Weekday Readings (Cycle 2), 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.
Exile of the ten northern tribes of Israel, for not listening to the prophets
Then the king of Assyria invaded all the land and came to Samaria; for three years he besieged it. In the ninth year of Hoshea the king of Assyria captured Samaria; he carried the Israelites away to Assyria. He placed them in Halah, on the Habor, the river of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.
This occurred because the people of Israel had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They had worshipped other gods and walked in the customs of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel, and in the customs that the kings of Israel had introduced.
Yet the Lord warned Israel and Judah by every prophet and every seer, saying, "Turn from your evil ways and keep my commandments and my statutes, in accordance with all the law that I commanded your ancestors and that I sent to you by my servants the prophets." They would not listen but were stubborn, as their ancestors had been, who did not believe in the Lord their God. They despised his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their ancestors, and the warnings that he gave them. They went after false idols and became false; they followed the nations that were around them, concerning whom the Lord had commanded them that they should not do as they did. Therefore the Lord was very angry with Israel and removed them out of his sight; none was left but the tribe of Judah alone.
How we judge others determines our own judgment by God
Jesus said to them,
"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."
After two centuries of schism, 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, ten out of the twelve tribes, 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 presented in any simple way that would explain 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 neither did the remaining tribe of Judah. And while Jerusalem, their capital, was razed to the ground (2 Kings 25) they survived the Babylonian exile and became a remnant group who rebuilt the Holy City and prepared for the coming of the Messiah. Humble people will not lose the promised land, the divine blessing, for God always remembers his promise in their regard. The humble find their strength in God and then show kindliness towards the neighbour, at God's call.
We can imagine Jesus smiling as he uses the image of someone with a plank in their eye struggling to take a splinter out of someone else's eye. Humour can be a disarming way of conveying an uncomfortable truth. Jesus is drawing attention to the human tendency to be more aware of the faults of others than of one's own. An awareness of our own failings keeps us humble. Knowing ourselves, warts and all, and, indeed, loving ourselves, warts and all, is a good basis for relating to others. Knowing our limitations, our weaknesses, we then try to work on them, as best as we can. Jesus is saying in today's gospel that working on our own failings should be a higher priority for us than working on the failings of others. Jesus was no doubt aware that addressing our own failings is a much more demanding task than addressing the failings of others. Hence his challenging call in the gospel to look to ourselves first before looking to others. When we look to ourselves, however, we always do so with our eyes on the Lord. Indeed, we look to him before we look to ourselves, just as we look to ourselves before we look to others. The awareness of the Lord's love for us frees us to look at ourselves without anxiety and the Spirit of his love in our hearts empowers us to grow into his likeness more fully.
The Assyrians attack; but Isaiah promises thatr a remnant and Jerusalem will be saved
When the king heard concerning King Tirhakah of Ethiopia, "See, he has set out to fight against you," he sent messengers again to Hezekiah, saying, "Thus shall you speak to King Hezekiah of Judah: Do not let your God on whom you rely deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.
Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers and read it; then Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said: "O Lord the God of Israel, who are enthroned above the cherubim, you are God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, and have hurled their gods into the fire, though they were no gods but the work of human hands - wood and stone - and so they were destroyed. So now, O Lord our God, save us, I pray you, from his hand, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone."
Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent to Hezekiah, saying, "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I have heard you prayer to me about King Sennacherib of Assyria. This is the word that the Lord has spoken concerning him: "She despises you, she scorns you - virgin daughter Zion; she tosses her head - behind your back, daughter Jerusalem. From Jerusalem a remnant shall go out, and from Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this."
"Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the king of Assyria: He shall not come into this city, shoot an arrow there, come before it with a shield, or cast up a siege-ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he shall return; he shall not come into this city, says the Lord. For I will defend this city to save it, for my own sake and for the sake of my servant David."
That very night the angel of the Lord set out and struck down one hundred eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians. Then King Sennacherib of Assyria left, went home, and lived at Nineveh. As he was worshiping in the house of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sharezer killed him with the sword, and they escaped into the land of Ararat. His son Esar-haddon succeeded him.
A series of short, disconnected sayings of Jesus
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."
Sometimes we cope better with failure than with success. People who have to work hard and pass through all the stages of developing a business, a farm, or a family inheritance, generally show more care for their work, and deeper joy in their creativity, than the next generation who receive it on a golden platter.
The Assyrians spread their empire from the borders of Egypt across the fertile crescent of Israel, Lebanon and Syria, south into Iraq and eastward towards Iran. At Nineveh their capital city, the archaeologists' pickaxes have unearthed an immense library of literature and history. At home the Assyrians were cultured and polite, abroad they were greedy and insolent. In his pride the Assyrian king did not hesitate to claim divine status and dared to blaspheme the Lord Yahweh. Emboldened by their wealth and military might the Assyrians felt secure against any harm or revenge, and like all tyrants, they demanded ever greater tribute from vassal states and grew intolerant of any signs of independence.
Like the Assyrians, we can be victims of our own success. Our worst mistakes are often made when we have the money and the leisure to do so, and even family members can turn on each other in the flush of prosperity. Today's text reflects our common difficulty in dealing with success, but also offers a way out of this impasse. Wryly, Jesus advises us not to toss our pearls before swine, and not to follow the wide and easy way to damnation. In a more desperate situation King Hezekiah took the letter of ultimatum from the hand of the Assyrian messengers, and brought it up to the temple and prayed in the Lord's presence. He did not take the easy way, of caving in and surrendering just to save the royal family; but they each acted bravely and prudently, in a way that already anticipated the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount.#
In the gospel Jesus speaks of two ways between which each person must choose. The image of the two ways was widespread in the Old Testament and also in pagan philosophers. Jesus compares the narrow gate and the hard road which the few take with the wide and spacious road which the many take. He himself embodies the narrow gate and the hard road. To take the narrow gate and the hard road is to follow him, to live by his teaching, especially as that teaching is expressed in the Sermon on the Mount from which we have been reading in recent days. Jesus implies that many people will turn away from his teaching, will take other, easier, paths. The Sermon on the Mount puts before us a very high ideal and the temptation is to keep it at arm's length on the basis that it is not really for the average Christian. Yet, Jesus addresses his teaching to everyone; we each have the same calling which we try to live out in the circumstances of our own lives. The narrow gate and the hard road is one we are all asked to take. In taking it Jesus assures us that we will find life, both now and beyond death.
When Deuteronomy is rediscovered in the temple, it leads to reform
The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, "I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord." When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. Then Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, "Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house, and have delivered it into the hand of the workers who have oversight of the house of the Lord." Shaphan the secretary informed the king, "The priest Hilkiah has given me a book." Shaphan then read it aloud to the king.
When the king heard the words of the book of the law, he tore his clothes. Then the king commanded the priest Hilkiah, Ahikam son of Shaphan, Achbor son of Micaiah, Shaphan the secretary, and the king's servant Asaiah, saying, "Go, inquire of the Lord for me, for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found; for great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our ancestors did not obey the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us."
Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.
"You can tell the quality of the tree by its fruit."
"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.
Our covenant with God is not to be simply affirmed once and then forgotten. It must be ratified over and over again, even day by day. Yet there are certain pivotal moments in life, crucial turning points, and such a dramatic time came when the Law of Moses was rediscovered, after long neglect, in some dusty corner of the temple. King Josiah has the law book read to different groups of people and then solemnizes a re-dedication to the covenant before all the people.
In our own life, if we have wandered far from the Lord's will, or our first hopes and ideals have faded, we need to turn to prayer, contemplate the Scriptures, and be willing to be converted anew to the Lord. The book of Deuteronomy, with its call for renewal and fidelity, could, as in the days of King Josiah, be an excellent guide for ourselves. The good tree was only partially decayed; it doesn't have to be cut down, only pruned and brought back to health, and again it will bear good fruit. God will again confirm our faith and renew the bond of life with us.
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
The first deportation of the Jews to Babylon, in 597 B.C
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign; he reigned three months in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Nehushta daughter of Elnathan of Jerusalem. He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his father had done.
At that time the servants of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came up to Jerusalem, and the city was besieged. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city, while his servants were besieging it; King Jehoiachin of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself, his mother, his servants, his officers, and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign.
He carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house; he cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which King Solomon of Israel had made, all this as the Lord had foretold. He carried away all Jerusalem, all the officials, all the warriors, ten thousand captives, all the artisans and the smiths; no one remained, except the poorest people of the land. He carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon; the king's mother, the king's wives, his officials, and the elite of the land, he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. The king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valour, seven thousand, the artisans and the smiths, one thousand, all of them strong and fit for war. The king of Babylon made Mattaniah, Jehoiachin's uncle, king in his place, and changed his name to Zedekiah.
Faith counts more than words; we must build on rock, not sand
"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!"
Then, 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.
God can help us reverse the consequences of our faults. But first we must become aware of those faults, and feel the nemesis of sin within our own personal experience. According to the covenant-theology of the Old Testament from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings, the Israelites were blessed and cherished by God insofar as they kept His law, as they had promised; but if they abandoned the covenant they would be punished with exile and disaster. This is precisely the reason, they reckoned, why they were invaded by the Babylonians and carried off to shameful exile, as graphically described in the first reading. But in the long-term effects of that exile, the people of God reached a purified, more spiritual understanding of religion. It is something we may hope will emerge from the Church's present troubles, and from the large fall-off in churchgoing, that we may experience a new birth of faith and a return to a simpler, purer form of religion.
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.
We have been reading from the Sermon on the Mount for the past couple of weeks and today's gospel brings the Sermon to a close. There are three activities mentioned in the gospel that followers of Jesus engage in, speaking, listening and doing. All three activities are important. When we gather for public prayer we speak; in the words of the gospel, we address Jesus as "Lord, Lord." When we gather for public worship and at times of private prayer we listen; we listen to the word of the Lord and allow it to sink into our hearts. These two activities of speaking and listening will always be central to the life of a disciple. However, Jesus says in the gospel that unless our speaking and our listening flow over into concrete action their value is undermined. It is not enough to say "Lord, Lord," we are to do the will of the Father in heaven. It is not enough to listen to the words of Jesus, we have to then act on them. We must act in accordance with what we say and what we hear. When our speaking to the Lord and our listening to his word bear fruit in good works, the kind of works that characterized the life of Jesus, then our lives will be solidly grounded, like a house built on rock. According to our gospel reading, if our words to the Lord and his words to us shape our behavior, then we will more easily withstand the storms that come our way in life..
After Jerusalem revolts again, the Babylonians destroy the city and deports the survivors
And in the ninth year of his reign, in the tenth month, on the tenth day of the month, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came with all his army against Jerusalem, and laid siege to it; they built siegeworks against it all around. So the city was besieged until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine became so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. Then a breach was made in the city wall; the king with all the soldiers fled by night by the way of the gate between the two walls, by the king's garden, though the Chaldeans were all around the city. They went in the direction of the Arabah. But the army of the Chaldeans pursued the king, and overtook him in the plains of Jericho; all his army was scattered, deserting him. Then they captured the king and brought him up to the king of Babylon at Riblah, who passed sentence on him. They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah; they bound him in fetters and took him to Babylon.
In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month - which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon - Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He burned the house of the Lord, the king's house, and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. All the army of the Chaldeans who were with the captain of the guard broke down the walls around Jerusalem.
Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had defected to the king of Babylon - all the rest of the population. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil.
A leper is cured by Jesus and then is ordered to fulfill the ritual of a temple 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."
Our Scriptures focus on the covenant: its origin, its sign, its promise, its laws and requirements, its warnings and punishments. Yet within the rhythm of life according to the covenant, there is the memory of Jerusalem destroyed (Year 2), of lepers healed (Gospel) and of an elderly couple, long deprived of children being promised an offspring (Year 1) . While life may normally follow a regular routine, it can also be interrupted by God in surprising ways.
Laws are kept and laws are disregarded. 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.
Yet the 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.
A survivor of Jerusalem's destruction laments in mournful tones
The Lord has destroyed without mercy all the dwellings of Jacob; in his wrath he has broken down the strongholds of daughter Judah; he has brought down to the ground in dishonour the kingdom and its rulers. The elders of daughter Zion sit on the ground in silence; they have thrown dust on their heads and put on sackcloth; the young girls of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground.
My eyes are spent with weeping; my stomach churns; my bile is poured out on the ground because of the destruction of my people, because infants and babes faint in the streets of the city. They cry to their mothers, "Where is bread and wine?" as they faint like the wounded in the streets of the city, as their life is poured out on their mothers' bosom.
What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion? For vast as the sea is your ruin; who can heal you? Your prophets have seen for you false and deceptive visions; they have not exposed your iniquity to restore your fortunes, but have seen oracles for you that are false and misleading.
Cry aloud to the Lord! O wall of daughter Zion! Let tears stream down like a torrent day and night! Give yourself no rest, your eyes no respite! Arise, cry out in the night, at the beginning of the watches! Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord! Lift your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint for hunger at the head of every street.
Jesus cures the centurion's serving boy and Peter's mother-in-law
When he 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."
Even before he fulfilled the prophecy of the suffering servant by dying on the cross, Jesus was living out the prophetic words by his merciful responses to people in need. 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 raving lunatic roaming the countryside or a close friend like Peter's mother-in-law. The person's nationality, gender, social level, mental or moral condition made no difference. What mattered was human misery in need of healing, which touched the heart of Jesus.
Christ usually looked for trusting faith as the condition for being cured, an attitude sadly 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 aligned himself with a long biblical tradition whereby God's servants were conspicuous for their attention to strangers and sinners, the sick and defenseless. We read from the poignant Book of Lamentations. The bitter grief, the wrenching trials to which faith is often put, the seeming betrayal of divine promises for Jerusalem and the Davidic dynasty, all of these reactions to the destruction of the Holy City become the inspired word of God. "Pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord; Lift up your hands to him, for the lives of your little ones." These sorrowful lines not only describe the healing ministry of Jesus but also the innermost feeling of the eternal Father throughout Old Testament history.
The first reading today is from Lamentations. The title of the book, Lamentations, aptly describes its tone and content. The book is a series of laments that rise up from the people of Israel as they try to come to terms with the destruction of the city of Jerusalem and their land and the resulting experience of exile in Babylon. The most frequent type of psalm in the Book of Psalms is the psalm of lament. There are more prayers of lamentation in the Book of Psalms that any other type of prayer. That statistic may be saying something about the human condition; it may also suggest that we tend to approach God more in times of need than in times of plenty. In the gospel we have the story of someone who approaches Jesus in his time of need, not a member of the people of Israel but a Roman centurion, a pagan. He comes before Jesus with a cry of lament, "my servant is lying at home paralyzed, and in great pain." He doesn't make an explicit request of Jesus, but his lament before Jesus has an implicit request, "help my servant; help me." Every lament is, at its core, a cry for help. This particular pagan displayed extraordinary sensitivity to Jesus as well as tremendous faith in him. He presumed Jesus a Jew would be hesitant to enter the house of a pagan and he believed that Jesus could heal his servant at a distance with his word. His initial lament found expression in a wonderful prayer of petition, "I am not worthy?" A version of this centurion's prayer of petition has become part of the text of the Mass. This morning we might take a moment to make this version of the centurion's prayer our own, trusting, as he did, that this is a prayer that Jesus will indeed answer.
Israel is condemned for neglecting the poor and the defenseless
Thus says the Lord: For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment; because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals - they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way; father and son go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge; and in the house of their God they drink wine bought with fines they imposed.
Yet I destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of cedars, and who was as strong as oaks; I destroyed his fruit above, and his roots beneath. Also I brought you up out of the land of Egypt, and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. So, I will press you down in your place, just as a cart presses down when it is full of sheaves.
Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain their strength, nor shall the mighty save their lives; those who handle the bow shall not stand, and those who are swift of foot shall not save themselves, nor shall those who ride horses save their lives; and those who are stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day, says the Lord.
Jesus, the itinerant preacher, has no place to call home. A radical vocation
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."
Through much of the Old and most of the New Testament we meet with faith in a personal, compassionate God. But in the face of today's tirade from the prophet Amos, and on hearing the harsh statement of Jesus, "Let the dead bury their dead," we may feel disposed to argue with God just as Abraham and Jeremiah so famously did. Even if our faith is less than their's, some kind of justice and decency are on our side. Arguing with Jesus, we might recall how after his own death on the cross, his friends gave him a reverential burial. If a saying like his stirs in today's Gospel reflection, or even provokes us to argue with God, Jesus has achieved his objective in making us wrestle with life's paradoxes. His words are meant more to stir us to reflection than to provide catechism answers.
Amos was the first of a series of writing prophets in Israel, people of deep faith, troublers of the public conscience, outspoken defenders of God's honour, who by divine impulse rose out of the ranks of the people. Today's is the first of many readings from the prophets that will extend for the next seven weeks. More than any other part of the Old Testament these prophetic writings help us to understand Jesus, who was above all a prophet. In some ways both Jesus and these ancient prophets speak with such finality that they seem to bring conversation to a close. But their statements remain long within our memory and force us to reflection.
"Let the dead bury their dead" - how well this echoes the stern message of Amos. With no show of emotion, Amos cites the evidence, a long list of social abuses in which the poor were wronged and put down. The rich have trampled the heads of the weak into the dust of the earth, and forced the lowly out of the way. People who go on committing such crimes are morally dead. Amos declares that God will avenge the poor and the oppressed, just as he once saved them from Egyptian slavery.
The wealthy and comfortably off might still want to argue with God, about the proper way to structure our social economy; how to combine the necessary amount of sharing with avoiding any free-loading or moral hazard. But if they want to take Jesus seriously, they cannot refuse to question their own part in an unjust status quo. So long as they are at least open to some measure of conversion, a ray of hope always remains, for he always wants to give healing and life.
The scribe who approaches Jesus at the beginning of today's gospel speaks in a way that suggests that he has a generosity of spirit and the best of intentions, "Master, I will follow you wherever you go." In response, Jesus tempers his enthusiasm with the reality of what lies ahead for him if he becomes a disciple, "the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." He will be following someone who is always on the move, without a real home to call his own. Sometimes our generosity of spirit and our enthusiasm can come up against the harsher realities of life and in response we can become less generous and less enthusiastic. Jesus' closest disciples seemed full of enthusiasm when they left their nets by the Sea of Galilee to follow him, but when the cross came into view for Jesus and for them, they fell away. It is not always easy to retain our idealism, our enthusiasm, our generosity of spirit over the long haul, especially when the cross comes our way in one shape or form. It is then that we realize that our own enthusiasm and generosity of spirit is not enough. We need the Lord to be our strength when we lose heart, our inspiration when we are tempted to settle for less, and our refuge when we come face to face with the storms of life. We can only be faithful to our following of the Lord if we allow the Lord at the same time to be our resource, our food for the journey. That is what he wants to be. He does not ask us to go it alone but to rely on him every step of the way.
Amos warns of the need for conversion
Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel,
against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt:
You only have I known of all the families of the earth;
therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities. Do two walk together unless they have made an appointment?
Does a lion roar in the forest, when it has no prey?
Does a young lion cry out from its den, if it has caught nothing?
Does a bird fall into a snare on the earth, when there is no trap for it?
Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster befall a city, unless the Lord has done it?
Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets. The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy?
I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were like a brand snatched from the fire;
yet you did not return to me, says the Lord. Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!
Calming the storm on the lake
Jesus got into the boat and 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 a disaster like the fierce storm on the Lake of Galilee, God saves those who trust in him and those for whom others pray. The disciples in the boat are amazed at Jesus' power over the wind and the waves. But if people persist in cruelly 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. We might say that today's readings present us with the stick and the carrot. Amos threatens God's vengeance on those who will not repent, even citing the classic ruin of Sodom and Gomorrah; while Matthew reminds us of the powerful presence of Christ to help in our time of need.
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 meteorological phenomenon of the storm is well known to us. Even in Summer our weather can change suddenly. 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.
If justice and goodness are absent, liturgy is empty
Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll downlike waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream.
Jesus cures two madmen and drives their demons into a herd of 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.
The theme of divine mercy runs through today's readings. In the Old Testament God's compassion is the dominant intuition: 'The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity, continuing his kindness for a thousand generations..' (Exod 34:5-7). God is personally concerned, kindly disposed towards repentant sinners, faithful in looking after the poor and needy, strong in defending people oppressed and abused by social injustices.
On Mount Sinai God declared himself "a merciful and gracious God." Repeatedly he announces mercy and graciousness, through the prophets and most strongly through the spirit of Jesus in our midst. In today's texts he sets aside customs that allowed a woman to be sent into the wilderness with her young child, with only some bread and a skinful of water, and told to fare for herself.
Amos gives us a glimpse of God who rises up indignantly through the person of the prophet, In the midst of sacred ceremonies, carried out by duly consecrated priests and with punctilious care for each rubric, God shouts: I hate, I spurn your feasts,... I take no pleasure in your solemnities;... Away with your noisy songs. I will not listen to the melodies of your harp. Matthew, while he tones down the bewildered commotion described by Mark, still shows the anger of Jesus against the ill-treatment of mentally handicapped people as he shouts to the demons, "Out with you!"
The Bible does not seek to answer every problem, but it is clear about God's concern for the underprivileged. It will not let distractions - even legitimate theological questions - obscure the first essential of religion, expressed so well by another prophet, Micah, in what may be called the prophetic Torah, "You have been told, O man and woman, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8).
Jesus brings two demoniacs to a greater fullness of 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.
Expelled from the Bethel sanctuary, Amos announces God's Word
Then Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, sent to King Jeroboam of Israel, saying, "Amos has conspired against you in the very center of the house of Israel; the land is not able to bear all his words. For thus Amos has said, 'Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel must go into exile away from his land.'"
And Amaziah said to Amos, "O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king's sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom."
Then Amos answered Amaziah, "I am no prophet, nor a prophet's son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, 'Go, prophesy to my people Israel.'
"Now therefore hear the word of the Lord. You say, 'Do not prophesy against Israel, and do not preach against the house of Isaac." Therefore thus says the Lord: 'Your wife shall become a prostitute in the city, and your sons and your daughters shall fall by the sword, and your land shall be parceled out by line; you yourself shall die in an unclean land, and Israel shall surely go into exile away from its land.'"
Jesus cures a paralysed man, showing his power to forgive sin too
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 Pharisees are right that only God can forgive sin yet they are misguided in limiting God's power. Even basically well-intentioned rules cannot go unchallenged; yet the rule-makers find correction and warnings most difficult to accept. How hard it is to help good people see that they have room for improvement. This challenge faced by Jesus at it was by Amos, remains a feature life in the Church even today.
It is hard for religious leaders to admit mistakes and see the damage their harshness has done to others. After all, how could good, well-intentioned people like them be wrong? The blindness of hierarchs is not to theology, which they know well, but to common sense and elementary justice. Often it seems easier to excommunicate trouble-makers than to re-think official practices that have outworn their relevance.
It can be even harder when the truth-telling prophet is not diplomatic in saying what needs to be changed. Amos was vitriolic and sarcastic to the luxury-loving women ("fat cows of Bashan"); he and portrays the men as effete and sensuous, lying on ivory couches to be anointed with sweet-smelling oil, while reciting poetry to a captive audience. Yet this was God's true messenger, a rugged individual, earliest of the classical prophets even while he refused the title "prophet" from the mouth of the high priest, Amaziah. Jesus too was less than diplomatic. Rather than dodging the issue he wants to force a decision, "Why do you harbour evil thoughts? Which is less trouble to say, 'Your sins are forgiven' or 'Stand up and walk'?
It is never right to use theology as further oppression of the poor. In this case the cure of the paralyzed man could teach the theologians about the Messiah. God can transform and sanctify whatever is brought to him: a misguided Abraham, a sinful paralytic, an uncouth prophet. The proud person, no matter how pure and legally correct, cannot be helped. The proud person goes away angry; the unlettered crowd can praise God for such a compassionate prophet as Jesus.
We often need the faith of others to carry us when our own faith is weak. Maybe that is one of the reasons why people ask us to pray for them. They may find it hard to pray for themselves and, so, they ask others to pray for them. In the gospel today, a paralysed man is carried to Jesus by the faith of his friends. Nothing is said about the faith of the paralysed man. The gospel says that when Jesus say their faith--the faith of those who carried the paralytic--he said to the paralytic, "Courage, my child, your sins are forgiven," and then went on to heal him of his paralysis. We have all known a time in our own lives when we were carried to the Lord by the faith of others. It was the faith of our parents, and of our grandparents, that carried us to the church for baptism. As recently born babies, we had no faith of our own at that time. We begin our lives as Christians carried by the faith of others. In the course of our lives, we find ourselves still needing the faith of others to keep our own relationship with the Lord alive. Indeed, we are always very interdependent when it comes to our relationship with the Lord. As I grow towards the Lord, I help others to do so as well. As I grow away from him, I make it more difficult for others to grow towards him. In a very profound sense, we depend on each other on the pilgrimage of life. In that sense our own relationship with the Lord, or lack of it, while very personal is never purely private; it always impacts on others.
If glaring injustices remain unchecked, a famine for meaning will blight our lives
Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, "When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat."
On that day, says the Lord God, I will make the sun go down at noon, and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; I will bring sackcloth on all loins, and baldness on every head; I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and the end of it like a bitter day.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord God, when I will send a famine on the land; not a famine of bread, or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.
Jesus calls a despised tax collector to join the Twelve, and is criticized for laxity
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."
Now here's a thought for Independence Day, next Monday, when not only the United States but worldwide people will be inclined to think about the actual level of democracy and justice practiced in our society. A zealous prophet declares that if it does not change, the society in which he lives has no future but destruction. Due to their obstinate social injustice they will suffer a famine for the word of God, a complete break with basic biblical hope in God's inspiring word. In the gospel Jesus flashes one of the first signals that God's kingdom would reach beyond Palestine and extend to distant lands at the end of the earth. Jesus calls a non-observant Jew, the tax-collector, Matthew, to be an apostle. Everyone, even foreigners, can be saved. The Scriptures may not give us detailed directives, but they provide the basis for all moral choices: changes such as these are within the providence of God. The purpose of religion is to unite us with God continually during all the transitions of our lives.
Amos announces a looming crisis for Israel: for their lack of social concern, the people will be driven from the land of promise. Active compassion is also the heart of how a despised tax collector, Matthew, is called to be one of Jesus' inner circle. Jesus does not draw the application, yet his eating with those who disregarded the law provides a reason for the later church to reach out beyond Judaism and the narrow circle of those who know and keep the law. To paraphrase Amos, the gospel was to move "from sea to sea.. from the north to the east in search of the word of the Lord."
How to deal with change in our lives? First, to accept it as the will of God and not demand to go back; second, to adapt with concern for the wider family; and always to practice justice towards the needy and compassion to any who are outcast.
In his book "The God of Surprises" Gerald Hughes wrote of how God can surprise us human beings in so many ways. After all, as the prophet Isaiah said, "God's ways are not our ways." Jesus, as the revelation of God, was also full of surprises. The gospels record people being amazed at what he said and did. He didn't behave as the religious leaders of the time normally behaved. Something of his surprising ways is evident in today's gospel. Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to follow him and he went on to share table with Matthew and other tax collectors. Matthew and people like him would have been regarded by religious people of the time as a sinner, someone who did not keep God's law. Such people were to be avoided for fear of contamination. Jesus did not follow this path. He was not afraid of being contaminated by others. On the contrary, he knew that his own goodness had the power to transform others for the better. When Jesus went on to say in the gospel, "what I want is mercy not sacrifice," he was declaring that he wants his own merciful way of behaving to find expression in the lives of his followers. We too are called to transform others by our own goodness. We are all to be agents of the Lord's transforming love and mercy.
The Davidic dynasty will be restored, and the land will be blessed with fertility
On that day I will raise up the booth of David that is fallen, and repair its breaches, and raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old; in order that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations who are called by my name, says the Lord who does this.
The time is surely coming, says the Lord, when the one who ploughs shall overtake the one who reaps, and the treader of grapes the one who sows the seed; the mountains shall drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it. I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them upon their land, and they shall never again be plucked up out of the land that I have given them, says the Lord your God.
No fasting for now; but a new era is announced when things will change
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 detroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved."
Several times Matthew tells how Jesus himself remained with the old ?" with "the lost sheep of the house of Israel" (Mt 10:6), that he was not sent to foreigners, even to those who happened to show up in Palestine. Yet in the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), he repeats Jesus' new vision that perfects and replaces the old law, "You have heard the commandment.. but now I say to you..," (Mt 5:27, 32, 39, etc.). The change from Judaism to the spread of the Church is found in the conclusion of Matthew, "Go, therefore, and make disciples of all the nations" (Mt 28:19).
The new is introduced with full authority over heaven and earth. Even though ministering usually to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus had indicated that his work extended beyond Israel to something new. There was a marked difference between the disciples of Jesus and those of the Baptist. Unshrunken cloth ?" originally, animal skins that have not been tanned and processed ?" must not be sewn onto old leather cloaks, or the new will shrink and the rip will only get worse. Also, when skins are used to contain fermenting wine, new skins will stretch while old, hardened skins will burst open and the wine will be lost. These examples from a thoroughly Jewish background suggest that Jesus' preaching and healing are in some dramatic discontinuity with the past. What began on the outer edges now moves to the centre. He brings a new kind of joy, a new cloak rather than an old one with patches, new wineskins to hold the new wine of his life-giving Spirit.
Change evokes many types of reaction. Most of all we should remain at peace, willing to adapt to new circumstances. The way of divine providence is a way of continuity towards an exalted goal, but it passes through human existence in all of its variations. We must seek and pray to be worthy disciples of Jesus, letting him pour his new wine into new wineskins, and be as realistic as the Bible in accepting change.
In the gospel today, Jesus calls himself the bridegroom and his disciples are referred to as the bride. The prophets often spoke of God as a bridegroom and his people as his bride, and now Jesus claims to embody this divine bridegroom. He regards his public ministry as like a wedding celebration in that it is a time for rejoicing. Then he informs the Pharisees that during this special time of celebration, fasting is not appropriate. It is, rather, a time for sharing at the table, and Jesus shared table with all sorts of people. At table he revealed God's hospitable love, especially to those who felt beyond the reach of God's love. In keeping with that wedding image for this public ministry, Jesus goes on to speak of the new wine of his ministry. Wine is associated with sharing table, especially in the setting of a wedding feast. Jesus reminds his interrogators that the new wine of his ministry new wine calls for new wineskins, a way of life in keeping with the good news proclaimed by his life. We are always in the presence of the risen Lord, the divine bridegroom, and he is always offering us new wine, the new wine of God's kingdom. One of the privileged moments when we are offered this new wine is at the Eucharist. Jesus' gift of new wine, the good news of God's hospitable love, will always call on us us to keep abandoning old wineskins, ways of life that are not in keeping with the good news he brings. We always stand before the Lord's call for a renewal of life that is worthy of the presence of the bridegroom. a way of life that is capable of containing in some way the new wine of God's loving presence in Jesus.
On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, "My husband." For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more.
I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground; and I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety.
On that day I will answer, says the Lord, I will answer the heavens and they shall answer the earth; and the earth shall answer the grain, the wine, and the oil, and they shall answer 'Jezreel.'
While he was saying these things to them, suddenly a leader of the synagogue came in 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 are heart-wrenching but can be the launching pad for religious growth, as in today's readings. The repeated infidelities of Hosea's wife triggered an emotional explosion in the prophet's heart ; and Jesus is confronted with a family tragedy, the death of the synagogue leader's young daughter.
Our parish church is sacred because it symbolises God's compassionate and caring presence among us. Not only is religion rooted in normal everyday existence, but it can bring healing to disputes and even serious family problems. The prophet Hosea is caught up in a marital scandal. Not only has his wife been unfaithful, but he is not even sure of the paternity of two of the family's three children. Only the first, a son, was really born to him (Hos 1:6, 8). Yet he finds it in his heart to forgive his straying wife, to mirror the compassion of God towards his sinful people.
Jesus takes the risk of made religiously unclean and being barred from entering the synagogue or temple; he let himself be touched by a woman with a flow of blood and then he takes a dead child by the hand (Lev 15:19-33; 21:1). There must have been in him a great sense of iner freedom, an overwhelming compassion, a decisive urge to help the needy, so that the "unclean" could 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 over-riding norm of loving concern for other.
In today's gospel Jesus is approached by two people who were very different in personality and social status. One was a synagogue official, who had a recognized and important religious role within the community. The other was a woman who suffered from a flow of blood, and who, in virtue of that condition, would have been considered ritually unclean, and, therefore, excluded from the synagogue. Not only were these two people at opposite ends of the religious spectrum of the time, but the way they approach Jesus is very different. The official comes up to him very publicly, bowing low in front of him. The woman secretly touches the fringe of Jesus' cloak, not wanting to be noticed. In spite of their different standing within the community and their different approaches to Jesus, what they had in common was their great faith in Jesus and in his saving power. Jesus responds equally generously to both of these people, healing the official's daughter and healing the woman of her condition. The gospel suggests that what matters to the Lord is not our standing in the community or how we approach him, how we pray, but the strength of our faith in him, the quality of our relationship with him. According to the opening line of today's first reading, the Lord lured the people of Israel into the wilderness to speak to their heart. The Lord speaks to the heart of all of us who approach him and he always responds to our plea for help..
As penalty for their sins, they shall return to slavery in Egypt
They made kings, but not through me;
they set up princes, but without my knowledge.
With their silver and gold they made idols for their own destruction.
Your calf is rejected, O Samaria.
My anger burns against them.
How long will they be incapable of innocence?
For it is from Israel, an artisan made it; it is not God.
The calf of Samaria shall be broken to pieces.
For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
The standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no meal;
and if it were to yield, foreigners would devour it.
When Ephraim multiplied altars to expiate sin,
they became to him altars for sinning.
Though I write for him the multitude of my instructions,
they are regarded as a strange thing.
Though they offer choice sacrifices, though they eat flesh,
the Lord does not accept them.
Now he will remember their iniquity, and punish their sins;
they shall return to Egypt.
Jesus heals, teaches and proclaims the reign of God, for the harvest is ready
After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute 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."
Today's Gospel offers a striking pen-portrait of Jesus' pastoral ministry: what a glorious combination of zeal and mercy. While driven by the Spirit's impulse to reach as many people as possible with his healing touch and inspiring teaching, he always found time to show them compassion. He felt for people in the reality of their lives. He knew the limitations they lived with, in their simple houses and days of poorly-paid, unremitting toil. Not for him the life of a pampered courtier in King Herod's court.
Matthew's great summing up, "He had compassion for them" should resonate in the hearts of all Christians, but especially in those called to priestly ministry, right up to the holders of the highest pastoral offices in our Church. (Too often one wonders whether those in the Vatican, or indeed our bishops, tune in sufficiently to that profound compassion for which Jesus was so noted. If they did, would they be so ready to dismiss so many from the Lord's Table, because of marital irregularities, or being born into a different religious tradition? Would they ignore the sense of injustice and exclusion experienced by so many women, who feel that the Church denies them the full exercise of their ministerial gifts?)
Each must be alert to whatever ways God makes it possible for us to mirror his compassion for others. "The harvest" he said "is plentiful, but the labourers are few." Putting it more positively we can say there is always room for compassionate outreach in our Church. And the forms of that outreach cannot be narrowly confined within the limits imposed by an earlier, patriarchal, monarchical culture. It is in a spirit of hope and of Gospel creativity, therefore, that we should "ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest."
Notice the striking contrast in this morning's gospel story between the way the ordinary people respond to Our Lord's healing ministry and the way the religious leaders respond to it. The people were amazed and said, 'Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel.' The religious leaders said, 'It is through the prince of devils that he casts out devils.' Both saw Jesus perform the same deeds, and, yet, both interpreted what they saw in very different ways. One group saw the presence of God and the other group saw the presence of evil. One group was open to the truth of who Jesus really was; the other group were blinded by their prejudice. These were two very different ways of seeing. The people's way of seeing Jesus was like Jesus' way of seeing people. He saw the goodness in people just as the people saw the presence of God in Jesus. The gospel calls on us to be alert to the signs of goodness in others, to the signs of God's presence all around us, especially in those who cross our path in life. We need the generous vision of the people, and especially of Jesus, rather than the jaundiced vision of the religious leaders, if we are to see the many ways that the Lord is present and active among us.
Israel's infidelity has produced a seemingly hopeless situation
Israel is a luxuriant vine
that produces his fruit.
According to the abundance of his fruit he has multiplied his altars.
As their land has prospered, they have adorned their sacred pillars.
Their heart is divided. Now they will be found guilty.
God will demolish their altars. He will destroy their sacred pillars.
Surely now they will say, "We have no king."
For they do not fear the Lord; and the king, what can he do for them?
Samaria and her king float away,
like a twig on the water.
The high places also of Aven, the sin of Israel, will be destroyed.
The thorn and the thistle will come up on their altars.
Then they will tell the mountains,"Cover us!" and the hills, "Fall on us!"
Sow for yourselves in righteousness,
reap according to kindness.
Break up your new field; for it is time to seek the Lord,
until he comes and rains righteousness on you.
Jesus sends his apostles to the lost sheep of the house of Israel
Jesus called to himself his Twelve disciples, and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every sickness. Now the names of the Twelve Apostles are these. The first, Simon, who is called Peter; Andrew, his brother; James the son of Zebedee; John, his brother; Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; Thaddaeus; Simon the Canaanite; and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Jesus sent these Twelve out, and commanded them, saying, "Do not go among the Gentiles, and do not enter into any city of the Samaritans. Rather, go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, preach, saying, 'The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!'
"Go out to the lost sheep and proclaim, "The Kingdom of heaven is near."
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.
Somehow, the way must be found to share in each other's gifts without losing our human dignity and sense of equality. Economic measures are never enough of themselves; the solution must have a religious dimension too. Mere legal compliance allows for many loopholes and clever manipulation, and sooner or later injustice and idolatry become rampant like weeds in the once luxuriant vineyard. When we give to others, remember that it is a God-willed sharing, not a one-way giving. In this process, we are learning as much as teaching; for we are as needy as our neighbour, even if in different ways.
Jesus chose twelve from among the wider group of disciples, calling them to share in his ministry in a special way. They had privileged access to Jesus; they were given much and much was expected of them. When the gospel writers name the twelve and when they come to Judas Iscariot they always refer to him as 'the one who was to betray him.' They were, of course, writing from hindsight. They knew that one of this privileged group, one of the twelve, went on to betray Jesus to the religious authorities who, in turn, handed him over to the political authorities as a threat to the peace. The gospel writers don't try to gloss over the stark reality that one of the specially chosen, betrayed Jesus. In the National Art Gallery of Dublin there is a wonderful painting by Caravaggio of the moment of Judas's betrayal of Jesus and the resulting arrest, the 'taking of Christ' as it is called. The story of Judas reminds us that Jesus' choice of us does not automatically mean our choice of him. Our baptismal calling is to keep on choosing the Lord who has chosen us. Each day we need to commit ourselves to him and to his way, as he committed himself to us forever by his life, death and resurrection.
In a feminine image, God declares motherly lovefor his beloved child, Israel
When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. But the more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.
How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.
The twelve are to live frugally and announce the reign of God
Jesus said, "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 they are also told to cure the sick, heal the leper, and cast out demons. What they have freely received from Jesus, they must freely pass on to others, in a complete sharing of gifts and talents. The true meaning of the reign of God is brought out in the generous relationships of daily life. Further illustration of what our God truly wants of us comes from Hosea, who underlines the quality of compassion, even to heroic proportions.
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 foolish 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 foolish to pray, but it is still more foolish not to pray."
The story of God's boundless mercy is retold by the prophet Hosea who imagines God saying: "I drew them with cords of love, like a mother raising an infant to her cheeks. But though I stooped to feed my child, they did not know that I was their healer." The biblical doctrine of a loving, divine providence is captured in those invisible "bands of love." In richly anthropomorphic language, 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." This compassion surpasses all human boundaries in its kindness and understanding, in its forgiveness and the renewal of life's good relationships.
In one of the most beautiful texts in our Scriptures, God declares a relationship with Israel as loving parents speak of their relationship with their child, indeed as a mother would cherish the child she bore. 'I myself taught Ephraim to walk, I took them in my arms… I was like someone who lifts an infant close against his cheek; stooping down to him I gave him food.' Yet, in spite of such tender love, Israel turned away from God and went after other gods. Jesus is the fullest revelation possible in a human life of this tender love of God. He too experienced the turning away of people from this love, their refusal to respond to it in any meaningful way.
When Jesus sends out his disciples 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.
Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take words with you and return to the Lord; say to him, "Take away all guilt; accept that which is good, and we will offer the fruit of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses; we will say no more, 'Our God,' to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy."
I will heal their disloyalty; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall blossom like the lily, he shall strike root like the forests of Lebanon. His shoots shall spread out; his beauty shall be like the olive tree, and his fragrance like that of Lebanon. They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer and look after you. I am like an evergreen cypress; your faithfulness comes from me. Those who are wise understand these things; those who are discerning know them. For the ways- of the Lord are right, and the upright walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them.
Sent out like lambs among wolves
Jesus said to his disciples, "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.
While Hosea is not explicitly said to weep, his text is packed with such intense emotions that this highly charged prophet must have given vent to tears. 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 the book of Hosea, the prophet's pure and lofty ideals for marriage would not permit divorce, despite the infidelities of the spouse. The covenant model kept the prophet from compromising his ideals; he would not accept life as a jungle; it must be life with justice and peace. Hosea condemns the situation in which "There is no fidelity, no mercy." Repentance must be sincere, as inferred in chapter 6, where the prophet concludes, "That is why I slew them by the words of my mouth." But then he evokes God's compassion, "I will heal their defection, I will love them freely; my wrath is turned away from them. I will be like the dew for Israel.." Because Hosea's patience bore this abundant fruit, the final editor of the book adds the advice, "Let the one who is wise understand these things; let the one who is prudent know them. Straight are the paths of the Lord, and in them the just shall walk."
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 advised us to persevere with high hopes and grand ideals. We are not to fight betrayal with betrayal, but with complete trust in God's ideals of forgiveness and fidelity, and "hold out till the end." Along the way "you will be given what you are to say.. the Spirit of your Father will be speaking in you." When this ideal of goodness extends through the entire world only then can humanity's best hopes be realized, and the Kingdom of God will have come.
The gospel this morning is very realistic about the kind of reception that the disciples of Jesus are likely to get from the world in which they are called to bear witness. The reception will be predominantly hostile, and some of that hostility will even come from within their own families. Yet, Jesus reassures them that they will not have to face into this hostile world on their own. The Holy Spirit will be given to them as a resource and will inspire their witness. It could be argued that the society in which we are living is not as hostile to the faith as the society into which Jesus sent the first disciples. Yet, we know that the values of the gospel are not always well regarded by the culture in which we live; many see those gospel values as a threat, especially a threat to what is called human freedom. We are just as much in need of the Holy Spirit today, as the first disciples were, if we are to bear witness to the Lord and all he stands for. We still need the Holy Spirit to inspire our witness to the Lord. The church is as dependant on the Holy Spirit today as it ever was. The good news is that the Holy Spirit is just as available to us today as he was in the earliest days of the church, because the Lord needs our witness today as much as he did then.
While praying in the temple, Isaiah is called to his great prophetic ministry
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory." The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
And I said: "Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!" Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: "Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out."
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?" And I said, "Here am I; send me!"
Wise maxims, all will be revealed; the soul is more important than the body
Jesus said to his disciples, "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.
The mystery of divine providence is seen in the prophet Isaiah, the master stylist who can find a phrase that remains forever in our memory. Perhaps no prophet is more quotable, more universally applicable than Isaiah. He has been called the fifth evangelist, for his words fit so well into the story of Jesus. Each day through the world we sing the Isaian words at the liturgy: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts." In today's reading he highlights the contrast between two kings, Uzziah and Yahweh. While Uzziah died of leprosy, confined to the dark inner rooms of the palace, Yahweh's glory streams across the universe. Isaiah saw the Lord within the Holy of Holies, "seated on a high and lofty throne" between the seraphim. While another might feel doomed by this, for "who can see God and live?" (Exod 33:20), Isaiah goes to meet the challenge, "Here I am; send me."
Only by such sturdy faith can we reach and remain true to the marvellous ways of providence. These converge on Mary, the woman of faith in the gospels, the virgin who paradoxically gives birth to the Saviour, the silent person of prayer by the cross and in the upper room who becomes the mother of the church.
Not even a sparrow falls to the ground without God knowing about it. In this remarkable statement Jesus claims that God lovingly watches over the life and death of even his smallest and least valuable creatures. How much more, then, is God watching over all of us, who are worth more than hundreds of sparrows. Jesus goes so far as to say that every hair of our head has been counted by God. Jesus is using an image here to express God's care for the smallest detail of our lives. We can find ourselves wondering whether or not God really cares about me personally. I am only one of such a vast throng. How can God possibly be interested in the details of my life? Yet, Jesus assures us in that gospel that God is indeed interested in the details of our lives. God relates to us in a way that is unique to each one of us. We are called into a personal relationship with God. Because God cares about the details of our lives, Jesus assures us that we can entrust ourselves to God, without fear. 'There is no need to be afraid.' This is the kind of relationship Jesus himself had with God. He knew in his heart that God was concerned about the details of his life and he entrusted himself to God, even when his enemies seemed to have triumphed over him. Jesus wants us to know that we can all have the same relationship with God that he has. He invites us to share in his own personal relationship with God and he makes such a sharing possible by sending the Holy Spirit into our hearts, his own Spirit. Through the Spirit, his God becomes our God, his Father becomes our Father.
Their liturgy is unacceptable to God, due to the ongoing oppression of the poor
Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.
When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation - I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch ot your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.
Jesus foretells division within families about the gospel
Jesus said: "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."
Isaiah witnesses to internal oppression within Israel, not caused as in the past by the Egyptians, but by their fellow-Jews. The religious scene in Isaiah's time seemed so perfectly observant that one could easily have overlooked the injustices and suffering in homes and places of employment. Yet God's anger blazes out in the words of the prophet: "Your new moons and festivals I detest; they weigh me down, I tire of the load... Though you pray the more, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood."
The "hands full of blood" refer to a judge's "Guilty" verdict in a lawcourt. But the divine judge gives another chance; instead of sentencing the guilty party to death, Israel is granted a reprieve, provided that they make justice their aim, redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow. Unless their religion turns towards social justice, God will "turn my hand against you, and refine your dross in the furnace" (Isa 1:25). In Isaiah's view, what God desires is peace with justice, compassion and human dignity. If needs be, fire will engulf the guilty party and burn away the dross.
In the gospel the problems come from the family circle. Again it is not peace at any price, but peace with a sincere resolve to follow Jesus. If the sword strikes within family relationships, it is not being wielded for personal ambition but for the sake of conscience. However, the sword never brings a clear moral solution, especially amid social, racial or family disputes. 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.
During a national crisis people must first turn to a deeper faith in God
In the days of Ahaz son of Jotham son of Uzziah, king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah son of Remaliah of Israel went up to attack Jerusalem, but could not mount an attack against it. When the house of David heard that Aram had allied itself with Ephraim, the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, Go out to meet Ahaz, you and your son Shear-jashub, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field, and say to him, Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and the son of Remaliah.
Because Aram, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has plotted evil against you, saying, 'Let us go up against Judah and cut off Jerusalem and conquer it for ourselves and make the son of Tabeel king in it;' therefore thus says the Lord God: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered, no longer a people.) The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.
The towns where Jesus preached but was not listened to
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 puts in question the purpose of miracles. Both Chorazin and Capernaum witness many miracles, yet the people in those cities at the northwest corner of the Lake of Galilee remained unconvinced by the message of Jesus and he reproaches them with their failure to reform. His miracles were meant to lead to a reformation of lives, turning aside from sinful ways, and showing new concern for the poor and the sick. They were less a display of power than of tender solicitude for people in need, an indicator of Jesus' bond with humanity. Miracles were not intended to catapult him into prominence but to show God's will for us all to form a happy, healthy family.
Today Isaiah ends with a maxim, simple and true, yet overwhelming in all its implications: "Unless your faith is firm, you will not be confirmed." This is leading up to a dramatic challenge for King Ahaz to ask for any kind of sign he wants; and the Immanuel prophecy follows (7:14). Only by faith can people have the strength to remain true to their conscience, trusting in God's effective care of their lives. In this context of faith, as Jesus was to declare, miracles can be worked; but without this faith miracles only harden the heart to find other excuses for not doing what we ought to do.
With his kingdom under invasion, King Ahaz was truly in serious trouble. The hostile powers were intending to replace his dynasty and put another family on the throne. At that precise moment Ahaz had no son to succeed him, for he had sacrificed his only infant son to pagan gods (2 Kings 16:3) and his army could to defeat the invaders. Isaiah urged a moral solution: to do nothing but to put his trust in the Lord. But Ahaz had decided to barter the independence of his people and make the Kingdom of Judah a vassal of Assyria. This would draw them into the international scene of intrigue, warfare and destruction. God would save them only if king and people take the risk of putting their faith in him. Isaiah said to the king, "Be calm and tranquil; do not fear nor lose courage." This disposition of heart was essential for miracles to happen.
We sometimes like to think of ourselves as being in control, as having everything under control. Yet, the reality is that in so many ways we are not in control. So much happens to us over which we have no control. Among other things, we cannot control how people respond to us. We can offer someone the gift of friendship, for example, but we have no control over whether or not they receive that gift. Even Jesus had no control over how other people responded to him. He brought people the gift of God's presence but not everyone received that gift, not everyone recognized Jesus as God visiting his people. In this morning's gospel reading, Jesus laments the fact that the towns of Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum did not respond to his presence, in spite of the miracles that were done in their midst. He suggests that the pagan cities of Tyre and Sodom would have been much more responsive to his presence. The fact that people were graced by the Lord did not necessarily mean that they responded to that grace. We have been graced by the Lord in many ways. We have the gift of the Lord's presence in his word, in the sacraments, in each other. We spend our lives learning to respond to the many graces the Lord is always offering us.
Assyria was used to punish Israel but later was discarded for interfering with God's plans for his people
Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger, the club in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him, and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
But this is not what he intends, nor does he have this in mind; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few. For he says: "By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I have removed the boundaries of peoples, and have plundered their treasures; like a bull I have brought down those who sat on thrones. My hand has found, like a nest, the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing, or opened its mouth, or chirped."
Shall the ax vaunt itself over the one who wields it, or the saw magnify itself against the one who handles it? As if a rod should raise the one who lifts it up, or as if a staff should lift the one who is not wood! Therefore the Sovereign, the Lord of hosts, will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire.
Jesus praises the Father for revealing life to those who trust like children
At that time Jesus said, "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.
The gospel lets us eavesdrop on a secret moment of realization on the part of Our Lord. Here we are not told simply that Jesus went away to spend time in prayer; we get a rare opportunity to hear the actual words of his prayer. Whereas Isaiah evokes the mammoth military machine of ancient Assyria, whose kings ruled an empire that lasted three hundred years, Matthew speaks of a power very different from such military might, as 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."
This ability is known by children and is learned from one who is the Father's first-born Son. As Son, Jesus knows only what his Father reveals within him; and he is commissioned to share this great revelation with other "children," who are continuously begotten by God through faith. What is the mystery, known only by children, and especially by the most beloved of them, the Son who is Jesus? To know oneself as child is to realize our total dependence, our state of being begotten and receptive of life.
But parents discipline the child whom they love (Prov 3:12). Assyria became a rod of God's anger, to punish, correct and restore Israel to just and moral living. Yet when Assyria boasts, "By my own power I have done it," and interferes with God's plans, this "rod" will be tossed away. Isaiah asks, "Will the axe boast against one who chops with it? Could a rod wield the one who lifts it p?" The lesson is to remain humble and open as a child to God's life-giving direction. Then we can achieve creative and life-giving results, such as those accomplished by Moses, Isaiah and Jesus.
Today we are given a priveleged glimpse into the prayer life of Jesus. We are familiar with his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked, 'Father, take this cup from me.' The prayer of Jesus in this morning's gospel is one of praise, beginning, 'I bless you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.' Jesus praises God for the mysterious ways that God works, ways that seem paradoxical to human observation. Jesus blesses God for hiding these things from the learned and the clever and revealing them to mere children.
It is not the religious experts, the teachers of the Jewish Law, who are coming to know God as revealed by Jesus. Rather, it is those who would have been considered religiously and theologically illiterate whothrough his ministry are coming to know God. Those who claim to know already are closed to learning about God from Jesus; those who are aware of how little they know are open to receiving the revelation of God that Jesus brings. The gospel reminds us that it is those who are aware of their own need, their own poverty before God, who will be open to whatever God wants to communicate to us through his Son.
A prayer of quiet confidence, awaiting the dawn of God's justice
The way of the righteous is level; O Just One, you make smooth the path of the righteous. In the path of your judgments, O Lord, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul's desire. My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you. For when your judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
O Lord, you will ordain peace for us, for indeed, all that we have done, you have done for us. O Lord, in distress they sought you, they poured out a prayer when your chastening was on them. Like a woman with child, who writhes and cries out in her pangs when she is near her time, so were we because of you, O Lord; we were with child, we writhed, but we gave birth only to wind. We have won no victories on earth, and no one is born to inhabit the world.
Your dead shall live, their corpses shall rise. O dwellers in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a radiant dew, and the earth will give birth to those long dead.
Come to me, all you who are weary and you will find rest
"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."
Isaiah's prayer is to a God in whom he trusts, despite all that has happened in his lifetime to threaten his security and that of his people. Like Ireland in recent years, the Jews have experienced betrayal from within and oppression from outside forces. So the prophet prays, "My soul yearns for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you." His spirituality is one of waiting for God, trusting that Providence will not fail. He believes in a God who "makes smooth the path of the righteous" and who can therefore be relied upon, no matter what. And so the prophet declares that the darkness is almost over and his people, Israel, is like a pregnant woman about to be delivered of a child. We learn to appreciate God's presence with us best in our time of need.
Jesus reveals this same aspect of God in one of those classic texts which ought to be memorized by all of us. It is, so to speak, the core of his theology. By his intimate relationship with us, God 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.
Jesus often criticized the religious leaders of his day for burdening people by imposing unnecessary demands on them, making the Jewish Law more demanding than it needed to be. In this morning's gospel reading, in contrast, Jesus calls out to those who feel burdened by all sorts of demands that have been made on them and her promises them rest. Jesus calls them into a personal relationship with himself, 'Come to me... learn from me', he says. Rather than giving them a new set of laws, he offers them a life-giving relationship with himself. At the heart of the Christian faith is not so much a moral code or a set of religious laws but rather, a person, the person of Jesus Christ who is our Emmanuel, God-with-us.
We are called to come to him, as he has come to us, to relate to him in love, as he has given himself for us in love. In coming to him we discover him to be, not an impersonal taskmaster, but rather, someone who is gentle and humble in heart. The living out of our relationship with him will be demanding; walking in his way often requires saying 'no' to other, seemingly more attractive, ways. However, his demands are the demands of love; the path he puts before us is life-giving rather than oppressive and overburdening. His loving relationship with us and ours with him empowers us to take that path, to walk in his way.
King Hezekiah is cured of illness; as a sign of full health God turns the sun's rays backward
In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, "Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die; you shall not recover." Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall, and prayed to the Lord: "Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.
Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: "Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and defend this city.
Now Isaiah had said, "Let them take a lump of figs, and apply it to the boil, so that he may recover." Hezekiah also had said, "What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?"Gospel: Matthew 12:1-8At that time Jesus went 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."
Disciples may eat on the Sabbath, for Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. God desires mercy more than sacrifice
At that time Jesus went 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."
The religious leaders in Our Lord's day put more importance on the rubrics of ritual than on its origin and inner, spiritual meaning. This led them to deep suspicion of Jesus and sharp, verbal clashes with him. 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.
Our Lord himself did not act against the traditions, for in general he was careful to keep the rules. However, 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 same early church changed the Sabbath celebration from Saturday to Sunday.
This concern for authentic life is also underlined by Isaiah. God wonderfully heals King Hezekiah, whose death had already been predicted, and proves that the king will again go to the temple for prayer by turning back the shadow of the sun. Perhaps we can say that God breaks his own laws in order to celebrate life. We must always believe that deeper than all law is his loving solicitude for life, which must not be unjustly restricted in its exercise. Whether we live or die, or are healthy or sickly, God wants the goodness of life to be manifest in us, and eventually with eternal life in the heavenly Sabbath.
The Temple Mount in Jerusalem is the huge platform built by Herod the Great on which the magnificent temple that he had built rested. Sadly it is much fought over today, between Palestinians and Israelis. In its heyday that temple was considered to be one of the seven wonders of the world. In today's gospel reading, Jesus says to the Pharisees, 'here, I tell you, is something greater than the Temple.' When he spoke those words, he was, no doubt, pointing to himself. He was claiming to be greater than even the magnificent temple that Herod had built. That temple, in particular the Holy of Holies at the heart of the temple, was considered to be the place where God was present on earth. In the gospel Jesus is claiming that he is now the one where God is present on earth. God is no longer present in a building but in a person, the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is Emmanuel, God-with-us. Where Jesus is present, God is present. For us as Christians, where the risen Lord is present, God is present. We believe that the risen Lord is present with us in a special way in the Eucharist; in venerating the Eucharist, we are venerating Emmanuel, God with us. The risen Lord is also present in each one of us, in the members of his body, the church. Indeed, he is present in some sense in every human being who is suffering. In honouring and respecting each other, we honour the Lord.
When the wealthy covet and steal the lands of others, their own land will fall to their captors
Alas for those who devise wickedness and evil deeds on their beds! When the morning dawns, they perform it, because it is in their power. They covet fields, and seize them; houses, and take them away; they oppress householder and house, people and their inheritance.
Therefore thus says the Lord: Now, I am devising against this family an evil from which you cannot remove your necks; and you shall not walk haughtily, for it will be an evil time. On that day they shall take up a taunt song against you, and wail with bitter lamentation, and say, "We are utterly ruined; the Lord alters the inheritance of my people; how he removes it from me! Among our captors he parcels out our fields." Therefore you will have no one to cast the line by lot in the assembly of the Lord.
While the Pharisees plot to kill him, Jesus continues to cure the sick, as God's faithful servant
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 smodering wick until he brings justice to victory. And in his name the Gentiles will hope."
To retain the privilege of being God's elect people, called to be his very own, we need to practise kindness, compassion and a healthy humility. Micah saw his people needing deep reform. Instead of sleeping at night, they now "work out evil on their couches" coveting fields and seizing them, cheating others of their inheritance. Land-hungry people were reversing the purpose of the exodus. God's people were meant to live in a homeland where each family passed its property from one generation to the next (Lev 25:3-28). But many were reducing others again to slavery. As punishment, gentiles will seize all the land for themselves. As in other prophecies, we note how foreigners have a role in God's plans.
Matthew quotes Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. The purpose of Jesus is well described 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.
What a contrast in this morning's gospel between those who plot to destroy Jesus and the attitude of Jesus himself who has not come to destroy but to cure and to heal. From early on in his ministry, many were out to bring death to Jesus, whereas Jesus himself was always in the business of bringing life to others, a share in God's own life. This is why St Matthew applies to Jesus a text about God's servant in the book of Isaiah which says, 'he will not break the bruised reed, nor put out the smouldering wick.' The bruised reed and the smouldering wick refer to those who are broken in body and depressed in spirit. It is very easy to break a bruised reed and put out a smouldering wick. Those who are broken in body or depressed in spirit tend to be very vulnerable. The gospel presents Jesus as one who is sensitive to those who are vulnerable. He can restore the bruised reed and fan into a living flame the smouldering wick. There are times when we need to come before the Lord in our brokenness and vulnerability and ask him to renew and strengthen us. Such a prayer to the Lord could take the form of that wonderful prayer for the Holy Spirit we say on Pentecost Sunday, 'Come thou Father of the poor… Heal our wounds, our strength renew, on our dryness pour thy dew.' When we are touched by the power of Jesus, the Life-giver, we in turn can then become sources of life and healing for others.
Micah's famous summary of the Torah: on walking humbly with your God
Hear what the Lord says: 'Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice.' Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel.
"O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam."
"With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?"
He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
The Ninevites and the foreign queen responded better than did his own people to Jesus
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!
In an illuminating prophecy, Micah states clearly what God really wants of us. But first he says what God does NOT want: Not holocausts, nor thousands of sacrificial lambs, for none of these externals can replace the personal attitudes of the soul. Then, memorably, he declares what the Lord really require of us: "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God."
With these priorities in his heart, how disappointed Jesus felt when some were interested only in his miracles, instead of in his message about our relationship with God. He had shown an ministry of kindness and concern, but these people wanted something more spectacular than the cure of a poor cripple or the blessed wisdom of being poor in spirit or pure of heart. He then reminds them about Jonah and how many Ninevites were converted by his preaching; and about the Queen of the South's admiration for the wisdom of Solomon. These foreigners, even the worst of them, the Ninevites, repented and were converted, "and you have a greater than Solomon here."
Unless we take the risk of being generous towards others, no miracle will prove anything 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.
In the gospel Jesus criticizes the scribes and Pharisees because they want a sign from him over and above all that he has been doing. They want him to do something more spectacular before they will believe in him. There has always been the longing in religiously minded people for the extraordinary sign that leaves no room for doubt. However, that is not how the Lord seems to work. He comes to us in and through the ordinary more than the extraordinary. In response to the request of the scribes and Pharisees Jesus tells them that he is present among them as someone greater than the prophet Jonah, greater than the wise king Solomon, if only they had eyes to see and ears to hear. In looking for a sign from Jesus they show that they don't appreciate what they already have. In looking for the unusual we can miss what is before us. The Lord is among us today as someone greater than Jonah, greater than Solomon, greater than all the prophets and wise men of Israel. He is among us as one who is full of grace and truth in the words of the Prologue to John's gospel. The Lord has not sold us short; we already have all we need to know and love him and to grow in our relationship with him. What is required is that we appreciate what the Lord has already given to us.
Israel's God is always faithful and forgiving
Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock that belongs to you, which lives alone in a forest in the midst of a garden land; let them feed in Bashan and Gilead as in the days of old. As in the days when you came out of the land of Egypt, show us marvellous things.
Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. You will show faithfulness to Jacob and unswerving loyalty to Abraham, as you have sworn to our ancestors from the days of old.
My brother and sister and mother are those doing the will of my heavenly Father
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 final prayer in Micah tells of Israel's liberation and journey towards the Promised Land, and 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.
The Old Testament often seems restrictive and biased, 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. Wisely, the Church reveres both Testaments, the Old and the New, as forming one Bible of God's inspired word.
In today's reading God is trusted to "show faithfulness to Jacob, and grace to Abraham." This prayer, tacked on to Micah's prophecy, was composed 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 wonderful signs God showed to their ancestors. But in this period of regrouping they felt it necessary to exclude all outsiders. Verses 16 and 17, omitted from today's reading, are harsh towards the foreigners; for 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 all value our families. As we get older we might not see them as often as we once did, but they still matter a great deal to us. They say blood is thicker than water. When a family member is in difficulty, we will generally gather around him or her to give support. The gospels don't tell us a great deal really about Jesus' family. Yet, when they do mention his family, they give the impression that there was often tension between Jesus and his blood family. In this morning's gospel, Jesus' family, including his mother, were standing outside where Jesus was speaking, anxious to have a word with him. They were trying to get his attention, perhaps even trying to get him home, away from the crowds that were always pursuing him. However, on this occasion Jesus stood his ground; he didn't go with his family. Rather, he redefined who his family really were. He identifies his disciples as his family, and declares that all those who do the will of his heavenly Father are now his family. As disciples we are all brothers and sisters of the Lord, and of each other, and sons and daughters of God. This is the new family that Jesus came to form, and what distinguishes this family is the desire to do the will of God as Jesus has revealed that to us by his words and by his life. That is why, together, as members of the Lord's family, we pray, 'Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.'
The prophet's vocation to speak God's word
The words of Jeremiah son of Hilkiah, of the priests who were in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin.
The word of the Lord came to me saying,
"Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations."
Then I said, "Ah, Lord God!
Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy."
But the Lord said to me, "Do not say, 'I am only a boy';
for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you,
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord."
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant."
The parable of the sower and the seed
That same day Jesus went out of 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!"
Today we begin reading from Jeremiah, one of the most influential prophets, whose impact on the popular piety of Israel was immense. The fame of Jeremiah probably explains why the book is textually so mixed up, between the Hebrew and its early Greek translation. A book that is in such popular use among the ordinary people will tend to be adapted and expanded.
Today we also start a series of parables from Matthew's gospel. A parable is a story which ends with a single punch-line that emerges naturally from the story yet usually takes the reader somewhat by surprise by its application. As we compare the same parable in different gospels, we see how each evangelist felt free to adapt these enigmatic stories.
The parable of the sower shows the patience of God in dealing with us. Jesus describes the normal growth of wheat or barley. The system of fanning is quite different from ours but it would have been familiar to his listeners. Jesus draws attention to the certainty of the harvest, yielding "grain a hundred- or sixty- or thirty-fold." This harvest excludes nobody from the kingdom: whether with few or with many talents, all have a part. Not only does the natural process of sowing, growth and harvesting contrast with the sudden appearance of the quail and manna, but the parable insists on the virtue of waiting.
When towards the end of his career Jeremiah wrote the story of his vocation, he attributes everything to God's care for him, even before his birth. Surrendering to providence, Jeremiah glimpsed that he had been "a prophet to the nations," a hope he passed on to future generations, till it was fulfilled in Christ (Gal 1:15). Whether in Jeremiah or in ourselves, every God-directed hope leads to the harvest, whether of a hundred- or sixty- or thirty-fold. Small or large, all will have been worthwhile.
The parable of the sower is one of the better known parables in the gospels. It is the only parable to which Jesus explains the interpretation to his disciples. The different kinds of soil refer to different kinds of human response to God's message. We are reminded that although God's word is powerful it needs to meet with some response from us if it is to be effective. We have to open ourselves to the word if it is to bear fruit. The parable identifies certain blocks to our opening ourselves to the Lord's word. One is the lack of understanding; we need to know who Jesus is and what he has done and said if we are to respond to him. Another block is our tendency to keep the Lord at arm's length, so that his word never takes really deep root in us. A third block is our becoming too immersed in both the anxieties and the pleasures of life so that they become our primary reality. In his interpretation of the parable of the sower Jesus shows a realistic grasp of the obstacles within and around us to his presence and to his word, obstacles which he himself has to somehow overcome. However, that realistic picture should not lead us to discouragement. The message of the gospels as a whole is that the Lord's persistence is stronger than those obstacles. When on one occasion Jesus' disciples asked him the rather despairing question, 'Who can be saved?', Jesus replied, 'For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.'
They dug for themselves cracked cisterns that can hold no water
The word of the Lord came to me, saying: Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem,
Thus says the Lord: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride,
how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.
I brought you into a plentiful land to eat its fruits and its good things.
But when you entered you defiled my land, and made my heritage a abomination.
The priests did not say, "Where is the Lord?"
Those who handle the law did not know me;
the rulers transgressed against me;
the prophets prophesied by Baal, and went after things that do not profit.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this,
be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living water,
and dug out cisterns for themselves, cracked cisterns that can hold no water.
The mysterious power of the Lord's parables
Then the disciples came 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.
We all have our moments of spiritual insight but also perhaps we can lose the plot and drift off into spiritual apathy and blindness. Like our biblical forebears we need to consciously return to those priveleged moments of grace and significance. Jeremiah urges us to keep alive our initial ideal, when speaking in God's name he says: "I remember the devotion of your youth, how you loved me as a bride, Following me in the desert, in a land not sown. Sacred to the Lord was Israel, the first fruits of his harvest." The message is not unlike that of St Paul, when he urged Timothy to fan into flames the spiritual give he has received from God (2 Timothy 1:6).
Each of us probably treasures some memories of inspiring moments in our lives but through the passage of time, we tend to lose sight of these moments, our personal "highs" of encounter with God. Perhaps we feel in ourselvesan echo of Jeremiah's words : "Two evils have my people done: they have forsaken me, the source of living waters; They have dug themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that hold no water." During economic growth and prosperity there always was a heightened danger of abandoning God in favour of material greed and a glitzy social life, which the prophet graphically describes as "broken cisterns, that hold no water."
We turn to Jesus to revive our finest ideals from the days of our fervour. If we remember our original call, its inspiration and our first enthusiasm for life, God's grace can develop within us. In such a context we might gain newunderstanding of those puzzling words of Jesus: "To the one who has, more will be given until that one grows rich; the one who has not, will lose what little he or she has."
Jesus speaks of looking without seeing and of listening without hearing. We can all relate to this. We know from our own experience that we listen without hearing and look without seeing. Sometimes what is being said is not worth hearing and so we listen without paying attention and what is visible is not really worth looking at with any attention. However, Jesus was speaking about those who looking at himself without seeing him and who listen to what he says without hearing him. When it comes to Jesus there is a lot to be seen and a lot to be heard. Jesus is worth more than a cursory look and a half-engaged listen. The more carefully we look at Jesus the more we will see, and the more attentively we listen to him, the more we will hear. That is what Jesus means in the gospel when he says, "for anyone who has will be given more, and he will have more than enough." The more we attend to the Lord, the more we will receive and the more blessed we will be, as Jesus declares at the end of the reading, "Happy are your eyes because they see, your ears because they hear." Jesus is alive among us as risen Lord; he is there to be seen and to be heard by us all. We hear and see him in a special sense whenever we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. Yet, the Lord is to be seen and heard in many other ways as well. He is visible and audible to us in and through each other, especially in and through those who are most vulnerable. We pray this evening for eyes to see and ears to hear his presence among us.
Israel and Judah will be united and all nations will assemble at Jerusalem
Return, O faithless children, says the Lord, for I am your master; I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion.
I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.
And when you have multiplied and increased in the land, in those days, says the Lord, they shall no longer say, "The ark of the covenant of the Lord." It shall not come to mind, or be remembered, or missed; nor shall another one be made.
At that time Jerusalem shall be called the throne of the Lord, and all nations shall gather to it, to the presence of the Lord in Jerusalem, and they shall no longer stubbornly follow their own evil will.
A detailed explanation of the parable of the sower
Jesus said to them: "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."
In a hopeful spirit, Jeremiah calls for strong family bond unite people in sincerity, in God. As we read earlier from Micah, we must "do justice and love goodness, and walk humbly with your God" (Mic 6:8). Isaiah's call is just as down to earth, "Cease doing evil; learn to do good. Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan's plea, defend the widow" (Isa 1:16).
Any religious system that denies common sense or requires superhuman heroism on a daily basis runs counter to a basic quality of biblical religion. Long before the Word of God became incarnate in the person of Jesus, God's word had implanted itself in the earthly setting and human history of the people Israel. They were strongly knit together and possessed an exceptionally firm tribal loyalty. This tribal bond dictated many of the customs and practices of the people, as we find in many parts of the Torah, detailing the obligations of kinship. They hope for an eventual reunion of all Israel and Judah, under a single shepherd endowed with the human virtues of prudence and wisdom.
The prophet hopes for a new, more sincere, religious leadership for his people. In hope he foresees a reunion of Israel and Judah, also reaching 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 Israel the centre of God's hopes for the world.
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 mentioned 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 mentioned 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 referred to in a double way 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." However, 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.
Words and ceremonies cannot absolve us of our obligations to social justice
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Stand in the gate of the Lord's house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all you people of Judah, you that enter these gates to worship the Lord. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive words: "This is the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord."
For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever.
Here you are, trusting in deceptive words to no avail. Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which is called by my name, and say, "We are safe!" - only to go on doing all these abominations? Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight? You know, I too am watching, says the Lord.
The parable about wheat and weeds growing together. At harvest the weeds will be burned and the wheat will be gathered in the barn.
He 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.'"
In true prophetic style Jeremiah's temple sermon insists that ritual must be balanced by practical morality. Then the gospel sounds a cautionary note to restrain us in our condemnation of others.
The Covenant was at the heart of the Mosaic Torah, and its obligations are summed up in the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1-17). But then a huge body of ritual instructions were added, which for some of the Jews seemed to become the main sign of religious fidelity.
Jeremiah insists that rituals, no matter how sacred, cannot save and sanctify, unless accompanied by a life of justice and true devotion. As if to mimic the superstitious reliance on ritual, the prophet repeats three times, "The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord! The temple of the Lord!" Church ceremony and daily life also ought to complement and reinforce each other. Social injustice, as Jesus repeats in another prophetic occasion, makes God's house into a "den of thieves" (Matthew 21:13).
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.
The Lord contrasts the attitude of the former who sowed wheat-seed in his field with that of his servants. When weeds appeared among the wheat his servants, their 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 suggests 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 eventually get his wheat without the weeds . In the meantime, the wheat would have to live with the weeds. He didn't have the zeal of his servants to purify his field immediately, drastically.
In this parable Jesus is saying something about ourselves-- about the church and the individual disciples who make up the church. Jesus 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.
Israel was as near to Yahweh as a loincloth is to the wearer
Thus said the Lord to me, "Go and buy yourself a linen loincloth, and put it on your loins, but do not dip it in water." So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it on my loins. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, saying, "Take the loincloth that you bought and are wearing, and go now to the Euphrates, and hide it there in a cleft of the rock." So I went, and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me.
And after many days the Lord said to me, "Go now to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there." Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. But now the loincloth was ruined; it was good for nothing.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Thus says the Lord: Just so I will ruin the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own will and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to one's loins, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, says the Lord, in order that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory. But they would not listen.
By parables, like those of the mustard seed and yeast, Jesus reveals God's mysterious ways
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."
Jesus mentions matters "hidden since the foundation of the world," quoting 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.
We all have a share in Israel's promise and Israel's blame. Like Israel we share the privilege and pledge of being the chosen people, intimately united with God. In Jeremiah we find the image of the loincloth to manifest this intimacy. "As the loincloth clings to the loins, so had I made the whole house of Israel cling to me," says the Lord.
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.
Jeremiah laments his people's destruction and begs God for mercy
You shall say to them this word:
Let my eyes run down with tears night and day, and let them not cease,
for the virgin daughter, my people, is struck down with a crushing blow,
with a very grievous wound.
If I go out into the field, look, those killed by the sword!
And if I enter the city, look, those sick with famine!
For both prophet and priest ply their trade throughout the land,
and have no knowledge.
Have you completely rejected Judah? Does our heart loathe Zion?
Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord, the iniquity of our ancestors,
for we have sinned against you.
Do not spurn us, for your name's sake;
do not dishonour your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.
Can any idols of the nations bring rain? Or can the heavens give showers?
Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.
Jesus explains the parable of the sower in terms of the final judgment
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!
It sounds like a rather gloomy message, with Jeremiah speaking about eyes running down with tears, and wondering if God has completely rejected his people; and then in the gospel Jesus speaks about the final judgement, including the punishment of the wicked like weeds being burned in a furnace. It is the kind of serious moral message that caused Ignatius of Loyola to reconsider his priorities in life, when he went on retreat to Manresa and opened his heart to a profound conversion.
But seen from another angle our readings have a comforting promise too: God does not forget his covenant even if we human beings so often fail in our moral response. And while Jeremiah fully confesses that he and his people have sinned, he still prays with confidence "do not forget your mercy towards us." Further, while Jesus does indeed speak about the unrepentant "weeds" being thrown into the fire, a warning against taking sin too lightly or neglect what God requires of us, the ultimate aim of the divine Harvester is to gather us safely into God's barn. The parable ends with the promise that "the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their father."
Taken together, today's readings can have upon us the sobering effect of an old-style parish mission, reminding us of the eternal truths: death, judgement, heaven and hell. The way of the covenant is surely open to us; and God intends us each one of us to enjoy eternal life. But We may not be complacent about this and expect to be saved without our own willing cooperation. This surely is included in Jesus' crisp advice: let anyone with years listen!
In interpreting his parable, Jesus speaks of the final separation of the good and the evil at the end of time. The story 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. A point emphasised by Pope Francis 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.' This morning'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.'
The second lament of Jeremiah and the Lord's reply
Woe is me, my mother, that you ever bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land! I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me. Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I am called by your name, O Lord, God of hosts.
I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice; under the weight of your hand I sat alone, for you had filled me with indignation. Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.
Therefore thus says the Lord: If you turn back, I will take you back, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall serve as my mouth. It is they who will turn to you, not you who will turn to them. And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, says the Lord. I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless.
Sell all for the buried treasure and 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. And 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 crucial transitions in our life, and certainly at the hour of death, we have no choice but to exchange our possessions for the pearl of great price. Today's gospel clearly calls for total consecration, and Jeremiah reflects this pure and total service of the Lord. We should be grateful for saints like him who force us to put our life into perspective and are led to esteem what is really valuable. During a bleak stretch of his life, Jeremiah composed his famous confessions. Today's consists of a lament, which bringing his tragedy to God for a solution. Jeremiah even curses the day of his birth, "Woe to me, my mother, that you ever gave me birth." When God replies, it is not to apologize for piling so much upon the back of the prophet. Rather, after wrestling with God as Jacob had wrestled with the angel, Jeremiah gets a wonderful promise of ongoing support, " I am with you to save you and deliver you" says the Lord.
When Jesus asks us to stay detached from everything else for the sake of the one really valuable thing, he is asking for a radical choice in our lives. The most difficult moment for some might come in parting with the last of our possessions: our sense of success, our reputation for holiness, the control of our future. But without some parting, we cannot move on.
Sometimes we can have the experience of stumbling upon something of great value even though we have not been looking for it. A precious gift comes our way unexpectedly, without our having done anything to make it happen. It might be someone who crosses our path and has a huge impact for good on our lives. It might be an important insight that suddenly comes into our mind when we are sitting back relaxing and thinking about nothing in particular. In a sense, that was the experience of the poor day labourer in the first parable of today's gospel reading. He was being paid to dig up someone's field when suddenly he hit upon buried treasure. He sold the little he had to buy the field and gain that unexpected treasure.
There is a different kind of experience where we find something very valuable after a great deal of searching for it. We keep on looking, and, eventually, after a lot of effort we find what we have been looking for. That was the experience of the wealthy merchant in the second parable who kept searching for the finest pearl of all, until, finally, he found it and, then, sold everything to purchase it. Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God is like both of those human experiences. There are times when God graces us out of the blue. The Lord suddenly blesses us at a moment in life when we are least expecting it, as happened to the poor day labourer. The Lord is always taking some gracious initiative towards us if we eyes to see and ears to hear; he seeks us out. When it comes to the Lord, there is also a seeking involved on our part. Jesus calls on us to keep on seeking, to keep on asking, to keep on knocking, like the rich merchant in the second parable. When we are graced by the Lord, because of his initiative towards us and our searching for him, then, like the two men in the parables, we must be ready to give up whatever is necessary to hold on to that grace, that gift of the Lord, the gift of the kingdom.
The Lord is a potter, forming Israel anew out of the same clay that had previously turned out poorly
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Come, go down to the potter's house, and there I will let you hear my words." So I went down to the potter's house, and there he was working at his wheel. The vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter's hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as seemed good to him.
Then the word of the Lord came to me: Can I not do with you, O house of Israel, just as this potter has done? says the Lord. Just like the clay in the potter's hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.
God's reign is like a net that draws in good and useless fish; and like a storeroom with new and old objects
Jesus said to them,
"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 the symbolic actions of Jeremiah announce the creative intention of God, the divine potter, to collapse the misshapen clay back into its primitive form and start over again in forming the people of Israel. The Gospel concludes Matthew's main section about the reign of God (chapters 11 to 13). In these readings we find God's merciful way of starting over again. Jesus suggests that life is like a storeroom full of new things as well as the old.
Biblical religion is generally marked by a forward vision towards a new future. It never consecrated a past golden age but kept moving towards its messianic age. Along the way Israel took monumental leaps, changes that were required by cultural or national crises, like the Philistine threat which led to the unification of the people into a one capital, one temple system under David and Solomon. Other changes were needed to renew and purify the people, as Jeremiah suggested under the prophetic symbol of God as a potter, moulding clay jars: Whenever the vessel which the potter was making turned out badly in his hand, he tried again, making of the clay another vessel of whatever sort he pleased.
God is the divine potter who asks, "Can I not do to you as this potter has done?" There is continuity. The clay is the same and the potter is the same, just as the ark carried memories of Moses. Yet all these transitions are difficult. They can seem as drastic and cruel as the gospel parable of the dragnet with worthwhile fishes and useless ones. In the fierce ordeal, some are hurled into the fiery furnace. Yet, this is not the end of Jesus' sermon. He adds one final parable, the storeroom from which "the head of the household.. can bring.. the new and the old." At all transitional moments in our personal life or our church or national existence, we need to be courageous to suffer through the change, and clear-sighted to recognize the will of God and even his glorious presence in the new stage along the way, safeguarding tradition and genuine continuity with the past.
The parable of the dragnet cast into the sea suggests that at the end of time there will be a separation out of the good from the wicked. However, this is God's work and it will happen at the end of time. We often make the mistake of thinking that it is our work and that it should happen in the course of time. We can be prone to deciding who is good and who is bad here and now and behaving in the light of that judgement. Yet, when we make such a judgement, we are prone to getting it wrong. We see the good in ourselves more easily than the good in others and the bad in others more easily than the bad in ourselves. We also fail to appreciate that people can change for the better, with God's help.
The image of God as the potter in this morning's first reading suggests that God can take what comes out wrong in our lives and reshape it into something good. We are all a work in progress. God may have begun a good work in us but God has yet to bring it to completion. Judgement belongs to God at the end of time, and the judging God is also the creator God who is constantly at work to bring good out of evil and new life out of what has come out wrong. As humans, we should be very slow to take on God's work of separating the good from the evil. As Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, 'Do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness.'
Jerusalem will be devastated like Shiloh where the ark was earlier enshrined
At the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim son of Josiah of Judah, this word came from the Lord: Thus says the Lord: Stand in the court of the Lord's house, and speak to all the cities of Judah that come to worship in the house of the Lord; speak to them all the words that I command you; do not hold back a word. It may be that they will listen, all of them, and will turn from their evil way, that I may change my mind about the disaster that I intend to bring on them because of their evil doings.
You shall say to them: Thus says the Lord: If you will not listen to me, to walk in my law that I have set before you, and to heed the words of my servants the prophets whom I send to you urgently - though you have not heeded - then I will make this house like Shiloh, and I will make this city a curse for all the nations of the earth.
The priests and the prophets and all the people heard Jeremiah speaking these words in the house of the Lord. And when Jeremiah had finshed speaking all that the Lord had commanded him to speak to all the people, then the priests and the prophets and all the people laid hold of him, saying, "You shall die! Why have you prophesied in the name of the Lord, saying, 'This house shall be like Shiloh, and this city shall be desolate, without inhabitant'?" And all the people gathered around Jeremiah in the house of the Lord.
Nazareth rejects Jesus, and due to their lack of faith he could work there only a few miracles
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.
We could reflect on the liturgy and our response to it. A peculiar text in Leviticus 16 shows a liturgy in the temple (16:1-19) combined with the colourful, popular ceremony of driving out into the desert a scapegoat loaded with all the people's sins, to be hurled to destruction over a cliff (16:20-28). Popular religiosity was pleased with this, even if not to the perfect satisfaction of a more orthodox theology.
What bothered the prophets far more than this consigning of sins to the scapegoat was the discordance between liturgical and everyday life. A longer version of Jeremiah's call for justice came in Chap. 7, where the injustices of daily life are said to contaminate the liturgy. Then the priestly managers of the temple hounded Jeremiah, demanding his death. But he was not looking for their ritual to be abandoned, only that, in the true spirit of Leviticus, they also defend justice and dignity in everyday life, and lead the prayers in such a way that it encouraged people to care for the poor.
Jesus attempted to do just this. He began his ministry at Nazareth by quoting from Isaiah, "He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight for the blind and release for prisoners." It was his response to the Year of Jubilee, discussed in tomorrow's reading from Leviticus. Yet Jesus encountered stiff resistance arising from envy in his home town, and as they lacked faith in a generous, compassionate God, he could work very few miracles there. Today one too can reflect on our own approach to liturgy and prayer. Does it touch and reflect my daily life, my home and our contemporary world? Can I accept challenge and change, even miraculous interventions, for the sake of the poor and the helpless? Am I envious of, or delighted with, God's concern for others?
When people have been away from home for some time, coming home again is not always easy. The people at home may have changed in the meantime; those who come home may also have changed since leaving home. There can be an expectation that things will be as they have always been, and when that does not happen, it can lead to misunderstanding and frustration. In the gospel, Jesus comes home to Nazareth after being away from his home town for some time. He had changed in the meantime. He left Nazareth the carpenter's son, in the words of the gospel. He returned a preacher of God's kingdom and a healer of the broken. The people of Nazareth could not accept this change. "This is the carpenter's son, surely?" they asked. "Where did the man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they wondered. The people of Nazareth would not accept Jesus because he was not the person they once knew. We too can be slow to accept people who have moved on in some way or other; we only want them as we once knew them. When it comes to the person of Jesus, like the people of Nazareth, we can see him somewhat narrowly. We can be slow to allow our image of him to be broadened. Yet, more than any human being, Jesus is always beyond our full understanding. We never grasp him completely and we always have to be open to growing in our knowledge and love of him until that day when we see him face to face
In God’s name, Jeremiah stands by his threats against Jerusalem and its temple
Then the priests and the prophets said to the officials and to all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.”
Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, “It is the Lord who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you. But as for me, here I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”
Then the officials and all the people said to the priests and the prophets, “This man does not deserve the sentence of death, for he has spoken to us in the name of the Lord our God. ” But the hand of Ahikam son of Shaphan was with Jeremiah so that he as not given over into the hands of the people to be put to death.
Herod confuses Jesus with John the Baptist, who has been martyred
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.
Almost all the old Testament prophets express a burning indignation when an Israelite preyed on another Israelite, forced the sale of family inheritance, overlooked the needs of orphans and widows and turned might into right, just to impose their own desires. If even priests and temple officials supported such social injustices, then prophets like Jeremiah spoke out in the name of God, the people’s ultimate redeemer or go’el.
These social and secular overtones of redemption deserve our attention too. Theology must return to its biblical origins, which always shows God siding with the poor and defenceless. John the Baptist defended the rights of the ordinary people of his time and spoke up in the name of common decency. He died in this cause, protesting at Herod’s elaborate wealth, sensuality, envy, and human respect. His life was whisked away by a dancing girl, put on display by her dissipated step-father. Matthew even records Herod’s confusion between the Baptist and Jesus, whom he thought was John, raised from the dead. In a sense both Jesus and John the Baptist preached for the goals of the Jubilee Year and died in defence of the faithful life-bond between Israel and God.
Two men and two women feature in today's gospel, John the Baptist and Herod, and Herodias and her daughter. Of the two men, Herod was a man of power, whereas John was powerless; Herod had the freedom of an autocrat to do whatever he liked, whereas John had no freedom, being locked up in prison. Yet, at another level, John the Baptist had an authority and freedom that the king did not have. John had a moral authority that Herod lacked, and he had the freedom to speak out of his convictions, whereas Herod lacked the freedom of his convictions; he had John beheaded against his better judgement.
John had the authority of the person who was completely open to God's Spirit and that he had the spiritual freedom of the children of God. The gospels suggest that this is the only authority and the only freedom worth having, and very often it is to be found in people who might appear on the surface to have very little freedom or authority. The most authoritative and the freest person of all was Jesus, because he was full of the Spirit, and he was at his most authoritative and his freest at the very moment when he appeared to have no authority or freedom, as he hung from the cross. The more our lives are in tune with the movements of God's Spirit, the Holy Spirit, the more we will share in the Lord's own authority and freedom, and the more we will begin to taste here and now that glorious freedom of the children of God that awaits us in the next life.
By word and gesture Jeremiah predicts the end of his people's exile
In that same year, at the beginning of the reign of King Zedekiah of Judah, in the fifth month of the fourth year, the prophet Hananiah son of Azzur, from Gibeon, spoke to me in the house of the Lord, in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, "Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I will bring back to this place all the vessels of the Lord's house, which King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I will also bring back to this place King Jeconiah son of Jehoiakim of Judah, and all the exiles from Judah who went to Babylon, says the Lord, for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon."
Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the Lord; and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the Lord do so; may the Lord fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the Lord, and all the exiles. But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people. The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms. As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the Lord has truly sent the prophet."
Then the prophet Hananiah took the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, and broke it. And Hananiah spoke in the presence of all the people, saying, "Thus says the Lord: This is how I will break the yoke of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from the neck of all the nations within two years." At this, the prophet Jeremiah went his way.
Some time after the prophet Hananiah had broken the yoke from the neck of the prophet Jeremiah, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: "Go, tell Hananah, Thus says the Lord: You have broken wooden bars only to forge iron bars in place of them! For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I have put an iron yoke on the neck of all these nations so that they may serve King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, and they shall indeed serve him; I have even given him the wild animals." And the prophet Jeremiah said to the prophet Hananiah, "Listen, Hananiah, the Lord has not sent you, and you made this people trust in a lie. Therefore thus says the Lord: I am going to send you off the face of the earth. Within this year you will be dead, because you have spoken rebellion against the Lord." In that same year, in the seventh month, the prophet Hananiah died.
Out of compassion, Jesus cures the sick and multiplies food in a deserted place
At once Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side while he sent the crowds away. After sending the crowds away he went up into the hills by himself to pray.
When evening came, he was there alone, while the boat, by now some furlongs from land, was hard pressed by rough waves, for there was a head-wind. In the fourth watch of the night he came towards them, walking on the sea, and when the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. 'It is a ghost,' they said, and cried out in fear. But at once Jesus called out to them, saying, 'Courage! It's me! Don't be afraid.'
It was Peter who answered. 'Lord,' he said, 'if it is you, tell me to come to you across the water. ' Jesus said, 'Come. ' Then Peter got out of the boat and started walking towards Jesus across the water, but then noticing the wind, he took fright and began to sink. 'Lord,' he cried, 'save me!' Jesus put out his hand at once and held him. 'You have so little faith,' he said, 'why did you doubt?' And as they got into the boat the wind dropped. The men in the boat bowed down before him and said, 'Truly, you are the Son of God.'
Having made the crossing, they came to land at Gennesaret. When the local people recognised him they spread the news through the whole neighbourhood and took all that were sick to him, begging him just to let them touch the fringe of his cloak. And all those who touched it were saved.
When we see religious leaders in disagreement and hear of Jesus' being mistaken for a ghost, how can we know whose word is from God? People must have shaken their heads in dismay at the clash between the official prophet, Hananiah, and the more charismatic Jeremiah, when Hananiah took the threatening yoke off the neck of the Jeremiah and broke it. Scholars can assure us that Jeremiah truly spoke the word of God, while Hananiah was a false prophet. Back then, however, the common folk saw it as a struggle of prophet against prophet. The quarrel between Jeremiah and Hananiah was public and for a time Jeremiah was silently embarrassed, tempted to give up, not knowing what answer to give Hananiah. Eventually he was vindicated, but in the meanwhile he had to put his faith in God, strengthen his conscience and pray for wisdom.
Jesus' disciples too were tempted to follow the easier way out of trouble. We read how 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 difficulty, our first response should not be dictated by an easy way out, nor by our command of financial or other resources, but by loving, tender compassion and personal care. In this part of our heart we hear God's word. At such times we too like Peter should cry out, "Lord, save me!"
Different people react in different ways to the same situation. 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. (It's much the same with regard to the refugee crisis; people differ greatly about what to do with them.) 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. The 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.
After the exile the Israelites will return home to their land
The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: "Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For thus says the Lord: Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous. There is no one to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you. All your lovers have forgotten you; they care nothing for you; for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy, the punishment of a merciless foe, because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous. Why do you cry out over your hurt? Your ain is incurable. Because your guilt is great, because your sins are so numerous, I have done these things to you."
Thus says the Lord: "I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the citadel set on its rightful site. Out of them shall come thanksgiving, and the sound of merrymakers. I will make them many, and they shall not be few; I will make them honoured, and they shall not be disdained. Their children shall be as of old, their congregation shall be established before me; and I will punish all who oppress them. Their prince shall be one of their own, their ruler shall come from their midst; I will bring him near, and he shall approach me, for who would otherwise dare to approach me? says the Lord. And you shall be my people, and I will be your God."
Jesus saves Peter from sinking and cures people who touch the tassel of his cloak
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.
Today's readings deal with two moments of crisis, first a national crisis arising from political forces, the Assyrian invasion of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and the other from natural causes, a sudden windstorm 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. A tragic situation is described by Jeremiah. The northern Kingdom of Israel had been broken by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. and its people taken forcibly into exile. Jeremiah's family was among the few left behind. Now more than thirty years later, as the Assyrian empire was collapsing and falling apart, Jeremiah sees hope for their return. Earlier it had seemed hopeless, "Incurable is your wound, grievous your bruise;" but this desperate situation was not too hopeless for the Lord. The prophet is inspired to declare in God's name, See, I will restore the tents of Jacob. City shall be rebuilt on hill. From them will come songs of praise. This optimistic 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. We?re asked to pray, whether like Moses on Mount Sinai, 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 when and how 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 next 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 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 says 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
Jeremiah foretells the joyful reunion of Israel's northern tribes with Jerusalem
At that time, says the Lord, I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people. Thus says the Lord: "The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness; when Israel sought for rest, the Lord appeared to him from far away. I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.
Again I will build you, and you shall be built, O virgin Israel! Again you shall take your tambourines, and go out in the dance of the merrymakers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the mountains of Samaria; the planters shall plant, and shall enjoy the fruit. For there shall be a day when sentinels will call in the hill country of Ephraim: "Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God."
For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, "Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel."
When Jesus tries to discourage the Canaanite woman, she humbly persists and succeeds
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 speak of hope, the quality of persevering despite bad reports and long delays, and God's adjustment to our human responses. God put Israel through the paces of a strengthening process and developed the "desert spirituality" so beautifully expressed by Jeremiah: "I remember the devotion of your youth, how you loved me as a bride, following me in the desert, in a land unsown. Sacred to the Lord was Israel, the first fruits of his harvest" (Jer 2:2-3). These lines were composed by the young Jeremiah, probably about the time that he wrote the "Book of Consolation," chaps. 30-31. The passage is powerfully used at the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The final phrase "virgin Israel" continues the nuptial theme, introduced into biblical tradition by the prophet Hosea. Applied to the exiled northern tribes as a young woman gloriously happy at the moment of her marriage, but it also envisages the miraculous transformation of the sinful adulterous woman Israel in her sins, into the "virgin daughter." So hopeful is Jeremiah that he sees God's achieving what is humanly impossible.
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. The gospel 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.
The new covenant will not be inscribed on rock but on the flesh of the heart; all will know the Lord and be forgiven their sins
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.
It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the Lord," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
Simon honours and confesses Jesus as the Son of God; his name is changed to "Peter," for he will be the rock or foundation of the church
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."
In Matthew's Gospel a human rock becomes the foundation of the church. In the prophecy of Jeremiah the significances of rock changes negatively to stubbornness and pride. A similar switch of meaning is involved in the word flesh. Jeremiah contrasts flesh with rock, so that it symbolizes a warm person, sensitive to the will of God and to the needs of the neighbour. 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 law given through Moses had become a rigid code. They had become stony-hearted and by legalistic cleverness defended their hard-as-rock insensitivity towards God and towards the poor. God would now strike this rock, not to bring out water, but to transform it to flesh. A law written on flesh was to be administered compassionately and promote the best instincts of everyone. No longer will one person lord it over others, says Jeremiah, for "All shall know me, from the least to the greatest." They will approach the Lord as a single people of faith, for the covenant will be inscribed on the flesh of their hearts.
In the Scriptures God never makes a covenant with an individual, unless that individual, like a king, represents all the people. Such an individual representative of all was Simon son of John. He clearly expressed the faith of the disciples, for all to rally round. Jesus, therefore, changed his name to "Rock" (in Aramaic, Cephas; in Latin, Petrus; in English, Peter.) Just as the new covenant was unitive, practical and faithful, so also was Peter's role among Jesus' disciples. He was the foundational rock on which the wise person can build (Luke 6:48), the living rock of personal devotion to Jesus, the rock of compassion and forgiveness, the rock of unity and faith. He was not to be influenced by wealth, selfish concerns, power or ambition; this weak side of the flesh will be sustained by the overwhelming power of Jesus, the Son of the Living God.
The gospel shows two sides of St Peter. Initially he shows great insight into Jesus, identifying him as the Son of the Living God, and in response Jesus addresses him as the Rock on which he will build his church. However, he goes on to rebuke Jesus for speaking about his passion and death, and in response Jesus addresses him as Satan and as a scandal, a stumbling stone, and obstacle in his path. From Rock to stumbling stone--it is hard to conceive of a greater contrast. Something of that same contrast, even contradiction, is in all of us when it comes to our relationship with the Lord. We have moments when we are in harmony with the Lord's will for us and other moments when we are in conflict with his will for our lives. Yet the Lord kept faith with Peter, in spite of his failings, and the Lord keeps faith with us too, even when we show ourselves unfaithful to him. Also, according to Matthew, Jesus built his church on a rather flawed rock, a rock that could become a scandal, a stumbling stone. When addressing Peter as the rock Jesus refers to the church as "my church." Because it is his church, it will endure, even when those with pastoral responsibility for the church fail. Because the church has the risen Lord present within it until the end of the age, the gates of the underworld, the powers of evil and death, will never hold out against it; they will not ultimately triumph.
The collapse of Assyria is celebrated by an optimistic prophet
A shatterer has come up against you. Guard the ramparts; watch the road; gird your loins; collect all your strength.
The shields of his warriors are red; his soldiers are clothed in crimson. The metal on the chariots flashes on the day when he musters them; the chargers prance. Ah! City of bloodshed, utterly deceitful, full of booty, no end to the plunder! The crack of whip and rumble of wheel, galloping horse and bounding chariot! Horsemen charging, flashing sword and glittering spear, piles of dead, heaps of corpses, dead bodies without end, they stumble over the bodies!
I will throw filth at you and treat you with contempt, and make you a spectacle. Then all who see you will shrink from you and say, "Nineveh is devastated; who will bemoan her?" Where shall I seek comforters for you?
We must lose our life for Jesus' sake to save it and so never experience death
Then 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."
Matthew draws together various sayings of Jesus on true discipleship; while the prophecy of Nahum celebrates the victory of such goodness and fidelity over massive forces of evil.
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 annihilation and oblivion. By obediently following Jesus to death, we will not experience the ultimate death described by the prophet. Ours will be the new, abundant life that Jesus, the Son of God, promised and gives to us. That rich and peaceful existence begins in ourselves and reaches outward. Each act of self-denial can seem restrictive and even destructive of life. Yet if ositive self-denial arises from a religious faith, in response to the will of God and loving concern, if it lays before us the possibilities of the "promised land," if it leads to peace in our homes and relationships, then it opens up for us a whole new field of activity and creative ingenuity.
Jesus often speaks in the language of paradox. One of the most striking paradoxes occurs 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.
When the prophet questions God he learns that the just will live by faith
Are you not from of old, O Lord my God, my Holy One? You shall not die.
O Lord, you have marked them for judgment; and you, O Rock, have established them for punishment.
Your eyes are too pure to behold evil, and you cannot look on wrongdoing;
why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?
You have made people like the fish of the sea, like crawling things that have no ruler.
The enemy brings all of them up with a hook; he drags them out with his net, he gathers them in his net; so he rejoices and exults.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net and makes offerings to his net; for by them his portion is lavish, and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net, and destroying nations without mercy?
I will stand at my watchpost, and station myself on the rampart;
I will keep watch to see what he will say to me, and what he will answer concerning my complaint.
Then the Lord answered me and said: Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so that a runner may read it.
For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud! Their spirit is not right in them, but the righteous live by their faith.
Jesus states the power of faith to cure the sick and to move mountains
When they came to the crowd, a man came to him, 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 all aspects and not focus exclusively on any single side.
The Jewish faith 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."
Habakkukis distressed by God's apparent indifference to injustice on this earth, "Why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent?" God can tolerate these challenges ... but knows when to close the conversation. He does not give an explanation why the more wicked Babylonians are to punish the less wicked Jerusalemites. God's simple reply becomes the basis of Paul's dictum (Rom 1:17), "The just person lives by faith."
The full impact of faith is seen in the Gospel, where 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.
The gospel says that 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."
The vision of the four cherubim, bearing God's glory on the wing
On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to the priest Ezekiel son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the river Chebar; and the hand of the Lord was on him there.
As I looked, a stormy wind came out of the north: a great cloud with brightness around it and fire flashing out continually, and in the middle of the fire, something like gleaming amber. In the middle of it was something like four living creatures. This was their appearance: they were of human form. When they moved, I heard the sound of their wings like the sound of mighty waters, like the thunder of the Almighty, a sound of tumult like the sound of an army; when they stopped, they let down their wings. And there came a voice from above the dome over their heads; when they stopped, they let down their wings. And above the dome over their heads there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire; and seated above the likeness of a throne was something that seemed like a human form.
Upward from what appeared like the loins I saw something like gleaming amber, something that looked like fire enclosed all around; and downward from what looked like the loins I saw something that looked like fire, and there was a splendour all around. Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendour all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. When I saw it, I fell on my face, and I heard the voice of someone speaking.
Jesus announces his death. Then he pays the temple tax, not as an obligation
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. However, 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."
Ezekiel's opening Vision today offers a startling vision of the awesome splendour of God, travelling across the desert accompanying his people into exile. Yet this prophet also turned out to be a man of practical detail, charting Israel's future afterwards, when the Babylonian exile would be ended. In his blueprint, God's glory "dwells" not just in the Jerusalem temple but wherever his people are forced to wander.
Jesus accepted the temple tradition and told Peter to pay the temple tax for both of them; but Jesus too gave hints that the Father's intentions reached far beyond the temple. This gospel suggests that the transition from a single elect people to a beloved family of all nations would not be easily achieved. The Son of Man must be put to death, before it can be made a reality.
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.
The prophet eats the scroll, then goes to speak the word of God
The Lord said to me, "But you, mortal, hear what I say to you; do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you." I looked, and a hand was stretched out to me, and a written scroll was in it. He spread it before me; it had writing on the front and on the back, and written on it were words of lamentation and mourning and woe. He said to me, "O mortal, eat what is offered to you; eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel." So I opened my mouth, and he gave me the scroll to eat. He said to me, "Mortal, eat this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it. Then I ate it; and in my mouth it was as sweet as honey." He said to me: "Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them."
Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
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.
Sometimes the kinds of questions people ask reveal their values, their priorities, what they think is most 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 awaits everything from 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.”
Only those who were signed by God's angel escape, when the glory of the Lord deserts the desecrated temple
Then he cried in my hearing with a loud voice, saying, "Draw near, you executioners of the city, each with his destroying weapon in his hand." And six men came from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with his weapon for slaughter in his hand; among them was a man clothed in linen, with a writing case at his side. They went in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel had gone up from the cherub on which it rested to the threshold of the house.
The Lord called to the man clothed in linen, who had the writing case at his side; and said to him, "Go through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of those who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it." To the others he said in my hearing, "Pass through the city after him, and kill; your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. Cut down old men, young men and young women, little children and women, but touch no one who has the mar. And begin at my sanctuary." So they began with the elders who were in front of the house. Then he said to them, "Defile the house, and fill the courts with the slain. Go!" So they went out and killed in the city.
Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house and stopped above the cherubim. The cherubim lifted up their wings and rose up from the earth in my sight as they went out with the wheels beside them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord; and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the river Chebar; and I knew that they were cherubim. Each had four faces, each four wings, and underneath their wings something like human hands. As for what their faces were like, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the river Chebar. Each one moved straight ahead.
The prayer of even of two or three is heard, since Jesus is among us
Jesus also said, "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."
Each of the readings witnesses to a sense of unity among the people God has chosen. Ezekiel sees that their collective life goes on, even in their exile; Matthew affirms the presence of Jesus with the church community, even of "two or three gathered in my name."
Death also features in Ezekiel's vision of Jerusalem, as the exile begins. After the angel of life has gone through the temple and city to mark with an "X" the foreheads of the sincere servants of God, then the angels of death do their grim work, beginning with the elders out in front of the temple. Temple and city are strewn with sinful corpses and profanation is everywhere. The glory of the Lord departs from the Holy of Holies and moves eastward out of the city till it rests on the Mount of Olives.
The prophet portrays a people in which evil and virtue, death and life, loss and new hope exist side by side. Just as a proud purist cannot be fully at home within this people of God, neither can a person totally devoid of ideals and hopes. A community arrives at its best when its inherent goodness and virtue come to the fore. Each of us is a combination of the good and the bad. We need one another, so that goodness in one person challenges the evil in another, while the different kind of goodness in this other acts as a purifying agent on the former.
Jesus makes clear that none of us can manage our virtues or our faults independently of the community of believers, the church. Some problems can be settled quickly between the individuals concerned; others are more difficult and require someone outside the immediate circle but not outside the church. The witness of the church again takes place in a community way, not on the word of a single person but "on the word of two or three witnesses." Jesus also wants us to pray within the communion of the church. Otherwise even this best of our moments can degenerate into mree expressions of individualism. In contrast, "where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst."
We can often be impressed by numbers, and that is true even within the context of the church. We look to see how many are coming to Mass or how many are signing up to this event or to that ministry. Jesus' way of looking at things is somewhat different to ours. Numbers did not seem to be an issue for him. He understood the value of the one;. In yesterday's gospel he spoke of the shepherd who left the ninety nine sheep to go in the search of the one who was lost. He declares that where two or three are gathered in his name (that is, because they belong to him), he is there right there with them. The smallest gathering in a tiny church, whether for prayer or communal life, is hugely significant because the living Lord is present in the world through them. In these days of declining numbers within the church, the gospel may help us to appreciate the significance of those who are present, regardless of how few. We can never be complacent, of course, about those who are absent; we need to find new ways of calling them back. Yet, the Lord is present where two or three are gathered in his name; he is present among us as Emmanuel, "God-with-us. If we keep opening ourselves to the Lord's presence among us, few though we may be, he will draw others to himself through us.
Ezekiel mimes going into exile, as a warning to the people
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, you are living in the midst of a rebellious house, who have eyes to see but do not see, who have ears to hear but do not hear; for they are a rebellious house. Therefore, mortal, prepare for yourself an exile's baggage, and go into exile by day in their sight; you shall go like an exile from your place to another place in their sight. Perhaps they will understand, though they are a rebellious house. You shall bring out your baggage by day in their sight, as baggage for exile; and you shall go out yourself at evening in their sight, as those do who go into exile. Dig through the wall in their sight, and carry the baggage through it. In their sight you shall lift the baggage on your shoulder, and carry it out in the dark; you shall cover your face, so that you may not see the land; for I have made you a sign for the house of Israel.
I did just as I was commanded. I brought out my baggage by day, as baggage for exile, and in the evening I dug through the wall with my own hands; I brought it out in the dark, carrying it on my shoulder in their sight.
In the morning the word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, has not the house of Israel, the rebellious house, said to you, "What are you doing?" Say to them, "Thus says the Lord God: This oracle concerns the prince in Jerusalem and all the house of Israel in it. " Say, "I am a sign for you: as I have done, so shall it be done to them; they shall go into exile, into captivity. " And the prince who is among them shall lift his baggage on his shoulder in the dark, and shall go out; he shall dig through the wall and carry it through; he shall cover his face, so that he may not see the land with his eyes.
How many times must we forgive others?
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.
Basic biblical signs such as the crossing of the Red Sea and of the River Jordan can and should be applied to our own lives, and in this we are helped by the prophet Ezekiel and by St Matthew's Gospel, through parables on how to handle difficult transitions in life. Ezekiel describes two symbolic actions by which God intended Israel to learn a vital lesson. He carries all of his belongings through a hole in the city walls, silently with his head covered, so as to see the land no more. He eats his bread and drinks water in a state of trembling. These action parables fascinate the people and absorb their attention, offering them a period of grace to think and pray. But then they ridicule Ezekiel, he declares that his actions concern Jerusalem and the whole house of Israel. We too may need to look again at some people or ideas we tend to ridicule, and question our motives; for we too can be a "rebellious house" blind to the wider truth and to the consequences of our actions.
Perhaps the most difficult barrier to cross is the need to forgive our neighbour. How often are we obliged to do so? we ask with Peter. The Lord's simple answer, "seventy times seven times" is not meant literally. So he tells the story of the king who forgave a very serious debt. The implied question is, how are we unable to forgive the debts of a neighbour who owes us so much less? The underlying motive here is not "justice" but as we read in the story, the king was "moved with pity." We are challenged by this parable: are others allowed to appeal to our patience? Here is a major "River Jordan" to pass, the need for patience with those who have offended us. It seems that this parable is not about some optional, higher sanctity, for our eternal salvation depends on it: "My Father will treat you in the same way, unless you forgive each other from your heart." Even if forgiveness seems heroic it seems to be required!
Learning to forgive those who have hurt us is probably one of the greatest challenges in life. Peter's question to Jesus as the beginning of the gospel comes of out that sense of how difficult it is to forgive someone, 'How often must I forgive my brother?' The implication of his question is that there has to be a limit to forgiveness. Peter decides to err on the generous side, suggesting seven times would be often enough. In the biblical culture of the time, seven was considered to be the complete number. To forgive seven times is complete forgiveness; surely, no more could be asked of someone. Yet, Jesus does ask more, not seven times, but seventy seven times. There is to be no limit to our willingness to forgive.
Jesus underpins this very challenging call with the parable that he tells. In that parable the servant owes his master ten thousand talents. This was a massive sum of money, equivalent to billions of euro today. It simply could never be paid back. In the parable the master felt so sorry for his servant that he simply cancelled the debt completely. Here we have the triumph of grace over justice. There is an image here of the gracious and generous way that God deals with us. Jesus reveals a God whose mercy triumphs over justice. The most memorable image of such a God is the father in the story of the prodigal son. The remainder of the parable in this morning's gospel tells us that we must allow the mercy that God freely pours into our lives to flow through us to touch others. This is what the servant who was forgiven failed to do. One of the sayings of Jesus expresses the message of today's parable very succinctly, 'Be merciful as your Father is merciful.'
Israel is like a baby girl, neglected but later espoused and loved by God
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth were in the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite, and your mother a Hittite. As for your birth, on the day you were born your navel cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things for you out of compassion for you; but you were thrown out in the open field, for you were abhorred on the day you were born. I passed by you, and saw you flailing about in your blood. As you lay in your blood, I said to you, "Live! and grow up like a plant of the field." You grew up and became tall and arrived at full womanhood; your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.
I passed by you again and looked on you; you were at the age for love. I spread the edge of my cloak over you and covered your nakedness: I pledged myself to you and entered into a covenant with you, says the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off the blood from you, and anointed you with oil. I clothed you with embroidered cloth and with sandals of fine leather; I bound you in fine linen and covered you with rich fabric. I adorned you with ornaments: I put bracelets on your arms, a chain on your neck, a ring on your nose, earrings in your ears, and a beautiful crown upon your head.
You were adorned with gold and silver, while your clothing was of fine linen, rich fabric, and embroidered cloth. You had choice flour and honey and oil for food. You grew exceedingly beautiful, fit to be a queen. Your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, for it was perfect because of my splendour that I had bestowed on you, says the Lord God. But you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by.
Among the signs of the kingdom 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."
Instead of seeing religion in terms of dominance and obedience, Israel's relationship with Yahweh is described as a marriage bond. Israel is portrayed as cast-off from birth, a child unwanted and left to die, a mixture of Canaanites, Amorites and Hittites, echoing earlier expressions in the Torah, "a crowd of mixed ancestry" (Exod 12:38) or "riffraff" (Num 11:4). The Lord loved and espoused this unwanted child, despised by others. Yet after adorning this people with precious jewels and raising her to the dignity of a queen, they turned aside. Israel was fascinated by her own beauty and became a harlot for "every passer-by." But God is committed to Israel, not just for a lifetime but for eternity. God adds, "I pardon you for all you have done." Love such as this, divine, exceeding all measure, heroic in its fidelity and forgiveness, is overwhelming for us. It grants us joyful satisfaction and absolute security; we always have a home with God. We are even on a basis of loving equality like husband and wife. No longer are we children before God the Father, no longer vassals to an overlord, but like spouses to God. Prophecies like this are an important antidote to notions of multi-layered hierarchy, or a Church dominated by jurisdiction, sanction and law.
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." The disciples recognize the heroic conditions which Jesus lays down for marriage and reply, "It is better not to marry." Jesus does not back down but explicitly states that such fidelity is possible only for "those to whom it is given to do so." Fidelity is a divine imperative within the heart of husband and wife, heroic in one sense, yet normal in another way. God's grace of sacramental marriage, continuously motivating the spouses, transforms this great demand into routine daily affection and dedication. Not only does Jesus go beyond the tradition of Moses to God's original ideal for marriage, but he also says that, for the sake of the kingdom, some people are called to celibacy. Some are steered into the single life by birth defects or by other causes; others by a free decision. Yet celibacy can be received and lived as a special grace, liberating one for fuller service to God and our fellow human beings, on the example of Jesus himself.
The Pharisees are often presented as testing Jesus. They were aware that his teaching often went much further than the Jewish law required, even, at times, to the point of undermining the Jewish law. On this occasion the Jewish leaders wanted to test how faithful Jesus was to the Jewish law on marriage. They suspected that Jesus' teaching would go against what the Jewish law permitted in relation to marriage, viz. divorce in certain circumstances. Their suspicions were well founded. Jesus' teaching on marriage was more radical than that of the Jewish law. He called on men and women to marry for life, and went back to the book of Genesis to support his 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 Jesus accepting the reality of people's lives, engaging with people just as they were. He relates to all of us in the concrete situation of our lives. Yet, he also holds up 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, for whatever reason, could not reach it. That includes all of us, because none of us fully lives up 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.
Each individual is responsible to God, for his or her own actions
The word of the Lord came to me: What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, "The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge"? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parent as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die. If one is righteous and does what is lawful and right, if he does not eat upon the mountains or lift up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel, does not defile his neighbour's wife or approach a woman during her menstrual period, does not oppress anyone, but restores to the debtor his pledge, commits no robbery, gives his bread to the hungry and covers the naked with a garment, does not take advance or accrued interest, withholds his hand from iniquity, executes true justice between contending parties, follows my statutes, and is careful to obsere my ordinances, acting faithfully, such a one is righteous; he shall surely live, says the Lord God. But if he has a son who is violent, a shedder of blood, who takes advance or accrued interest; shall that one then live? He shall not. He has done all these abominable things; he shall surely die; his blood shall be upon himself.
Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, all of you according to your ways, says the Lord God. Repent and turn from all your transgressions; otherwise iniquity will be your ruin. Cast away from you all the transgressions that you have committed against me, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit! Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live.
The kingdom of God belongs to such as these 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.
Ezekiel highlights our personal responsibility in a way quite novel in his day. Before him, merit and responsibility were largely seen in collective terms: Israel as a whole was either faithful or unfaithful. By contrast, the prophet Ezekiel focuses on the conscience of the individual. In his eyes, too many people sought to justify themselves by the virtue of the community or of their ancestry, while their own hearts and practices were against the Lord's will. Or else people were blaming their sorrows on the mistakes of the ancestors and failing to look into their own hearts for renewal. He first takes the people to task for a proverb that they repeated as a way to shift blame from themselves. They should never again say: Because fathers and mothers have eaten sour grapes, their children's teeth are on edge. Ezekiel insists: If your teeth burn with an acid taste, it is because you yourself ate the sour grapes. Only the one who sins shall die, only the virtuous person shall live, everyone belongs to the Lord. He then reads an examination of conscience to the people and puts to them a serious, adult stance on personal responsibility.
The gospel provides a new context for this. We hear Jesus say, "Let the children come to me. The kingdom of God belongs to such as these." As we allow the impact of today's readings to be felt in our lives, we realize that our following of the Lord must be clear and simple, pure and spontaneous like that of a child. Note that what Jesus draws our attention to is the candour of children, rather than their traditional Jewish duty of unquestioning obedience to parents. The focus of his ecclesial image is more familial than patriarchal .
We've just read how parents brought their children to Jesus, wanting him to lay his hands on them and say a prayer. Instinctively they want what is best for their children and recognize Jesus as someone through whom God is working in a life-giving way, and so they bring their children to him. In our own times, parents who have an appreciation of Jesus and his message and life will have the same desire to bring their children to him. They recognize Our Lord as God's unique gift to us and they want that gift for their loved ones because they want what is best for them.
When parents try to bring their children to Jesus they can meet with obstacles of various kinds. In this morning's gospel those obstacles take the form of Jesus' own disciples who tried to prevent parents from bringing their children to Jesus. We find a struggle in the gospel between those who are trying to bring children to Jesus and those who are trying to stop children from coming to Jesus. The disciples are resisting the desire of the parents for their children. In the midst of this struggle, Jesus is not a passive spectator. He insists, against his disciples, that the children be allowed to come to him. The gospel assures us that in our own struggle to bring our loved ones to the Lord, and to bring ourselves to him, the Lord is always working with us. The strength of his desire to have others meet with him and, thereby, find life will overcome the various obstacles that are placed in the way of our loved ones coming to him. We need to trust that the Lord will find a way of bringing people to him, in spite of the resistances that may be there, of whatever kind.
The prophet is not to publicly mourn his wife's death, as a sign that Jerusalem too will die
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, with one blow I am about to take away from you the delight of your eyes; yet you shall not mourn or weep, nor shall your tears run down. Sigh, but not aloud; make no mourning for the dead. Bind on your turban, and put your sandals on your feet; do not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners.
So I spoke to the people in the morning, and at evening my wife died. And on the next morning I did as I was commanded. Then the people said to me, "Will you not tell us what these things mean for us, that you are acting this way?"
Then I said to them: The word of the Lord came to me: Say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: I will profane my sanctuary, the pride of your power, the delight of your eyes, and your heart's desire; and your sons and your daughters whom you left behind shall fall by the sword. And you shall do as I have done; you shall not cover your upper lip or eat the bread of mourners. Your turbans shall be on your heads and your sandals on your feet; you shall not mourn or weep, but you shall pine away in your iniquities and groan to one another.
To fully follow Jesus, we must not only keep God's commandments but also share 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.
Ezekiel is ordered not to mourn publicly the death of his wife. She is described by the endearing phrase, "the delight of your eyes." People are amazed that on the day after her death Ezekiel proceeds with life as usual. They ask him: Will you not tell us what all these things that you are doing mean for us? He replies that the people shall not mourn or weep, perhaps because of sheer exhaustion after the long siege and its horrifying experience, when God "will desecrate my sanctuary, the stronghold of your pride, the delight of your eyes, the desire of your soul." As we accept the inevitable as God's mysterious providence, we get the strength to begin over again. Ezekiel 24 marks the end of the first major period, up to the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.
In the gospel Jesus asks us to make the best use of our gifts, talents and assets, by sharing them with others. Everyone is called to this positive, 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.
Here we have the story of a good man who wanted to be better. He had kept all the commandments of the Jewish Law faithfully, but he had a sense that this was not enough. He felt called to something more, and, so, he said to Jesus, "What more do I need to do?" We might find ourselves being able to identify with this man. There are times in our lives when we too might experience in ourselves a strong desire to go beyond where we are, to grow in our relationship with the Lord, to be more generous in the doing of his work. In one shape or form we find ourselves asking ourselves this man's question, "What more do I need to do?"
But this man could not live with the answer that Jesus gave to his question. Jesus asked this particular man to do something he didn't ask everybody to do. He was to sell his possession, give his money to the poor and then to set out along the road after Jesus, as Peter, Andrew, James, John and others had done. One of the saddest verses in the gospels comes at the end of our reading, "when the young man heard these words he went away sad." If we ask the Lord the young man's question we cannot anticipate how the Lord will answer us. Yet, the Lord has some purpose for our lives which will always take us beyond where we are in some sense. We find our happiness in yielding to the Lord's purpose for our lives. If we do so, we can be assured that he will give us all the grace and strength we need for the journey
God warns the wealthy seaport metropolis of Tyre to beware of pride
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, say to the prince of Tyre, Thus says the Lord God: Because your heart is proud and you have said, "I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas," yet you are but a mortal, and no god, though you compare your mind with the mind of a god. You are indeed wiser than Daniel; no secret is hidden from you; by your wisdom and your understanding you have amassed wealth for yourself, and have gathered gold and silver into your treasuries. By your great wisdom in trade you have increased your wealth, and your heart has become proud in your wealth.
Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you compare your mind with the mind of a god, therefore, I will bring strangers against you, the most terrible of the nations; they shall draw their swords against the beauty of your wisdom and defile your splendour. They shall thrust you down to the Pit, and you shall die a violent death in the heart of the seas. Will you still say, "I am a god," in the presence of those who kill you, though you are but a mortal, and no god, in the hands of those who wound you? You shall die the death of the uncircumcised by the hand of foreigners; for I have spoken, says the Lord God.
Selfish privilege can destroy us; for the last shall be 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 provocative phrase "the first will be last, and the last will be first" is one of those paradoxical statements that can surface anywhere. How many times we hear it remarked as comment on the fall from grace of some celebrity, or indeed of some powerful force in politics or in commerce. But we are not called to fatalism or passivity, to await some unforeseen divine intervention to bring down blatant instances of injustice and oppression. The readings for today prompt a spirit of active faith in the quest of justice.
Ezekiel rages against the wealthy seaport kingdom of Tyre, the epitome of power and worldly success.. Ships went out from Tyre across the Mediterranean, to populate the city of Carthage, among others. The people of Tyre saw themselves as wiser than Daniel, that proverbial wise man of ancient literature who shows up also in ancient, non-biblical documents. By wisdom and know-how Tyre had amassed ist wealth and commerce and felt itself to be godlike. The island City of Tyre survived many assults, so that not even the Assyrians or Babylonians could capture it. Only when Alexander the Great built a huge earthen mole so to connect it with the mainland, was this great city eventually captured. But collapse it did, a Biblical symbol for defeated pride and unavailing wealth. Ezekiel 27-28 is a classic description of Tyre's downfall, like a ship sinking or a garden of paradise lost through pride. "Faith" survived to write the epitaph of worldly wealth.
With this as background, Jesus' enigmatic sayings about how wealth can mislead and about the first becoming last, about what seems humanly impossible becoming possible by divine grace, should make more sense. He does not explain the paradox about the last becoming first, but to a person of faith, with instincts and values like Ezekiel, and who practices prayer and fidelity, Jesus' words summon us to the most active response of faith, trusting that eventually "the last will be first."
Some Gospel phrases catch my special attention because they convey a great deal, at least to me. One of these is in today's gospel, 'For people this is impossible, for God everything is possible.' A somewhat similar saying occurs in Luke's account of the annunciation where, in response to Mary's question, 'How can this be?' Gabriel answers, 'Nothing is impossible with God.' The context of the saying in this morning'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 this morning'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.
Allegory of the evil shepherds who neglect the sheep and care only for themselves
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them - to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep.You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals.My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.
Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, says the Lord God, because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there was no shepherd; and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep. Oh you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them. For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.
Parable of the estate-owner who pays all the workers the same wages
Jesus said to them, "For 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."
Especially in the case of parables and riddles, the word of God does not give quick, final answers but prods us into reflection, as we read at the end of the Book of Ecclesiastes, "The sayings of the wise are like goads." Elsewhere the word of God is compared to rain and snow that come down from heaven but do not return without soaking the earth, "giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater." (Isa 55:10). God's word is not simply the words of the Bible but the biblical message as absorbed within our own heart and mind, and as planted in the earth of our questions and hopes, like seed that is sown in the field or like bread that nourishes our lives.
The allegory of Ezekiel helps us to look at some details in our style of leadership. Every adult acquires some type of authority over others, be it a parent over home and children, priest and parish team over parishioners, seniority in one's place of employment, elected positions in civil administration, those who hire people for occasional work in the home or office, even each of us in our attitude toward the persons delivering our mail or daily paper, those who collect garbage, and hosts of others who touch our lives in various ways. Each line of Ezekiel's allegory puts a serious question to us. Do we use our authority for our own benefit: by not strengthening the weak, or refusing to bind up the injured? by lording it harshly over others ? by being indifferent to what happens in their daily life? These questions are put to us very seriously. Unless we change our ways, God swears, "I am coming against those shepherds. I will claim my sheep from them and stop them from shepherding my sheep."
When Jesus spoke the word of God, he used the Semitic form of speaking, rich with hyperbole. 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.
Sometimes in his parables Jesus has people behave in ways that others would find surprising or even foolish. The behaviour of the father in the parable of the prodigal son comes to mind. He gave an extraordinary welcome to a son who had done nothing to deserve it. The reaction of his older brother in the story is in keeping with how many people would have reacted if that had happened in real life. Today's parable of the workers in the vineyard is a little bit like that parable. The behaviour of the owner of the vineyard would have been considered very strange and even foolish in Jesus' time; he gave a day's wages to workers who only worked one hour.
Many people tend to react to the parable somewhat negatively even today. Just as we often feel sorry for the elder son in the parable of the prodigal son, we tend to feel sorry for the workers who worked all day and yet got the same as those who worked for an hour. Yet, the workers who worked all day got a day's wages for their work, which is what the vineyard owner promised them. What is strange and unsettling is that those who worked for only an hour also got a day's wages. Jesus began this parable with the words, "the kingdom of heaven is like..." The parable is saying something about how God relates to us. Jesus is saying that God is extraordinarily generous. There is nothing calculating about how God relates to us. God's giving is not dependant on our doing. There can come a time in our lives when, for one reason or another, we can't do a great deal. Jesus seems to be saying that this has no impact on how God relates to us. God does not ask us to be deserving but to be receptive, and the share what we receive from him with each other.
The exiles return to their land, purified and enabled to keep God's law
I will sanctify my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them; and the nations shall know that I am the Lord, says the Lord God, when through you I display my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the countries, and bring you into your own land.
I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances. Then you shall live in the land that I gave to your ancestors; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.
At the royal wedding, outsiders replace the original guests
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 have been 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. The king, enraged, 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."
Ezekiel talks of Israel becoming a purified People of God, using the classic symbol of washing with water, referring to God's lavish grace of renewal. This divine Action will prepare them for re-entry into the Promised Land, after their Exile in Babylon. It is a symbol taken up in the litufgy of Baptism, where the newly baptised are prepared for entry to the Christian community.
The gospel asks us to act firmly on a good conscience, properly guided not just by tradition but by sincere obedience to God. Jesus, in the punch-line of the parable, shows how gentiles from the byroads will share in the feast that once was reserved for Jews alone. In a later revision of the parable, the Evangelist added the phrase "bad as well as good" to describe the people from the byroads, thus reminding the reader of the final judgment. Eventually God will straighten out everything, in His all-wise, compassionate way. Till then we must wait and believe, conscious of His abundant goodness towards each of us, called in from the byroads.
An invitation is not a command. We receive many invitations in life, either verbally or in writing and we probably ignore or decline a good number of them. We are free to accept an invitation or not. God's way of relating to us is shaped more by invitation than by command. The parable Jesus speaks in the gospel this morning is about God's invitation to all of us to the banquet of life. In the story, the king who invites chosen guests to his son's wedding banquet does not cancel the meal when those who were invited all refuse; instead he invites a whole new group. That aspect of the story speaks to us of God's persistence. When the human response to God's invitation is not forthcoming, God does not cancel anything; he simply intensifies his invitation. God continues to work to ensure that as many as possible approach the banquet of life, embodied in the person of Christ who is the bread of life. The second part of the parable reminds us that saying 'yes' to the God's invitation is not a something we do once and then forget about. We have to say 'yes' to God's invitation everyday day of our lives. In the language of the parable, we have to keep putting on the wedding garment. Having been clothed with Christ at baptism, we have to keep clothing ourselves with Christ and all he stands for, day by day.
The valley full of dry bones will be revived
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones.He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry.He said to me, "Mortal, can these bones live?" I answered, "O Lord God, you know."
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord.Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live.I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord."
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone.I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them.
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live."I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, "Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, 'Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.'Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel.And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people.I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act," says the Lord.
The greatest commandment is love
When the Pharisees heard that he 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 Ezekiel, the hope for humanity is proclaimed as the dead come back to life; and according to Jesus, this is linked to the supreme law of love. Ezekiel compares the exiled Israelites to bones scattered over the plain, desiccated and bleached by long exposure to wind and sunlight. The scene that follows convulses with excitement, "Prophesy over these dead bones: I heard a noise, rattling of bones, bone joining bone; sinews and flesh covering them; prophecy: O Spirit, breathe into these slain." The resurrection was not completed when God stretched sinew, flesh and skin over the knitted bones but only when the spirit breathed new life into them.
As a genuine prophet, Ezekiel does not stop with the external shape of things, no matter how hopeless they may seem. The spirit must stir an inner life of fresh, faithful interaction with neighbour and friend. He was not explicitly announcing the resurrection of every human person from the dead, since his prophecy focussed on the Israelites, alive but exiled, seemingly without hope of ever resuming a happy, normal life in their promised land. Those who died in exile could not share in Ezekiel's vision for they would remain buried in a foreign land. Still, Ezekiel's image of dry bones for the nation of Israel, the starkest possible symbol for their hopeless situation as exiles, implicitly contains the hope of individual resurrection. In Ezekiel's vision, the wonder of God's reviving the nation of Israel points to the hope of personal resurrection also.
We should never try to limit God even by cherished religious formulae. Such limitations are exposed by Jesus' reply to the lawyer's question. First the lawyer intended to trip him up, but Jesus transcended the intrigue and argumentative spirit. In simple words he declared the greatest and first 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 commandments are planted in the deepest fibres of our existence, and they point forward to eternal life.
A Pharisee asks Jesus this vital question, "Which is the greatest commandment of the law?" Jesus has no hesitation in replying that the greatest truth in the Law is the commandment to love. Love is not only the first and greatest but it is also the second greatest commandment. God has the first and greatest claim on our love; only our Creator is to be loved with all our feelings, all our will, all our mind, our whole self. God alone is worthy of this total love, because God's love has brought us into existence and sustains us in existence. Yet, Jesus is clear that such love of God, if it is really genuine, will overflow into the love of our neighbour, on a day-to-day basis.
If we truly love God we will be caught up into God's love for all of humanity, including our enemies. In Jesus' eyes, those who proclaim their loving devotion to God while damaging other human beings in any way are the worst form of hypocrites. Jesus gave himself completely in love to God and, as a result, he gave himself fully in love to others. We need his Spirit in our hearts, the Holy Spirit, if we are to love in this same twofold way.
The glory of the Lord returns to dwell in the Jerusalem temple
Then he brought me to the gate, the gate facing east. And there, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east; the sound was like the sound of mighty waters; and the earth shone with his glory. The vision I saw was like the vision that I had seen when he came to destroy the city, and like the vision that I had seen by the river Chebar; and I fell upon my face.
As the glory of the Lord entered the temple by the gate facing east, the spirit lifted me up, and brought me into the inner court; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple. While the man was standing beside me, I heard someone speaking to me out of the temple. He said to me: Mortal, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet, where I will reside among the people of Israel forever. The house of Israel shall no more defile my holy name, neither they nor their kings, by their whoring, and by the corpses of their kings at their death.
Through humility we approach God who then exalts us
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 Jesus' time, the Scribes and Pharisees used tradition and ingenuity to try to determine God's will for His people, but often got it wrong. While Jesus admits their right in principle to exercise religious leadership, he sharply criticises the way that they fulfilled their role. "The Scribes and the Pharisees are Moses' successors as teachers; therefore, observe everything they tell you. But do not follow their example." In effect, their words are bold but their deeds are puny. Pride and selfishness, greed for honour and power, have undermined their religious authority. Jesus condemns their splendid robes and haughty practices: the widening of their phylacteries, their little boxes containing parchments of scripture, worn on their forehead and left wrist at prayer; places of honour at banquets and the front seats in synagogues; delighting in honorific titles like rabbi, teacher and father. We wonder what would he say about honorific titles in the Church, like "Your holiness," "Your eminence," "your Grace," "Reverend and Right Reverend"?
Jesus did not brand these practices as evil of themselves. The devout Israelite wore his phylacteries out of reverence. After urging us to love God with all our heart, soul and strength (Deut 6:4-5), the Torah continues: "Take to heart these words. Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and abroad; bind them at your wrist; wear them on your forehead" (Deut 6:6-8). It is not the acts themselves but the spirit with which they are performed that Jesus cares about. He may seem, literally, toforbid the use of such honorific titles, but remember how often he spoke with Semitic hyperbole (cf., Luke 14:26). In his follow-up, he at once refers to the inner spirit that directs and motivates external actions: "The greatest among you must be the one who serves. Those who exalt themselves shall be humbled, but those who humble themselves shall be exalted."
A similar insistence on the inner spirit imbues today's text from Ezekiel. When he completes his prophetic task and the Spirit-led people have returned to their ancestral land, the temple can be rebuilt. Yet an outward building is not enough. The glory of the Lord must return to dwell again among the people. From the beginning then, God had a mysterious plan that would develop far beyond the dreams of his servants.
By their faith and love, the name of Jesus Christ is glorified
Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering.
To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of his call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Jesus condemns the blind guides for their legalistic distinctions
"But 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.
The Thessalonians live and act in such a way as to "prove" their faith; the blind guides in the gospel destroy faith by legalistic hairsplitting. Compared to the Scribes and Pharisees, the Thessalonian Christians possessed only elementary training in their religion. The fact that they would easily misunderstand Paul's words about the second coming of Jesus shows that they had gone no further than the ABCs of the faith. This problem will show up again in next week's readings). Still other problems surfaced at Thessalonica according to Acts 17:1-15.
While the Scribes and Pharisees quoted Scripture much more eloquently and precisely and were much more successful in gaining converts to Judaism than the Thessalonians to Christianity, nonetheless, the latter were proving their faith more effectively. No one proves faith by logical words pondered by the mind or even by miraculous actions seen by the eye. Even the Egyptian magicians could match Moses' actions, and the devil can quote Scripture for evil purposes. Faith is proved by intuitions of the spirit and by manifestations of the spirit. Its supernatural language is spoken through acts of love and fidelity: By this shall everyone know that you are my disciples, if you have love, one for another (John 13:35). Intuitions of the spirit are communicated through the vibrations of sincerity, honesty, humility and other fruits of the spirit (Gal 5:22).
In this spirit Paul had come to Thessalonica, preaching the gospel "not merely in words" but out of complete conviction. In the same spirit the church he founded there lived the faith so vibrantly that reports of their faith spread to other places too. They confidently awaited from heaven the Son whom God raised from the dead, "Jesus, who delivers us from the wrath to come." Faith was much more than a recital of past events, for it looked to the future too, awaiting the messianic kingdom. This expectation should not make us dreamers, overlooking the basic needs of our neighbour. Rather, it prompts us to be "labouring in love." The reading from the 2 Thessalonians joins the two ideas clearly: as faith grows so mutual love increases, and results in a spirit of "constancy."
The gospel refers to the faith seen among the Scribes and Pharisees. When Jesus declares that their actions are "few," he means actions worthy of imitation. He goes on to say that their works were performed to be seen. Their religious practices were to enhance their reputation; converts were trophies to be displayed. By using a refined legalism they justified doing what the law prohibits. Jesus' words here are so severe that we almost wonder if he was being guided by the charity which ought to direct all words and actions? The liturgy does not include other lines which help to put the entire speech into a perspective of love and compassion, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, murderer of prophets and stoner of those who were sent to you. How I have yearned to gather your children, as a mother bird gathers her young under her wings, but you refused me."
Jesus was very critical of those who were an obstacle to other people coming to believe in him. He was critical of his own disciples for trying to prevent children drawing near to him, in spite of the wishes of the children's parents to the contrary. He was critical of those who tried to prevent blind Bartimaeus from making contact with him. Rather than shutting up the kingdom of heaven in people's faces, Jesus wants his followers to open up the kingdom of heaven to others. We are to lead each other to the Lord, to reveal the Lord to each other, and, in so doing, to support one another on our journey towards the kingdom of heaven. There are many people in the gospels who brought others to Jesus and who can be an inspiration to us. We only have to think of John the Baptist whose life mission was to lead people to Jesus and in that way to open up the kingdom of heaven to others. Saint Paul was very aware of his calling to lead others to the Lord. In today's 1st reading he reminds the church in Thessalonica of "the sort of life we lived when we were with you, which was for your instruction." We all need the support of each other's faith, each other's lived witness, as we journey on our pilgrim way through life
Do not be unduly excited about the second coming of the Lord
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction.
For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Integrity is based on justice, mercy and good faith
Jesus said to his disciples,
"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.
Paul often combines attitudes that at first may seem contradictory. Though strong and independent in personality, he can be "gentle as any nursing mother." In no way did he plan his actions merely to please others, yet he was anxious to share the lives of his people. He values practical decision-making in everyday matters, even while convinced that the second coming of the Lord Jesus was not far off.
Another seeming contrast is found in the preaching of Jesus, when he reverses what Scribes and Pharisees consider essential and what they judge of lesser value. His attitude to the Law is that it all depends on the spirit with which it is kept . This could of course become very subjective, so that people's behaviour would be prompted more by their feelings than by their principles.
Because religion is a mixture of interactive charity and of obedience to God, of external laws and inner spirit, of ancient traditions and future hopes, it will always face significant inner tensions. Unless there is trust in God and in each other, no principles will be enough. The Scribes and Pharisees have grown so nearsighted by selfishness and vainglory as to neglect the weightier matters of the Law, justice and mercy and good faith. Despite their zeal to make others clean on the outside, they are unwilling to cleanse what is inside themselves. One may try to sidestep God's demand for a sincere, integral by focusing attention on small matters, straining out the gnats . Another form of evasion, as Paul explains, is to be absorbed in awaiting our Lord's second coming while not doing anything to solve the immediate needs of life.
St Paul offers many practical norms to keep religion free from weird excesses and in tune with the highest ideals. His Christians show courage in the face of opposition; seek to please God rather than impressing others; avoid greed under any pretext. He instances his own behaviour: gentle as a nursing mother; "sharing with you not only the Good News but our very lives too, so dear had you become to us." His brand of Christianity has no place for idleness or total passivity.
Perhaps we don't always think of Jesus as having a sense of humour. Yet, the image he uses in today's gospel displays a sense of humour. He accuses the Pharisees of straining our gnats and swallowing camels. A gnat or flee is almost invisible; a camel is big and imposing. The picture of someone straining out a gnat so as not to swallow it while happily swallowing a whole camel is humorous in a zany kind of way. Jesus uses that image to poke fun at those who make a big deal about what is not important while happily ignoring what is important, being scrupulous about paying tithes on herbs while ignoring justice, mercy and faith. Jesus is talking about getting our priorities right, keeping things in proportion. We can all be prone to getting overly excited about minor matters while not attending sufficiently to what really important. On this occasion, Jesus lists what is important as justice, mercy and faith. Justice and mercy concern our relationship with our neighbour; faith concerns our relationship with God. Jesus is saying, what really matters is getting those two relationships right; everything else is secondary. St Paul says something very similar in one of his letter, 'the only thing that matters is faith expressing itself in love.' We pray that this would always be our priority.
Disciples of Christ should work for their living and live at peace with others
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labour we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in all ways. The Lord be with all of you. I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand. This is the mark in every letter of mine; it is the way I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you.
Woe to hypocrites, beautiful on the outside but filthy inside
And Jesus said, "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 us two complementary views on human activity. Paul stresses work, the gospel condemns "works". Paul's work that leads to faith had little or nothing to show for itself. Paul thereby was supporting himself and therefore consuming whatever he earned. Only a little was left over for the poor.
Yet Paul's words suggest that the spirit in which he went about earning his living convinced people that his message was to be received "not as a human word, but as it truly is, the word of God at work within you who believe." God must be "at work within you" before anyone can believe. Yet here external means help to enable people to recognize God at work. These external means preparing for faith are Paul's daily work.
Somehow or other, people who are willing to be thoroughly human have a better chance to be blessed by God than those who are nervously anxious to always appear sacred. Self-conscious sanctity carries the threat of pride and injustice which is destructive of healthy human relations.
Jesus criticizes the religious leaders for being more preoccupied with appearances, what is on the outside, than with what is within, what Scripture call the heart. Today, even more than in the time of Jesus, appearances, image, has become all important. People who have a certain image receive the most adulation, have the biggest following and, often, get the biggest salaries. We are easily taken in by appearances. Jesus invites us to look at little deeper, which is how God looks. As one of the books of the Jewish Scriptures says, "we look at appearances, God looks at the heart."
The "heart" is the seat of the emotions, the intellect and the will. What matters to God is the heart, how we feel, how we think, how and what we desire. We are to bring our feeling, our thoughts, our desires into line with how God feels, how God thinks, what God desires for us. Our hearts are to reflect, in some way, God's heart, which means Jesus' heart. As Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew's gospel, "Learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart." It is the Holy Spirit who comes to us from God and the risen Lord who can mould our hearts into images of the Lord's heart. We pray today that this work of the Spirit will be brought to completion in us
Paul acknowledges the Corinthians' gifts and prays for them
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sos'thenes, To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to God always for you because of the grace of God which was given you in Christ Jesus, that in every way you were enriched in him with all speech and all knowledge, even as the testimony to Christ was confirmed among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ; who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The faithful servant always awaits his master who may come 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 urged to look out eagerly for the glorious return of Christ as saviour and judge. The apostle prays that their hearts be strengthened for that day, and in his greeting he prays that they be "blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus." Today's gospel also states this belief in the words of Jesus, "Stay awake, therefore. You cannot know the day your Lord is coming."
We are to be alert and prepared, but not to the extent of some early enthusiasts who quit their jobs so as to give themselves full time to prayers and waiting for that day of days. Paul handled that crisis briskly with this tendency by saing that "Anyone who will not work should not eat." The Corinthians are praised as "richly endowed with every gift of speech and knowledge." This encouragement is sincerely meant, yet there is an indirect warning for them too, and it is clear that this community never won the apostle's affection as did the Thessalonians or the Philippians. If Paul praises the Corinthians' cleverness, he sees them lacking in unity and charity, the two most essential virtues.
Jesus praises the good steward who treats others in the household with love and respect, eats and drinks temperately, and always stays alert to his duties. This is a faithful and wise servant . But if our faith does not tolerate idle dreaming, neither are we to become mere busy-bodies, masters of trivia, beaurocrats with no time for contemplation, strategists with no moral principles, manipulators without mercy or 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. However, 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, to the 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.”
The mystery of the cross is wiser and stronger than us
My brothers and sisters, Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.
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.
It is lovely to be met by someone when we arrive home from a journey. To be met by a friendly face is all the more gratifying if our arrival has been delayed. Recognizing the hoped-for presence in the crowd, despite our very late arrival, makes us all the more appreciative of their coming. They have been faithful, in spite of the inconvenience of the unexpected delay. The bridegroom, in today's parable, who turned up late must have been equally pleased to find that at least some of the bridesmaids were there to meet him with torches lit and to escort him to the wedding banquet, in spite of his late arrival and their long wait. After speaking the 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 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 lamp burning, letting our light shine to the end, amounts to doing the good works the Lord calls on us to do, for as long as we are able to do them.
God chose the world's despised, so that our wisdom, justice, and holiness would centre on Jesus
For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption; therefore, as it is written, "Let him who boasts, boast of the Lord."
Those who use their talents are rewarded; burying talents is blamed
Jesus told them this parable,
"Think of a man, going on a journey, who 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! So you knew 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.'
The gist of today's parable is the painfully true paradox that in this world order the haves will get more, while the have-nots will lose even the little that they have. It surely does not express the ideal of Jesus, which was for a community of love and sharing. But the paradox does have some practical applications. Like any motor or machine with moving parts, God's gifts must be kept in use in order to stay in good condition. Non-use leads to stagnation, rusted parts and clogged-up valves. Physical and spiritual life degenerates if kept in isolation and confinement. But the abuse of life's gifts can also destroy them, even more than non-use. Today's readings enable us to integrate these factors in the use of our talents.
The written word is just one part of the total process of arriving at the will and purpose of God. As we trade with our precious heritage of Sacred Scripture, the biblical text interacts with our personal, family, society and church expectations. We pray for the enlightenment of God's Spirit while also seeking advice and reflecting on our experience. Those who have engaged in this dialogue will get more, while those who just sit tight are in danger of losing the little they have.
Paul offers a central guiding norm for keeping up the quality of our life: Jesus is our sanctification, for he enables our best self to emerge; and he is our redemption, so that we form one living person with Jesus, our elder brother, whose spirit and example we try to follow in everything.
When Jesus involves three characters in a parable, the emphasis usually falls on the third character. For example, the good Samaritan, who is mentioned after the priest and Levite pass the man on the roadside, is the focus of that story. In the parable we have just heard the third servant had a very negative view of his master; he saw him as a hard man, reaping where he had not sown. Because this servant was so afraid of his master, he did nothing with what he had been given. The other two servants, in contrast, had a much more generous view of their master. As a result, they had the freedom to take initiatives and even to take risks with what they had been given.
Jesus has revealed a God of infinite generosity; he has shown God to be someone whose goodness leaves us astonished, who remains faithful even when we are not faithful. Jesus does not reveal a God who is just waiting for us to fail, which is how the third servant saw his master. Rather, Jesus shows us a God who wants us to launch out into the deep and who continues to befriend us whether or not we catch anything. God's loving fidelity should give us the courage to take risks with what God has given us. Perfect love drives out fear, according to the first letter of John. The assurance of God's perfect love should drive out the kind of fear that left the third servant in the parable crippled. God who has been generous with us asks us to be generous with what we have received, and then to leave the rest to God.
Paul came to them in a weakened state, but still preached with the power of the Spirit
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling; and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Jesus' inaugural discourse at Nazareth, affirming Isaiah's hope-filled 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 brought to our attention, the first during Jesus' earthly ministry, the second at the end of time with his second coming. In each case the results are due more to God's power than to human wisdom, as Paul reminds us. In preaching to the Thessalonians, Paul insisted on the central mystery of Christ's resurrection, as a pledge of our own resurrection: For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, God will bring forth with him from the dead those also who have fallen asleep believing in him.
If all true spiritual power derives from Christ, then Paul will not be discouraged, even if for a time he has to live "in weakness and fear." His correspondence with the Corinthians reveals the intensity with which Paul argued. Yet, at the base of his activity he felt a sincere sense of consecration, and he sensed the genuine presence of the Spirit. Therefore he was open to new inspiration, and even to changes of his mood. After doing his best, Paul could then confidently leave the results with "the power of God."
Today we begin to read from Luke's gospel. With him we will follow the journeys of Jesus all the way through the remaining weekdays in ordinary time, from this twenty-second week till the thirty-fourth. Already in his opening address at Nazareth he announces, "Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." Later in this gospel, Jesus points out that the kingdom of God is not to be identified with a point of time, nor is it "here" or "there." For the deepest truth is that the reign of God is already in your midst (Lk 17:21). This inaugural sermon of Jesus at Nazareth combines some of the major themes of Luke's gospel: concern for the poor; people's amazement at Jesus; outreach to Gentiles; role of the Spirit; Jesus as prophet; Jesus' rejection "outside the city."
"Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." The power of the resurrection is already being felt. The jubilee year of favour announced in Isaiah 61, which leads up to the new Jerusalem (Isa 62) and the new heaven and new earth (Isa 65: 17-25), has already begun with Jesus. We are already experiencing the wonder and the joy of the jubilee. Such happiness cannot be possessed selfishly. It will be lost if it is not shared. We, the chosen people, must be willing to recognize the same messianic fulfillment with widows and foreigners, with outcasts and lepers. Jesus cannot rise to new life unless the glad tidings be sent to all the poor and neglected of the world.
When he read from the prophet Isaiah and then sat down to comment on the reading, Jesus indentified 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 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. Jesus was saying to 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 Jesus had of his mission made the people of Nazareth very angry. Jesus was one of their own and they expected special treatment. However, 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.
One taught by the Spirit of God can judge rightly and know their innermost self. Such people have the mind of Christ
These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what person knows a man's thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who possess the Spirit.
The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because the are spiritually discerned. The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. "For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?" But we have the mind of Christ.
Jesus teaches in the synagogue and drives out demons, with divine authority
Jesus 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.
Much of the time, life plods quietly along, routine setting the pace of each day. But Paul urges us to take a sprightlier view of things: "All of you are children of light and of the day. We belong neither to darkness nor to night." Often, what happens unexpectedly has been lurking in the shadows of our character. It can be a healthy purification to come clean and be out with it. But we cannot arrive at the truth about ourselves without the light of the Holy Spirit. We hear again from Paul: "The natural person does not accept what is taught by the Spirit of God." Indeed, we rely heavily on the Holy Spirit to put our inner selves back together again, once we have experienced any serious transition. In this "we have the mind of Christ," says Paul. We must believe God's providence embraces this sudden change and can direct our life as Christ's was directed.
Even if we resist change and cling to what is familiar, we are not left forever in a hopeless bind. Suddenly on any Sabbath day Jesus can come into our lives to drive out our "devils" of fear or anger or despondency. Like the people in that synagogue, we find ourselves spellbound by his teaching, for the words have the divine authority and ring of truth. Then he can speak to our heart and open up the dark reserves of our unconscious as with power he commands the unclean spirit to leave us. Through our attentiveness to the Scriptures and to prayer, we are regularly in Jesus' presence, waiting for those turning points that only He can stir up in us.
In the gospel, Jesus is confronted by someone who addresses him in very aggressive tones, 'What do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us?' Jesus did not withdraw in the face of such naked aggression but instead, responded in a way that brought healing to this disturbed person. So often in the gospels, Jesus does not respond in kind to those who are hostile to him. Even as he hung from the cross, he prayed for those who had put him there, 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?' The gospels assure us that the Lord does not relate to us as we relate to him; his way of relating to us is always more generous and loving than our way of relating to him. In this morning's gospel, the people responded to Jesus' meeting with the disturbed man in the synagogue by expressing amazement at his authority. Jesus exercises his authority by showing love and kindness to those who have no claim on it. In that way he shows us what real authority looks like.
Avoiding envy and strife; collaboration should marks God's co-workers
But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apollos," are you not merely men?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.
Jesus heals Simon Peter's mother-in-law, then moves on with his mission
After leaving the synagogue Jesus 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 also; for I was sent for this purpose." So he continued proclaiming the message in the synagogues of Judea.
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 quickly. Even Paul's converts did not follow any shortcut 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."
Jesus brought healing to many people in Capernaum. Understandably, the people of Capernaum wanted to hold on to him. So when he went off to a lonely place just outside Capernaum to pray they caught up with him and tried to prevent him leaving them. However, Jesus made it very clear that he had to move on, 'I must proclaim the kingdom of God in the other towns too.' The Capernaum villagers had to let him go; Jesus was at the disposal of God's purpose and that took priority over what the perticular people wanted. We began reading from the gospel of Luke last Monday; Luke consistently portrays Jesus as someone who totally wanted to serve God's purpose. That often brought him into conflict with human purposes that were opposed to God's purpose. We are all called to live our lives in accordance with God's purpose. We try to do what we think God wants of us. That will often bring us into conflict with what other people want of us and want from us. In our struggle to do what God wants, however, we have the risen Lord to help us to walk that way. He can empower us to take the path he took, through his presence to us in his word, in the Eucharist.
All things are yours, you are Christ's, and Christ is God's
Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." So let no one boast of human beings. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's.
After a miraculous catch of fish, the fishermen follow Jesus
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.
The saying that it is well to count our blessings is well grounded in Holy Scripture. Sometimes victory or success can be our undoing, when we take it for granted and become arrogant about it, or worse, contemptuous of others as "losers". Oddly, a person could be mre deeply hurt by success than by failure. Paul in First Corinthians sums up the attitude that will save us from the pitfalls of success: Let there be no boasting and no name dropping like, "I am of Paul or of Apollos or of Cephas." We ought to be honestly aware of our blessings, for "all these things are yours," but we also remember: you are Christ's and Christ is God's.
To really appreciate we have been blessed can unleash a generosity in us. We have just heard the response of Simon Peter and his friends to their catch of a large number of fish by the power of Jesus, how they were willing to stake all their future on his guiding words. There's a strong sense of "noblesse oblige" about this story. They were drawn to follow Jesus because he appealed to the best that was within them.
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 this morning'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.
As God's servant, Paul must not be judged by mere human judgment
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. I do not even judge myself. I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then every man will receive his commendation from God.
The disciples need not fast while Jesus is with them. All is new
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.'"
How often we are caught by envy, misunderstanding and rash judgment towards one another. Where some rejoice in God's 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. Neither could Paul ever please the Corinthians, and in desperation he lashes back, "It matters little to me whether you or any human court pass judgment on me. The Lord is the one to judge me." At the deepest level this is true, we are judged by the Lord alone. Real faith makes this demand and has its reward when Jesus reveals the hidden intentions of the heart.
Some wish to suppress the mysterious working of grace under strict control, excessively and rigidly applied. They want to patch a new garment with old material, pour new wine into old wineskins. 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 very used to a certain 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 this morning'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 this morning for a greater openness to his promptings.
By his his lifestyle and manner, Paul seeks to win back the loyalty of the Corinthians.
I have applied all this to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brethren, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favour of one against another. For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift
Already you are filled! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men. We are fools for Christ's sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the off-scouring of all things.
I do not write this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Jesus defends his disciples for 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."
The Jewish sabbath greeting Shabbath shalom! expresses the biblical wish for fullness of life. But this fullness cannot be gained just by keeping a set of fixed rules. 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, by entering into the eternal sanctuary through the sacrifice of his life, in the Passion. If it is to be real, peace is no cheap grace; it is not "easy come, easy go". Jesus died to open the way for us into God's peace. He patiently suffered 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 so that he can present us to God "holy, free of reproach and blame." Saint Paul, too, had to struggle to retain the loyalty of his Christians in Corinth, so that he could continue to help them gain the prize of eternal life.
In the gospel, Jesus is in dispute with the Pharisees as to what people can and cannot do on the Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath, as you know is a Saturday, today. 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 Jesus' master or his Lord. 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 this morning'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.