We are back to Ordinary Time – the Lectionary returned last Sunday, but I was not able to write then. We are reading through Matthew’s Gospel, and for most of this year, from weeks nine till twenty-four, the letter to the Romans. Great as all our feasts and liturgical seasons are, Ordinary Time is awesome.
Matthew’s Gospel is arranged around five great sermons. We are now (and were last week) in the second one, Matthew 10, the Sermon on Mission. Jesus has seen the crowds scattered like sheep without a shepherd, so he sends his twelve as laborers into the vineyard. This week we read the end of his instructions to them.
Just before our reading he has warned them, “Do not fear those who kill the body,” and, “I did not come to send peace, but a sword.” Mission will cost us.
Now he says, “whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me,” “Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” but “Whoever receives you receives me.” He has said earlier, “A disciple is not above his master . . . it is enough for his disciple that he is like his master.” Mission means being identified with Jesus, who gives all for his sheep.
The first reading, from the section on the prophet Elisha in Second Kings, gives a positive spin to the Gospel. A woman offers hospitality to the prophet. He sees her generosity, investigates her needs (his servant Gehazi points out that she is childless), and prays for her to have a son. The moral seems easy: if you do good, you will receive good.
But the story is harder than than that. Our translation says she was “a woman of influence”; others go further, and say she is rich. It sounds easy, like rich people can buy babies from God. But the Hebrew just says she is “big”; one of the main meanings of the word elsewhere in the Old Testament is “old,” which makes more sense in this story, where her husband is “getting on in years” and they can’t have a baby.
It’s not clear that the woman is rich. She makes a “little room” for Elisha – on her roof. In the next story, we read that her husband was a field worker. She was generous not out of her abundance, but from her poverty.
And the baby she “will be fondling” soon – I was meditating on this passage while holding my baby late at night in the hospital NICU – is not a prize, but another demand for generosity. In the next story, the child dies, and the woman cries out to Elisha against the pain he has brought her. Elisha raises the boy from the dead – but the first point is, parenthood brings suffering, draws us out of ourselves.
It is not that we throw to God a couple coins we didn’t need, and he buys us a Mercedes Benz. Rather, if we enter into his generosity, he draws us deeper in.
On the one hand, Baptism gives life. On the other hand, the life it gives is the life of Christ, who laid down his life. It gives life only to those who will pass through death. It gives a specific kind of life, one in which we “died to sin once and for all.”
I like to ponder, in the Hail Mary, the phrase, “Holy Mary . . . pray for us.” Mary is Mother of God, a pretty effective choice of advocate – or rather, God’s choice to become a child indicates his openness to hearing our prayers.) “Mother of God” means we can ask God for things and he might listen.
But “Holy Mary, pray for us” is dangerous words. Maybe we would rather have someone not holy pray for us, another sinner, with our set of values. The Hail Mary doesn’t even specify what she should pray for. We’d better look out, because she will pray for the things a holy person cares about, not the things we care about.
God provides for us. But he provides according to his scale of values, not ours. He provides to bring us to his values.
“Whoever finds his life will lose it.” Better to give a cup of water to someone in the name of disciple than to cling to our own values, even our natural love of father, mother, son, and daughter. Of course, Jesus wants us to love them as he loves them. But that will demand a transformation of our love, a hunger and thirst not for our rights, but for righteousness.
How is Jesus calling you to a greater sense of mission?