see the child die." As she sat opposite Ishmael, he began to cry. God heard the boy's cry, and God's messenger called to Hagar from heaven: "What is the matter, Hagar? Don't be afraid; God has heard the boy's cry in this plight of his. Arise, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand; for I will make of him a great nation." Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water. She went and filled the skin with water, then let the boy drink. God was with the boy as he grew up.
Demons enter into the Gadarene swine
When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tomb met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, "What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, "If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine." And he said to them, "Go!" So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs. Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighbourhood.
It is hard to see what help we could get from the story of Abraham banishing the slave woman and her son. It's equally problematic in the next chapter how Abraham could believe that God wanted him to kill his son Isaad as a religious sacrifice. In our morality we could not possibly accept either decision (banishing his illegitimate son or slaying his true-born son) as a mandate from the invisible God. But Abraham, a man of primitive faith some four thousand years ago, was following what he thought to be right. This is the basic rule of conscience: we should judge every decision in the light of what we know.
Abraham judged what he should do, in the light of contemporary custom. Infant sacrifice was widespread, as was polygamy. But in Hagar's case he seems to violate another contemporary custom--the law of hospitality and the obligation to protect anyone received into the group! How could he in conscience drive out Hagar and her son? Maybe in light of Sarah's insistence that Isaac is his rightful heir!
Clearly, not everything in the Bible is to be followed literally. In faith and trust Abraham did all that he believed God was asking of him; and he would gradually learn from Life experience how to move on from his earlier convictions. That is how God's providence guides our lives. At the story's end we see how God provides for Hagar and Ishmael, for His providence is universal. God's care for the poor is perhaps the basic moral of the story.
Today's Gospel has the odd story of how a set of demons that Jesus has driven out from a wild man then begged him to let them enter into a nearby herd of pigs. As soon as they enter the pigs, the whole herd rushes headlong over a cliff and drowns in the lake below. The swineherds and the nearby townspeople not surprisingly, begged Jesus to go somewhere else. The pigs might be ritually unclean, but they had economic value just the same. The purpose of the story, of course, is to focus on Jesus' power to liberate people from evil influences that held them enslaved. The stampede of the pigs just adds an extra flair of drama to the tale.
The gospel says Jesus brings two demoniacs to a a full life. It is striking that after doing this, the people of the region implored him to leave the neighbourhood. It might have been expected that they would have wanted Jesus, this man who could bring freedom to the enslaved, to stay among them for some time. Surely there were others in this region who could benefit from the presence of God's power at work in Jesus. Perhaps the people were nervous of such power for good, fearing that it might make demands on them. We too can be tempted to ask Jesus to leave our neighbourhood, to leave our lives. We sometimes want to keep him at a distance. We sense that his nearness might be very demanding. He might call us to go out towards those who live on the edge of the community, as he himself went out towards the two demoniacs who lived among the tombs. Yet, if we welcome the Lord into our lives, rather than keeping him at a distance, we will discover that he gives us the strength to respond to the challenging call of his presence and in responding to that call we too will find a greater fullness of life.
If God directs him, Abraham is prepared to offer Isaac as a sacrifice
After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you." So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, "Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you." Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, "Father!" And he said, "Here I am, my son." He said, "The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?" Abraham said, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son." So the two of them walked on together.
When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here I am." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place "The Lord will provide"; as it is said to this day, "On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided."
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, "By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham lived at Beer-sheba.
The cure of a paralysed man proves Jesus' power to forgive sin
And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own town. And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven." Then some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming." But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand up and walk'? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"--he then said to the paralytic--"Stand up, take your bed and go to your home." And he stood up and went to his home. When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified God, who had given such authority to human beings.
The contrast between Abraham and the Pharisees in today's Gospel is striking. Abraham is misguided in thinking that God wanted human sacrifice. The Pharisees are orthodox in their theology that only God can forgive sin yet they are misguided in limiting God’s power. It is clear that even good intentions (on Abraham’s part) and correct ideas (on the Pharisees’ part) cannot go unchallenged; yet in such cases correction and warnings are most difficult to accept. One of the most difficult of tasks is to help good people see that they have room for improvement, or to show them a dark side of their character to which they are blind. Like the dark side of the moon which is never seen from earth, a good man can be oblivious of his failings.
Abraham , made elaborate preparations for the sacrifice of his firstborn son, Isaac, because like the other Canaanites he wanted to give to God what he thought was required of him. The heroic dimensions of the sacrifice appear in the opening line, “Take your son, Isaac, your only one, the one you love.” Each syllable of the command wrenches the fibres of his heart. He is to go to the land of Moriah; the place was later identified with the site of the Jerusalem temple. Perhaps heroic impulses are permitted by God so that we can discover a vision of something else. When he got that new vision of mercy and compassion, Abraham at once changed his plans and obeyed the real will of God.
Do we have a mind open to correction, willing to be advised that our traditional views about religious ritual need to change, radically? Without having to abandon the Mass as our form of ritual sacrifice, as in Abraham’s case, we are challenged to celebrate it in such a way that all our people can feel a part of what is happening around the altar.
What a fine expression of friendship is shown by the four men in today's gospel! They were determined to get their paralyzed friend to Jesus, by hook or by crook, as we say in Ireland. When the crowds around Jesus were too big to get their friend to Jesus through the conventional route of the front door of the house, they got up onto the roof of the house and created an opening to lower their friend in front of Jesus. True friendship is the kind that opens up people to the presence of the Lord. The friends of the paralyzed man certainly did that. It was a combination of their goodwill and their faith that carried this man to Jesus. The energy behind their unorthodox actions was their faith in Jesus and their love for their friend. When their friend was lowered down in front of Jesus, it was the faith of his friends that Jesus recognized. The gospel reading says, "seeing their faith, Jesus said to the man." Paul in his letter to the Galatians speaks about faith working through love. These four friends model for us the faith in Jesus that finds expression in our love for others. Today we pray for an increase of such faith in our lives.
The burial of Sarah. Abraham finds a wife for Isaac
Sarah lived one hundred twenty-seven years; this was the length of Sarah's life. And Sarah died at Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her. Abraham rose up from beside his dead, and said to the Hittites, "I am a stranger and an alien residing among you; give me property among you for a burying place, so that I may bury my dead out of my sight." After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah facing Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.
Now Abraham was old, well advanced in years; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his house, who had charge of all that he had, "Put your hand under my thigh and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, that you will not get a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but will go to my country and to my kindred and get a wife for my son Isaac." The servant said to him, "Perhaps the woman may not be willing to follow me to this land; must I then take your son back to the land from which you came?" Abraham said to him, "See to it that you do not take my son back there. The Lord, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house and from the land of my birth, and who spoke to me and swore to me, 'To your offspring I will give this land,' he will send his angel before you, and you shall take a wife for my son from there. But if the woman is not willing to fllow you, then you will be free from this oath of mine; only you must not take my son back there."
Now Isaac had come from Beer-lahai-roi, and was settled in the Negeb. Isaac went out in the evening to walk in the field; and looking up, he saw camels coming. And Rebekah looked up, and when she saw Isaac, she slipped quickly from the camel, and said to the servant, "Who is the man over there, walking in the field to meet us?" The servant said, "It is my master." So she took her veil and covered herself. And the servant told Isaac all the things that he had done. Then Isaac brought her into his mother Sarah's tent. He took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her. So Isaac was comforted after his mother's death.
The call of the tax-gatherer, to follow Jesus
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him. And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners."
Rebecca disguises Jacob so that blind Isaac gives him the first-born's blessing.
When Isaac was old and his eyes were dim so that he could not see, he called his elder son Esau and said to him, "My son"; and he answered, "Here I am." He said, "See, I am old; I do not know the day of my death. Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me. Then prepare for me savory food, such as I like, and bring it to me to eat, so that I may bless you before I die." Now Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau.
Then Rebekah took the best garments of her elder son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob; and she put the skins of the kids on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. Then she handed the savory food, and the bread that she had prepared, to her son Jacob.
So he went in to his father, and said, "My father"; and he said, "Here I am. Who are you, my son?" Jacob said to his father, "I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me." But Isaac said to his son, "How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?" He answered, "Because the Lord your God granted me success." Then Isaac said to Jacob, "Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not." So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau." He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau's hands; so he blessed him. He said, "Are you really my son Esau?" He answered, "I am." Then he said, "Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son's game and bless you." So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank. Then his father Isaac said to him, "Come near and kiss me, my son." So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said, "Ah, the smell of my so is like the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed. May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine. Let peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother's sons bow down to you. Cursed be everyone who curses you, and blessed be everyone who blesses you!"
The disciples need not fast so long as Jesus, "the bridegroom," is with them.
Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them, "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak, for the patch pulls away from the cloak, and a worse tear is made. Neither is new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."
Matthew shows Jesus focussed upon his own Jewish people, seeing his ministry as to "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Matthew 10:6) seemingly not interested in the plight of foreigners, like the Phoenician woman who happened to show up in Palestine. Yet in the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), Mt repeats Jesus' new vision that perfects and replaces the old law, "You have heard the commandment, but now I say to you," The change from Judaism to the work to be now achieved is found in the conclusion of Matthew, "Full authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth; go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations" (28:18-19).
The new is introduced with "full authority" over "heaven and earth." Jesus gave strong indications that his work extended beyond Israel to something new. There was a striking difference between the disciples of Jesus and those of John the Baptist. We cannot sew unshrunken cloth--or animal skins that have not been tanned--onto old leather cloaks; the new will proceed to shrink, pull away and the rip will only get worse. Also, when animal skins are used to hold fermenting wine, new skins will stretch, while old skins will burst open and the wine will be lost. These examples from a thoroughly Jewish culture point to a dramatic discontinuity with the past, in Jesus' preaching and outlook. What began on the outer edge now moves to the centre. There is to be rejoicing, an entirely new cloak rather than an old one with patches, new wineskins for the new wine.
Change provokes many types of reaction. But we should try to remain at peace, willing to adapt to whatever new circumstances God and history have put us in. The ways of Providence are surely leading towards a noble, final goal, but they pass through the vagaries human existence, welcome and unwelcome. We must always seek and pray to be worthy disciples of Jesus, letting him pour his new wine into new wineskins, and be as realistic as he was, in accepting change.
In the gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the bridegroom and to his disciples as the bride. He suggests that his public ministry is like a wedding celebration, a time of rejoicing during which fasting is not appropriate. In keeping with that wedding image, Jesus speaks of the new wine of his ministry, new wine that keeps calling for new wineskins. We are always in the presence of the divine bridegroom and the Lord is always offering us new wine, the new wine of God's kingdom. That new wine will require us to keep abandoning old wineskins for new ones. The Lord, the Spirit, does not allow us to get too comfortable. We always stand before the Lord's call for a renewal of life that is worthy of the presence of the bridegroom, a renewal that is capable of containing, in some way, the new wine of the kingdom of God.
Jacob dreams of a ladder stretching between heaven and earth, with angels ascending and descending.
Jacob left Beer-sheva and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. And the Lord stood beside him and said, "I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you." Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, "Surely the Lord is in this place--and I did not know it!" And he was afraid, and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven."
So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first. Then Jacob made a vow, saying, "If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father's house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God's house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you."
Jesus cures a woman's haemorrhages and raises to life the daughter of a synagogue leader.
While Jesus was saying these things, up came a leader of the synagogue and knelt before him, saying, "My daughter has just died; but come and lay your hand on her, and she will live." And Jesus got up and followed him, with his disciples.
Then suddenly a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the fringe of his cloak, for she said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be made well." Jesus turned, and seeing her he said, "Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well." And instantly the woman was made well.
When Jesus came to the leader's house and saw the flute players and the crowd making a commotion, he said, "Go away; for the girl is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. But when the crowd had been put outside, he went in and took her by the hand, and the girl got up. And the report of this sprad throughout that district.
Family and personal problems feature in today's readings. The envy of his twin brother forced Jacob to flee for his life; and Jesus is confronted with a family tragedy, the death of the synagogue leader's young daughter. Repeatedly we see Biblical religion linked with the needs and crises of people and rooted in the secular arena. The ancient sanctuary of Bethel (in Hebrew, "House of God") is associated in its origins with Jacob's flight from his brother Esau and with the exhausted Jacob's need for sleep. It was already a shrine, as the first part of the text indicates, yet its sacred character is reinterpreted at the end of the account, due to Jacob's dream.
Religion rooted in normal, secular, everyday existence, but it can bring healing to disputes and even serious family problems. Jacob had stolen the blessing of the first-born from his blind father, Isaac, by the intrigue of his mother, Rebekah, who favoured Jacob over her more unruly, less tractable son. When his angry brother Esau was stalking him for revenge, Jacob had to flee to the place where Abraham never wanted his offspring to settle, (as we read last Friday). The setting for Jacob's dream of angels and for God's renewal of covenantal promises was hardly the tranquil sanctuary.
By letting himself be touched by a woman with a flow of blood and by taking a dead child by the hand, Jesus too had become ceremonially or religiously unclean, disallowed from entering the synagogue or temple (Lev 15:19-33; 21:1). There must have been a great sense of freedom in Jesus, an overwhelming compassion, a decisive urge to help the needy, to have responded so that the "unclean" would presume to touch him and request him to touch them. Through all these examples we detect a wholesome way to live our religion according to the norms of loving concern.
The gospel today has two people approaching Jesus in their need, a synagogue official who comes to Jesus on behalf of his daughter and a woman with a haemorrhage who comes to Jesus on her own behalf. The way the people approach Jesus is quite different. The synagogue official approaches Jesus in a very public way, bowing low in front of him and speaking aloud his need and his request. The woman approaches Jesus very privately, touching the fringe of his cloak, and speaking only to herself. None of us approaches the Lord in exactly the same way. Our way of relating to the Lord always has a quality that is unique to each of us, just as we each have a unique way of relating to others people. Both the synagogue official and the woman were people of faith but they each expressed their faith very differently. Our faith brings us together as a community of faith, but in doing so it does not suppress our individuality. In the gospel Jesus responded generously to the very different approaches of the synagogue official and of the woman. He made no distinction between them but was equally responsive to their need and their cry for help. The Lord's response to us is always shaped by and respectful of the unique way that we approach him.
On returning from exile, Jacob finds himself wrestling with an angel of God, at Peniel
He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." So he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed." Then Jacob asked him, "Please tell me your name." But he said, "Why is it that you ask my name?" And there he blessed him.
So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.
Jesus cures the sick, teaches and proclaims the good news of the reign of God, for the harvest is ready
After they had gone away, a demoniac who was dumb was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been dumb spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, "Never has anything like this been seen in Israel." But the Pharisees said, "By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons."
Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, "The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest."
What the gospel suggests briefly is treated at more length in today's story from Genesis. Matthew has Jesus visiting all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues and curing every sickness and disease. He does not detail the weary journeys, the mixed receptions, sometimes favourable and sometimes not, that Jesus met with during that ministry. Nor does he attempt to describe how people, once cured by Jesus, adapted to their new situations. Suddenly they were cured, and their entire life must be reshaped, both their activities and their internal thoughts.
In the Genesis story, Jacob wrestles all night long with the angel of God. But in the end Jacob found that he had been face to face with God in his wrestling. For this reason he named the place "Peniel," in Hebrew, "face of God." He ponders this strange fact, "I have seen God face to face yet my life has been spared," in contrast to the established belief that no one can see the face of God and live (Exod 33:20). Jacob had this dramatic night-time struggle while returning from Haran (in modern Syria) to the promised land of Canaan/Palestine, eventually to be named "Israel" after him. He is told, "You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed." To be given a new name is to be sent on a new vocation. His future life was markedly different from his past and more clearly under God's guiding providence.
Jacob had a notable limp after his wrestling with the angel. Sometimes we too can no longer stand as tall as before. We may hear God's call to us anew, asking us to make a new and different contribution to the life of others. In Jacob's story we can find a new type of strength. For God chooses those whom the world considers foolish to shame the wise; he selects the weak to show new aspects of life to the strong. Our life finds its fullest realisation if we don't shun the struggle entailed.
There is a sharp contrast between the way ordinary people responded to Jesus' healing ministry and the way the Pharisees responded. The people said, "Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel." The Pharisees said, "It is through the prince of devils that he casts out devils." The people saw God at work in what Jesus was doing; the Pharisees saw Satan at work in what Jesus was doing. It is hard to imagine a more contrasting response. It brings home to us that when people look at the same phenomenon, they can see it very differently. The people, in contrast to the Pharisees, were attuned to the presence and action of God in Jesus. The gospel reading invites us to ask ourselves, "To what extent am I alert to the presence of God all around me, especially in the good that other people may be doing?" We can be prone to seeing what is missing in some situation and to miss the good that is actually there. We can be better at naming what is wrong than what is right. We can be more attuned to noticing evil than good. While never being blind to evil and sin and failure, the gospel encourages us to be open to the ways that the Lord is at work in our lives and in the lives of others. The Lord himself was sensitive to the good in others, even when they failed to see it for themselves, and others failed to see it. We need something of the Lord's generous way of seeing, especially in these times when the negative can be highlighted to the detriment of everything else.
Joseph's brothers come to Egypt for grain; he sends for Benjamin.
When all the land of Egypt was famished, the people cried to Pharaoh for bread. Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, "Go to Joseph; what he says to you, do." And since the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. Moreover, all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain, because the famine became severe throughout the world.
Thus the sons of Israel were among the other people who came to buy grain, for the famine had reached the land of Canaan.
Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. "Where do you come from?" he said. They said, "From the land of Canaan, to buy food."
And he put them all together in prison for three days. On the third day Joseph said to them, "Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here where you are imprisoned. The rest of you shall go and carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me. Thus your words will be verified, and you shall not die." And they agreed to do so. They said to one another, "Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us." Then Reuben answered them, "Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood." They did not know that Joseph understood them, since he spoke with them through an interpreter. He turned away from them and wept.
Jesus sends his twelve apostles out to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: "Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'
From all parts of the famine-stricken middle east, people flocked into Egypt to avoid starvation. Joseph's brothers are among this stream of refugees, which suggests the mixed ancestry of the people that would eventually come out of Egypt under the name of Israel. In its very origin Israel had a universalist quality, and by their poverty and need the original Israelites are linked with people throughout the world.
In God's ideal kingdom, the world's produce is to be shared with everyone; and by goodwill and planning there should be plenty for all. Much later in its history, the Israelite kingdom would deny this right of sharing in resources, and social justice was neglected. Whenever the poor are wronged, prosperous folk tend to worship gods other than Yahweh. But when the wealthy selfishly let their neighbours go hungry, fearless prophets rose to voice the anger of God, who rescues his poor out of slavery.
It is clear that a centralised kingdom like that set up by Joseph in Egypt could not stay secure and tranquil forever. Although Joseph offered to feed the world's hungry people, eventually, through the centralised method of taxing and distributing the food supply, Pharaoh gained total control of the land of Egypt, in a despotic rule that led to the enslavement of Israel.
We need ways of sharing in each other's gifts without losing our personal dignity and sense of equality. Economic measures are never enough of themselves; the solution must have moral and religious dimensions too. Merely legal compliance allows for many loopholes and clever manipulations by the powerful, letting injustice and idolatry grow like weeds in the once luxuriant vineyard. We must go beyond even the measures taken by Joseph in Egypt, remembering when we give to others, it is a God-willed sharing, not merely giving things away. In this process, we are learning as much as teaching; for we are as needy as our neighbour, even if in different ways.
Today's gospel hows how much Jesus wants his message to be widely shared. He has share table with Matthew the tax collector and with others who would have been classified as sinners, and certainly not as trained rabbis. He has broken bread with them at table, and at the same time broken God's word with them, God's healing and merciful word. As Jesus clearly realises, "it is not the healthy who need the doctor, but the sick." He reveals a God who does not withdraw his living word from us, even when we show ourselves unworthy of it. Sending out his twelve apostles, the Lord continues to speak that word of love and light into the darkest and most troubled places of our lives. He keeps offering us the bread of his word to satisfy our deepest hunger. As he does so, he waits for us to take and eat.
After Judah's report, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers
Then Judah stepped up to him and said, "O my lord, let your servant please speak a word in my lord's ears, and do not be angry with your servant; for you are like Pharaoh himself. My lord asked his servants, saying, 'Have you a father or a brother?' And we said to my lord, 'We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead; he alone is left of his mother's children, and his father loves him.' Then you said to your servants, 'Bring him down to me, so that I may set my eyes on him.'
Then you said to your servants, 'Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall see my face no more.' When we went back to your servant my father we told him the words of my lord. And when our father said, 'Go again, buy us a little food,' we said, 'We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother goes with us, will we go down; for we cannot see the man's face unless our youngest brother is with us.' Then your servant my father said to us, 'You know that my wife bore me two sons; one left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces; and I have never seen him since. If you take this one also from me, and harm comes to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to Sheol.'
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me." So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, "I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "Come closer to me." And they came closer. He said, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve your lives."
The twelve are to preach, to heal and announce the reign of God.
Jesus said to the Twelve, "As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.' Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You received without payment; give without payment.
Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town."
The ministry of the Twelve is not confined to preaching, for the news that the reign of God is at hand is to be exemplified by curing the sick, raising the dead, healing lepers, expelling demons. Jesus adds that what they have freely received, they must freely give to others, in a complete sharing of gifts and talents. The true meaning of "the reign of God," therefore, is seen in the generous relationships of daily life.
Further illustration of the situation willed by God comes from Genesis, which emphasises God's providence over every event of life, good and bad. The key to the long Joseph narrative in Genesis (chaps. 37-50) is the simple statement, "God sent me here ahead of you." The full implications of his early life are recognized by Joseph when his brothers approach him after their father's death. Fearfully they imagine he has been nursing a grudge and may now pay them back for all the wrong they did him. But Joseph told them, "Have no fear; God meant it for a good purpose, to achieve the survival of many." Simply and fearlessly, Joseph confessed the absolute and total providence of God over human life. It is striking how all the twists and turns of the story of Joseph are harmoniously concluded by two simple statements, "God sent me here ahead of you" and "God meant it for a good purpose."
There is a story about a tiny remnant of Jews, who survived in hiding in Nazi Germany during World War II. In their hiding-place, one of them said, "We must pray to God." Another answered, "If we pray, God will find out that there are still a few Jews left in Germany." A third added, "It is absurd to pray, for how can God be present in this kind of world?" This was less a question to be answered than a cry of desperation, but the rabbi answered, "It may be idiotic to pray, but it is still more idiotic not to pray."
As in the Joseph story, so in our own lives, in situations of doubt common decency may save us. This response too comes under God's providence, as one of the many ways by which we are led to salvation. At the root of the Joseph narrative we find a profound attitude of compassion. Providence is not always clear to us; in fact, one may even argue strenuously against it, so as to make the very concept seem absurd. The biblical doctrine of providence results from the theology of those invisible "bands of love." In the rich anthropomorphic language of Hosea, God cries out in agonies of love: "My heart is overwhelmed, my pity is stirred. I will not give vent to my blazing anger,; For I am God, not man, the Holy One present among you." Biblical compassion surpasses all human boundaries in its kindness and understanding, in its forgiveness and the renewal of life's good relationships.
Jesus is the fullest revelation possible in a human life of God's tender love for mankind. He too experienced the turning away of people from this love, their refusal to respond to it in any meaningful way. When He sends out his disciples in today's gospel he warns them to expect the same. They are to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God is at hand, the reign of God's life-giving love, but they will encounter those who will not welcome them and will not listen to what they have to say. This negative response is not to deter them from their mission of proclaiming God's loving presence by what they say and do. It certainly did not deter Jesus. When he suffered the ultimate rejection on the cross, he proclaimed the same good news as risen Lord to those who had turned away from him and rejected him. We are to reveal the loving presence of God, regardless of how we are received by others.
Jacob joyfully meets his long-lost son Joseph. Now he can die in peace.
When Israel set out on his journey with all that he had and came to Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. God spoke to Israel in visions of the night, and said, "Jacob, Jacob." And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make of you a great nation there. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again; and Joseph's own hand shall close your eyes."
Then Jacob set out from Beer-sheba; and the sons of Israel carried their father Jacob, their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They also took their livestock and the goods that they had acquired in the land of Canaan, and they came into Egypt, Jacob and all his offspring with him, his sons, and his sons' sons with him, his daughters, and his sons' daughters; all his offspring he brought with him into Egypt.
Israel set Judah ahead to Joseph to lead the way before him into Goshen. When they came to the land of Goshen, Joseph made ready his chariot and went up to meet his father Israel in Goshen. He presented himself to him, fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Joseph, "I can die now, having seen for myself that you are still alive."
Jesus foretells persecution, even from one's own family. Whoever holds out to the end will be saved.
Jesus said to the Twelve, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles. When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next; for truly I tell you, you will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes."
Today's texts are appropriate for Friday, the day when we commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross. We read of tears of sorrow as well as tears of joy and relief. Joseph and Jacob weep over their long separation and final reunion. The gospel too, while it does not mention tears, implies them as brother hands brother over to death, and children "turn against parents and have them put to death." In their meeting, Jacob and Joseph realized that tears of grief and of hope can be turned into tears of joy, for as soon as Joseph saw him, he flung himself on his elderly father's neck and wept a long time in his arms.
So too, when Jesus warns of family hostility and even of betrayal, he advises us to persevere with high hopes and grand ideals. We are not to avenge one betrayal with another, but trust completely in God's ideals of forgiveness and fidelity, and "hold out till the end." Along the way we are promised that we will be given what we are to say;. for "the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you." It is only when this ideal of goodness extends throughout our entire world that humanity's best hopes be realized, and the Kingdom of God will have come.
Then Jacob gave his sons this charge, "I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors - in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, in the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, in the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site. There Abraham and his wife Sarah were buried; there Isaac and his wife Rebekah were buried; and there I buried Leah - the field and the cave that is in it were purchased from the Hittites."
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph's brothers said, "What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" So they approached Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this instruction before he died, 'Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.' Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, "We are here as your slaves." But Joseph said to them, "Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones." In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father's household; and Joseph lived one hundred ten years. Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation; the children of Machir son of Manasseh were also born on Joseph's knees.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, "I am about to die; but God will surely come to you, and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob." So Joseph made the Israelites swear, saying, "When God comes to you, you shall carry up my bones from here." And Joseph died, being one hundred ten years old; he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.
Jesus said to the Twelve, "A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!
"So have no fear of them; for nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.
"Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven."
A new Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites and threatens them with extinction.
Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, "Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labour. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labour. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.
Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, "Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live."
Jesus foresees division within families about the gospel.
Jesus said to the Twelve, "Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one's foes will be members of one's own household.
Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up he cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple--truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward."
Beginning today, the readings from Exodus lead up to the theophany on Mount Sinai (chap. 19), followed by the guidelines for keeping the covenant (chaps. 20-23), and its solemn ratification (chap. 24). Fidelity is the key. Keeping this covenant is to be Israel's way to peace with God and with each other. Today's Gospel text is the conclusion one of Jesus' major sermons, the missionary discourse, for those he sends to continue his work in the world. We are reminded, implicitly by Exodus and explicitly in the gospel, that following the will of God can be hard, even disruptive of peace between people. Jesus sums it up in a dramatic paradox, "My mission is to spread, not peace, but division." The text of Matthew reads even more grimly, "not peace but the sword"; Luke blunted this expression by changing "sword" to "division" (Luke 12:51).
The gospel states the inevitability of suffering and division, quite unsought and undesired. We may remember Simeon's "blessing" and words to Mary as she held the infant Jesus in her arms: "This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed" (Luke 2:34). The sword of division is raised for nationalistic motives in the Book of Exodus and by family disputes according to Jesus' words. Exodus records how a new king who "did not know Joseph" came to power in Egypt. Archaeology and history have revealed political and social upheavals in support of this. A native Egyptian dynasty had finally driven out the old and hated Asiatic (Hyksos) dynasty from Egypt, and in the backlash of fear and hatred towards all Asiatics, the Israelites were reduced to slave labour. God's people were oppressed because of racial bias and nationalistic envy.
In the gospel it looks as if the problems can come from within our own family circle. Again it is not peace at any price, but only that peace that can coexist with a sincere resolve to follow Jesus. If the sword of discord has to strike within family relationships, it must not be for dominance or personal ambition but only for the sake of conscience. But the sword of violence never brings clear moral solutions, whatever the dispute may be. We are summoned to be sincere and strong, to be willing to suffer and bear the cross, to be humble and lowly, to be men and women of trust in Jesus.
Moses flees from the Egyptian court to the desert after killing an Egyptian.
Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, "This must be one of the Hebrews' children," she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?" Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Yes." So the girl went and called the child's mother. Pharaoh's daughter said to her, "Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages." So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh's daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, "because," she said, "I drew him out of the water."
One day, after Moses had grown up, he went out to his people and saw their forced labour. He saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his kinsfolk. He looked this way and that, and seeing no one he killed the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. When he went out the next day, he saw two Hebrews fighting; and he said to the one who was in the wrong, "Why do you strike your fellow Hebrew?" He answered, "Who made you a ruler and judge over us? Do you mean to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?" Then Moses was afraid and thought, "Surely the thing is known." When Pharaoh heard of it, he sought to kill Moses, but Moses fled from him and made for the land of Midian.
Even Sodom was better than Galilean cities which refused faith in Jesus
Jesus began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent.
"Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you."
The gospel raises the question about the place and purpose of miracles. The people in those twin lakeside towns (Chorazin and Capernaum) in northwest Galilee witnessed many miracles but were unmoved by the message of Jesus. With prophetic anger he reproaches them with their failure to reform. His miracles were meant to lead to a change of outlook and of lifestyle, turning aside from selfishness and showing new concern for the poor and the sick. His healings of many people in need were an indicator of Jesus' bond with humanity. His miracles were not intended to catapult him into prominence but to show God's will for us all to form a happy, healthy family.
Many centuries before, after a period in exile Moses reappears before Pharaoh as a miracle worker who invokes the ten plagues (Exod chaps. 7-12), a section that is passed over in the liturgy. Given this tradition about Moses' miraculous power, it is notable that he does not use this for his own self-promotion but had to flee for his life into the desert of Sinai. At his birth, Moses' mother and sister had to resort to all kinds of ingenuity to save the infant's life, for God did not miraculously intervene.
In his youth, Moses was prepared for his later vocation of bringing the slave people Israel out of their slavery. Already sensitive to any oppression or mistreatment of others, he could not stand by, uninvolved, on seeing an Egyptian striking a Hebrew. Nor could he tolerate the sight of a Hebrew man being beaten by another, but asked the culprit, 'Why are you striking your brother?' A passion for justice burned already in the young Moses, preparing him for his role as liberator in later years.
Revelation to Moses at the burning bush, at Mount Horeb/Sinai
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the desert, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, "I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up." When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, "Moses, Moses!" And he said, "Here I am." Then he said, "Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground." He said further, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob." And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt." But Moses said to God, "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?" He said, "I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain."
God reveals the mystery of salvation to those who become as simple as children.
Jesus exclaimed, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."
Today Jesus lets us eavesdrop on a secret moment of revelation, for we are not simply told that he stole away to spend time in prayer; we are given the actual words of his prayer. Exodus tells of Moses in reverential awe as he approaches the burning bush, and he hears the revelation that God would liberate a new people, for the world's salvation. In Matthew, Jesus prays: "Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children."
A clear and simple knowledge of God is given to children and is learned from one who is the ultimate Son of God. As the Son and Messenger, Jesus knows only what his Father reveals within him; and he is commissioned to share this great revelation with other children of God, who are continuously begotten by the Father, through faith. What is the mystery known above all to children? To know oneself as child is to realize our total dependence, our state of being begotten and receptive of life. At the deepest source of our life, God our Father dwells within us; here we are in touch with our most profound self, our secret mission, our heavenly name, written in the book of life (Luke 10:20).
Such a mission came to Moses from the burning bush. As this call reached into his deepest self he simply responds, "Here I am." With absolute obedience and total spontaneity, he seeks to know the name and nature of God--and his request is answered, "I am the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." Later in the same chapter God reveals his most sacred name of Yahweh--the One who is always there with you.
If we were to list the things of value in our lives, we would find that relationships would come towards the top of our list. We value relationships, friendships. We could not get through life without the people who are important to us. In today's gospel, Jesus speaks about the relationship which is most important to him, his relationship with his heavenly Father. He speaks of this relationship in terms of a mutual knowing, "no one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son." There is a very profound and unique intimacy to this relationship. Yet, there is nothing closed about this special relationship; it is open to others. Jesus speaks of himself as choosing to reveal the Father to others and he speaks of the Father as revealing these things to children. Jesus reveals the Father to us and the Father reveals his Son to us; to that extent they seek to draw us all into their mutual relationship. As God drew Moses to himself through the burning bush, the Father and the Son seek to draw us into their mutual love, so that we can reflect that love to others. For this to happen, the gospel suggests that we need the openness and receptivity of the child, rather than the self-assurance of the learned.
The name Yahweh : I am who/what I am
But Moses said to God, "If I come to the Israelites and say to them, 'The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,' and they ask me, 'What is his name?' what shall I say to them?" God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM." He said further, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'I AM has sent me to you.'" God also said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the Israelites, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you': This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, 'The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.' They will listen to your voice; and you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him, 'The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has met with us; let us now go a three days' journey into the desert, so that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God.' I know, however, that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless compelled by a mighty hand. So I will stretch out my hand and strike Egypt with all my wonders that I will perform in it; after that he will let you go.
Come to me, all you who are weary. Take my yoke on you and you will find rest.
Jesus exclaimed "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."
The long night of slavery in Egypt is coming to an end and Israel is about to be liberated into a new and better existence, a new life in their own land. Moses is to assemble the elders of Israel and tell them of God's concern for their plight. The people of Israel will not simply be liberated, but the living God will be always with them, into the future. The divine name, Yahweh, derives from the Hebrew verb "to be" and suggests that GOD will be continuously with his people. We might say that the very name "Yahweh" contains this promise "I will be always there", but when spoken by Israel or by ourselves, it is a prayer ("Please be there at all times with us").
Jesus underlines this aspect of God in today's classic text which ought to be memorized. By his intimate relationship with us, he makes our yoke easy and our burden light. He is conscious that life can be weary and burdensome, yet does not make any false, easy promises. The yoke will remain, as will the burden, but with his help they become easy and light. The difference is made by the presence of Jesus who is "gentle and humble of heart." The God who is with us always, promising ultimate peace at the end, is a gentle and loving Lord.
Today on the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel we recall with admiration the contemplative Carmelite nuns, whose lives are dedicated to prayer and study, and to listening to the problems and dilemmas of the many people who come to them asking for their prayers and spiritual advice.
We can find ourselves burdened for all kinds of reasons: overtired; overworked; an important relationship going wrong; a struggle with ill health. In the gospel, Jesus addresses his words to those who felt burdened by the demands of the Jewish Law; for in failing to meet them they felt themselves to be on the margins. To such people, Jesus does not offer a new law. Rather, he offers them himself; he calls them and all of us into a personal relationship with himself. "Come to me," he says, "learn from me." We are to come to him and learn from him; he is a teacher whose teaching is visible in his person, in who he is and how he lives. To learn from someone, we need to be around them over time. In saying, "Come," Jesus is really saying, "Come and remain." We are called into an ongoing relationship with the Lord. It is in and through that relationship that we learn to live as he calls us to live, as he wants us to live. We live out of our relationship with him, or more fundamentally, out of his relationship with us, because it is he who initiates that relationship, it is he who keeps on saying to us "Come." He promises us that if we come to him and remain with him, we will discover that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Yes, his way of life is demanding, but his relationship with us and ours with him makes it much less demanding than it would otherwise be. As Saint Paul assures us, "his power at work within us is able to accomplish immeasurably far more than all we can ask or imagine." It is by remaining in Jesus, as branches in the vine that our lives will bear much fruit.
Passover is a reminder of our deliverance from slavery and death.
Moses and Aaron performed all these wonders before Pharaoh; but the Lord hardened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the people of Israel go out of his land.
The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: "This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you.
Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbour in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance."
Jesus relaxes the sabbath rules; and God desires mercy more than sacrifice.
Jesus went walking through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, "Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath." He said to them, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath."
There are various ways of responding to God's guiding call to us. Exodus provides a careful set of rules for the celebration of Passover , while Matthew give examples of adapting the law to meet the circumstances. In fact, Exodus 12 contains two sets of regulations for Passover. Those in today's liturgy are a later amplification of the earlier, less elaborate rendition found in verses 21-28. If we look at the origins of the liturgy, we will appreciate better Jesus' reasons for not following the traditional understanding of "work" on the Sabbath.
The Passover was a feast to keep alive the memory of Israel's deliverance from Egypt and the protection of its first-born. After they settled in Canaan, the feast took on agricultural details, to include deliverance from drought and famine and the bestowal of new life through an abundant barley harvest. Passover, therefore, celebrated life--both as saved from oppression, and as the Lord's gift from the fertile earth. In the Passover ritual, blood had an important role; it was splashed on the doors of each Israelite home and rubbed on the forehead of each worshipper. This blood symbolized the bond of life uniting the people, as well as between them and God.
In Jesus' day the religious leaders put more importance on the ritual of the Passover than on its origin and meaning, which led to a head-on clash that arose quite spontaneously. As Jesus and his hungry disciples walked through the fields on a sabbath day, the disciples began to pull off the heads of grain and eat them. This was not stealing, as the grain was standing free and unfenced, and farmers were encouraged to leave some grains on the edge for the poor (Lev 19:9); but as it seemed to violate the traditional rules for keeping the sabbath, some leaders complained about it.
Jesus himself did not reject the traditions, for in general he was careful to keep to his people's customs and rules. But he countered the objectors on their own grounds by citing biblical passages about David and referring to the work of priests on temple duty. The Scriptures, he says, do not endorse the strict interpretation made by the Pharisees. For if God "wants mercy, not sacrifice", then the Sabbath is better celebrated by affirming life than by ritual; indeed, life gives ritual its true meaning. The people in the temple, like David or the priests, are more important than the temple itself, so the disciples could act as they did for the sake of life. Since Jesus interpreted the Sabbath regulations so freely, then the later church concluded that he was "Lord of the Sabbath." Similarly, the early church changed the day of the weekly divine service from Saturday to Sunday.
His disciples were surprised when Jesus told them, "Here I tell you is something greater than the Temple." In those days it would have been difficult to conceive of anything greater than the magnificent Temple built by Herod in Jerusalem, considered to be one of the wonders of the world. It was revered as the focal point of God's presence. Yet Jesus claims to be greater than the Temple because he is the new focal point of God's presence. God was present no longer in a building but through a person, through Jesus, whose other name is Emmanuel, God with us. It is because he is Emmanuel that Jesus speaks of himself in our gospel reading as Lord of the Sabbath. He is not just Lord of the Sabbath, but Lord of all, but Lord of the church, Lord of our lives. Because he is Lord of our lives, we submit to his word so that his priorities become our priorities. The gospel says Jesus declares that feeding the hungry takes priority over a certain narrow understanding of the Sabbath Law. His hungry disciples are entitled to pick ears of corn to satisfy their hunger, even on the Sabbath. Jesus' word, and his whole life, helps us to sort out what is really important from what is not so important.
Israel's escapes from Egypt is a night to commemorate
The Israelites journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children. A mixed crowd also went up with them, and livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds. They baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had brought out of Egypt; it was not leavened, because they were driven out of Egypt and could not wait, nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves.
The time that the Israelites had lived in Egypt was four hundred thirty years. At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt. That was for the Lord a night of vigil, to bring them out of the land of Egypt. That same night is a vigil to be kept for the Lord by all the Israelites throughout their generations.
While the Pharisees plot to kill him, Jesus continues to cure the sic
The Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. When Jesus became aware of this, he departed. Many crowds followed him, and he cured all of them, and he ordered them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope."
Today's text from Exodus invites us to learn to respect racial difference. Despite the stringent separation of the chosen people from the non-chosen Egyptians, foreigners continued to have a role in God's plans for his people. First there is an interesting phrase about Israel's departure from Egypt . It states that a crowd of "mixed ancestry" also went up with them. Israel was not to put too high a value on purity of racial origin. The presence of foreigners within them is something they share with other oppressed peoples. It was "the smallest of all nations" that God chose, to manifest his love and fidelity (Deut 7:7). If we wish to embrace the privilege of being God's elect people, called to be his very own, we need in turn to embrace kindliness, compassion and a healthy humility in face of today's multi-ethnic society.
Matthew's gospel quotes Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. The apostolate of Jesus is well portrayed in advance by this passage, written during the Babylonian exile. Its message was rejected in his own day, as its attitude towards the gentiles seemed too mild, even hopeful for their salvation. Jesus is described as; "my servant whom I have chosen, my loved one in whom I delight; He will not contend nor cry out; The bruised reed he will not crush; In his name the gentiles will find hope." If we disregard our neighbour in time of sickness and trouble, we do not deserve the name of Christian, for, like Jesus we are called to cure and heal, quietly, without ostentation. We cannot disregard the outsider without being called to account by God.
As we open our hearts to people of mixed ancestry, according to the example of Jesus, we will be apostles of hope, proclaiming hope not just for others but also for ourselves. In many ways, others can teach us how to be God's chosen people.
There is a sharp contrast between the plotting of the Pharisees against Jesus, discussing how to destroy him, and the description of him from the prophet Isaiah, speaking of one who will not brawl or shout, and who will not break the crushed reed nor put out the smouldering wick. It is really a contrast between a kind of power that damages the innocent and a very different kind of power that protects and nurtures what is vulnerable.
This second kind of power is the power of the Spirit; it is the power which filled the life of Jesus and which is to fill all our lives. In the course of our lives we all encounter crushed reeds and smouldering wicks. Indeed we ourselves at times can be the crushed reed and the smouldering wick. When we are at our weakest and most vulnerable, we need a power that can nurture, sustain and encourage us. Such is the power of the risen Lord in all our lives, the power of the Spirit, and our calling is to be the channels of that life-giving power of the Lord to each other.
Is it better to be slaves in Egypt than risk death in the desert?
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, "What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?" So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh's horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pihahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon.
As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites looked back, and there were the Egyptians advancing on them. In great fear the Israelites cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the desert? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, 'Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians'? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert." But Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid, stand firm, and see the deliverance that the Lord will accomplish for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to keep still."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Why do you cry out to me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. But you lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the Israelites may go into the sea on dry ground. Then I will harden the hearts of the Egyptians so that they will go in after them; and so I will gain glory for myself over Pharaoh and all his army, his chariots, and his chariot drivers. And the Egyptians shall know that I am the Lord, when I have gained glory for myself over Pharaoh, his chariots, and his chariot drivers."
Foreigners received God's message more than Jesus' own audience
Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to him, "Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you." But he answered them, "An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here! The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here!
How hard it is to really trust in God, when the chips are down and the risk is real. How often we feel like the haggard Israelites, who after escaping from Egypt were still fearful that God would abandon them in the desert. Unless immediate solutions are available to put them beyond all risk, the refugees put this bitter question to Moses: "Were there no burial places in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die in the desert?" Unless we are determined not to endure slavery under any form, we will not take the risks of faith.
But instinctively we know that risks are an ingredient in life. Unless spouses take the risk of commitment "for better or for worse" sooner or later they abandon fidelity to one another. At crucial times in life, we must summon our faith that God does care when his people are in trouble. The Bible challenges us to sustain that spirit of hopeful faith, even if the fulfillment of our hope is long delayed.
With these as his priorities, how disappointed Jesus felt when people showed interest only in miracles, instead of listening to him about our relationship with God. Already he had shown great kindness and concern for people's needs, but the crowd wanted more than the cure of a poor cripple or words of wisdom about being poor in spirit or pure of heart. He mentions Jonah and how many Ninevites were converted by his preaching; and the Queen of the Sheba's admiration for the wisdom of Solomon. These foreigners, even the worst of them, the Ninevites, repented and were converted--and yet "you have a greater than Solomon here."
Unless we take the risk of being generous towards others, miracles will prove nothing to us. Then too, Jesus points to the sign of Jonah, "three days and three nights in the belly of the whale." We too must risk going the depths and letting ourselves be as it were "swallowed up" by the will of God and taken to wherever God brings us, as happened to Jonah. Then we will experience the sweet reward of faith, after long fidelity.
Jesus mentions two famous characters from the Jewish past, the wise king Solomon and the reluctant prophet Jonah. He goes on to speak of himself as greater than Jonah and greater than Solomon. Jesus not only speaks God's word, he is the Word of God; Jesus is not only a wise king, he is the Wisdom of God. Yet, in spite of his rich identity, many of Jesus' contemporaries did not appreciate him. In the gospel, scribes and Pharisees come to him looking for a sign; they want some spectacular sign before they will take him seriously. What Jesus goes on to say to them he says to all of us, "There is something greater than Jonah here; something greater than Solomon here," here in this place, wherever we happen to be. Someone more wonderful than all the prophets and wise men of Israel put together is standing among us, is present to us, present within us. Jesus is not only greater than Jonah and Solomon; he is greater than anything that might seem to come between us and him. As Saint Paul says, "Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." If someone greater is standing among us, our calling is to become attentive to his presence, to appreciate that no matter where we are, we are standing on holy ground..
The Egyptians hunt Israel into the sea--and are drowned
Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. At the morning watch the Lord in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the Lord is fighting for them against Egypt."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.
Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great work that the Lord did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the Lord and believed in the Lord and in his servant Moses.
Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the Lord:
"I will sing to the Lord,
for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea."
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother
While he was still speaking to the crowds, his mother and his brothers were standing outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, "Look, your mother and your brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you." But to the one who had told him this, Jesus replied, "Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to his disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother."
The Exodus hymn tells of Israel's liberation and journey towards the promised land; and each stresses Israel's separateness from all other nations. Matthew, on the contrary, sees Jesus forming a new family of outsiders, based on "whoever does the will of my Father." This qualification enables Christianity to form a chosen people from among all nations and races, with no exclusivity. This notion can seem restrictive and even racist, yet we remember that unless we first rally together in a strong family bond, we will have little to share with others.
Only a loving family can open its doors freely to neighbours and outsiders. The Hebrew Scriptures insist that God's chosen people should exclude all oppression. Among them, all symbols of pride and greed and dominance must be cast to the bottom of the sea, as they sang "praise to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." This symbolic gesture was remembered in Israel. God is trusted to "cast into the depths of the sea all our sins" and to "show faithfulness to Jacob." After Israel returned from the Babylonian exile, with the people still reeling from this traumatic event, they beg for a renewal of the days of Moses, and for the favour God showed to their ancestors. But in this period of regrouping they felt it necessary to exclude all outsiders. Restored Israel first had to recover its identity in order to later open its doors and have something worthwhile to share.
Jesus opened the doors, heroically and at great cost even to his mother Mary. When his mother and brothers were seeking to speak with him, Jesus seems to pass them by. Extending his hands to the circle of his disciples, he said, "These are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is brother and sister and mother to me."
We greatly appreciate the members of our family, our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our other relatives. In the gospel, Jesus points to a group of people who are even more important to him than the members of his earthly family. Pointing to his disciples, to all of us, he says, "Here are my mother and my brothers and my sisters." He defines his disciples as those who do the will of his Father in heaven, as Jesus himself has revealed it to us by his teaching and by his life, death and resurrection. Earlier in Matthew's gospel Jesus in the beatitudes declared, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness," in other words, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst to do God's will." We may not succeed in doing God's will all the time, but if we hunger and thirst to do it, if our deepest desire is to do what God wants, then we are truly the Lord's disciples, and, in virtue of that, his brothers and sisters, and, even, his mother. Jesus calls us to be members of his new family, the family of his disciples. This is a family that is held together not by ties of blood but by the Holy Spirit. In hungering and thirsting to do God's will, we open ourselves to the coming of the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus and of each other, and sons and daughters of God.
The whole congregation of the Israelites set out from Elim; and Israel came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after they had departed from the land of Egypt. The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness. The Israelites said to them, "If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger."
Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to rain bread from heaven for you, and each day the people shall go out and gather enough for that day. In that way I will test them, whether they will follow my instruction or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather on other days."
Then Moses said to Aaron, "Say to the whole congregation of the Israelites, 'Draw near to the Lord, for he has heard your complaining.'" And as Aaron spoke to the whole congregation of the Israelites, they looked toward the wilderness, and the glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud. The Lord spoke to Moses and said, "I have heard the complaining of the Israelites; say to them, 'At twilight you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; then you shall know that I am the Lord your God.'
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat."
Jesus left the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!"
On the third new moon after the Israelites had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day, they came into the wilderness of Sinai. They had journeyed from Rephidim, entered the wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness; Israel camped there in front of the mountain. Then the Lord said to Moses, "I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after."
When Moses had told the words of the people to the Lord, the Lord said to Moses: "Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day, because on the third day the Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.
On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder. When the Lord descended upon Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain, the Lord summoned Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up.
The disciples came to Jesus and asked him, "Why do you speak to them in parables?" He answered, "To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that 'seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.' With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that says:
'You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
For this people's heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn
- and I would heal them.'
"But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it."
God gives the Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Then God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.
You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work--you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
Honour your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.
You shall not murder.
You shall not commit adultery.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.
You shall not covet your neighbour's house; you shall not covet your neighbour's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.
Jesus explains the parable of the sower
Jesus said to his disciples, "Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty."
No moral code is more fundamental than the Ten Commandments. The quality of life is explained by the soil and the environment, and by such essential virtues as perseverance, fidelity and thoughtfulness, a scale of values that puts money and worldly things in a lower place. These basic virtues, so ingrained in human nature, were powerfully proclaimed in yesterday's reading from Exodus. Almost every legal code throughout the world condemns stealing, killing, adultery and blasphemy. Also, the explanation of the parable of the sower probably comes from the ancient wisdom of farmers close to the soil.
It is good to realize the earthy roots and universal appeal of biblical religion. As salubrious as physical exercise and manual labour, biblical religion does not centre on visions and miracles, or secret rules and mystic ceremonial. At its core, we must "do justice and love goodness, and walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8). Any religion that denies common sense or requires superhuman heroism on a daily basis runs counter to this earthy quality of biblical religion.
But alongside the earthy quality of biblical religion, no world religion stresses the mercy of God as much does as the Bible; nor propose to care so much for strangers and resident aliens. The appeal of the Decalogue also reaches out to include other nations. The parables of Jesus challenge us to be generous in sharing our possessions. There is an overall generosity about the Bible which makes it central to God's hopes for the world.
Today's gospel lists various obstacles that can hinder us from hearing the word of the Lord in a way that bears fruit in our lives. The first obstacle is lack of understanding. We do need some understanding of the word that we hear. We don't necessarily need to do all kinds of courses, but we need some sense of who Jesus is if we are to hear his word with appreciation. The second obstacle is the lack of roots. Sometimes we do not allow the word we hear to enter into us deeply enough. We have a superficial acquaintance with the word, but we don't ponder it sufficiently for it to take real root in us. What isn't rooted in us can easily be abandoned when it begins to cost us something. The third obstacle is doubly described as the worries of this world and the lure of riches; they can be understood together as worry over worldly success and wealth. We cannot serve God and Mammon; if we try to serve Mammon, the Lord's word gets choked. The gospel reading suggests that hearing the Lord's word in a way that bears fruit in our lives won't happen automatically. There is a struggle involved; there are obstacles to be overcome. That is why Jesus taught us to pray, "Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil." But the Lord is stronger than any obstacle we might face, and if we open our hearts to his Spirit, to his grace, we will conquer the obstacles and our lives will be fruitful in the way that God desires for us..
Moses offers sacrifice, and the people accept the book of the covenant
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice, and said, "All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do." And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. He rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and set up twelve pillars, corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the people of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed oxen as offerings of well-being to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and half of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant, and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people, and said, "See the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words."
Parable of the weeds sown among the wheat
Jesus put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, 'An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"
Exodus ends with the "Book of the Covenant," the heart of the Torah. Its high point is the public ratification of the covenant, in a memorable ceremony symbolising the union between God and the people. A little later in the chapter, a sacred meal is added to signify the same result, the peace between God and the people. This symbolism is repeated, with some modification, in our Eucharistic service. Over the chalice the priest repeats Jesus' words: "This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant."
Today's gospel advises patience and hope in face of wrongdoing by others. If weeds are detected in a wheat field and the prophet-servants want to go out and pull them up, the master says, "No! If you pull up the weeds and you might take the wheat along with them." It is not that God tolerates evil forever, but allows plenty of time for the harvest to be properly brought home.
There is something of a contrast in today's gospel between the farmer (who sowed wheat seed in a field) and his servants. When weeds appeared among the wheat the servants' instinct was to dig up the weeds so as to have a field of pure wheat. The farmer's instinct was different. In a sense, he was more tolerant of the weeds. He suggested letting both wheat and weeds grow until the harvest time, and then they can be separated. He was a patient man; he knew he would get his wheat without the weeds eventually. But in the meantime, he could live with the weeds. He didn't have the zeal of his servants to purify his field immediately, without waiting. In his parable Jesus is saying something about ourselves - about the church and the individual disciples who make up the church. He seems to be acknowledging that the church will be a mixture of the good and the not-so-good up until the end of time, when all that is not of God will disappear.
As individuals, we too will remain a mixture of light and shade until we are fully conformed to the image of God's Son in the next life. Yes, we are all the time trying to grow more fully into God's Son. Yet, we have to accept that sin will always be part of our lives, this side of eternity. Like the farmer in the parable, the Lord is patient with us. We need to be patient with ourselves and with each other. This is not complacency; it is simply the realistic recognition that we are all a work in progress. God has begun a good work in our lives, and even if will never be completed in this life, God will bring his good work to completion in eternity.
Despite the scandal of the golden calf, Moses leads his people on toward the Promised Land
Then Moses turned and went down from the mountain, carrying the two tablets of the covenant in his hands, tablets that were written on both sides, written on the front and on the back. The tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, engraved upon the tablets. When Joshua heard the noise of the people as they shouted, he said to Moses, "There is a noise of war in the camp." But he said, "It is not the sound made by victors, or the sound made by losers; it is the sound of revelers that I hear." As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.
Moses said to Aaron, "What did this people do to you that you have brought so great a sin upon them?" And Aaron said, "Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, 'Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.' So I said to them, 'Whoever has gold, take it off' so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf !"
On the next day Moses said to the people, "You have sinned a great sin. But now I will go up to the Lord; perhaps I can make atonement for your sin." So Moses returned to the Lord and said, "Alas, this people has sinned a great sin; they have made for themselves gods of gold. But now, if you will only forgive their sin--but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written." But the Lord said to Moses, "Whoever ha sinned against me I will blot out of my book. But now go, lead the people to the place about which I have spoken to you; see, my angel shall go in front of you. Nevertheless, when the day comes for punishment, I will punish them for their sin."
By parables Jesus reveals things hidden since the creation of the world.
He put before them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened."
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet: "I will open my mouth to speak in parables; I will proclaim what has been hidden from the foundation of the world."
As life moves along, earlier sins seem to meet with their nemesis. Sooner or later the poison works its way through the body so that it sickens, weakens and may even die. Even though God did not immediately punish the people for worshipping the golden calf with such lustful revelry, Moses is told that in due time it would be punished. Yet, the story does not end here, for there is another aspect of the mystery of salvation, "hidden since the creation of the world," to be revealed in the parables of Jesus. If we seek a key word to help explain this message, it may be the twice repeated, "hidden." Paradoxically, what hides, also reveals. Jeremiah is told: "Take the loincloth you are wearing, and go to the river Parath, there hide it in a cleft of the rock."
Jesus spoke about matters "hidden since the foundation of the world," quoting from the opening lines of Psalm 78, "Listen, my people, to my teaching. I will open my mouth in a parable, I will utter mysteries from of old." This long psalm of seventy-two verses recounts the history of Israel, from the exodus from Egypt to the choice of David as king and Mount Zion as the sacred site of the temple. Through Ps 78, the first reading about Moses and the golden calf becomes a part of God's eternal mystery of mercy and salvation, hidden since the creation of the world.
Exodus reminds us more than once that God is faithful to his people even to the thousandth generation. Yet in today's first reading God says, "I will punish them for their sins." If we combine Jesus' parables with this statement, we get a fuller view of the process of purification. Because "Israel," each of us as God's chosen people, contains the high potential of the mustard seed, the mystery of good life is also developing within us. For goodness will triumph. The healthy body (God's mystery of yeast and mustard seed,) will eject the poison (the mystery of sin and the memory of evil deeds). At the end we shall be found cleansed, healed and purified.
The two parables in today's gospel are an image of Jesus' own ministry. His work in Galilee is like the mustard seed and the leaven; it is very small scale and to outsiders would have looked somewhat unpromising. Jesus has not been sweeping all before him. He has been going about his work quietly without fanfare. Yet, the parables suggests that these small beginnings are the promise of something wonderful to come, just as the mustard seed becomes a tree where the birds of the air build their nests and the tiny leaven has a huge impact on three measures of flower.
Humble beginnings can have an extraordinary outcome when the work in question is God's work. There is an encouragement to us all to keep doing the little bit of good we are able to do. It may not seem much in our own eyes or in the eyes of others, yet God can work powerfully through whatever little good we do, in ways that will surprise us. We can all plant the equivalent of the mustard seed; we can all be the equivalent of the leaven. The little initiative, the small gesture, the offer of help, can all bear fruit in ways that we could never have imagined at the time. The Lord can work powerfully through our smallest efforts if they are done out of love for him. Our calling is often to plant some good seed and to trust that the Lord will do the rest..
Moses face to face with God, fasts 40 days and receives the Ten Commandments.
Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then he would return to the camp; but his young assistant, Joshua son of Nun, would not leave the tent.
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, "The LORD." The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."
And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshipped. He said, "If now I have found favour in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance." He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.
The parable of the weeds refers to the end of the world.
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"
While the giving of the Law is found at Exodus chapters 19-24, the theological commentary on it in 32-34 provides the key to the entire Book of Exodus. Because the Way of the Covenant is a total way of life under God, it will touch all aspects of our existence. According to this way of seeing things, life in all its complexity comes radically from God and is sustained to the end also by God. This is exemplified in the Lord's servant Moses, whose miracles become symbols for our own day-to-day existence.
Moses entered the meeting tent for an encounter with the God of glory: As he entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down to its entrance while the Lord spoke with Moses face to face. Clearly this passage must be interpreted (for the eternal God has no "face" or vocal chords like a human being.), still the unique privilege and supreme holiness of Moses are thoroughly evident. Later the Book of Deuteronomy was to comment: No prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses whom the Lord knew face to face. He had no equal at all (Deut 34:10-11). We learn how Moses stayed there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, without food or water. Moses' fasting may have some relation to sin and sorrow, but it seems to be much more directly the result of deep contemplative joy. We too are summoned to the holy of holies within our soul, where face to face we choose God totally and reject what displeases God, until with the saints we will shine like the sun in the Father's kingdom.
What was true for Moses can become true for us too. We should progress in purity of heart to the ever more direct vision of God: "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God" (Matthew 5:8). As we call on the name of the Lord, like Moses and Elijah (cf., 1 Kings 19:12-13) we should be aware of God passing quietly before us. He is "The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity."
Today's gospel is an explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The focus of the explanation is the final separation of the good and the evil at the end of time. The parable itself had suggested that before that final separation at the end of time, good and evil will co-exist in the world and in the church, and within each one of us. The weeds and the wheat grow together. There will be a final separation but that will be done by God. It is not our place to make that separation in the here and now. We will invariably get it wrong, both in regard to ourselves and in regard to others. We will inevitably pull up wheat as well as weeds. One of the emphases of what Pope Francis has been saying is that we should we slow to judge. It can be all too easy to see ourselves as wheat and identity various groups of other people as weeds. Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians says to those who were judging him, "With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court, It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes." Today's first reading reminds us that the Lord who will judge is a "God of tenderness and compassion, slow to anger, rich in kindness and faithfulness."
Moses veils his face when speaking to the people
Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the Lord had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; but whenever Moses went in before the Lord to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with the LORD.
Making radical choices – ready to sell all for the sake of the buried treasure and for the priceless pearl
Jesus said to his disciples,"The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it."
At transition points in our life, and certainly at the hour of death, we must exchange all we own for the pearl of great price. While today's gospel clearly calls for radical dedication, the reading from Exodus illustrates the price paid for loyal service of the Lord. Moses is the rugged warrior towards the end of a life full of conflict. After intimate conversation with the Lord, Moses already has a foretaste of heaven so that "the skin of his face has become radiant." The peace and strength, compassion and wisdom of God shone from the eyes and countenance of this "man of God."
Such radiance was too much for the Israelites. They backed away so that Moses had to call to them from a distance and even began to wear a veil over his face. Most of us do not want God too close as this, one who continually calls us to peace and forgiveness with our neighbour, to strength and fidelity with moral principles, to compassion towards those who harm us, day by day. Yet, when important decisions were pending, the people were anxious for God's guidance. We too are grateful for the saintly people who force us to put our life and its many demands into a healthy perspective wherein we are led to esteem most of all this "one really valuable pearl."
In seeking the pearl of great price there may be times when the struggle is not against what is evil or immoral, but is caused by the betrayal of friends or feeling abandoned even by God. In those circumstances we need a lot of faith to believe that, like the merchant in search of that pearl, it really is there to be found.
In two short parables in today's gospel, two people find something of real value, a box of treasure in the first parable and a pearl of great price in the second. Yet, the way that the two people come upon these two valuable objects is quite different. The first parable comes across the treasure by accident. He wasn't looking for it; he was a day labourer digging in someone else's field. The last thing he expected to find was a box of treasures buried in the field. In the second parable the merchant was actively searching for fine pearls and, eventually, as a result of persistent searching, came across one pearl of great value which stood out from all the rest.
Both parables are images of the kingdom of God. Both suggest that our relationship with God through Jesus is a treasure greater than any earthly treasure. The first parable suggests that this treasured relationship comes to us as a grace. We can be surprised by God's gracious initiative towards us; God is with us, hidden beneath the surface of our lives, and can break through to us when we are least expecting it. The second parable highlights the importance of the human search in coming to know God. It is those who seek who will find; it is those who knock who will have the door opened. We can be, and will be, surprised by Lord's initiative towards us, and, yet, we are also called to seek the Lord with all our hearts and minds and souls.
The tabernacle and its contents are consecrated and God's glory settles there
Moses did everything just as the Lord had commanded him. In the first month in the second year, on the first day of the month, the tabernacle was set up. Moses set up the tabernacle; he laid its bases, and set up its frames, and put in its poles, and raised up its pillars; and he spread the tent over the tabernacle, and put the covering of the tent over it; as the Lord had commanded Moses. He took the covenant and put it into the ark, and put the poles on the ark, and set the mercy seat above the ark; and he brought the ark into the tabernacle, and set up the curtain for screening, and screened the ark of the covenant; as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Whenever the cloud was taken up from the tabernacle, the Israelites would set out on each stage of their journey; but if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out until the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey.
The reign of God is like a net that hauls in all kinds of fish; and like a storeroom full of objects old and new.
And Jesus said to his disciples,
"Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
"Have you understood all this?" They answered, "Yes." And he said to them, "Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old."
When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
Today we conclude the Book of Exodus, as important to the Old Testament as are the gospels to the New. We also conclude another of the major sections in Matthew's gospel, on the reign or kingdom of God (Matthew 11:2--13:53). In these readings we find God's merciful way of drawing people to Godself, or into the Kingdom of God.
Biblical religion always had a forward vision about it. It never consecrated a past golden age but moved onwards towards its messianic age. Along the way it took monumental leaps forward. These changes were required at times by cultural or national crises, like the Philistine threat which was overcome by the unification of the people in a twelve-tribe, one capital, one temple system under David and Solomon. Other changes were required to renew and purify the people, as was the case when Jeremiah proposed the prophetic symbol of the potter: Whenever the object which the potter was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another object of whatever sort he pleased.
God is the divine potter and asks, "Can I not do to you, my people, as the potter does?" There is continuity. The clay is the same and the potter is the same, just as the ark carried memories of Moses. All changes and transitions can be difficult. But in Jesus' vision there is always hope for renewal, for the head of the household can bring from his treasures things new and old.
At transitional moments in our personal life as in church, we need the courage to endure through the change, in hope, and the vision to recognize the will of God drawing us into a future more precious even than the past.
Moses dared not enter the Tent of Meeting because of the glory of the Lord that filled the tabernacle inside the tent. In John's gospel in particular, the glory of the Lord fills the person of Jesus. Yet, whereas Moses could not approach the Tent of Meeting, Jesus invited all people to approach him. The fundamental calling of Jesus in John's gospel is "Come and see." The gospel says Jesus speaks of the disciple of the kingdom of heaven as like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old. Moses is one of the primary characters of what we call the Old Testament. Jesus is the embodiment of the New Testament or New Covenant. We value the Old Testament; it is the context within which we read the New Testament. Yet, as Christians we value the New Testament even more, seeing it as the key to the meaning of the Old Testament. As Christians we have a rich storeroom, containing things both new and old. Yet, it is the "new wine" that Jesus brought that we treasure above all. He came to renew the old, to make all things new, and as risen Lord he continues to work in our lives renewing us in mind, heart and spirit so that we become more fully like himself..
Sacred festivals of Pasch, Pentecost, Atonement and Tabernacles
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, the holy convocations, which you shall celebrate at the time appointed for them. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight, there shall be a passover offering to the Lord, and on the fifteenth day of the same month is the festival of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. For seven days you shall present the Lord's offerings by fire; on the seventh day there shall be a holy convocation: you shall not work at your occupations.
The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall raise the sheaf before the Lord, that you may find acceptance; on the day after the sabbath the priest shall raise it.
And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord.
Speak to the people of Israel, saying: On the fifteenth day of this seventh month, and lasting seven days, there shall be the festival of booths to the Lord. The first day shall be a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. Seven days you shall present the Lord's offerings by fire; on the eighth day you shall observe a holy convocation and present the Lord's offerings by fire; it is a solemn assembly; you shall not work at your occupations.
These are the appointed festivals of the Lord, which you shall celebrate as times of holy convocation, for presenting to the Lord offerings by fire--burnt offerings and grain offerings, sacrifices and drink offerings, each on its proper day.
The people of Nazareth reject Jesus; and he could work few miracles there
Jesus came to his home town and began to teach the people in their synagogue, so that they were astounded and said, "Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?" And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, "Prophets are not without honour except in their own country and in their own house." And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief.
Today we have a portion from Leviticus, perhaps the most obscure, boring book for Christians in the whole Bible. Most of it seems hardly relevant to Church life and worship today. Perhaps that's why it is so seldom used in our liturgy. But when first written, the book of Leviticus achieved a synthesis of cultural practices, secular traditions and religious ritual. It evolved gradually so that Mosaic religion reflected changing times. Only hundreds of years after Moses, around 400 B.C., did Leviticus reach its present form. Its final achievement was to absorb the prophetic preaching of Ezekiel and so to adapt to the postexilic age, quite different from any previous age in their history. Today's text alludes to their most sacred of all days, later called simply YOMA--the Day of Atonement. That day combined a formal liturgy in the temple (Lev 16:1-19) with the colourful, outdoor ceremony of driving a goat (scapegoat) into the desert, loaded with all the people's sins, to be hurled over a precipice (16:20-28). However odd this seems to us, it pleased the popular religiosity of those days. What bothered the prophets far more than this consigning of sins to Azazel was the discordance between liturgical and daily life.
Jesus attempted to blend liturgy and life into authentic harmony. He began his word at Nazareth by quoting from Isaiah, about "glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives, recovery of sight for the blind and release for prisoners." This was his practical response to the Year of Jubilee, discussed later in Leviticus. He encountered stiff, envious resistance in his home town, and as they lacked faith in a generous God, he could work very few miracles there. Today we can reflect on our own blend of liturgy and prayer. How does my part in liturgy reflect my daily life and our contemporary world? Can I accept challenge and change, to help the poor and for the good of the environment? Am I envious of, or delighted with, God's concern for others?
When Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth, the townspeople recognize him as the son of the carpenter, whose mother, Mary, and whose brothers and sisters are known to them. He is one of their own, just like themselves. Yet, in other ways he is not like themselves. The townspeople of Nazareth are astonished at his wisdom and his miraculous powers. They wonder where he could have got all that from. They were mystified by him. This is the fundamental mystery of Jesus. He was like us in every way, except sin; he was fully human and, yet, there was more to them than that. There was a divine wisdom and power at work within him. The fourth evangelist, John, expressed that mystery of Jesus very succinctly when he said at the beginning of his gospel that the Word who was God became flesh. He was "flesh" like all of us, fully human, the son of a carpenter, from a particular place in Galilee who lived at a particular time in history. Yet, his flesh revealed God in a unique way. This is the scandal of the incarnation that so disturbed the people of Nazareth. God came to us in the ordinary, the familiar, in the life of a carpenter's son. That son of the carpenter, that son of Mary, who is also Son of God, continues to come to us today as risen Lord in and through the familiar and the ordinary. He said to his disciples, "whoever welcomes you, welcomes me," "whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" and "just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me." He reminds us that the sacred and the secular are not all that far apart; we encounter the sacred in the secular, the divine in the human. We are always on holy ground..
Land can never be sold or mortgaged beyond the next Jubilee year
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: "You shall count off seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years. The you shall have the trumpet sounded loud; on the tenth day of the seventh month--on the day of atonement--you shall have the trumpet sounded throughout all your land. And you shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: you shall return, every one of you, to your property and every one of you to your family. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you: you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines. For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy to you: you shall eat only what the field itself produces.
"In this year of jubilee you shall return, every one of you, to your property. When you make a sale to your neighbour or buy from your neighbour, you shall not cheat one another. When you buy from your neighbour, you shall pay only for the number of years since the jubilee; the seller shall charge you only for the remaining crop years. If the years are more, you shall increase the price, and if the years are fewer, you shall diminish the price; for it is a certain number of harvests that are being sold to you. You shall not cheat one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am the Lord your God."
John the Baptist was imprisoned by Herod Antipas, and then beheaded at the dancer's request
At that time Herod the ruler heard reports about Jesus; and he said to his servants, "This is John the Baptist; he has been raised from the dead, and for this reason these powers are at work in him." For Herod had arrested John, bound him, and put him in prison on account of Herodias, his brother Philip's wife, because John had been telling him, "It is not lawful for you to have her." Though Herod wanted to put him to death, he feared the crowd, because they regarded him as a prophet.
But when Herod's birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and she pleased Herod so much that he promised on oath to grant her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, "Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter." The king was grieved, yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison. The head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, who brought it to her mother. His disciples came and took the body and buried it; then they went and told Jesus.
Laughing and boasting, king Herod was on top of the world, suffounded by his wealthy friends celebrating his birthday with him and toasting his success as King of Galilee. As the highlight of the party Salome, Herodias' pretty daughter, came in to do an exotic dance. Her erotic ballet so pleased Herod that he promised extravagantly, 'Ask for whatever you want, and I will give it to you.' It was a promise that would afterwards haunt him: "I will give it to you, even up to half my kingdom." Herod is just another in a series of Bible characters who went astray. How great might Samson have become if not for his lust for Delilah? Would David not have left a finer legacy had he not lusted for Bathsheba? Might Solomon's wisdom have laster longer if he avoided listening to his multiple foreign wives, who turned his heart astray? There is an important lesson to ponder: There go I but for the grace of God!
In this story, Herod comes across as superficial, weak-willed and easily led. While his sister-in-law wanted him to kill John the Baptist for speaking against their affair, Herod revered John as a just and holy man, so he kept him alive, and even listened at times to his message. Only when his defenses were down because of drinking and the girl's exotic dance did Herodias get her way--and John was put to death. Herod's reaction to the dancing girl reminds us that we can make very foolish decisions when our defences are down and our prudence is set aside. It also shows how the consequences of sin can long outlive the pleasure of the moment. Killing John haunted Herod so much that when he heard of Jesus preaching, his first thought was "This is John, whom I beheaded; he has been raised from the dead." Clearly he was still thinking about John and feeling guilty! Herod's birthday is long in the past, but his foolish decision speaks a quiet warning to us to this very day.
Today's gospel has a dramatic example of that abuse of power with which history is peppered. Herod Antipas was ruler in Galilee at the time of Jesus. He was ultimately subject to the emperor in Rome and was Rome puppet's king. He could use his power as he wished, provided it did not bring him into conflict with Rome. The gospel says he used his power to execute an innocent man. People who abuse their power in this way lose their authority. John the Baptist has no power in this scene; he is a prisoner of Herod Antipas. Yet, he has great authority, a moral authority that is rooted in his relationship with God. That gave him the freedom to confront a man of power like Herod for breaking the Jewish law. Because of that exercise of moral authority, John was put in prison and eventually executed.
John the Baptist foreshadows Jesus. As Jesus hung from the cross he too had no power. As Paul says, "he was crucified in weakness." Yet, at that moment he had great authority, the authority of a life of tremendous integrity and goodness, the authority, ultimately, of the faithful Son of God, as the centurion recognized. Even if we have little or no power, we can be people of authority in the gospel sense. Like John the Baptist we are called to be people of the word, who hear the word of the Lord and allow it to shape our values, our attitudes, our whole lives.
A rebellion during the Exodus from Egypt
The rabble among the Israelites had a strong craving; and they also wept again, and said, "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at." Now the manna was like coriander seed, and its color was like the color of gum resin. The people went around and gathered it, ground it in mills or beat it in mortars, then boiled it in pots and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was like the taste of cakes baked with oil. When the dew fell on the camp in the night, the manna would fall with it.
Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, all at the entrances of their tents. Then the Lord became very angry, and Moses was displeased. So Moses said to the Lord, "Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child,' to the land that you promised on oath to their ancestors? Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, 'Give us meat to eat!' I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once - if I have found favor in your sight - and do not let me see such misery as this."
Out of compassion, Jesus cures the sick and multiplies food in a deserted place.
Now when Jesus heard the news of John the Baptis's death, he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns.
When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, "This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves." Jesus said to them, "They need not go away; you give them something to eat." They replied, "We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish." And he said, "Bring them here to me." Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
The reading describes a blazing row between Moses and some rebels among the people he was sent to lead. We must remember that the refugees he led out of Egypt were "a crowd of mixed ancestry" (Exod 12:38) and we are told about an alien, foreign element among them (Num 11:4). The Hebrew word might well be translated "riffraff." If such people are to be moulded into a "kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Exod 19:6), it will only be after long years of purification and patient training. Moses wanted them to take the risk of crossing immediately into the promised land; but they rebelled and threatened to stone him unless he went their way. So his impatience at their rejection of his leadership need not surprise us; and yet he prayed to God to forgive them and continue to show mercy.
Jesus' disciples were tempted to follow the easier way out of trouble. We read in the first gospel account: As evening drew on, his disciples came to him with the suggestion, "This is a deserted place and it is already late. Dismiss the crowds so that they may go to the villages and buy some food for themselves." Whenever we ourselves are faced with a difficult challenge, our response should not be dictated only by our command of financial or other resources, but by the promptings of compassion and respect for others. In this part of our heart we will hear Godgenuine 's word. At such times we too should imitate Peter and cry out, "Lord, save me."
Different people react in different ways to the same situation of need or crisis. In the gospel today, there is quite a difference between the reaction of Jesus and the reaction of the disciples to the sight of a large hungry crowd in the wilderness. The disciples wanted Jesus to send the crowd away. Jesus wanted his disciples to make some effort to feed the crowd. "Give them something to eat yourselves," he said. Even though they protested that they would not be able to find enough food to feed the crowd, Jesus persisted, and got them to bring the little food they could find to him. Then with that little, with those few resources, the Lord fed the crowd with the help of his disciples.
This gospel suggests that the Lord will always encourage us to take on some service of others, even when we may feel that our resources are inadequate. If we are generous with those few resources, the Lord will then work with them and through them in ways that will surprise us. The Lord can work wonders through the very ordinary and sometimes unpromising looking resources and gifts that we possess. We have to do our bit, like the disciples in the gospel, but the Lord always does much more. Yet, if we are not willing to do the little we can with what we have, the Lord's own capacity for ministry to others is curtailed. The Lord needs our resources, small and inadequate at they may seem to continue his good work among us and in the world.
Despite the envy of Aaron and Miriam God appoints Moses as supreme leader of his people
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?" And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth. Suddenly the Lord said to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting." So the three of them came out. Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, "Hear my words:
When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams. Not so with my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak face to face--clearly, not in riddles; and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?" And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.
When the cloud went away from over the tent, Miriam had become leprous, as white as snow. And Aaron turned towards Miriam and saw that she was leprous. Then Aaron said to Moses, "Oh, my lord, do not punish us for a sin that we have so foolishly committed. Do not let her be like one stillborn, whose flesh is half consumed when it comes out of its mother's womb." And Moses cried to the Lord, "O God, please heal her."
Jesus retires to pray, walks on the water, saves Peter from sinking
Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them.
And early in the morning he came walking toward them on the sea. But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, "It is a ghost!" And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid."
Peter answered him, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?" When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped him, saying, "Truly you are the Son of God."
When they had crossed over, they came to land at Gennesaret. After the people of that place recognized him, they sent word throughout the region and brought all who were sick to him, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Never neglecting his people, God comes to the rescue in a moment of crisis, defending Moses against the envy of Miriam and Aaron. The disciples of Jesus have their own crisis, tossed in a violent storm on the lake of Galilee, but they are saved from drowning. The former crisis was caused by devout people being too easily scandalized by Moses' marriage with a foreign woman. The second crisis came from natural causes, sudden windstorms sweeping on the Lake of Galilee from the Mediterranean. No circumstance is either too insignificant or too critical for the Lord not to help us.
It is almost consoling that such common frictions as brother-sister envy and resistance to a marriage not acceptable to the rest of the family should afflict even someone of the stature of Moses. In light of his exceptional career and his intimacy with God, his position as lawgiver and founder of the Israelite nation, one might think him exempt from the normal problems of other people. But it is impressive that throughout the episode we never hear from Moses himself, who remains silent under the criticism. Like the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, there is "no crying out, no shouting, no making his voice heard in the street" etc (Isa 42:2-3). Moses is canonized as "the humblest man on the face of the earth." Strange, that the man who accomplished so much was characterized most of all by his silence. As the sage Ecclesiastes remarked, "There is an appointed time for everything, a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to speak (Eccles 3:1,7).
"Lord, teach me the right time for things." The episode suggests that during family disputes we find the right time for silence. This reconciling spirit continues into the gospels: Jesus saves the disciples, adrift on stormy waters on the Lake of Galilee. His concern also comes to their defense when they fail to wash their hands religiously before eating. Events both small and great show the tender way that God fulfills all his promises. Meekness and prayer, whether it be like Moses ecstatic on Mount Sinai or silent before his detractors, or like Jesus who "went up on the mountain by himself to pray"; or like Jeremiah "hoping against hope" and always allowing God to decide the time and way to come to our help.
There are three moments of prayer in today's gospel. There is the prayer of Jesus. We are told that after sending the crowds away, he went up into the hills by himself to pray. This is the prayer of communion. Jesus enters into communion with his heavenly Father. We might think of it as the prayer of contemplation. The second moment of prayer in the gospel is the desperate prayer of Peter, "Lord, save me." This is the prayer of all those who feel threatened or overwhelmed by some situation or other. We can probably all identify with this second moment of prayer. We have all known situations where the ground appears to be opening up beneath us and we have a sense of ourselves as sinking.
The gospel declares that in response to Peter's prayer, Jesus held him. The Lord will always respond to our prayers out of the depths. The third moment of prayer in the gospel is the prayer of the disciples in the boat after the wind dropped, "Truly, you are the Son of God." This is the prayer of praise, which rejoices to acknowledge Jesus for all that he is. The prayer of petition is bracketed by Jesus' prayer of communion and the disciples' prayer of praise. Even though the desperate prayer of petition probably comes most easily to us, we are called to all three forms of prayer. As well as a time to petition the Lord, there is also a time just to be with the Lord, and a time to give him thanks and praise.
God's anger at the complaints of the Israelites
The Lord said to Moses [in the wilderness of Paran], "Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites; from each of their ancestral tribes you shall send a man, every one a leader among them." At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land.
They told him, "We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Yet the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large; and besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the land of the Negeb; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea, and along the Jordan."
But Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it." Then the men who had gone up with him said, "We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we." So they brought to the Israelites an unfavorable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, "The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them."
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying: How long shall this wicked congregation complain against me? I have heard the complaints of the Israelites, which they complain against me. Say to them, "As I live," says the Lord, "I will do to you the very things I heard you say: your dead bodies shall fall in this very desert; and of all your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day a year, you shall bear your iniquity, forty years, and you shall know my displeasure." I the Lord have spoken; surely I will do thus to all this wicked congregation gathered together against me: in this desert they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.
Jesus heals the Canaanite woman's daughter
Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon." But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." He answered, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." But she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." He answered, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." She said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Then Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.
The readings encourage hope, enabling us to persevere in spite of rejection and delay, for God is merciful. The Israelites gave up so quickly, but the Canaanite woman would not take no for an answer. The scouts returned from Canaan with a glorious report about the land's fertility and sweetness--a land flowing with milk and honey, and fruit so heavy that it took two men to carry a single bunch of grapes on a pole. But the scouts also told of giants and a heavily walled city guarded by a fierce and strong people, that made the Israelites lose heart. God does not push his people about; it was their own fear that condemned them to wandering in the desert.
Jesus, too, is transformative. At first he would not even answer the Canaanite woman, when his disciples came up and begged entreat him to get rid of her. Then his first words to her sound very blunt, "My mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." The world mission of the church was not yet clearly envisioned. Yet there are hints that he perceived a vision beyond the horizon of his words. Jesus' non-verbal commentary indicates just as much right here. First, his silence may be interpreted as an unwillingness to reject her request. Then we find that he could not simply walk away from the woman but talked with her till she wore down his defenses. Finally, by his affirmative response to her plea, Jesus steps beyond his verbal statement into the future outreach of the church, which is so gloriously expressed in the theology of Paul.
The gospel today puts before us a pagan woman of tenacious faith. The initial response of Jesus to her desperate cry for help was one of silence. When the woman persisted with her request and Jesus addresses her directly for the first time, he seems to dismiss her request in a rather harsh fashion. Just as the woman was not put off by Jesus' silence, she is not put off by his seemingly harsh refusal. She takes Jesus' image of feeding the children rather than the house-dogs, the people of Israel rather than the pagans, and turns it to her own advantage. Eventually Jesus acknowledges her persistent and humble faith and grants her request.
This gospel passage suggests that as far as Jesus was concerned the time had not yet come to bring the gospel to pagans; it would come later, after his death and resurrection. Yet, this woman succeeded in bringing forward that timetable by her persistent faith in the face of the Lord's great reluctance. Jesus spoke at one point of a faith that can move mountains. This woman's faith certainly moved Jesus. This pagan woman encourages all of us to remain faithful, even when the grounds for faithfulness seem to be very weak. She inspires us to keep seeking the Lord, even when the Lord appears to be silent and distant.
Grumbling at the lack of food, the people wished to return to Egypt. Moses will not see the Promised Land
The Israelites, the whole congregation, came into the wilderness of Zin in the first month, and the people stayed in Kadesh. Miriam died there, and was buried there.
Now there was no water for the congregation; so they gathered together against Moses and against Aaron. The people quarreled with Moses and said, "Would that we had died when our kindred died before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness for us and our livestock to die here? Why have you brought us up out of Egypt, to bring us to this wretched place? It is no place for grain, or figs, or vines, or pomegranates; and there is no water to drink." Then Moses and Aaron went away from the assembly to the entrance of the tent of meeting; they fell on their faces, and the glory of the Lord appeared to them. The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and command the rock before their eyes to yield its water. Thus you shall bring water out of the rock for them; thus you shall provide drink for the congregation and their livestock.
So Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he had commanded him. Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we bring water for you out of this rock?" Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his staff; water came out abundantly, and the congregation and their livestock drank. But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, "Because you did not trust in me, to show my holiness before the eyes of the Israelites, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them." These are the waters of Meribah, where the people of Israel quarreled with the Lord, and by which he showed his holiness.
Peter's profession of faith, his pastoral leadership, and his limited understanding
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets." He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you." But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things."
Two words strike me in these readings: "rock" and "flesh." In the Book of Numbers a rock on a mountainside becomes the source of fresh water and keep life going. In Matthew, a "human rock" becomes the foundation of the church. Yet in the gospel "flesh" indicates the limitations of human nature, of itself unable to adequately answer Jesus' question, "Who do you say that the Son of Man is?" The weakness of flesh shows up more clearly still in Numbers, when people complain about the wretched place where Moses has led them.
Even Moses had his doubts, so he struck the rock twice. Yet God could patiently bear both the people's murmuring and the hesitation of Moses. When his people wanted to exchange their liberty for the "grains, figs, vines and pomegranates" of the land of slavery, God provided sweet water for his wayward children from a rock in the desert. Centuries later, when Israel was enjoying "the land flowing with milk and honey," they proved that they could not manage prosperity nearly as well as adversity.
God's covenants are not with an individual, unless that individual, like a king, represents all the people. Such a one was Simon, son of John. He expressed the faith of the disciples, for all to rally round. Therefore Jesus changed his name to "Rock" --in Aramaic, Cephas; in Latin, Petrus; in English, Peter. His role was to be unitive, practical and faithful, a guide to all Jesus' disciples. He was the rock on which the wise can build , the living rock of devotion to Jesus, the rock of unity and faith. This, at least, was Matthew's concept of Peter, developed over many years, when Peter's ministry in Antioch and elsewhere had been so splendid.
To see the "Flesh", the human weakness of Peter, we would have to search in the gospel of Mark, Peter's own helper and secretary in Rome. It is a portrayal much less triumphalist, but very movingly real, of a man devoted to following Jesus.
Jesus addresses Peter in two very contrasting ways. Initially he calls him the Rock, 'You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.' But within the space of a few verses, Jesus then addresses Peter as Satan, 'Get behind me Satan! You are an obstacle in my path.' Having addressed Peter as the rock on which he can build, Jesus then identifies him as a stumbling stone, an obstacle to the Gospel, for not thinking in God's way. The fact that Peter could be a stumbling stone did not mean that he ceased to be the rock. Peter, like every human being, was complex, like a mixture of wheat and weeds, to use an image from one of Jesus' parables. In spite of his failings, Jesus appointed Peter as the rock, the focal point, of the new community he came to form. The Lord keeps faith in us even after we have failed him. The Lord can work powerfully in and through flawed human beings. What he does ask of us is that we keep striving for God's way, as against a merely human way.
Moses calls the people to appreciate God's works and keep God's commands
Moses said to the people: "Ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth; ask from one end of heaven to the other: has anything so great as this ever happened or has its like ever been heard of? Has any people ever heard the voice of a god speaking out of a fire, as you have heard, and lived? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs and wonders, by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by terrifying displays of power, as the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your very eyes? To you it was shown so that you would acknowledge that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. From heaven he made you hear his voice to discipline you. On earth he showed you his great fire, while you heard his words coming out of the fire. And because he loved your ancestors, he chose their descendants after them. He brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, driving out before you nations greater and mightier than yourselves, to bring you in, giving you their land for a possession, as it is still today. So acknowledge today and take to heart that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. Keep his statutes and his commandments, which I am commanding you today for your own well-being and that of your descendants after you, so that you may long remain in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time."
Take up the cros and follow me
Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? "For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom."
Today begins a series of readings from Deuteronomy, a fidelity book to be treasured. It seems to have been one of the favourite parts of the Bible for Jesus, who quoted it freely during the temptation in the desert (Matthew 4:4 / Deut 8:3) and later, when discussing the first and most important law (Matthew 27:37 / Deut 6:5). Deuteronomy stands a line from Moses through the earliest settlement in the land and later to the great religious renewal called the "Deuteronomic reform" (2 Kings 22-23). Its dominant quality is its homiletic style, for it does much more than repeat the law of Moses; it exhorts and reasons from a spirit of compassion and love. Some of its memorable lines have become the daily prayer of every Israelite and will be repeated in tomorrow's liturgy: Hear, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart (Deut 6:4-5).
In today's reading God calls on Israel to remember its past history and to wonder: Has anything so great ever happened before? Was it ever heard of? Did a people ever hear the voice of God speaking from the midst of fire? Deuteronomy then asks for obedience--fidelity to Yahweh alone, in all the Lord's "statutes and commandments which I enjoin on you today." In its homiletic style Deuteronomy is continually stressing the word "today." Each day is a new today, a new opportunity to profess loyal and grateful obedience to the Lord. Then you will "have long life in the land which the Lord, your God, is giving you forever."
Nahum, in its three short chapters, equals the best of Hebrew poetry. Its brilliance is evident even in English translation. He celebrates his people's victory over the oppression and cruelty imposed on them by Assyria. We see, hear, feel all at once the terrifying assault on the city walls: the crack of the whip, the rumbling sound of wheels, horses galloping, chariots bounding, cavalry charging, the flame of the sword, the flash of the spear, the many slain, the heaping corpses the endless bodies to stumble on.
After this warlike imagery, we need the sayings of Jesus. Even for us in our sins, death need not mean utter collapse and destruction. By obediently following Jesus to death, we will not experience the ultimate death described by the prophet. Ours will be the new, abundant life of Deuteronomy. That rich and peaceful existence begins in ourselves and reaches outward. Each act of obedience can seem restrictive and even destructive of life. Yet if obedience is from a religious faith, in response to the will of God and loving concern, if it lays before us the immense possibilities of the "promised land," if obedience surrounds us with peace in our homes and neighbourhoods, then it opens up for us a whole new field of energetic activity and creative ingenuity.
Jesus often speaks in the language of paradox. One of the most striking instances of that is to be found in today's gospel, when Jesus says, "anyone who wants to save his life will loose it; but anyone who looses his life for my sake will find it." Another way of expressing that is to say, "if we seek ourselves only, we will lose ourselves, whereas if we reach beyond ourselves towards God and towards his Son Jesus we will find our true selves." If we look to ourselves alone and our own needs and preferences, we risk losing ourselves, whereas if we look towards the Lord, which will always mean looking towards others, we will find life in this world and eternal life in the next. Jesus expressed this fundamental paradox of his teaching in another way when he said, "give and it will be given to you." In other words, it is in giving that we receive. Our own experience of life teaches us the truth contained in this paradox. It is when we look beyond ourselves to others, to the Lord present in others, that we experience the Lord's own joy, the Lord's own life, which is a foretaste of the joy and life of the kingdom of heaven.
The central commandment of Torah: Be faithful to God
Moses said to the people: "Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you--a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, hewn cisterns that you did not hew, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant--and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The Lord your God you shall fear; him you shall serve, and by his name alone you shall swear.
Jesus casts out demons by the power of prayer
A man came up to Jesus, knelt before him, and said, "Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly; he often falls into the fire and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, but they could not cure him." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him here to me." And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was cured instantly.
Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, "Why could we not cast it out?" He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly I tell you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you."
Today's texts balance faith with love, miracles with life's normal routine. A vigorous spirituality needs to take account of these divergent aspects of life. It cannot focus exclusively on any single side. Truth and fidelity must be enriched with love, human limitations with divine hope and even miraculous intervention. Although we survive by living within our human resources, survival is hardly worth it if this life does not lead into the future life with God. We continue our reading from Deuteronomy with the famous Shema prayer, named from the initial Hebrew word, shema--"listen." This prayer is recited each day by the devout Jew and is the clarion call of Judaism: Listen, O Israel. The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Shema' yisra'el. Yahweh 'elohenu, Yahweh 'ehad.
Not only did this exclamation of Jewish faith become ever more clearly a credo of absolute monotheism, but it also demanded absolute, total devotion from each Israelite, "Therefore, you shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. This devotion reaches into the home and spreads into the market place: Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad. Bind them at your wrist. Let them be a pendant on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your home." As with ourselves, the people can deal better with hopes than with fulfillment. Moses must warn them, "When you eat your fill, take care not to forget the Lord." They must never forget their role as servants of the living God.
The full impact of faith is seen in the Gospel. Faith cures the sick, drives out demons and moves mountains. This is a metaphor to emphasise Jesus' final words, "Nothing will be impossible for you," if you have faith. He reminds us that our life is involved in a struggle between superhuman forces of good and evil. We are called to daily expressions of faith, faith that prompts us even to question God like Habakkuk, yet faith that nonetheless reaches beyond human expectations--into the world to come.
In today's gospel, Jesus rebukes his disciples for their little faith. He doesn't say that they have no faith but tells them that they have little faith. They had just failed in their efforts to do the work that Jesus had sent them to do, bringing healing to a sick child. Jesus attributes this failure to their little faith. Many of us may find it easy to identify with the disciples. We think of ourselves as people of faith but we sense that our faith is not as strong as it could be. We don't trust the Lord enough. We have that striking promise of Jesus in the gospel that if our faith was as small even as a mustard seed we could move mountains. Jesus wanted his disciples to grow in their faith; it is what he wants for all of us. In response to that desire of Jesus for a stronger faith within us, we could make our own the prayer of the father of the sick child that we find in Mark's version of this story, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."
God's chosen people must show mercy to foreigners, the orphan and the widow
And Moses said to th people, "So now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you? Only to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments of the Lord your God and his decrees that I am commanding you today, for your own well-being.
"Although heaven and the heaven of heavens belong to the Lord your God, the earth with all that is in it, yet the Lord set his heart in love on your ancestors alone and chose you, their descendants after them, out of all the peoples, as it is today. Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall fear the Lord your God; him alone you shall worship; to him you shall hold fast, and by his name you shall swear. He is your praise; he is your God, who has done for you these great and awesome things that your own eyes have seen. Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons; and now the Lord your God has made you as numerous as the stars in heaven."
Why and how Jesus pays the temple tax
As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, "The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised." And they were greatly distressed.
When they reached Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax came to Peter and said, "Does your teacher not pay the temple tax?" He said, "Yes, he does." And when he came home, Jesus spoke of it first, asking, "What do you think, Simon? From whom do kings of the earth take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?" When Peter said, "From others," Jesus said to him, "Then the children are free. But so that we do not give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook; take the first fish that comes up; and when you open its mouth, you will find a coin; take that and give it to them for you and me."
The more aware we feel of God's majesty, the more amazing his love must seem, his care for all creatures. Today's texts catch this paradox, first focussing on God's majesty.. "The highest heavens belong to Him, with the earth and everything on it." How can Yahweh care for Israel above all other peoples? Yet, paradox though it be, they deeply felt it as a living truth. Godall-powerful chooses the smallest, for such is his gracious love. Yet they must not scorn the other, non-chosen peoples, but reach out to embrace immigrants, to befriend, feed and clothe them. We sense a prophetic influence when Deuteronomy says that God "has no favourites, and does justice for the orphan and the widow." This is much more than a restatements of Israel's law, for like the apostle Paul, it calls for a warm, personal response to the law.
Jesus accepted the temple tradition and told Peter to pay the temple tax for both of them; but he also hints that the Father's intentions reached far beyond temple and law. This gospel tale suggests that the transition from one elect race to a worldwide family of all nations would not be easily achieved. The Son of Man must give his life for the many before it can be made a reality.
There are two parts to today's gospel. In the first part Jesus announces his coming suffering and death. As a result, a great sadness came over the disciples. Sadness is the normal response when we are faced with the departure or the death of someone we love. We have all known that kind of sadness, the sadness that engulfs the disciples in today's gospel. To some extent, we live with it all the time. Yet, we cannot allow such sadness to dominate us. We have to keep going in the strength the Lord gives us. In today's gospel, Jesus and the disciples keep travelling on after this moment of harsh reality.
Eventually they come to Capernaum, the home of Simon Peter. There, a strange little incident takes place. The half-shekel tax is the tax that every Jew in the time of Jesus paid annually towards the upkeep of the temple. On the one hand Jesus says that he and his followers are exempt from paying this tax, because Jesus himself is now the new temple. On the other hand, Jesus tells Peter to pay the tax so as not to offend the religious leaders. In other words, Jesus declares freedom in this regard but then recommends putting this freedom to one side for the moment so as not to give unnecessary offense. In that way Jesus reminds us that although we may be free in regard to certain matters, sometimes it can be right not to use our freedom when the good of others is at stake.
Before dying, Moses promises that God will lead his people into the promised land
When Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them: "I am now one hundred twenty years old. I am no longer able to get about, and the Lord has told me, 'You shall not cross over this Jordan.' The Lord your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. Joshua also will cross over before you, as the Lord promised. The Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. The Lord will give them over to you and you shall deal with them in full accord with the command that I have given to you. Be strong and bold; have no fear or dread of them, because it is the Lord your God who goes with you; he will not fail you or forsake you."
Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel: "Be strong and bold, for you are the one who will go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their ancestors to give them; and you will put them in possession of it. It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed."
One lost soul found causes more joy than ninety-nine who never strayed
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
"Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.
What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Two different forms of leadership can emerge in time of change, one formal and conservative, held by leaders like Joshua, the apostles and bishops; the other more internal, depending on promptings of the Holy Spirit, inspiring courageous initiatives. These leadership styles are not mutually exclusive, and both serve God's People in quite different ways. The former handles routine matters, is concerned with continuity and uniformity, and is devoted caring for the ninety-nine sheep who are placidly there, thriving in the status quo. The second helps the Church to locate the lost sheep, the elusive ones who stray from the safe, conservative path. There can be more joy over one lost sheep found than over repeated formulae and prosaic ideas.
The stirring homilies in Deuteronomy emerged from times of crisis, calling for renewal. Its theology combines the enthusiasm of love with the routines of daily life, promoting a spirit-guided life, an earthly existence coloured by inspiration. Today's passage concludes this rich collection of sermons. Deut 32-34 is an appendix, about the blessing of the twelve tribes and the story of Moses' death. With his passing, Israel must now look more directly for God's guidance. Crossing the Jordan becomes a symbol for any major change. It calls for trust in God's presence and his abiding help: "It is the Lord who marches before you; he will be with you and will never fail you or forsake you."
Today's gospel takes another slant. The call to become a little child is just as difficult and requires as much steadfast courage as Moses asks of the people. Adults find it hard to take lightly their dignity and ambition, power and influence, to "become like little children." Jesus is not commending childish irresponsibility but a simplicity beyond our normal range. If we are alert to this, then this one percent of ourselves, this seemingly lost sheep, this child within us, will be found and bring joy and new life to the ninety-nine percent which is the rest of our personality. This recovery of the "little one" is true of each individual and of society and the church as a whole.
Sometimes the questions people ask reveal their values, their priorities, what they think important. The question that the disciples put to Jesus in today's gospel, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" suggests a certain interest on their part in status and standing. In response to their question, Jesus both did something and said something. He first of all called a child over and placed the child in front of them; he then informed them that they needed to become like that child just to enter the kingdom of heaven, never mind become the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus was calling on his disciples to become child-like not childish, child-like in the sense of a child-like trust in a loving Father, which leaves our judgment to God and grabs at nothing, including status and standing. Greatness comes to those who make themselves as dependent on God as children are dependent on adults for their existence and well-being. Jesus' response to the question of his disciples is a kind of a commentary on the first beatitude which he had spoken earlier in Matthew's gospel, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
The great Moses dies within sight of the Promised Land.
Moses went up from the plains of Moab to Mount Nebo, to the top of Pisgah, which is opposite Jericho, and the Lord showed him the whole land: Gilead as far as Dan, all Naphtali, the land of Ephraim and Manasseh, all the land of Judah as far as the Western Sea, the Negeb, and the Plain--that is, the valley of Jericho, the city of palm trees--as far as Zoar. The Lord said to him, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, 'I will give it to your descendants;' I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." Then Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there in the land of Moab, at the Lord's command. He was buried in a valley in the land of Moab, opposite Beth-peor, but no one knows his burial place to this day. Moses was one hundred twenty years old when he died; his sight was unimpaired and his vigor had not abated. The Israelites wept for Moses in the plains of Moab thirty days; then the period of morning for Moses was ended. Joshua son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, because Moses had laid his hands on him; and the Israelites obeyed him, doing as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Never since has there arisen a prophet in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face. He was unequaled for all the signs and wonders that the Lord sent him to perform in the land of Egypt, against Pharaoh and all his servants and his entire land, and for all the mighty deeds and all the terrifying displays of power that Moses performed in the sight of all Israel.
Fraternal accountability within the Christian family.
Jesus said to his disciples: "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?"
Moses died on the far side of the Jordan but God's presence remains with his people. Matthew affirms how Jesus is with the church community, even of two or three gathered in his name. The passing of Moses is among the most memorable passages in the Bible It has pathos, because the great Liberator catches a glimpse of the beautiful Promised Land, but could not even set foot into the River Jordan. But it is magnificent too, because Moses remains devoted to his people to the bitter end. The place of his tomb was lost; Moses died as he lived, in a face to face contact with God. Therefore, no prophet has arisen in Israel like Moses.
We are offered a portrait of God's people in which evil and virtue, death and life, loss and hope exist side by side. A proud perfectionist cannot be fully at home within this people of God, but neither can a person without ideals and hopes. A community has its best moments when the goodness and virtue of each challenges the selfishness that is also there. Individually and collectively we are a combination of the good and the bad. We need one another, so that goodness in one challenges the evil in another, while the different goodness in this other acts as a purifying agent on the former.
Jesus makes clear that none of us can belong to him independently of other believers. Some problems can be settled quickly between the individuals concerned; others are more difficult and require someone outside the immediate circle to intervene in the cause of peace. The witness of the church again is given in a community way, not on the word of a single person but on that of "two or three witnesses." Jesus also wants us to pray within the communion of the church. Otherwise even our best moments can degenerate into mere individualism. In contrast, "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them."
American President Harry Truman had a card on his desk in the White House declaring in bold capitals THE BUCK STOPS HERE!, "The buck stops here." This message would fit in any office where people are "their brother's keepers." But nowhere would it fit better nowadays than on the kitchen mantlepiece, with its simple words to rouse our conscience. For people with others in their care, the main task is not be to be popular but to be of help. And we help most by accepting our responsibility.
Jewish tradition said that when two pious Jews sat together to discuss the words of the Jewish law, the divine presence was with them. In today's gospel, Jesus is presented as making a related but different claim. He declares that where two or three are gathered in his name, he himself is there in their midst. Jesus, in Matthew's gospel, is Emmanuel, God-with-us. He himself is the divine presence among us. When his followers gather in his name, on account of him, he is with them as Emmanuel, God-with-us. Only two followers are necessary to ensure the presence of Emmanuel. When we gather in the Lord's name to prayer, whether it is the prayer of the Eucharist or some other form of prayer, the Lord is there. We don't have to enter into the Lord's presence on such occasions, we are already in it. We only have to become aware of the one who is present among us. That is why attentiveness, awareness, is always at the heart of prayer, especially communal prayer.
Carrying the Ark into the Jordan allowed the people cross safely
The Lord said to Joshua, "This day I will begin to exalt you in the sight of all Israel, so that they may know that I will be with you as I was with Moses. You are the one who shall command the priests who bear the ark of the covenant, 'When you come to the edge of the waters of the Jordan, you shall stand still in the Jordan.'" Joshua then said to the Israelites, "Draw near and hear the words of the Lord your God." Joshua said, "By this you shall know that among you is the living God who without fail will drive out from before you the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites: the ark of the covenant of the Lord of all the earth is going to pass before you into the Jordan. When the soles of the feet of the priests who bear the ark of the Lord, the Lord of all the earth, rest in the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan flowing from above shall be cut off; they shall stand in a single heap."
When the people set out from their tents to cross over the Jordan, the priests bearing the ark of the covenant were in front of the people. Now the Jordan overflows all its banks throughout the time of harvest. So when those who bore the ark had come to the Jordan, and the feet of the priests bearing the ark were dipped in the edge of the water, the waters flowing from above stood still, rising up in a single heap far off at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, while those flowing toward the sea of the Arabah, the Dead Sea, were wholly cut off. Then the people crossed over opposite Jericho. While all Israel were crossing over on dry ground, the priests who bore the ark of the covenant of the Lord stood on dry ground in the middle of the Jordan, until the entire nation finished crossing over the Jordan.
The pardoned official who was harsh to his own debtors
Then Peter came and said to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
"For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, is lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as had mercy on you?' And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.
In the first six chapters, Joshua's story is modelled on episodes in the career of Moses. Parallels to the crossing of the Red Sea and the sanctification of the people before Mount Sinai (Josh 3:5; Exod 15; 19:10-14), the celebration of Passover (Josh 5:10; Exod 12), the manna (Josh 5:12; Exod 16:4) and the appearance of the Lord (Josh 5:13-15; Exod 3:13) all emphasise continuity of leadership. Still, the modeling of Joshua on Moses is not slavish or total, but adaptive to the new situation. The manna ceases; and circumcision which was neglected in Moses' day is reinstituted.
The crossing of both the Red Sea and the River Jordan must be applied to our own lives, and in this we are helped by the evangelist Matthew, through parables on how to handle difficult moments in our life. Perhaps the most difficult "crossing" of all is the need to forgive our neighbour. How often must we do so? we ask. We do not like the answer, "seventy times seven times." So Jesus tells the story of the One who forgave us a very serious debt--so how are we unable to forgive the debts of our neighbour who owes us so much less? The underlying dynamic is not "justice" but as in the parable, being moved with pity. We are questioned by this parable: How far can others appeal to our patience? Here is a major "River Jordan" to cross--the need for patience with debtors who have not cooperated up to now or have delayed payment. This parable is not about some optional higher sanctity, for our eternal salvation depends on it: My heavenly Father will treat you in the same way, unless you forgive each other from your heart.
Matthew concludes with a statement of Jesus' moving on, his typical way of ending a major section of his gospel. This parable on heroic forgiveness ends the great section on discipleship.
Learning to forgive those who have hurt us is one of life's great challenges. Peter's question comes from that sense of how difficult it is to forgive someone, "How often must I forgive my brother?" The implication is that there has to be a limit to forgiveness. Deciding to err on the generous side, Peter suggests seven times as often enough. In the biblical culture of that time, seven was considered to be a generous and complete number. To forgive seven times is great forgiveness; surely, no more could be asked of one. Yet, Jesus does ask more, not seven times, but seventy seven times. Let there be no limit to our forgiveness. Jesus underpins this challenging call with the parable about the servant who owes his master ten thousand talents. This was a massive amount, equivalent to billions of euro today. Like the Greek debt to EU banks, it simply could never be paid back. In the parable the master felt so sorry for his servant that he simply cancelled the debt. Here we have the triumph of grace over strict justice. There is an image here of the gracious and generous ways of God. Jesus reveals a God whose mercy triumphs over justice. The most memorable image of such a God is the father of the prodigal son. The remainder of the parable in today's gospel tells us that the mercy that God freely pours into our lives should flow through us to touch others. This is what the servant who was forgiven failed to do. Another saying of Jesus expresses the message of today's parable very succinctly, "Be merciful as your Father is merciful."
Joshua narrates God's help to Israel, from the patriarchs to entering the Promised Land.
Then Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people,
"Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors--Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor--lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac; and to Isaac I gave Jacob and Esau. I gave Esau the hill country of Seir to possess, but Jacob and his children went down to Egypt. Then I sent Moses and Aaron, and I plagued Egypt with what I did in its midst; and afterwards I brought you out. When I brought your ancestors out of Egypt, you came to the sea; and the Egyptians pursued your ancestors with chariots and horsemen to the Red Sea. When they cried out to the Lord, he put darkness between you and the Egyptians and made the sea come upon them and cover them; and your eyes saw what I did to Egypt. Afterwards you lived in the desert a long time. Then I brought you to the land of the Amorites, who lived on the other side of the Jordan; they fought with you, and I handed them over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you. Then King Balak son of Zippor of Moab, set out to fight against Israel. He sent and invited Balaam son of Beor to curse you, but I would not listen to Balaam; therefore he blessed you; so I rescued you out of his hand.
"When you went over the Jordan and came to Jericho, the citizens of Jericho fought against you, and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you. I sent the hornet ahead of you, which drove out before you the two kings of the Amorites; it was not by your sword or by your bow. I gave you a land on which you had not laboured, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.
Among the Kingdom signs are marital fidelity and celibacy.
Some Pharisees came to Jesus, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning 'made them male and female,' and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
They said to him, "Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?" He said to them, "It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery."
His disciples said to him, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." But he said to them, "Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can."
If the Bible calls for heroic love and fidelity on the part of Israel, it first recalls God's sublime kindness towards his chosen people. Today's text from Joshua represents a typical covenant ceremony at Shechem, a major sanctuary in central Israel. When people had taken their places before the tabernacle, they recited a well known "credo"--similar to other formulas found in Deut 6:20-25 and 26:3-11. Israel's origins were not the best; their ancestors "served other gods," yet God led the patriarchs to the promised land and freely entered a covenant with them. After the exodus from Egypt and the wandering in the desert, God brings them over the Jordan to "a land you did not till and cities you did not build,; vineyards and olive groves you did not plant." Israel's sacred history was an account of God's initiative and continual kindness, always exceeding what they deserved.
Jesus restates God's original design for marriage: "a man shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become as one." Recognising the heroic conditions for marriage that this implies, his disciples wonder, "Is it better not to marry?" Jesus explicitly states that lifelong fidelity is possible only for "those to whom it is given to do so." Fidelity is a divinely-based promise undertaken by husband and wife, heroic in one sense, yet normal in another way. God's grace of sacramental marriage, helping and motivating the spouses, transforms this high demand into routine daily affection and respect toward each other. Not only does Jesus go beyond the tradition of Moses to re-state our Creator's original ideal for marriage, but he adds that, for the sake of the kingdom, some are called to celibacy. Some are held to the single life by birth defects or by other causes; others are drawn to it by a free decision. Gospel celibacy can be received and lived as a special grace, freeing us for fuller service to God and our fellow human beings, on the example of Jesus himself.
Maximilian Kolbe's offering his life in the grim cell in Auschwitz concentration camp, to save a fellow-prisoner, the father of a family, is a stirring example of that heroic love and fidelity to which Christians are sometimes called, in circumstances so extreme that we can hardly imagine what our own response might be.
In today's gospel, the leaders are presented as testing Jesus, because his teaching on marriage went much further than what the Jewish law required. They suspected that Jesus would go against what Jewish law allowed regarding marriage, viz. divorce in certain circumstances. Their suspicions were well founded. His ideal of marriage was more radical than what Jewish law required. He called on men and women to marry for life, appealing to the book of Genesis to support this teaching. We are all aware that many marriages do not last for life; relationships break down, and people go their separate ways. That is the reality. The gospels show that Jesus knew how to accept the reality of people's lives; he engaged with people as they were. He relates to all of us in the concrete situation of our lives. Yet, he also had a vision, God's vision, for human life, including married life. He proclaimed that vision while continuing to relate in a loving way to all who could not reach it, for whatever reason. That includes us all, because none of us lives up fully to the values Jesus proclaimed and lived. There will always be that two-fold aspect to Jesus' relationship with us; he loves us where we are, but keeps calling us beyond where we are.
At the covenant ceremony at Shechem, the whole people promise loyalty to God
Joshua said to all the people: "Revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord."
Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God."
But Joshua said to the people, "You cannot serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm, and consume you, after having done you good." And the people said to Joshua, "No, we will serve the Lord!" Then Joshua said to the people, "You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him." And they said, "We are witnesses." He said, "Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel." The people said to Joshua, "The Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey."
So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem. Joshua wrote these words in the book of the law of Go; and he took a large stone, and set it up there under the oak in the sanctuary of the Lord. Joshua said to all the people, "See, this stone shall be a witness against us; for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us; therefore it shall be a witness against you, if you deal falsely with your God." So Joshua sent the people away to their inheritances.
After these things Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died, being one hundred ten years old.
The kingdom of God belongs to hearts that are as pure as little children
Then little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
The era of the Judges alternates between falling away and being restored
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord, and worshipped Baal and the Astartes. So the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them, and he sold them into the power of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer withstand their enemies. Whenever they marched out, the hand of the Lord was against them to bring misfortune, as the Lord had warned them and sworn to them; and they were in great distress.
Then the Lord raised up judges, who delivered them out of the power of those who plundered them. Yet they did not listen even to their judges; for they lusted after other gods and bowed down to them. They soon turned aside from the way in which their ancestors had walked, who had obeyed the commandments of the Lord; they did not follow their example. Whenever the Lord raised up judges for them, the Lord was with the judge, and he delivered them from the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the Lord would be moved to pity by their groaning because of those who persecuted and oppressed them. But whenever the judge died, they would relapse and behave worse than their ancestors, following other gods, worshipping them and bowing down to them. They would not drop any of heir practices or their stubborn ways.
To follow Jesus, we must share what we have with the poor
Then someone came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" And he said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbour as yourself." The young man said to him, "I have kept all these; what do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
The era of the judges covers two centuries, from the first settlement in Canaan under Joshua until the inauguration of the monarchy under king Saul. This era saw various problems facing the people of Israel. The Book of Judges captures this variety in popular stories, at times echoing tales from the sanctuary, like Deborah's poetic masterpiece in ch. 5, or tales from the soldiers' campfire at night, like the humorous, even bawdy story of Ehud in 3:12-30 or of Samson in chaps. 13-16. These stories weave a theological thread, its pattern seen most clearly in today's text: 1) sin always brings sorrow and oppression; 2) grief leads the people to cry to God for mercy; 3) God replies by sending a judge or national hero; 4) the new peace and prosperity degenerate into injustice and sensuality; so the cycle starts all over again.
The story of the judges often mirrors our story too. Often we find it harder to deal with success than with failure. The Bible sees the land of Canaan as the land of promise, the goal of the exodus, the reward pledged to the patriarchs who were buried in its soil. Yet that land is also a risk, a temptation, an inducement to selfishness and sensuality. Israel's deepest instinct is in their determination to return to the land: from the slavery of Egypt, from the exile in Babylon, from their present diaspora around the world. When misuse of talents and gifts leads to sorrow and loss, this theological introduction to Judges sees the hand of God in the punishment. Throughout the Bible the punishment for sin is seen as disciplinary, to purify and sanctify us anew and enable us to start over again.
In the gospel Jesus declares that the best use of our gifts, talents and assets is by sharing them with others. Everyone is called to this positive and generous interaction; and some may even be called literally to give up everything and to own nothing for the sake of the kingdom. Sooner or later all are asked to share of our best. We are being led deeply into the mystery of the kingdom where actions are not judged by worldly wisdom but by the instincts of faith.
There is something appealing about the question put to our Lord in today's gospel. It comes from an earnest young man who was serious about finding the way to eternal life. It is a serious question, "What must I do to possess eternal life?" In his reply Jesus named a number of commandments, all of which have to do with how we are to relate to other people. Jesus indicates that the way to life for ourselves entails relating in a life-giving way to others. This young man was not satisfied with this answer because he felt he was already doing what Jesus was requiring and yet he knew there was more he could be doing. When Jesus revealed what this "more" would involve for this particular young man, it again had to do with his relationship to others, in particular the poor, the needy. He was called on to sell what he had and give the money to the poor. This was a step too far for him.
Jesus did not make this particular demand of everyone he encountered. Yet, for all of us, the path to life, the path of life, will always be the path of love, of loving relationships with others. By his teaching, by his life and his death, Jesus shows us what relating in a loving way to others looks like.
When Gideon doubts, his faith is confirmed by a sign from God.
The angel of the Lord came and sat under the oak at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, as his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the wine press, to hide it from the Midianites. The angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, "The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior." Gideon answered him, "But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us, saying, 'Did not the Lord bring us up from Egypt?' But now the Lord has cast us off, and given us into the hand of Midian." Then the Lord turned to him and said, "Go in this might of yours and deliver Israel from the hand of Midian; I hereby commission you." He responded, "But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family." The Lord said to him, "But I will be with you, and you shall strike down the Midianites, every one of them." Then he said to him, "If now I have found favour with you, then show me a sign that it is you who speak with me. Do not depart from here until I come to you, and bring out my present, and set it before you." And he said, "I will stay until you return."
So Gideon went into his house and prepared a kid, and unleavened cakes from an ephah of flour; the meat he put in a basket, and the broth he put in a pot, and brought them to him under the oak and presented them. The angel of God said to him, "Take the meat and the unleavened cakes, and put them on this rock, and pour out the broth." And he did so. Then the angel of the Lord reached out the tip of the staff that was in his hand, and touched the meat and the unleavened cakes; and fire sprang up from the rock and consumed the meat and the unleavened cakes; and the angel of the Lord vanished from his sight. Then Gideon perceived that it was the angel of the Lord; and Gideon said, "Help me, Lord God! For I have seen the angel of the Lord face to face." But the Lord said to him, "Peace be to you; do not fear, you shall not die." Then Gideon built an altar there to the Lord, and called it, The Lord is peace.
All is in God's hands; selfish wealth is destructive. The last shall come first.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, "Truly I tell you, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, "Then who can be saved?" But Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible."
Then Peter said in reply, "Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
The final phrase in today's Gospel is one of those paradoxes that can puzzle and irritate us. How are we to know that the first shall be last, and the last first? Faith is not fatalist or passive; and it can be strengthened by recalling God's help in the past. The true believer will not give up but will expect miracles when they are needed. He or she is also capable of giving up everything for the sake of the kingdom.
Gideon's faith was wavering: maybe God did marvellous deeds in the past, but maybe not. Could the ancestors have been wrong? In fact, a weak faith can be a protection against disappointment. If a person does not have complete confidence in God, in one's spouse or in one's church or government, he or she will not be totally surprised by betrayal or infidelity. Being ready for the worst, they had already given up on the best. Weak faith is a sort of fatalism; strong faith works on the assumption of the best. But then Gideon learns that God is about to renew the "marvellous deeds" from the days of the ancestors.
With this background Jesus' enigmatic statements about wealth, about first and last, about human impossibilities and divine gifts begin to make sense. To a person of faith, with the memoriy of stories like that of Gideon, with experiences of prayer and fidelity, Our Lord's words are a summons to the active response of faith. In God's good time, the last will indeed be first.
There are Gospel sayings I keep going back to because they mean a great deal to me. One of them is in today's gospel, "For people this is impossible, for God everything is possible." A somewhat similar saying occurs in in response to Our Lady's question, "How can this be?" The angel Gabriel answers, "Nothing is impossible with God." The context of the saying in today's gospel is that of the rich young man who came to Jesus looking for the path to eternal life but went away sad because he was possessed by his possessions. How can such a rich man enter into eternal life? It is possible, Jesus declares, but only with God's grace, God's help. In our own lives we can sometimes find ourselves up against impossible odds. We wonder how we will get through some test, how we will keep going. In such circumstances, the saying in today's gospel can be a great encouragement to us, "for God everything is possible." Saint Paul knew the truth of that, and he expressed that truth in his inimitable way. In his letter to the Philippian, he declares, "I can do all things through him who gives me strength." There are times when we all need to fall back on that conviction.
In a riddle Jotham curses Abimelech and the people of Shechem
All the lords of Shechem and all Beth-millo came together, and they went and made Abimelech king, by the oak of the pillar at Shechem. When it was told to Jotham, he went and stood on the top of Mount Gerizim, and cried aloud and said to them, "Listen to me, you lords of Shechem, so that God may listen to you.
The trees once went out to anoint a king over themselves. So they said to the olive tree, 'Reign over us.' The olive tree answered them, 'Shall I stop producing my rich oil by which gods and mortals are honored, and go to sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the fig tree, 'You come and reign over us.' But the fig tree answered them, 'Shall I stop producing my sweetness and my delicious fruit, and go to sway over the trees?' Then the trees said to the vine, 'You come and reign over us.' But the vine said to them, 'Shall I stop producing my wine that cheers gods and mortals, and go to sway over the trees?' So all the trees said to the bramble, 'You come and reign over us.' And the bramble said to the trees, 'If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade; but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'
The landowner who pays the same agreed wage to the first as to the last.
Jesus told his disciples this parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. When he went out about nine o'clock, he saw others standing idle in the marketplace; and he said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.' So they went. When he went out again about noon and about three o'clock, he did the same. And about five o'clock he went out and found others standing around; and he said to them, 'Why are you standing here idle all day?' They said to him, 'Because no one has hired us.' He said to them, 'You also go into the vineyard.'
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his manager, 'Call the labourers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and then going to the first.' When those hired about five o'clock came, each of them received the usual daily wage. Now when the first came they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage. And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.' But he replied to one of them, 'Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' So the last will be first, and the first will be last."
The story from Judges today is a bit of a riddle. Riddles draw details drawn from everyday life, but don't pretend to be historically accurate. Like parables, they serve to prod us to think. Jotham's riddle is a cry to heaven for revenge. Gideon's son, Abimelech, has connived with the people of Shechem to kill all of Jotham's brothers, and young Jotham barely manages to escape alive. Then from the heights of Mount Gerizim, Jotham shouts his dramatic riddle, which is actually a curse on his enemies. The men who violently seized power will themselves be destroyed by violence. The las plant he lists, the buckthorn, when chosen to be king, provides no shade and easily destroys itself and all that is nearby.
When Jesus spoke his message about God, he used the speech patterns of his own time and place. Therefore, in the case of the parable of the vineyard workers it is entirely irrelevant to discuss the social justice (or injustice) of the estate-owner, who was paying only a denarius, less than minimal wage for those who worked all day but more than adequate for those who worked only an hour in the cool of the evening.
The punch-line declares that new arrivals are equal to those who have been around a long time. Jesus may have been defending his disciples, newly arrived on the religious scene, against the Pharisees, Sadducees and Scribes whose leadership had been long accepted. The early church reinterpreted the parable, to mean that gentiles are equal to Jews in the kingdom of God. Today the parable may put in question our ability to recognize new leadership from the ranks of the laity, including the women, or to give proper credit to the young generation, to transfer the mantle of authority, to accept change within the forms of civil or religious authority.
Most of us react instinctively against any form of behaviour that we consider to be unfair or unjust. If we think we are being treated unfairly, unjustly, we can feel especially irate. It is probably that instinct in us that leaves us feeling a bit uneasy about the story that Jesus tells in today's gospel. We can easily sympathize with the complaint of the workers who bemoan the fact that those who only worked an hour got the same wages as those who worked all day. Yet, whereas those who complained were operating out of the category of justice, the employer was operating out of the category of generosity. He wasn't unjust to those who worked all day; he gave them a denarius, the normal wage for a day's work. But he was simple extremely generous to those who only worked an hour, giving them a day's wages too.
Jesus was saying through this parable that God's generosity does not fit into the categories of human justice; it doesn't respond to human calculations. God does not deal with us according to our efforts, on the basis of what we deserve. There is nothing calculating about God's generosity. God displays his mercy to those who have no claim on it. We can all identify with those who worked only an hour; we are all, in a sense, latecomers. The parable assures us that God's generosity will surprise us and leave us humbled.
After Jephthah's rash vow, he sacrifices his only daughter
The spirit of the Lord came upon Jephthah, and he passed through Gilead and Manasseh. He passed on to Mizpah of Gilead, and from Mizpah of Gilead he passed on to the Ammonites. And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, "If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord's, to be offered up by me as a burnt offering." So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them; and the Lord gave them into his hand. He inflicted a massive defeat on them from Aroer to the neighbourhood of Minnith, twenty towns, and as far as Abel-keramim. So the Ammonites were subdued before the people of Israel.
Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, "Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow."
She said to him, "My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites." And she said to her father, "Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I." "Go," he said and sent her away for two months.
So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father,who did with her according to the vow he had made.
At the royal wedding, the invited guests decline to attend
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, 'Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves are slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.' But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them.
Enraged, the king sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, 'The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.' Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, and he said to him, 'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen."
It is futile to defend Jephthah's rash and violent action, even when its background is explained in the text. This rather obscene story is a classic instance of violence towards women. Caught in a military crisis, he vows, if successful, to offer in sacrifice whoever first comes out of his house to meet him. "When I return in triumph; I shall offer it up as a holocaust." A holocaust must always be totally consumed on the altar. We are shocked by this vow; for the first to meet him was his only child, his daughter, who came out dancing for joy at her father's success. Jephthah granted her request for two months to mourn her virginity, her inability now to marry and have children. Then she returned to her father, who carried out his terrible vow. But Gen 22, where at the last second Abraham is prevented from sacrificing his firstborn son, Isaac, shows that Yahweh never approved, but in fact condemned child sacrifice. It is futile to say that God could makes exceptions to his own law against child-sacrifice. The God of the Bible, a God of compassion and fidelity, cannot also be one of blind and ruthless cruelty.
We are left with the serious warning--not everything done in God's name, even in the Bible, is positive guidance for us. Fortunately we have the passage in Gen 22 to correct the horrible error of Jephthah. The final verse in Judges is another usefulwarning, "In those days there was no king in Israel; they all did what they thought best." The entire Book of Judges prepares us for the Davidic royalty, a radical change from the earlier Mosaic traditions. This episode compels us to question our own motives and promises. Do we act impulsively to the harm of others? Do we try to justify everything we do? Do we use--or abuse--our authority as if everything we do is automatically correct? Are we open to correction by common sense and candid observations from others?
And what about vast debts incurred within the European banking system, during a phase of reckless lending and borrowing? Are these so set in stone that nothing but endless austerity will be allowed to prevail, doing most harm to the weakest in society?
While Jephthah acted rashly based on a false conscience, with dire results, the gospel states the need to act firmly on a good conscience, properly guided not just by tradition but by humble obedience to God. Jesus, in the punch-line of the parable, shows that gentiles from the byroads will enter the wedding feast, once reserved for Jews alone. In a later revision of the parable, the phrase "bad as well as good" was added to describe the people from the byroads, thus preparing for the final judgment. Eventually God straightens out everything and manifests his providential care. Till then we must wait and believe, conscious of his abundant goodness towards each of us, called in from the byroads.
Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God as a wedding feast to which people are invited. The great feast is a frequent image of the kingdom of God in the gospels. It is an image which suggests God's gracious and generous hospitality. The Eucharist can be understood as an anticipation of the banquet in the kingdom of heaven. At the Eucharist we not only look back to the Last Supper but we also look forward to the banquet of eternal life. At the Last Supper Jesus said to his disciples, 'I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.' In the parable in today's gospel, many of those who had been invited to the wedding banquet and who had already agreed to come turned down the invitation at the last minute, just when everything was ready. Even some of those who did respond to the invitation did not take the event seriously as was clear from their inappropriate dress. God invites and he persistently invites, even after many refusals. Yet, it is up to us to respond. Our presence at the Eucharist is a sign that we are responding to the Lord's invitation. Yet, we have to keep clothing ourselves in the right way, clothing ourselves with Christ, as Paul says. We are send out from the Eucharist to put on Christ, to put on the one whom we have received and who desires to live in and through us.
Ruth migrates to Bethlehem, with her widowed mother-in-law
In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a certain man of Bethlehem in Judah went to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. When they had lived there about ten years, both Mahlon and Chilion also died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband.
Then she started to return with her daughters-in-law from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the country of Moab that the Lord had considered his people and given them food. Then they wept aloud again. Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.
So she said, "See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law." But Ruth said, "Do not press me to leave you or to turn back from following you! Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.
So Naomi returned together with Ruth the Moabite, her daughter-in-law, who came back with her from the country of Moab. They came to Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest.
Jesus declares as central the love of God and neighbour
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" He said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
In Ruth's story, we see how a foreign woman was integrated and welcomed into the family of Israel. Her love-story blends nicely with Our Lord's teaching in today's Gospel, identifying the core of God's will as the supreme law of love. The Book of Ruth has served many purposes. Its earliest form may come from David's time, as a text to support his legitimacy as God's choice for king, despite his partly foreign ancestry. In postexilic times Ruth served the purpose of those opposed the idea of separating Jews from all foreigners. In time, her story was linked with the feast of Pentecost and wheat harvest. As Pentecost also commemorated the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, the Book of Ruth mysteriously pointed to that other Pentecost, after the death of Jesus, when Jews from many nations were welcomed into the Church. The book tells a lovely story, interweaving personal loss with a rebirth of hope, and highlights the mutual love of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The latter, Ruth, is drawn by affection for Naomi to join her faith, "Wherever you go I will go .. your people shall be my people, and your God shall be my God too."
If Jesus begins with the love of God and links it to love of neighbour, in Ruth the reverse process is at work: starting from her loyalty to Naomi she arrives at the love of God. Elsewhere, too, the Bible affirms that natural neighbourly love has its source in divine love. We can love, because God first loved us. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem as widows, with little to show for their life so far. Frequently in salvation history God revives people on the verge of death: from slavery in Egypt, from near conquest by the Philistines, from Babylonian exile. That a child was born to a childless couple also affirms God's power to create hope where all hope seemed lost.
The Gospel has Jesus' reply to a lawyer's question. First the lawyer intends to trip him up, but Jesus transcends all intrigue and argument, and in simple, moving words declares the greatest commandment of the law, "You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind." And the second is like it, "You shall love your neighbour as yourself." These two principles already existed in the Torah of Moses, but Jesus brings them to the very centre of his vision for life.
The question put by the scribe in today's gospel was confrontational, for it was asked to test Jesus. The question, "Which is the greatest commandment in the law?" was meant to trip him up. The scribe hoped Jesus would give an answer that would show him up in a bad light. But the answer went beyone what was asked. Jesus not only stated the greatest commandment but the second greatest as well. The first is a quotation from the Book of Deuteronomy, that God is to be loved with all one's being, heart, mind and soul. No creature, not matter how noble, is to be loved in this way. The second commandment, to love our neighbour as ourselves, is a quotation from the book of Leviticus. Yes, God must come first, but there is no true love of God without love of neighbour. We cannot claim to be honouring God if we dishonour another human being in any way, no matter how different he or she might be from us. Jesus brings together these two commandments from different parts of the Bible, as no one else had done. He shows us very clearly that the way to God always passes through other people. Elsewhere in Matthew's gospel Jesus identifies with our neighbour, especially the vulnerable and broken neighbour. To that extent the way to God always passes through Jesus himself.
How Ruth the foreigner came to become king David's great grandmother
Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband's side, a prominent rich man, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz. And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, "Let me go to the field and glean among the ears of grain, behind someone in whose sight I may find favour." She said to her, "Go, my daughter." So she went. She came and gleaned in the field behind the reapers. As it happened, she came to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, who was of the family of Elimelech.
Then Boaz said to Ruth, "Now listen, my daughter, do not go to glean in another field or leave this one, but keep close to my young women. Keep your eyes on the field that is being reaped, and follow behind them. I have ordered the young men not to bother you. If you get thirsty, go to the vessels and drink from what the young men have drawn." Then she fell prostrate, with her face to the ground, and said to him, "Why have I found favour in your sight, that you should take notice of me, when I am a foreigner?" But Boaz answered her, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before.
So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, "Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him." Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighbourhood gave him a name, saying, "A son has been born to Naomi." They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
Jesus teaches about authority and true greatness
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father - the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted."
In the story of Ruth, we see how foreigners are absorbed within the family of Israel; and according to Jesus, every commandment rests on the supreme law of love. The Book of Ruth has served many purposes. In its earliest form it goes far back to David's time and supports David as God's choice for king, despite the foreign blood in his veins. During the postexilic days this same book served the purpose of a minority group who opposed the wishes of the dominant priestly party at Jerusalem to rigorously separate the Jews from foreigners. Around this time the book was linked with the feast of Pentecost and the traditional wheat harvest. As Pentecost also commemorated the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, the Book of Ruth mysteriously pointed to another Pentecost, the first after the death of Jesus, when Jews from many nations were absorbed into the Church (Acts 2). This book's long history fades into the background as we start to read the lovely story, which combines agony and loss, peace and hope, but most of all the loving, mutual concern of mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. The younger woman, Ruth, is drawn by affection for Naomi to opt for faith in Yahweh, "Wherever you go I will go, wherever you lodge I will lodge, your people shall be my people, and your God my God."
Whereas Jesus begins with the love of God and proceeds from there to love of neighbour, the story of Ruth seems to show this process in reverse order: starting from her loyal love for her mother-in-law Naomi she arrives at the love of God. Elsewhere, too, the Bible affirms that this natural, healthy neighbourly love has its source and strength in divine love: We love, because God first loved us. Naomi and Ruth return to Bethlehem as poor widows, with little to show for their life so far. But all turns out well for them, because they are guided by love.
Jesus tells his disciples that they have only one Father, and he is in heaven, and they have only one Teacher, namely, the Christ. Some of his disciples probably thought of themselves as teachers; indeed, at the very end of Matthew's gospel, Jesus does send them out as teachers, to make disciples of all nations... teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you. Yet here he tells them, to us, 'you have only one teacher.'
For us Christians, Jesus is the only one fully worthy of the title 'teacher.' He is the teacher in a way that none of his disciples, none of us, could ever be. Because he is our teacher, in our relationship with him, we are always learners. We have nothing to teach him, whereas we have everything to learn from him. That is why Jesus turns to the crowds at one point in Matthew's gospel and says, 'Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.' Our calling is to keep learning from him, to be open to all he wants to teach us, in and through the circumstances of our lives, with all their light and shade. We learn from Jesus by reflecting on his words and deeds in the gospels, by reflecting on our experience, by inviting the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and to keep on leading us towards the complete truth.
Paul recalls the dramatic conversion of the people of Thessalonica
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you, because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
For the word of the Lord has sounded forth from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith in God has become known, so that we have no need to speak about it. For the people of those regions report about us what kind of welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead - Jesus, who rescues us from the wrath that is coming.
The woes pronounced on the scribes and pharisees
Jesus said: "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
"Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'Whoever swears by the sanctuary is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gold of the sanctuary is bound by the oath.' You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the sanctuary that has made the gold sacred? And you say, 'Whoever swears by the altar is bound by nothing, but whoever swears by the gift that is on the altar is bound by the oath.' How blind you are! For which is greater, the gift or the altar that makes the gift sacred? So whoever swears by the altar, swears by it and by everything on it; and whoever swears by the sanctuary, swears by it and by the one who dwells in it; and whoever swears by heaven, swears by the throne of God and by the one who is seated upon it."
In A Matter of Life and Death, John Taylor writes that God is not primarily concerned as to whether we are religious or not. What is fundamentally important to God is whether or not we are alive. If our religion makes us more fully alive, more courageous, more caring – more involved in life – then God is in it, But if religion inhibits our capacity for life or makes us run away from life then surely God is against it just as Jesus was. The question of Deuteronomy and of the missionary is simple: Are you alive or dead? Is our community alive or dead? What is the evidence? Much of life is not written in our genes or our environment. Do we choose life? Why are so many people only half alive? Why are little children more vividly alive than their parents? Taylor insists that the most violent epidemic gripping our society in a vice is accede, a sleeping sickness, a kind of pervasive apathy the "I can't be bothered" "It is nothing to do with me" "Here l am, send someone else" syndrome. Today's text from Paul shows that his Thessalonians formed a church that was fully alive!
Paul's first letter to the Thessalonians is the oldest Christian document we possess. We know that it was written by Paul about the year 50, twenty years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, and twenty years before the writing of Mark's gospel, which is the first gospel to be written. The first note that is struck in this letter, the earliest Christian document, is one of thanksgiving. Paul thanks God for the church in Thessalonica, 'we thank God for you all', mentioning in particular their faith, love and hope.
It is appropriate that the first theme in the earliest Christian document we possess is one of thanksgiving, because it is a fundamental attitude of believers in the Lord. Towards the very end of this letter, Paul tells the church in Thessalonica, 'Give thanks in all circumstances' – not 'for' but 'in' all circumstances. No matter what our circumstances in life, we have always something to give thanks for because of the ways that God has blessed us in Christ. Paul thanked God for the church in Thessalonica, which was God's work. We all have reasons to be thankful to God; Paul calls upon us to express our thanks to God at all times, naming what it is, who it is, we are thankful to God for.
How gently Paul treated the Thessalonians
You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.
Our priorities must be justice, mercy and good faith
Jesus said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean.
St Paul manages to combine attitudes that are sometimes thought to be contradictory. Though a strongly independent self-starter, he tells his readers that he can be as gentle as any nursing mother, in his dealings with the Christian community where he lives. In no way did he plan his activities merely to please others, yet he was anxious to share very lives of his people. He values practical commonsense in everyday life even while he points ahead to the second coming of the Lord Jesus.
Another contrast can be found in the preaching of Jesus, when he reverses what the Scribes and Pharisees consider essential and gives priority to what they judge of lesser importance. His attitude to the Law is that all depends on the spirit with which it is kept. This could become very subjective, so that people would act more from their feelings than from their principles. But unless there is trust in God and in each other, cool principles will be enough to keep us on the right track.
Paul's letter to the Thessalonians offers several practical norms to keep religion free from weird excesses and yet point us to the highest ideals. The Christians were to practice courage in the face of opposition; and to always seek to please God who tests our hearts, rather than trying to impress others; to avoid flattery or greed under any pretext. They can learn from his own practical example: gentle as any nursing mother, "so dear had you become to us." These everyday virtues can be attempted by anyone even today, in line with Paul's policy of honesty and openness.
Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for being so preoccupied with unimportant details relating to the tithing of herbs while neglecting the core values that the Jewish Law sought to uphold, such as justice, mercy and faith. He stands in the line of the prophets who sought to bring people back to what was really important, what really mattered to God.
As disciples of Jesus, we have to keep on returning to the essentials, to what is at the heart of the message of Jesus, what is at the heart of God. It would be hard to find a better statement of hose essentials than that trinity of values given to us by Micah and by Jesus, the exercise of justice and mercy towards others and a humble, trusting faith in God. These were the values which Jesus embodied in his life and in his death. To live by them is, in the language of Paul, to put on Christ, which is the core of our baptismal calling.
The gospel is no mere opinion but is God's own word
You remember our labour and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.
We also constantly give thanks to God for this, that when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word but as what it really is, God's word, which is also at work in you believers.
Woe to hypocrites who are not what they seem
Jesus said to his disciples, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
"Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors.
The readings offer contrasting but complementary views on human activity. Paul praises daily work while the gospel condemns empty "works". Paul's church-work was unpaid, so he needed to support himself by his handiwork as a tentmaker. Clearly he spent most of whatever he earned, and only a little was left over to share with the poor. Yet he knows that his religious message was more than just one man's opinion, for it is "the word of God at work within you who believe." God must be "at work" before anyone can believe. Some external means such as Paul's missionary work can help enable people to recognize God at work in their lives.
People who are willing to be thoroughly human and honest have a better chance of being used by God than others who rather try to seem sacred and different. Conscious sanctity or other-worldliness carries the threat of pride and false superiority, destructive of healthy human relations.
Image and appearance are important values in our culture at the moment. There is an emphasis on looking well, and people can go to great lengths to cultivate their image. In the gospel, Jesus highlights the importance of inner reality rather than external image. How people are within themselves is what matters. Jesus himself appeared at his most unattractive as he hung dying from the cross. Yet, that was the moment when the love within him was at its most intense. The poor widow who put two copper coins into the Temple treasury looked an insignificant figure contributing a miniscule sum of money. Yet Jesus saw the generous heart that was within, a heart like his own that was prepared to give everything, and, so, he called over his disciples so that they could learn from her. Appearances can be deceptive. In the case of the scribes and Pharisees there was less substance than what met the eye. In the case of the widow and Christ crucified there was more than met the eye. The gospel tells us not to work so much on how we appear to others as on what is within, the quality of love in our heart. We invite the Holy Spirit to come and kindle the fire of God's love within us.
Paul recalls the faith of the Thessalonians and prays for their spritual growth.
Brothers and sisters, during all our distress and persecution we have been encouraged about you through your faith. For we now live, if you continue to stand firm in the Lord. How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy that we feel before our God because of you? Night and day we pray most earnestly that we may see you face to face and restore whatever is lacking in your faith.
Now may our God and Father himself and our Lord Jesus direct our way to you. And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
The faithful steward is ready even if the master comes by surprise
Jesus said to his disciples, "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.
"Who then is the faithful and wise slave, whom his master has put in charge of his household, to give the other slaves their allowance of food at the proper time? Blessed is that slave whom his master will find at work when he arrives. Truly I tell you, he will put that one in charge of all his possession. But if that wicked slave says to himself, 'My master is delayed,' and he begins to beat his fellow slaves, and eats and drinks with drunkards, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. He will cut him in pieces and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth."
The local churches founded by St Paul were eager for the glorious second coming of Jesus. The apostle prays, "may he strengthen your hearts; at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints." Similarly in the greeting for the first letter to the Corinthians he prays that they be "blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus." The gospel develops the theme of the opening words, "Stay awake, therefore. You cannot know the day your Lord is coming."
We are to be alert and prepared, but not like some who quit their jobs so as to give all their time to prayers and vigils. Paul handled that crisis briskly, "Anyone who will not work should not eat." And in today's reading he is not tempted to ignore current problems just because of the imminent second coming. He prays to see them again "and remedy any shortcomings in your faith."
Jesus calls for good stewards who treat others in the household with love and respect, eat and drink temperately, and always alert. Such is "the faithful, far-sighted servant." But if the Scriptures do not tolerate sleepy dreamers, neither are we to become mere busy-bodies, masters of trivia, activists with no time for contemplation, strategists with no moral principles, manipulators without mercy or personal concern. We are asked to judge everything in light of the Lord's return "like a thief in the night." Today's texts ask us to be practical and diligent; to be men and women of vision and moral perspective; most of all to be prayerful and personally aware of the presence of our Lord Jesus.
We have become very security conscious in recent years. The house alarm has become almost essential and we are much more inclined to keep doors locked than we might have been in the past. This greater security consciousness is a sign of the times. We live in an age when respect for the property of others is less of a value than it once was. But burglars are not a purely modern phenomenon. Jesus was fond of expressing his teaching in images drawn from the experience of the people he was talking to. In the first of the parables in today's gospel we find Jesus using the image of the burglar breaking into someone's house. Clearly this was an experience that those he was speaking to could relate to. Jesus draws attention to the element of surprise in the burglar's tactics. The only way for the householder not to be surprised by the arrival of the burglar is for him to stay awake all night. The householder staying awake all night becomes in Jesus' parable an image of the disciples remaining alert to the presence and coming of the Lord.
The Lord lives in constant awareness of us; we are called to live in constant awareness of him. We find it difficult to be aware of the Lord all the time, because so many other things fill our minds and hearts. Yet, that is what the Lord asks of us. We are to attend to, be aware of, his constant presence to us. This is what might be termed the contemplative attitude. There is a sense in which we are all called to become contemplatives--with a small "c."
Being ready for the Lord's coming
Brothers and sisters, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus that, as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God (as, in fact, you are doing), you should do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you through the Lord Jesus.
For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from fornication; that each one of you know how to control your own body in holiness and honour, not with lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God; that no one wrong or exploit a brother or sister in this matter, because the Lord is an avenger in all these things, just as we have already told you beforehand and solemnly warned you. For God did not call us to impurity but in holiness. Therefore whoever rejects this rejects not human authority but God, who also gives his Holy Spirit to you.
Being ready, as seen in the wise and foolish bridesmaids
Jesus said to his disciples, "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'
Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do no know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour."
Not all even of the chosen people are assured salvation. Only five bridesmaids were there to welcome the bridal party; the others were told, "I do not know you." The interpretation of this parable developed with time. In it Jesus was warning that salvation was not guaranteed through perfect observance of law and tradition. In this he was in continuity with Old Testament prophets up to John the Baptist, who bluntly corrected those who preened themselves on being Israelites, with Abraham as their father, "God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones." Jesus, therefore, was not saying anything new, only imparting a greater urgency to the oft repeated prophetic challenge.
When Matthew wrote, a controversy was raging between Christian Jews and Pharisaic Jews. The former considered themselves genuine disciples both of Moses and Jesus, the latter condemned the Jesus-followers as traitors to Moses. Some of the chosen people accepted Jesus, some did not. The Messiah had come and some were not ready. Already in Matthew's gospel, the interpretation of the parable was evolving further. The Christians faced the question of when to expect the second coming of Jesus. The moral is, "Keep awake, for you know not the day nor the hour." Being baptised was no guarantee of being ready to welcome Jesus on his return. As we read this passage, we sense the pathos and tragedy of the foolish bridesmaids. They did nothing seriously wrong, but simply nodded off asleep. No matter how many excuses may explain the failure, nonetheless, people often let an important opportunity slip by. We need the repeated reminder, "watch, for you know not the day nor the hour."
On the other hand, some are so absorbed in the quest for God and in rarified spirituality as to despise this present life and consider the material world totally unimportant. The danger is that hyper-spiritual people can weave a web of immorality without knowing it. They nod off to sleep and hardly notice the real condition of their lives. Paul warns against sexual aberrations and rejects the excuse that the second coming of Jesus makes our actions of no consequence.
The bridegroom who arrived late for the wedding banquet discovered that at least some of the bridesmaids were there to meet him with torches lit, ready to escort him to the wedding banquet despite his late arrival and their long wait. Through the long hours when nothing was happening and no one knew when the bridegroom would arrive, they kept at their post with their lamps burning. After this parable, Jesus turned to his disciples and said to them, 'Stay awake, because you do not know either the day or the hour.' The Lord was calling on them to be faithful to him, especially during those times when he seemed absent and their expectations of him were not coming to pass.
When the Lord calls us to be his followers, it is always for the long haul; he looks to us to keep our light burning brightly right to the very end, through the good times and the bad times. Earlier in Matthew's gospel Jesus had addressed his disciples as the light of the world and called on them to let their light shine so that people might see their good works and give glory to God for them. Keeping our lamps burning, letting our light shine to the end, entails continuing to do the good works the Lord calls on us to do, for as long as we are able to do them, so that when he comes he will find us at our post, ready to welcome him.
Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you.
Jesus told his disciples this parable: "A man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them; to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents. In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents. But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master's money. After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.' And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, 'Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.' His master said to him, 'Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.'
Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, 'Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.' But his master replied, 'You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents. For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.'"
We will be reunited with our deceased when Christ returns
But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may no grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.
Jesus' opening sermon in Nazareth cites Isaiah's vision
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to procaim the year of the Lord's favour." And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Two types of fulfillment are considered today, the first during Jesus' ministry, the second at his second coming, at the end of time. St Paul sees Christ's resurrection as a pledge of our own resurrection: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, God will bring raise from the dead those also who have fallen asleep believing in him.
Readings from St Luke's gospel begin today and continue up to the beginning of Advent. Already in Jesus' opening address at Nazareth Luke has him proclaim, "This Scripture is being fulfilled in your hearing." This inaugural sermon at Nazareth combines some of the major themes of Luke's gospel: Jesus' concern for the poor; people's amazement at Jesus; his outreach to Gentiles; the dynamic role of the Spirit; Jesus as prophet; Jesus' final rejection "outside the city."
"This Scripture is being fulfilled." The power of God is already being felt. The jubilee year of God's favour announced in Isaiah 61, grace shining out from the New Jerusalem (chap. 62) and forecasting the new heaven and new earth (Isa 65), has already begun with Jesus. While we can experience the wonder and joy of it, such happiness cannot be possessed selfishly. It will be lost if it is not shared. We, God's people, must share our religious joy with with the needy of our time. Jesus cannot share new life with us unless his Gospel is shared with all the poor and neglected of the world.
Today's gospel begins with an account of the liturgy of the word in the synagogue of Jesus' home town of Nazareth. He stands up to read from the prophet Isaiah and then sits down to interpret what the reading means, here and now. He indentifies with the prophet who was sent to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, new sight to the blind, to set the downtrodden free. Jesus then goes on to identify himself with two other prophets, Elijah and Elisha, who ministered to people outside Israel, a hungry widow from Sidon and a leper from Syria. He tells the people of Nazareth that he had come for those in greatest need, regardless of who they were or where they were from. This generous vision of his mission made the people of Nazareth very angry with him. Jesus was one of their own and they expected special treatment from him, to his own neighbours. But the good news is that Jesus has come for us all. If he has favourites it is those who are broken in body, in mind, in spirit. The Lord is constantly reaching out to us in our brokenness, in our pain and suffering. All he asks is that we receive him as he is, on his own terms, which the people of Nazareth could not do. The Lord is always close to all of us; it is our need, our suffering, whatever form it takes, which can bring us close to him.
The day of the Lord comes like a thief in the night. Be ready.
Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you. For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When they say, "There is peace and security," then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labour pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape! But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
On the sabbath Jesus teaches with authority and drives out demons.
He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority. In the synagogue there was a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon, and he cried out with a loud voice, "Let us alone! What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God." But Jesus rebuked him, saying, "Be silent, and come out of him!" When the demon had thrown him down before them, he came out of him without having done him any harm. They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, "What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!" And a report about him began to reach every place in the region.
A popular theme of both Jesus and St. Paul is the need for keeping alert, in order to stay close to God and live our life according to God's will. Ironically, in today's Gospel story the person most alert to Jesus' presence is the unclean spirit which, as it was being driven out of a possessed man, makes a frenzied confession, "I know who you are, the Holy One of God!"
In John Bunyan's classic Pilgrim's Progress, the character named Christian sings this verse:
"When saints do sleepy grow, let them come hither
And hear how these two pilgrims talk together;
Yea, let them learn of them, in what wise
They may keep open slumbering eyes.
Saints' fellowship, if it be managed well,
Keeps them awake, and that in spite of hell."
If we isolate ourselves and walk alone we are likely to grow drowsy. Interact with fellow Christians and you will be kept wakeful and encouraged to make progress on the road to to God. And in our fellowship of prayer with others, let the Lord Jesus be in the centre.
Authority figures in all walks of life come under suspicion nowadays. The misuse of authority in the past can make all forms of authority suspect. Yet, authority, properly used, can be a tremendous force for good. In today's gospel we find the kind of authority that is a force for good. People are delighted with Jesus because they recognised true authority in him. "His teaching made a deep impression on them because he spoke with authority." His teaching, his word, was experienced as authoritative because it brought life to others; his word delivered a man from his demons. Here was an authority that was life-giving, life-renewing, and creative of others. Jesus' teaching, his word, was authoritative in this life-giving sense because it was rooted in his relationship with God. It was shaped by the Spirit of God that Paul refers to in the first reading. Paul reminds us in that reading that we have all received the Spirit that comes from God. He goes further and says that we have the mind of Christ. If the mind of Christ, if the Spirit of God, shapes our words, they too will be authoritative in the same life-giving way that Jesus' words were. They will bring healing where there is brokenness, peace where there is disturbance.
Paul commends "love to the saints" and Christian growth
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.
In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
Jesus heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law, and preaches the reign of God.
After leaving the synagogue he entered Simon's house. Now Simon's mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked him about her. Then he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. Immediately she got up and began to serve them.
As the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various kinds of diseases brought them to him; and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them. Demons also came out of many, shouting, "You are the Son of God!" But he rebuked them and would not allow them to speak, because they knew that he was the Messiah.
At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them. But he said to them, "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities als; for I was sent for this purpose." So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.
Today's texts suggest the long process of growth with its ups and downs, before reachingour final destination. Arriving at Simon Peter's home, Jesus learns that the apostle's mother-in-law is "in the grip of a severe fever." We note of the sequence of events. The story, in being told over and over again, has been reduced to its bare bones, those details helpful for catechetical instruction: 1) the mother-in-law is found critically sick; 2) friends intercede with Jesus and pray for her; 3) Jesus stands over her and addresses the fever; 4) she gets up immediately and waits on them.
After the woman's miraculous cure, one might expect everything to stop and total, ecstatic attention to centre on Jesus. That was not what actually happened. Life returned to the normal routine of caring for one another. "She got up immediately and waited on them." The family setting is enhanced when we hear that the people around Jesus "interceded with him for her." This endorses the practice of praying for one another and of asking the saints to intercede for us. The family reaches outward to all God's friends.
But this does not happen easily, or for all. Even Paul's converts did not follow a clear, quick path to heaven but often seemed to lose their way. He calls them "infants," not adults, not yet ready for solid food. Like children they were quarreling over petty matters. Well, it looked petty when contrasted with true devotion for Jesus. They were split apart into jealous communities and claimed different spiritual leaders. Religion was being "used" and their natural tendency to pride and independence ended up in ridiculous ecclesiastical bickering. Paul reminds them that every church leader was God's co-worker and that the church is nobody's private property, or rather, "you are God's garden."
Paul reminds the Colossians of "the hope held in store for you in heaven," a hope that "has borne fruit and has continued to grow in your mind as it has everywhere." When Christians are strong in charity towards each other, they become people of expansive hopes. This hope, born of love, is the resource out of which miracles are worked and heaven is dreamed.
The gospel describes Jesus healing people in Capernaum, where we are told that he was still working at sunset, laying his hands on the sick. Yet, in the midst of his work, we also find Jesus at prayer; when daylight came he left the house and made his way to a lonely place. There was much work to be done, and, yet, Jesus knew the value of stopping and finding time for prayer. The gospel reading suggests that whereas people really appreciated his work, they didn't seem to appreciate as much his need for prayer. When Jesus went to the lonely place to pray, the crowds went looking for him, and when they caught up with him, they tried to prevent him leaving them. Perhaps our own times are not that much different. A higher value is often put on work, especially good works, than on prayer. Yet, it was because of his prayer that Jesus was able to resist the efforts of the people of Capernaum to hold on to him. It was because of his prayer that he was able to keep taking the path that God wanted him to take, rather than the path others wanted him to take. Prayer helped Jesus to keep doing God's work, rather than the work others had earmarked for him. In our own lives too, prayer can help to ensure that the work we do is God's work, work that is in accordance with God's purpose for our lives.
We can endure whatever comes, being rescued from the power of darkness.
For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God's will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.
May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
After a miraculous catch of fish Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him.
Once while Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch." Simon answered, "Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets." When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signaled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus" knees, saying, "Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!" For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, "Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people." When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.
Today's first reading underlines the sanctity that is possible through the normal duties and works of daily life, if done in a spirit of faith and calling on the grace of God. The natural activities of life--employment, study, health-care, eating and drinking, marriage and family--can be consecrated to God and be performed with gratitude. St Paul's ideal for us, as for his original readers, is that we "lead lives worthy of the Lord." This is what the Church means by the universal call to holiness, shared by all the baptised. One of our blessings is that the Lord has useful work for each of us to do. What we need is the courage and insight to know where to cast our nets.
Most of us will have tasted the experience of failure in one shape or form. We may have failed to live up to the values and the goals that we had set ourselves; some enterprise or some initiative that we had invested in may have come to nothing; some relationship that was important to us may have slipped away from us. All such experiences can leave us feeling disheartened. Such an experience of failure is to be found in today's gospel. We can hear the note of failure in the words of Peter to Jesus, "we worked hard all night long and caught nothing," and in his later words to Jesus, "leave me, Lord; I am a sinful man." Yet, the gospel proclaims loudly that failure does not need to have the last word, because the Lord is stronger than our failures and can work powerfully through them. The Lord transformed the fruitless night's labour of the disciples into an abundant catch of fish, and he insisted that the sinful Peter would share in his own work of drawing people into the nets of God's kingdom. The Lord is constantly at work in all kinds of seemingly unpromising situations, drawing new life out of loss and failure. Yet, for this to happen, the Lord needs us not to give in to discouragement. He needs us to keeping putting out into deep water in response to his faithful word.
Through Christ everything was created and reconciled to God
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers--all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.
The disciples don't fast in Jesus' time; but will, when he is gone
Then they said to him, John's disciples, like the disciples of the Pharisees, frequently fast and pray, but your disciples eat and drink. Jesus said to them, "You cannot make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them, can you? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast in those days."
He also told them a parable: "No one tears a piece from a new garment and sews it on an old garment; otherwise the new will be torn, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, 'The old is good.'"
We may consider our lives as lived between two extremes of creation, the first at the beginning of time, the second when Jesus returns at the end of time. Situated in between, our lives are profoundly influenced by the memory of beginnings and by a marvellous hope beckoning us into the future. This text from Paul to the Colossians, which may have originally been a Christ-hymn used in the early liturgy of the Church, attributes a key role in creation to Christ, the firstborn of all creatures, in whom everything continues in being, and who is the head of the body, the church.
Yet, we live in the "now," when things can take quite another form and we are caught amidst envy, misunderstanding and rash judgment towards one another. While some rejoice in God's wonderful graces, others complain that they ought to be fasting and praying more fervently. Jesus himself was not good enough for his contemporaries, and even alive within our friends and our church today he is still criticized. We sense this situation in his words, We piped you a tune but you did not dance, we sang you a dirge but you did not wail (Luke 7:32). Some people can never approve what others do, no matter what the motive.
Some want to put the mysterious working of grace under human control, rigidly maintained. They want to patch a new garment with old material, pour new wine into old wine-skins. But the old skins will burst under the pressure of the fermenting new wine. The old piece of cloth will never match the texture and color of the new.
We can easily get into a rut and become fixed in our own way of doing things. Somebody comes along and does things differently and we can find ourselves getting a little irritated and wondering why things can't simply be left alone. We find that kind of scenario at the beginning of today's gospel. The Pharisees say to Jesus, "Why don't you and your disciples fast and say prayers like the rest of us?" In reply, Jesus spoke about his ministry as "new wine" which is always in need of "new wine skins." The Lord is always prompting us to show forth the new wine of his presence in new ways. These new ways will be in continuity with the old ways, but will move beyond them. The Lord who is always in our midst brings God's energy to us and that energy cries out for new ways of being expressed. The Lord is always prompting us to take some new step in our relationship with him. We pray today for a greater openness to his promptings.
Hold the faith firmly, to come before God free of all blame
And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him--provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel.
Jesus, Lord of the Sabbath, defends eating grain on the Sabbath
One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, "Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?" Jesus answered, "Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?" Then he said to them, "The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath."
When questioned about the actions of his hungry disciples on the sabbath, Jesus replied with simple common sense. They were plucking ears of grain, and eating them, an action normally permitted as one walked through a field of standing corn. He bolsters his defense of them by appealing to another time when David and his men were allowed eat what normally was reserved for priests. Proper observance of the Law allowed for serving the poor and the needy.
Jesus is "Lord of the sabbath" in a deeper sense. Colossians speaks of his winning reconciliation for us by dying in his mortal body. If it is to be real, peace is no cheap grace; it is not "easy come, easy go." Jesus died to obtain it for us. Someone must patiently suffer the effects of hostility and envy, so that others can see the evil of their deeds and be truly sorry for them. In Jesus, humble and patient on the cross, we find ourselves drawn to repudiate sin (2 Cor 5:21) so that he can present us to God "holy, free of reproach and blame."
What should people do or not do on the Sabbath? That is the question under dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees in today's gospel. For the Pharisees, picking ears of corn and crushing them to eat them constituted work and was forbidden on the Sabbath. For Jesus, however, it was always legitimate to satisfy one's physical hunger on the Sabbath, especially for people like himself and his disciples who were never sure where the next meal was going to come from. The laws of the Pharisees about the Sabbath were not binding on Jesus. Rather, Jesus declares that he himself is Lord of the Sabbath. Sunday is now the Christian Sabbath. As Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus tells us in today's gospel that any work which serves the basic needs of others is always legitimate on the Sabbath. The Sabbath is not so much the day when we do no work at all as the day when we try to do God's work, the work of responding to the needs of others and the call they make on us.