To understand today's gospel we need to be aware of the context. Jesus has just entered Jerusalem in triumph, cleansed the Temple and cursed the fig tree. All of these actions speak of Jesus fulfilling his messianic mission. The triumphal entry fulfils Scripture and foretells the resurrection while the cleansing of the Temple is a visitation of the Messiah to his Temple, where he proclaims judgement upon it. His messianic ministry is further manifested as: "The blind and the lame came to him in the temple and he cured them." (Mtt 21: 14) The chief priests and the scribes see all of this and its implications. They ask angrily: "Do you hear what they are saying?" (Mtt 21: 16) Thus, the chief priests and the elders are pushed to challenge Jesus' pretension to messianic authority. Jesus does not apologize or back down. Instead, he refers to John the Baptizer as his precursor, fulfilling the role of Elijah, and gives us the parable of the two sons that we hear today. Jesus condemns the Jewish authorities for saying "yes" to God but then doing nothing. If they had been converted by John the Baptist then they would accept Jesus as the Messiah, just as the people have. The people they regard with contempt, the tax collectors and prostitutes, have listened to John the Baptist and been converted. Their "no" to God has become a "yes." The challenge for us is to question the quality of our own response to the grace given in the Gospel and the sacraments. Each of us needs to be alert such that my initial "yes" to Christ is truly an ongoing "yes." If I have contempt for others and am judgmental towards them perhaps I may be falling into the attitude of the chief priests and elders.
Sunday, 17 September 2023
Living out our Catholic faith as a community has never been easy. In recent weeks we have read on Sundays about dispute resolution and the individual exercise of mercy in the Matthean community. We know from elsewhere in the New Testament that the followers of "The Way" faced challenges in their nascent Church of: fraud (Acts 5: 1-11), ethnic prejudice (Acts 6: 1) and racial intolerance/doctrinal disagreement (Acts 11: 3). In addition, the Early Church was mindful of those who had: been with the community: "... beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us." (Acts 1: 22) Jesus, himself, had given priority in his earthly ministry to the Jewish people (Mtt 15: 24) which is also reflected in the fact that St Paul would, when he arrived in a city to spread the Good News, would go first to the local synagogue. (eg. Acts 17: 2) It is understandable, therefore, that individually and collectively Jewish believers would look at later Greek speaking Jewish or Gentile believers with the same attitude as we hear from the early workers in the parable today: "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." (Mtt 20:12) There is a challenge, in all this, to the contemporary Church to focus not on human ideas of precedence rather to express the mercy and generosity of God to all those who are drawn to experience him through the Church and the sacraments. Just as God's mercy is our mercy, so too his generosity is our generosity. There is no room for jealousy in the Church: " 'For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?' But we have the mind of Christ." (1 Cor 2: 16)
Monday, 11 September 2023
Last Sunday we heard about conflict resolution in the Christian community. Today we receive a lesson on the personal obligation of forgiveness. The focus is not on the offender nor is it primarily on myself. Rather, the focus is on God's mercy towards me as the source of the duty to forgive those who have wronged me. St Paul points out: "If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's." (Rm 14: 8) The king, in the parable, says to the servant: "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?" (Mtt 18: 32-33) Every time we come to Mass we make the penitential act in which we invoke and celebrate God's mercy towards us. Every time we come to reconciliation we avail ourselves of God's forgiveness. Every time we receive the anointing of the sick we rely on God to heal us and forgive us our sins. We acknowledge God's mercy in the Lord's Prayer each time we say: "... forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us." As a result, we should not be unmindful of the duty to forgive others when we are such rich beneficiaries of God's mercy. If that is not enough, there is further incentive from our First Reading: "Remember the end of your life... remember corruption and death... Remember the commandments... remember the covenant of the Most High" (Sir 28: 6-7) The last thing we want to happen to me is that: "And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt." (Mtt 18: 35)
Sunday, 3 September 2023
Only recently have I noticed that the gospel selections from the lectionary for Year A are presenting to us those parts of the Gospel of Matthew which do not appear in the other two synoptic gospels of Mark and Luke. It is important to remember that Matthew, most likely, had Mark in front of him when he wrote his gospel and furthermore he had no second volume in mind, such as Luke's Acts of the Apostles, in which to address the life of the Early Church. This, I suspect, explains the emphasis on the role of St Peter that we have seen in the previous two Sunday gospel episodes. It can also shine light on today's gospel which stresses the importance of dispute resolution in the Matthean community. There is an anachronism here as Jesus, before the Church was manifested at Pentecost, is shown as teaching: "If the brother of sister 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." (Mtt 18: 17) Matthew is applying Jesus' teaching on mercy and forgiveness to the life of his own community by which he seeks to reduce conflict among its members as well as protecting the common good. What is even more interesting is that Jesus, even when absent, that is after the Ascension, is made present in the members of the Church when they gather in prayer: "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 you." (Mtt 18: 19-20) This teaching has important implications for us as we gather this morning and pray together in the Mass, which is primarily the sacrificial prayer of our Risen Lord, present in the people, the Blessed Sacrament, the Word and the priest.
Sunday, 27 August 2023
The contrast between last week's gospel and this week is stark. Last week Peter was the "rock" and this week he is the "stumbling block." Last week he was inspired by "my Father in heaven" while today he is "Satan." This hard lesson tells us that as missionary disciples we cannot deny the cross. The temptation is to use human logic and operate on human motivations. St Paul points out: "My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom. but with a demonstration of the spirit and of power. so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God." (1 Cor 2: 4-5) Denial of the cross is one of the five temptations for Jesus to be found in the gospels. Three were in the desert and one in the Garden of Olives at the Passion, with this one coming from his closest friend who acts as the Tempter. The lesson for Peter is that to follow Christ one must be prepared to sacrifice everything including one's life: "If any want to be 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." (Mtt 18: 24-25) The destiny of the Messiah is the salvation of the world not his own health and comfort. Jesus has bigger fish to fry than self preservation or worldly power: "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?" (Mtt 16: 26) The priority for missionary disciples is not the judgement of the world rather it is the verdict of their Master: "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." (Mtt 16: 27) Let us hope that Church leaders, as well as ourselves. are attentive to this gospel as they must cope with the challenges of the present age.
Monday, 21 August 2023
Today we hear the famous words: "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." (Mtt 16: 18) I think it is helpful to note how active this commission is. The task of the church is not to be passive so as to defend herself against the powers of evil and sin but rather to take the offensive. The promise is that the gates of Hell will not hold out against the mission of the Church. There is a heresy called pietism where believers wait in a passive manner for God to act rather than taking any initiative. To be sure, we need prevenient grace, that precedes any act of our own, however, we are obligated to cooperate with grace. God will not force us against our will! Jesus put his own earthly ministry in positive terms: "But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. Or how can one enter a strong man's house and plunder his property, without first tying up the strong man? Then indeed the house can be plundered." (Mtt 12: 29-30) Let us take heart in this and seek to take initiatives as missionary disciples. Let us also be mindful of the words which follow the previous words of Christ: "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters." (Mtt 12: 31)
Sunday, 13 August 2023
It is interesting to compare this version of Jesus' encounter with the Canaanite woman with that in the gospel of Mark. Only in Matthew do the disciples beg Jesus to send the woman away: "Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us." (Mtt: 15: 23) The woman is clearly desperate and although she is not a Jew she is determined to gain access to Jesus. The disciples do not engage with her but see her as a nuisance. Jesus' answer also seems dismissive: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." (Mtt 15: 24) He, furthermore, asserts the priority of the Jewish people much like what we heard from St Paul in the reading from the Letter to the Romans last week: "... to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs..." (Rm 9: 4-5) Yet, the woman persists and Jesus, after testing her again by stressing his ministry to the Jews, answers her: "Woman, great is your faith! let it be done for you as you wish." (Mtt 15: 28) In the community of Matthew, composed as it was of Jewish and Gentile believers, the message is clear. The Jewish culture and religion has priority and Jesus was clearly primarily concerned with them in his earthly ministry. Nevertheless, it is through their great desire to know Jesus, their persistence and their faith, that the Gentiles are able to become Christians. This begs the question about the Catholic Church today. How many cradle Catholics are dismissive of people of different backgrounds or ways of life, even wishing that they will go away? Yet, it is through their desire, persistence and faith that they will come to know Christ and be his disciples. Thereby, receiving from the Lord what they request, just as the Canaanite woman did all those centuries ago.