Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Hoarding False Righteousness

As we move closer to the end of the year, the end of the Gospel, and Matthew’s last sermon, on last things, in our Gospel this week Jesus demands from us the fruits that he planted in his vineyard.

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The hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed

Our reading from Isaiah sets the metaphor for many Gospel parables about vineyards.  “What more was there for me to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” the Lord asks. “Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild [or sour] grapes?”  And in his anger, as Jesus with the fig tree, he pledges to destroy the vineyard: by letting Judah be taken to the Babylonian captivity, and later by letting the gentiles partake of the privileges of his people Israel.

The last words of the parable are key, because they describe the fruit he seeks: “He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!  For justice, but hark, the outcry!”  The translation is awkward.  In the Old Testament, “judgment” refers to good judgment, and especially just judgment: treating people right.  The word translated “justice” means more generally “righteousness.”  But instead of just, his people just hurt one another.  Instead of righteous, they squeal and make others squeal.

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Don’t miss this parable’s connection to another Gospel parable, the lead one from Matthew’s third sermon, on parables.  There we read about seed planted (i) on a trampled path, which is (ii) eaten by animals; (iii) on stony places, where it is (iv) scorched by the sun; among (v) thorns; and (vi) on good soil.

In our reading from Isaiah, the master of the vineyard removes the stones (iii in the list above), to make (vi) good soil, but when he is angry he breaks down the hedge so that it will be (ii) eaten by animals and (i) trampled; then he commands it to be (v) overgrown with thorns and (iv) scorched by the sun.  Every one of the elements lines up.

The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 (we read it way back in mid-July) is quoting this parable in Isaiah.  But where the parable in Matthew might make it sound like Jesus is responsible for the seed and we are responsible for the soil, the parable in Isaiah emphasizes that the Lord has given both good seed (“the choicest vines”) and good soil, and his people have still failed to bear the fruit of righteousness.  Isaiah pushes us deeper into the mysteries of grace: we cannot say that God made us the bad soil in Matthew’s vineyard.  Somehow we have rejected his efforts to clear us of stones.

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That connection leads us into our reading from Philippians.  Rather than “anxiety,” as if everything depends on us, we should live by “petition, with thanksgiving,” because everything, even the good soil in the vineyard of our hearts, comes from him.  If we live this way, always “in Christ Jesus,” “the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds.”

Then he urges us to “think about” “whatever is true” and honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy – one of the most beautiful sentences in Paul.  Modern people tend to dismiss thinking, but Paul shows us that meditation is the way seeds are planted in our hearts.  Then we can “keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen”: we do what we learn.  We receive the righteousness and peace of Jesus into our hearts by hearing his word and meditating on it.

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Our Gospel is full of inversions.  The first strange detail is that in his vineyard he places a tower.  That detail is in Isaiah too.  It paints a picture to help evoke the Old Testament prophet.

But the tower here works three ways.  First, it makes the vineyard beautiful.  But second, it lets the wicked tenant see the Lord’s servants and son coming – so that they can attack.  And third, it shows the vineyard to those on the outside: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  The conclusion of the story is that the vineyard – that is, Jerusalem, the city on a hill, and the heavenly Jerusalem – is given to a new people, who in Isaiah are always streaming in to that exalted city.

So too with the fruit: we are called to bear fruit for the Lord of the vineyard, but instead they want to keep the fruit for themselves.

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Christ the healer

A third inversion: the messengers.  All the servants and prophets, and finally the Son, reflect the Lord’s love for his vineyard.  We are still in the context of the lost sheep.  But the other sheep turn into wolves, and the lamb sent to call the lost sheep home is slaughtered.  The cornerstone becomes a stumbling block.

The fourth and final inversion: God’s mercy.  It is rejected because it seems to allow unrighteousness, but it really prepares the way for true righteousness.  We are still in the context we discussed last week, the context of the chief priests and elders who reject the prostitutes and tax collectors who followed John the Baptist.  In context, the punchline of this parable is that those who count themselves righteous will lose the kingdom, and “tax collectors and sinners will go into the kingdom of heaven before you.”

Why?  Because those who count themselves righteous fail to bear the fruit of justice and instead attack God’s messengers of mercy.  But of course, those messengers of mercy are not calling us to be tax collectors and sinners any more than they are calling us to be Pharisees and chief priests.  They are calling us to bear the fruit of the Gospel, to live lives transformed by the peace that passes all understanding, lives that reflect whatever is true and honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy.

How do you find yourself hoarding false righteousness instead of bearing fruit for the Lord?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Evangelical Conversion

Evangelical Conversion

It’s a cold weekend here in New Jersey.  As summer ends and the year comes to a close, we come toward the end of our annual cycle reading the Gospel, and the liturgy looks toward the end.

In our reading of Matthew, we are now in the chapters between the fourth sermon, on Christian community, and the last one, on the end times, part of which we will read in the middle of November.  The stories in between, including the ones we considered last Sunday, on poverty, chastity, and obedience, turn us toward the end by calling us to conversion.

Last week we looked toward the end with the eleventh hour: it is never too late to convert.  This week we skip a chapter ahead, skipping over, too, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus has come to claim his authority.  One of his first steps is to cleanse the Temple, then the Temple officials ask him how he claims such authority, and he challenges them back by referring to John the Baptist’s authority.

Our reading this week comes next: the parable of the two sons, one of whom says he will serve the Father but does not, and the other of whom fails at first but then does the right thing.

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Our first two readings set it up from two directions.  In the first, Ezekiel challenges us to appreciate that the justice File:Хрыстос з палаючым сэрцам.jpgof the Lord is not to count people’s past lives against them, but to let them change, for good or for bad.  Conversion.

Our second reading, now from Philippians 2, tells us what that conversion looks like: to have the same selflessness and self-emptying as Christ, seeing others as better than ourselves.

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Our Gospel reading itself has two parts.  The more obvious is the first part, about the two sons.  But the second part is the punchline: “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

The parable has a context.  It is true enough, on its own level, that like the two sons, we should change for the better, not for the worse – better to fail at first than to claim we are righteous and then not follow through.  But Jesus has in mind a particular debate.

As is often the case, Jesus sets out the parable to make a lesson obvious.  He asks his audience, “Which of the two did his father’s will?”  And the answer is obvious.

But the parable stings.  He is not only commending the son who converts.  He is warning his audience that they are like the son who says he will serve but then does not.

He is in the Temple, which he has recently cleansed.  He is speaking to the chief priests and elders, those who consider themselves righteous.  And he says, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”  Not just “they are entering,” but “before you.”

Many who are last will be first.  But many who seem to be first, he warns, will be last.  Many who dress up fancy, who act religious, who take the chief places in the synagogues.  Always Jesus warns us who are “religious.”  The coming end is not only an incentive and an opportunity for those who are “outside”; it is a warning for those of us who are inside.  He will end his preaching, in Matthew 25, by sending people to hell for saying, “When did we see you a stranger and not welcome you?”

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Called to be Fishermen

In this reading, the challenge to the religious people is how they react to the prostitutes and tax collectors.  The more righteous we think we are, the more intolerant we can become of those who are still converting.  This, my friends, is the heart of what Pope Francis is saying: if we are not evangelistic, if we are not afire for mission, if we are not always reaching out to draw people in, we fall instead into the place of the chief priests and elders in this story (and the Pharisees in so many others).  Their failing, he says, is to condemn those who are in the process of converting: that is how they fail to do the Father’s will.  We must never grow complacent in our faith.

The reading from Philippians says, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourself.”  That is a constant call to conversion, a constant call not only for the tax collectors and prostitutes to enter in, but for us to call them in.

In both the story before our reading, where they challenge his authority, and in this story, Jesus reminds us about John the Baptist: “When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”  John is the call to conversion.  Let his voice never cease to echo in our ears.

What sinners do you find your heart hardened against?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday: A Radical Call

Our Gospel for this week is the parable of the eleventh hour: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”

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Sent into the Vineyard

It comes in the middle of what we could read as two chapters on the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity, and obedience.  After the Sermon on the Parables, Jesus discusses the obligations of marital fidelity.  The disciples say, “If this is the case of the man with his wife, it is not good to marry,” and Jesus says that some are called not to marry.  Nice that chastity is presented here both as the radical fidelity of celibacy and the inconceivable radical fidelity of Christian marriage.

Then the rich young man can’t leave his riches; the disciples say, “Who then can be saved?”; and Peter proclaims, “We have forsaken all and have followed you.”  Commending their fidelity, Jesus for the first time says, “Many who are first shall be last, but the last shall be first,” which is also the conclusion of our parable.

Our parable, the eleventh hour, comes next, followed by Jesus’s third prediction of his death and a discussion of power (and thus obedience): James and John’s mother asks for them to sit at his right and left as judges, and he replies that they must die with him.  He concludes, parallel to “the first shall be last,” “Whoever desires to be chief among you, let him be your servant.”

The eleventh hour somehow fits in the context of the death (and resurrection) which is the radical fidelity of poverty, chastity, and obedience, to which we are all somehow called.

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It fits, too, in the context of our first reading, where Isaiah tells us that we should turn to the Lord from our wickedness, because his thoughts are not our thoughts.  He does not reject the convert of the eleventh hour, nor does he like our idleness till the twelfth hour or our anger at his mercy.

And the context of our second reading, where Paul, in our first reading now from Philippians, tells us that for him life is Christ, death is gain, and he lives his life for Christ and his people.  We are called to “conduct yourself in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

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The parable of the eleventh hour, then, is about that conduct, that conversion, and that radical death and resurrection which is the way marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Notice, first, that the master of the vineyard “went out at dawn,” and then again and again throughout the day.  At the end of the day, he has his “foreman” pay the wages, showing both in the foreman and in the wages that he has others who can go out for him.  (And as he scoops up the last idlers, we see he doesn’t need a talented talent scout: he could have sent his lowest servant to the highways and the byways.)

Christ is that master, going in search of the lost.  In that respect, this parable echoes many others.

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Faithless to the Call

Notice next that he sends them into the vineyard to work.  In the next chapter, he will tell two parables about vineyards, one in which the Father calls his Son to work in the vineyard, the other in which the landowner demands his fruits.

The vineyard, he says there, is the kingdom.   And he sends us in not to lounge around eating grapes, but to work.  The laborer is worthy of his pay, to be sure, and the Master will reward those who work – but the conduct worthy of the gospel of Christ, even the poverty, chastity, and obedience worthy of the gospel of Christ, is, as our reading from Paul says, “fruitful labor,” for the benefit of others.

Yes, he is merciful, even with those of the eleventh hour who come into the vineyard at the end – but he calls us to work for his kingdom.

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Third, notice that the master is righteous.  In Romans 1, Paul proclaims that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”  The theme of Romans is that the righteous God pours his righteousness into us through faith.

So too in our parable we hear the landowner say, “I will give you what is just,” or righteous, then later, “I am not cheating you,” literally, “I do you no unrighteousness.”  It’s all the same Greek word.

He is generous.  But his generosity is not a denial of his righteousness, but a sharing of it.  He who is righteous calls us into his righteousness and righteously passes on his righteousness to us.

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Christ is the Vineyard

Finally, notice the unrighteousness of the workers.  Those who came first complain of his generosity, like the elder brother of the prodigal son.  But with those of the eleventh hour, as with the prodigal himself, he changes his call, from, “You too go into my vineyard,” to “Why do you stand here idle all day?”  “Here”: where he has come, where he has called, where he has seen you.

They answer, “Because no one has hired us.”  In Greek it can also be read, “no one has paid us.”  I’m not going to work until I see some money!  Well, that is not righteous, and that is not how we receive the righteousness of God.

How have you resisted the call to enter radically into the vineyard?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: How to Think about Debt

St. Thomas thought justice was a good thing

Justice is not a popular virtue, at least not with my students.  Justice seems stingy, the opposite of mercy, which is generous.

So it’s hard to read traditional accounts that say worship is our “debt” to God, something we owe him in justice.  I have not heard much appreciation for the line in the Mass, “let us give thanks to the Lord – it is right and just.”  Justice seems like the opposite of mercy, something we despise.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday, the end of the Sermon on Community, seems to confirm that Christians don’t care about justice.  Jesus tells us to forgive seventy seven times.  Forget about debts!

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But then Jesus takes it in a different direction.  “That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.”  The king concludes, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me.  Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”  “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless . . . .”

Accounts, debt, torturers, debt: he talks about all of it in terms of debts.  We should forgive not because debt doesn’t matter, but because we have a debt.

And notice that this passage follows one in which we were encouraged, not only to forgive, but also to correct: “If your brother sins against you.”

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Please be patient for a little Greek:

When it says the servant, “Had no way of paying it back,” the root of the word is “giving”: he had no way

Gift

of giving back.

The master orders him to be sold “in payment of the debt”: same word, to give back.

The servant says, “be patient with me” – “have a great soul” – “and I will pay you back in full”: same word.

The Master was “moved with compassion” (his guts were moved, splagchna) “and forgave him the loan.”  The word for loan is based on the word for “giving”: a loan as a kind of “gift” that you “give” back.

But the servant finds someone else who “owed him” and said “Pay back what you owe.”  Here there is nothing of gift, only obligation.

The other servant says, “I will pay you back”: and again it’s the word for “giving.”

But “he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt”: gave back the obligation.

When the master hears, he speaks no longer of the “gift” but of the “obligation”: “I forgave you your entire debt.”  And so he “gave” him in a different, ironic way: “handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt”: obligation.

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Perhaps I am stretching the linguistic point – perhaps not.  But there are two ways to look at debt and justice.  In one, it is pure obligation.  Our parable talks about that: this way of thinking involves choking people and handing them over to torturers.

(The selling of the family, I must say, is ambiguous: the Greek is less clear than the English about what is going on.  Leave that aside.)

On the other hand, there is the language of gift.  A loan is a gift I give you, expecting that you will give in return.  People ask each other not quite to “be patient,” as in our translation, but “to have a great soul” or perhaps it means, “have a soul that sees the long term.”  Friendship is a matter of give and give in return.

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Let us give thanks

This economy of the gift, I think, is a helpful way to think about justice.  God isn’t going to strangle us if we don’t pay him back.  Rather, he gives gifts, and he expects us to live within the gift, to give gifts to one another, to return gifts to him, even to give the gift of thanksgiving, which is nothing but the recognition that things are a gift.

In Latin and its derivatives, like Spanish, the way you say thank you is with the word for “grace.”  Someone gives you something and you say, “gracias: free gift – that was a free gift, thank you, I appreciate that this is a gift.”  Let us give thanks, it is right and just.

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In our first reading, from Sirach, mercy and forgiveness are a wisdom thing, wrath and anger are stupid.  You don’t want to live in the realm of wrath and anger, he says, live in the economy of gift.

In our reading from Romans, yet again marvelously paired with our Gospel reading, Christ died for us, and so we know that we belong to him and to one another, in life and even in death.  Christ’s death makes clear that we have not a God of choking and torture and obligation, but a God of gift and giving back and thanksgiving.

That’s why we forgive seventy seven times: because we live in light of the gift, because justice is rich and generous, like mercy.

Where in your life have you forgotten the economy of gift?

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Christian Community

For weeks we have been reading the stories in Matthew’s Gospel that follow the third great sermon, the Sermon of Parables, on the hidden power of the Holy Spirit.  This week and next week we read from the fourth great sermon, the Sermon on Community, where we find what that hidden power brings about.

Any discussion of grace must have both these poles: both the power of God, which comes first, and the transformation it brings about in us.  And because that power is one, the transformation it brings about in us is unity, Christian community, the Church.

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The Prophet Ezekiel

The first two readings set the scene.  In Ezekiel we read of the prophet’s responsibility to tell the people of their sins.  “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

For the second reading, we are now on chapter thirteen of Romans, the first of the last four chapters of Paul’s masterpiece on grace, where he too discusses the transformation that grace brings about in us.  He tells us that all the moral law, all the wickednesses about which the prophet must warn us, are all about love.  “… And whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The work of the Spirit in us is love.  The commandments are necessary because they are part of (not the whole of) love, and correcting wickedness is necessary as itself a way to love the sinner.

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Our Gospel is about correcting the sinner: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

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The Visitation: Heart speaks to Heart

The Lectionary has skipped over the first half of the Sermon, where we are taught to be lowly like children, to receive the lowly children, and to go in search of the lost sheep.  Next week we will read the end of the sermon, on forgiving seventy and seven times.  In all, we are talking about the requirements of community.

This week’s reading walks through progressive ways of correcting our brother’s sin.  It ends by talking about the Church, and this point of arrival is essential, because what we are talking about is the Church.  If you can’t correct him, you “tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” – which, coming from Jesus, means you still seek to save him, Jesus is always reaching out to the tax collectors – but you know he is no living the life of Christ’s body, the Church, no longer full of the Spirit that binds us together.

Then Jesus repeats a line he had said to Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The jurisdiction he gives to Peter and to the Apostles is a function of the jurisdiction he gives to his Church as a whole.  Peter is important because the Church is important; the bishop is a ministry of the Church, the community of Christians.

(There is a strange detail in the Greek, which says “heavens” when it talks about Peter, and only “heaven” here.  The tradition sees in this, perhaps, a reference to Peter’s universal jurisdiction compared to a local jurisdiction discussed here.  But I don’t think the plural “heavens” alone gives us this distinction.)

In any case, what we are discussing here is the bigger question of the Church.  But what is remarkable about our passage is that we are talking about that big question in terms of the little details of personal relationships.

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The Church a communion

Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”  That is the goal: brotherhood.  That’s the meaning of all the universal stuff about the Church, the papacy, the bishops, etc.: the transcendent value of brotherhood, which exists above all on this local level of fraternal correction.

And it is expressed not only in our membership in the universal Church, but in the details of personal relationships.   You talk to your brother at all – that is, you are willing to correct him, and in next week’s reading, to forgive him – and you talk to him one on one, and then two or three on one, because you care about the person himself.  That is Christian fraternity.

You begin on the personal level, too, out of respect for the person.  The Catechism’s magnificent section on the Eighth Commandment talks about “detraction” (CCC 2477), whereby you tell people something true about someone else’s faults, but something they don’t need to know.  That is a sin, because you should protect people’s reputations, protect them against other people’s “rash judgment,” another sin against truth and charity in the same place.

The point is, you don’t denounce someone in public, because you care about them and want to help them, not to destroy them.  It is a magnificent little detail of the fraternity that is at the heart of the great universal doctrines about the Church.

What conversations is your love of the Church calling you to have?

Twenty-Second Sunday: Not by Earthly Standards

Last Sunday’s Gospel ended with a baffling command: “He strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.”  Why not?  This week we read the passage that follows, and learn something important about evangelization.

File:Rubens B116.jpgOur reading begins, “Jesus began.”  It leaves out the words before, “From that time”: from the time of Peter’s profession that Jesus is the Son of God, Jesus began to tell them about the Cross.  “Jesus began” suggests that he repeated the teaching, and that it took time.

The next verse of our reading has another “began.”  “Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.”  From the time Jesus began to teach about the Cross, Peter began to challenge him.

In our translation, Peter says, “God forbid, Lord!”  Those are such strong, specific words – I don’t know why translators choose them.  Paul often uses a phrase translated that way, me geneto, which is strong like God forbid, but doesn’t bring God into it.  It just means, “no way!”  But Peter here uses a different phrase.  It’s something like “gracious me!” except in Greek it’s “gracious you!”  The Greek is even closer to “happy for you.”

It’s a nice choice of words – let’s assume the inspired writers choose their words well – because it is upbeat, positive.  Peter is contradicting, but he’s contradicting with happiness.

For which, of course, Jesus calls him Satan and a scandal.  Jesus’s words are well chosen, too: “get behind me.”  Because Jesus is telling Peter not just to go away, but to follow him.  And where Jesus is leading is not so happy-go-lucky as Peter would prefer.

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Matthew the accountant is making a point that Mark makes in a more artful way.  The tradition tells us Mark was a disciple of Peter.  And so in Peter’s version, no one acknowledges Jesus as Son of God until the crucifixion.  You can’t know who he is until the crucifixion.  Oh, I’m sure Peter said, “You are the Son of God.”  But Peter would be the first to tell us, “I had no idea.”

Because as soon as Peter called him Son of God, Jesus began to tell him what that meant, and Peter Unknown painter - Christ in the Tomb - WGA23483.jpgbegan to contradict him.

We have read about Peter discovering Jesus as savior: “Lord, help me!”  Always we are tempted to misinterpret.  Jesus as savior might mean that we will always go happy places.  To the contrary, Jesus leads us through hard places.

There are plenty of consolations along the way.  The next story is the Transfiguration.  But that story too ends, “Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”  They will not understand until they pass through the Cross.

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In the second part of our reading, Jesus gives a series of statements about our crosses.  First he says we must deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him (get behind me!).  It’s the second time in Matthew’s Gospel he has told us to carry our cross (see Mt 10:38).  As far as I can tell, it was not a normal expression.  Even before he told them about his cross, he was telling them about theirs.

The Greek word for cross is derived from the word for stand.  It means a stake, a post.  Something you are tied to, to be exposed.  You are going to be exposed, hung out to dry.

Follow me!

Jesus explains, “For whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it.”  Literally, whoever protects his soul will destroy it.  And whoever destroys his soul – it’s a strong word – will find it.

Why?  “For what profit would it be” (I translate literally) “to gain the whole world and damage your own soul?”  Peter wants to push Jesus around according to his earthly idea of happiness, but Peter will damage his soul by those standards.  He needs to learn to follow a different standard, and that means following all the way through the cross.  Otherwise we chase after many things that aren’t what we need, and damage our soul.

And Jesus is coming – this reading looks forward – “in his Father’s glory and then he will repay all according to their deeds.”  How will we stand before his glory?  Will we choose him?  Or wish for earthly things?

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Our first reading, from Jeremiah, “You duped me, O Lord,” talks about God hooking us and leading us into a way that is mocked by earthly standards.

Our Epistle, now in Romans 12, the start of Paul’s teaching on the Christian life, urges us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice and not to conform our minds to the world.

Let not your minds be conformed to this age.

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Jesus tells them not to preach until they have learned about the Cross.  It all looks different in relation to the Cross.  We need to be careful not to follow Jesus, and not to preach him, according to Peter’s earthly standards, before the Cross.  We need to discover the divine perspective, the divine power, the divine goodness, which upends everything.  Perhaps before we preach we need to show both God and our neighbor that we live according to that new standard.

How has Jesus shaken your earthly standards?

Twenty-First Sunday: I build my Church

This Sunday we continue on our quest from the Parables of the Hidden Power to the new community.  This week we have the Confession of Peter, and the theme remains the same: it is the Power of God that builds the Community of the Church.

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Our first reading is from Isaiah 22, from the section where he is proclaiming punishment to various parties.  This reading is a two-edged sword.

File:35 Mark’s Gospel L. the messiah revealed image 1 of 4. Saint Peter given the keys. Rubens.pngIt culminates in the lines: “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.”

“I will place the key on Eliakim” is parallel to Christ in our Gospel telling Peter, “I will give you the keys.”

But the Lectionary makes us read the background, which is ominous.  The prophecy is less about Eliakim than about Shebna, his predecessor: “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. . . . I will clothe him [Eliakim] with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority.”  The Lord gives, but he also takes away.

Now at first glance, a reader, whether a Protestant or certain strands of conservative Catholics today, might think this reading justifies deposing a leader, even a holder of the keys, a successor of Peter.  But the point is the opposite.

Throughout the Bible God says, “Vengeance is mine” – and the point is, it isn’t yours.  Oh, God can depose a Pope (through death).  But no one else can.  “I will thrust you from your office.”  And “I will fix him like a peg in a sure spot.”  I, no one else.

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The bigger point is that it is God who gives the power.  Peter rules not by virtue of his own personal excellence, but because God rules.  That is the point of the keys.  The Lord puts the keys “on Eliakim’s shoulder,” so that they are obvious to everyone who holds the keys: the keys are a visible institution, not some hidden preference of who you think is the best.  And the keys really work: they open and shut the doors.

But it is the keys that do the opening and shutting, not the person.  It is not Francis, or Benedict XVI, ofFile:DambachVille StEtienne 14.JPG John Paul II, who has the divine power given to Peter.  It is the papacy itself.  That’s not to deny the holiness and brilliance of all of them, or the personal initiatives that they take with that power.  But it is the papacy that holds the power, because ultimately it is God, not man.

People sometimes think Catholicism exalts human power.  To the contrary, the sacraments, including the offices of priest, bishop, and pope, free us from an over-reliance on individual authority.  I trust in the papacy, which is a work of God, not in this or that human authority.  I go to Mass for the Eucharist, made present through the priesthood, whatever miserable wretch the priest might be.

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Why does God choose this man or that?  “How inscrutable are his judgments and how unsearchable his ways,” says our reading from Romans.  We can ponder what God is doing, we should, but in the end, it is he who rules the Church, not we.

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The first key line in our Gospel, then, is when Jesus says, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.”  It is God who reveals, God who builds up Peter.  The Lectionary dwells on this incident, and next week we will see the next verses, where Peter fails.  Jesus then says, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings.”  The power is God’s, not Peter’s.

“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”  I will build it – you are Peter, but you will not build it, I will.

Then comes an obscure line, “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail.”  Commenting elsewhere on File:Rubens, consegna delle chiavi.JPGChrist the corner stone – literally, “the head of the corner” – St. Thomas points out that often in the New Testament, the image of the Church is upside down.  The cornerstone is at the top, the keystone of the arch.  We build from the bottom up, but God builds from the top down, the whole Church hanging from the top.

Here, the image is of a Church is built on the rock of Peter, as Jerusalem is built on the rock of Mount Zion, and with gates underneath, trying to drop the holy city down into the netherworld.  It’s not so much the strength of the rock, of this or that man, that holds up the city.  Rather, the Church hangs from above.  “I will build my Church.”

***

“Then he strictly ordered his disciples to tell no one” – and next week he begins talking about the Cross.  Because we understand nothing of the power of God until we see it in the Cross.  Only there do we learn how radical is the bond between God’s power and human weakness.

How could you lean your life more on the strength of God in the institution of his holy Church?

Twentieth Sunday: There Is Enough

We are now in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel that lead from the Sermon of Parables (Mt 13), on the hidden power, to the Sermon on Community (Mt 18).  The Lectionary gives us five Sundays on these chapters, plus the Transfiguration (Mt 17), to explore the community built by that hidden power.

The first two readings give us our theme.  We have one of Isaiah’s many readings on “the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord.”  They will become Israelites: they must “keep the sabbath” and “hold to my covenant.”  They will come “to my holy mountain,” that is, Zion, the temple mount, in Jerusalem, to offer “burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And so the Temple of Israel will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.”

On the same theme, in our second reading from Romans 9-11, St. Paul says that although he is the “apostle to the Gentiles,” “the call of God” to Israel is “irrevocable.”  In short, although Jesus is for all people, not just those born into Israel, he calls us into Israel.  Jesus does not end the Old Testament, but makes it available to all – because Jesus gives us the grace by which we can both fulfill the Law and become the true Community of Israel, the Church.

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These readings give us the crucial background for our strange, and at first disturbing, Gospel story.  A Canaanite woman cries “Have pity on me, Lord.”  Jesus mercilessly ignores her, then says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.”  Only when she comes up with a clever come-back does he heal her daughter.  Not what we expect from Jesus.

Oswalt Kreusel - Millstätter Fastentuch - Die Versuchung Jesu.jpeg

The Devil Confronts Jesus

But once again, the Lectionary gives us a hint of the context.  Our reading begins, “At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.”  At what time?  From where is he withdrawing?

As we saw last week, after the Sermon on the Parables, Jesus is rejected in Nazareth, and John the Baptist is killed.  Then Jesus feeds the five thousand, walks on water, and heals many.  He is rejected, but he shows his power to save.  The theme last week, remember, was Peter’s profession, “Lord, save me.”

In the immediate run-up to this week’s reading, the Pharisees accuse Jesus for not following all their rules about hand-washing.  Jesus says, not that traditions and the Old Law are bad, but that the Pharisees have lost the sense of the Old Law, and even break the Law in the name of petty “commandments of men.”  For “Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man. . . . But the things which come out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile the man.”  Our actions matter, and laws and traditions matter, because they express what is in our hearts, which is what really matters.

***

The Teacher

And so we come to the Canaanite woman.  Jesus goes out of Israel, away from the Pharisees, to Tyre and Sidon (on the coast, northwest of Israel), to talk to a Canaanite woman.

Key for understanding this passage is Jesus’s rabbinic method of teaching.  Remember, as a twelve-year-old in the Temple, he was “sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them and questioning them.  And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers.”  Questions teach.

With the rich young man (Mt 19), Jesus asks, “Why do you call me good?”  Then Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which is right – but Jesus knows it is not the whole truth.  His half teaching provokes the rich young man to say, “What do I still lack?”  Jesus doesn’t just state the truth.  He provokes.

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Study the dialogue.  The woman says, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David.”  The foreign woman acknowledges him as Lord of mercy and as Israel’s messiah.  She knows what’s going on – she knows that in Jesus, she must join Israel.

“Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.”

The disciples respond, “Send her away.”  And to them – not to her; he is calling them into this lesson – he replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  On the one hand, he is sent to Israel.  Israel is key in all of these readings.  But he is sent to “the lost sheep,” to those who cry, “Lord, save me,” “Lord, have mercy,” not to the Pharisees with their self-sufficiency.  Israel is about the promise, about hope, not about possession.  (See Romans 4.)

The woman continues to call “Lord, help me.”

He responds to her, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to dogs.”  But this is a puzzle, both for her and for the disciples.  He doesn’t say, “No, I won’t help you, because you are a dog.”  He gives a puzzle.

She solves it: “Even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the tables.”  To which he says, “Great is your faith” – remember the “little-faith” of last week.

The disciples think of Israel as zero-sum: to give to the woman is to “take the food of the children.”  But the Canaanite woman knows that God’s grace is super-abundant, over-flowing, scraps falling from the table.  We must join into Israel, but there is plenty of room in the Temple.

Whether born in or out of Israel, we become true Israelites not by hoarding our self-sufficiency but by calling out to the super-abundant mercy of God.

In what areas of life do you find yourself hoarding instead of trusting the Lord’s super-abundance?

More than Obedience

Two weeks ago we finished the sermon of parables, about the hidden, transforming power.  Last week we interrupted our orderly reading of Matthew to get the Transfiguration, a couple chapters ahead of where it lies in Matthew’s telling of the Gospel.

StPierreJeuneP232.JPGWe are now in the section leading up to the fourth sermon, the sermon on Christian community.  We are discovering what that hidden power creates.

If we had not had the Transfiguration instead, last Sunday’s Gospel would have been the feeding of the five thousand.  But that Gospel begins, “when Jesus heard” – about the death of John the Baptist.  Right after the sermon of parables, Jesus is rejected by his people.  Then John is killed.  The hidden power is rejected.  And after those two stories of rejection come two stories of miracles: the five thousand, and this week, the walking on water.

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The Lectionary has a lot to cover, so things get little elusions, such as “when Jesus heard.”  After five weeks in the amazing eighth chapter of Romans, we now get two weeks for Romans 9-11, where Paul discusses the situation of Israel in relation to the Gospel.  We will talk more about this teaching next week.

For now, let us just say: the Israelites are the people who received the Law.  That is a good thing.  Law is a good thing.  But Jesus has something more to offer than law.  He offers the Holy Spirit, his transforming grace.  Paul says he wishes the Israelites could move beyond the Law to grace.

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And that is a good way to approach this week’s Gospel, the walking on water.

Jesus has just fed the five thousand.  The apostles must be excited.  But he sends them away, to the other side of the water – and he stays behind.  They are obedient to Jesus, and that is a good thing.

We can see an image of their obedience in the difficulty of their crossing: “the boat . . . was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it.”  How often does obedience to Jesus mean swimming against the tide, and being buffeted by the storm winds?File:Po vodam.jpg

But Jesus has more.

He comes walking on the sea.  They say, “It is a ghost,” a phantasma, an appearance or apparition.  Because it couldn’t be Jesus.  He can’t do that, no one can walk on water.

They are terrified – in fact, the word means stirred up, tossed about inside, just as they are tossed on the waters outside.  What the heck is going on?

Jesus says, be not afraid (different word) for it is I.  What does he mean?

Peter says, “call me out of the boat.”  The first step is obedience.  Our translation is too strong in saying, “command me,” but Peter wants to be obedient, even in the impossible.  That is a good thing.  Funny, though, how even this obedience is on Peter’s terms.  Obedience doesn’t go quite far enough.  What Peter is doing is good, but not good enough – like the Israelites, like the religion of obedience.

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“When he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened.”  The Peter stories are comic.  The boat was being by the winds about before Jesus came.  And the first thing Jesus said was (same word) “don’t be frightened.”  He shouldn’t be surprised.  But he is.

And then he says the most important words of this Gospel, the most important words of our faith: “Lord, save me!”  Notice the transition, from “Lord, command me” to “Lord, save me.”  Peter is no longer in charge.  And he knows that he needs Jesus’s help.

Obedience is a good thing.  But it often presumes our own strength, our own sufficiency.  When the kid says, “time me while I run around the block,” he doesn’t want you to help him, he wants to show how strong he is.  Obedience is often about how strong we are.  “Lord save me” is about how strong Jesus is.

That’s the transition from Law to Gospel.  Not that we stop being obedient or stop following the Law.  But that we learn that it’s only the strength of Jesus, only the Holy Spirit, who makes us able to be perfect as he is perfect.

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“Immediately” – as soon as we call out – “Jesus stretched out his hand and caught Peter.”  Peter didn’t stretch out to Jesus, Jesus stretched out, and grabbed him.  That is grace.  That is the Incarnation.

“O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”  The Greek is funny: “little-faith” is one word.  Later, when Jesus will talk about faith the size of a mustard seed, he also uses one word for “no-faith.”  Peter is not no-faith.  He has the faith of obedience, the faith to say, “hey, I bet I can walk on water too.”  But he needs more faith, more than obedience. File:Bril Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.JPG

At the end of the reading, those who were in the boat say, “Truly, you are the Son of God.”  Two chapters later, Peter will make the same profession of faith, but this is the first time it is said in Matthew’s Gospel.  They know him as Son of God when they learn to cry out, “Lord, save me.”

***

In our Old Testament reading, Elijah sees some dramatic stuff: rock-crushing winds, earthquakes, fire.  But God is in the still, soft voice.  In fact, he is in the quiet, “crushed” voice.  Strange word.  The voice of the crucified.  The voice that speaks to those who have been crushed, and are crushed in spirit.  The intimacy that goes beyond obedience, to “Lord, save me.”

When have you discovered Jesus as Savior?

Transfiguration: Encounter the Glorious Divinity of Christ

This Sunday we are blessed to celebrate the great feast of the Transfiguration.File:1648. Праабражэнне.jpg

The readings begin with an apocalyptic vision from Daniel:

His clothing was bright as snow,

and the hair on his head as white as wool;

his throne was flames of fire,

with wheels of burning fire.

A surging stream of fire

flowed out from where he sat;

Thousands upon thousands were ministering to him.

This is not a cuddly Jesus.  It is not even a humble Jesus.  This is Jesus revealed as God.  The Transfiguration reminds us that within the poverty of the Incarnation is the God of Gods.

It seems to me, listening to preaching, etc., that we as Catholics would understand our faith a lot better if we had a more vivid sense of God.

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Our reading from Second Peter is an eyewitness account.  “We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain.”

Second Peter is a remarkable document, an approach to Christian faith and life through the encounter with the Transfigured Christ.  There are other kinds of approach: through the Resurrection, through the Ascension, Paul’s encounter with the glorified Christ, and yes, through the Cross.  (St. Mark – St. Peter’s disciple – always calls us to the cross.)  But we need to contemplate the face of Christ, to know who he really is.  It all begins with that encounter.

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Let us approach the Transfiguration in four acts.

First, they see him transfigured.  Mark’s Gospel, like Daniel above, compares the whiteness to earthy File:Alexandr Ivanov 015 - variation.jpgthings, snow and bleach.  Luke says it was dazzling, flashing out like lightning.  But this year we are reading Matthew, the literal.  “His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.”  Precisely.

Jesus is full of light.  He is always full of light – but now they see it, see who he is.

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Second, he converses with Moses and Elijah.  On the one hand, Scripture, the Old Testament, bears witness to Christ.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.  Everything points to him, in his glory.

And it is beautiful.  Peter says, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”  The Greek of the New Testament has two words for good.  This one is not good in the sense of profitable.  It is kalon, the word for beautiful.  This is the Good: through Scripture to see the glory of Jesus.  Lovely!

File:Alexandr Ivanov 015.jpgOn the other hand, the good seems within grasp.  Peter is ready to build tents.  Tent is a loaded term in the Bible.  In John’s Gospel, when the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, it is with such a “tent.”  And in the Old Testament, the first temple itself is called the tent, the tabernacle – same word.  There is some presumption in Peter’s offer.

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But third, “While he was still speaking,” God interrupts him.  “Behold, a bright cloud,” which Tradition sees as the Holy Spirit.  And the voice of the Father says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” repeating the same words from the Baptism in the Jordan.  But where those words seemed a beginning then, now they seem a culmination.

And where Peter was presumptuous before, now, “they fell prostrate and were very much afraid.”  (My kids, quoting the King James via Charlie Brown, use the same words as found when the angels speak to the shepherds in Luke’s Gospel: they were sore afraid.)  The “very much” could be translated “violently.”

From presumption and tabernacle building, we move to awe.  We all need this movement.  To discover the divinity of Christ is to discover that God doesn’t need our help, and we aren’t the boss.

Parallel to this movement, the Father adds one phrase to the words from the Baptism: “Listen to him.”  We are called to action – but in reverence.  Jesus will tell them to keep silent until the Resurrection.  God comes first.  Worship comes first.  First we must know him, and know him as God.

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Then in the fourth act, “Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’”  Jesus takes them beyond fear.

But he takes them there by touching them.  The word even means “attaching himself” to them.  In the File:Преображение Господне.jpgIncarnation we pass to a new relationship with the divinity.  Before, we were forgetful of God.  Now we see his beauty, we fall down in awe – and we rise again, not the same, but transformed by the recognition that in Jesus God has come to us, attached himself to us, touched us.

And so “when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone.”  Encounter.

What can we do to make sure we live in awe before the glory of God in Christ?  In what way do you need to fall down before the Transfiguration?