NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 4: 1-11
FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT
USCCB Link to all three readings
At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread."
He said in reply,
"It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God."
Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone."
Jesus answered him,
"Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test."
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, "All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me."
At this, Jesus said to him,
"Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve."
Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.
There is a longstanding practice of assigning the Gospel narrative of the Temptation of Christ to the First Sunday of Lent. The Tridentine Missal assigned this text from Matthew as the annual reading; the new missal of 1970 added the Markan and Lukan accounts in years B and C. (St. John does not include a temptation narrative.) It is easy to understand the Church’s longstanding practice of selecting Matthew as the sole source for this opening Sunday of Lent for so many years. His narrative of the encounter of Jesus and the Devil is the most detailed and arouses numerous questions. St. Mark’s entire narrative, by contrast, consists of three lines!
Matthew’s temptation narrative follows immediately 3: 13-17, Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John the Baptist. The same is true for Mark and Luke, so there is consistence in the three Synoptic Gospels that after his baptism. Yet the three evangelists compose the narrative here from different theological slants. In the case of Matthew, R.T. France writes that “the focus of the ‘testing’ agenda is indicated by the clause which introduces the devil’s first two suggestions, ‘If you are the Son of God.’” (p. 127) At the end of Chapter 3, 3:17 to be precise, the voice comes down from heaven to announce “This is my beloved Son” as Jesus steps forth from his Jordan baptism. The devil makes this manifestation the heart of his testing; Satan is trying to drive a wedge between the newly declared Son and his Father.
The sequence of the temptations is quite personal, a matter of Jesus praying under anguish to understand and to accept the crucible of the baptism he has received, the full implications of divine son-ship, and the fate that awaits him. France underscores the existential challenges to Jesus personally. Oddly, one could, I think, remove the devil from the text and the narrative would still make sense. To say that Jesus is “like us in all things but sin” (Hebrews 4: 15) can only make sense if he were vulnerable to the human experiences of hunger, success, and the need of the love of his own people. The word “desert” in the Bible is often used to describe a place of desolation, hunger and thirst, wild beasts, and particularly in the apocalyptic sense, the site of past and future battles of the powers of good and evil, such as between the angels and the devil’s minions. It was the Spirit, after all, who led Jesus to the desert in the first place. (Matthew 4:1)
There were no witnesses to the temptations, meaning that what we see here is not the ministering Jesus, so to speak, but an intimate view of his nature. Matthew apparently felt that his own congregation or readership (around 80 A.D.) needed greater insight into Jesus, particularly at a time when outside division and internal strife was a major struggle for the Church. This text, in France’s view, cannot be used to map out a “messianic agenda” like a state of the union address. (p. 127)
Consider the first temptation to change stones into loaves of bread. With no other human presence, the proposition is addressed to Jesus, to satisfy his hunger only. Implied here is the devil’s argument that if Jesus is the Son of God, it is demeaning to be faint from hunger, and moreover unnecessary, since divine power has been assigned Jesus. Jesus’ reply is drawn from last Sunday’s Ordinary Time Gospel, where Jesus tells his disciples not to worry about what they are to eat, for the Father knows and will make provision. Such will come to pass in Matthew 4:11 where the angels come to minister to him, presumably with food.
The second and third temptations reflect Matthew’s inspired theological imagination, for the text literally states that the devil transported Jesus to improbable or impossible locations. France refers to these transportations as “not physical but visionary.” (p. 131) The second temptation takes place at an elevated spot on the Temple where a fall might be fatal. Here we anticipate Shakespeare’s much quoted line from scene three of The Merchant of Venice: “Mark you this, Bassanio, the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” (Did St. Matthew inspire the Bard?)
The devil is quoting Psalm 91: 11-12, which speaks of God’s protection to all who “live in the shelter of the Lord.” If this Bible passage applies to the humblest Jew, would it not indeed apply to God’s own Son if he jumped from the Temple?” This is the devil’s second request of Jesus to prove that the divinity attributed him at his baptism is more than an empty title. Matthew, in fact, will use this language again in his Good Friday narrative when hostile crowds demand that Jesus prove he is God’s Son and come down from the cross.
Evangelical scripture scholar Craig Keener punctures the devil’s temptation quite well: “It would be to act as if God is there to serve his Son, rather than the reverse.” The devil is ignorant of or unwilling to take Jesus at his word that “the Son of Man has come to serve, not to be served.” In our Sunday text Jesus responds to the second temptation with another Hebrew Scripture quote, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6: 16)
The final temptation reflects apocalyptic imagination, for it is depicted in a place that does not exist, a mountain from which all the kingdoms of the world can be seen, and raises the stakes to the core of the cosmos. The devil drops the “if you are the Son of God” segue and cuts right to the chase. All the kingdoms of the world would come to Jesus if he acknowledges the superiority of Satan. This is a direct challenge to the relationship of Jesus to his Father. France reminds us that universal domination was regarded by some Jews as the hallmark of the Messiah, but such a role—and its lethal cost extracted here—is beyond anything related to Jesus’ vision of the Reign of Heaven or the Kingdom of God. The temptation is rejected out of hand and the devil dismissed.
Spending this day with the Temptation narratives has brought me a profound appreciation of why this text is so appropriate for the First Sunday of Lent, for it describes the internal struggle of the human Jesus to come to grips with Baptismal reality, a struggle we renew within ourselves this week as we take the ashes of holy Lent.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 6: 24-34
EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"No one can serve two masters.
He will either hate one and love the other,
or be devoted to one and despise the other.
You cannot serve God and mammon.
"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life,
what you will eat or drink,
or about your body, what you will wear.
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?
Look at the birds in the sky;
they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns,
yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Are not you more important than they?
Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes?
Learn from the way the wild flowers grow.
They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor
was clothed like one of them.
If God so clothes the grass of the field,
which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow,
will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith?
So do not worry and say, 'What are we to eat?'
or 'What are we to drink? ‘or 'What are we to wear?'
All these things the pagans seek.
Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.
But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be given you besides.
Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.
Sufficient for a day is its own evil."
This coming Sunday is the last before the Lenten/Easter/Pentecost cycle, and we will not return to the Sunday narratives of Matthew in sequence until June 25. If that seems like a long way off, it is. Four months, to be precise. And when we do resume the narrative, it picks up well into Matthew 10, on the Twelfth Sunday of Ordinary Time. This year there is no ninth, tenth, or eleventh Sundays, as they fall on Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and Corpus Christi, respectively. It is the unfortunate lot of Matthew that the longest Gospel suffers the biggest editorial interruptions in the Lectionary.
As one might expect in Year A, Matthew’s account of the Temptation of Jesus (4: 1-11) is the text of choice for the First Sunday of Lent, and his account of the Transfiguration of Jesus on the Mountaintop (17: 1-9) is the choice for the Second Sunday of Lent. But then Year A features the three lengthy conversion narratives from St. John’s Gospel—associated with the Catechumenate—through the bulk of Lent. Matthew’s account of the Passion is read on Palm Sunday and his Resurrection account at the Easter Vigil, but his text is not a primary source during much of the Easter Season. Matthew’s Gospel, to be sure, is best appreciated by personal reading and reflection cover-to-cover.
Sunday’s Lectionary texts is divided into two sections, and in R.T. France’s commentary (see home page) he treats of the “two masters’ dilemma” with preceding text about where one’s treasure lies. The poet John Milton, in Paradise Lost, personifies mammon into Mammon in describing a fallen angel, so that the text would seem to describe a division of personal loyalties, God or the Evil One with his minions of fallen angels, in the style of the temptation in the desert. But the thrust of Matthew’s sermon is personal disposition; what is described here is internal wrestling about value and worth. As France writes, Jesus’ saying about the two masters is not true, practically speaking; In life, we serve many masters or persons, from parents to IRS agents. The better interpretation runs along the lines of personal orientation, toward God or mammon—though ironically the Scriptures generally use the word mammon in a neutral or even favorable way, a true demonstration of the radical thought of Jesus. (France, p. 262)
The second and larger portion of Sunday’s Gospel continues the theme of the disciples’ attitude to material needs and possessions as well as the radical style of Jesus’ commands. The Sermon on the Mount is a unified description of the true disciple, and the advice of Jesus here was countercultural then as it is today. My ecclesiology professor would refer to Gospel texts like this one as “balloon theology.” On its face the comparison of human complexity to lilies of the field or free spirited chirping birds can seem like an insult to the intelligence, or an appeal to utopian/Woodstock naivete. The idea of people living off God’s dole without any indication of a full day’s work can be read as socialism on steroids, certainly a far cry from Calvin’s Protestant work ethic. Remember, though, that Matthew’s Gospel has a futuristic/apocalyptic strain always in search of eventual glory, as the remarkable Good Friday text illustrates at the moment of Jesus’ death (Matthew 27: 51-53).
But beyond that, one way that Scripture scholars undertake their work is through text and grammar analysis, or form criticism. At its root, form criticism looks at the oral and early written origins and contexts of sacred texts, to the degree that this is possible. (In fact, form criticism is less used today because scholars have less textual faith in what they can determine than they did in the twentieth century.) But textual analysis remains very useful in attempting to transmit both Mideastern linguistics and culture into western understanding.
Jesus made frequent use of similes, metaphors, and hyperbole. A jarring example of hyperbole is Jesus’ saying, “If your hand is an occasion of sin, cut it off….” Self-mutilation, then and now, would be gravely immoral, but Jesus’ audience would have perceived his intent to convey a life-and-death struggle to remain faithful to the Kingdom and avoid the fires of Gehenna or hell. In our Sunday text, we have a series of natural metaphors, although again practical and observable realities would call them into question. Birds of the air (not to mention the poor people on the ground) died of starvation in Jesus’ day. The wild flowers might indeed have been dressed better than Solomon, but they were more likely eaten by wildlife before they reached the oven. Jesus’ metaphors here certainly point to an idealized future.
Again, remember that the primary audience here is disciples, itinerants with Jesus who had sold boats and abandoned tax collecting for an unreliable day-to-day existence. Not for nothing did Jesus teach them to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” France makes the point well: “Worry is the antithesis of the practical trust in God which is the essential meaning of faith in this Gospel. Those who worry show their lack of faith.” (p. 266) Again, the existential/psychological struggle of discipleship is manifest here: trusting the promise of the Kingdom should trump present day cares. I suspect that as Matthew penned this narrative a half-century later, the Beatitudes—God’s futuristic morality--were not far from his mind, as well as Jesus’ command to be (or become) perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.
Given that Lent is just a week away, it may be that some readers might wish to study the full and uninterrupted text of Matthew during the holy season. I will attempt to find some recommended links to good texts and commentaries for your perusal.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 5: 38-44
SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TOME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"You have heard that it was said,
An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.
When someone strikes you on your right cheek,
turn the other one as well.
If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic,
hand over your cloak as well.
Should anyone press you into service for one mile,
go for two miles.
Give to the one who asks of you,
and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
"You have heard that it was said,
You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.
But I say to you, love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
that you may be children of your heavenly Father,
for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good,
and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have?
Do not the tax collectors do the same?
And if you greet your brothers only,
what is unusual about that?
Do not the pagans do the same?
So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."
Unfortunately, I lost my copy of Hans Kung’s On Being a Christian from the early 1970’s, because I believe it was there that I read an observation that has stuck with me all my life: Christianity is the only religion in the world whose morality calls upon its members to become like God. The quote should come as no surprise in view of the final sentence of next Sunday’s reading, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
I suppose we should not be surprised by this stunning mandate after reading the preceding texts from Chapter 5, which take morality—and ultimately charity and religious life itself itself—to truly astounding heights. While there can be discussion on various shades of Jesus’ wording, the intent is clear. A Christian adopts the mind of God and weighs every one of his own words, actions, or omissions with a conscious deliberation of whether he or she is acting “God-like.”
France refers to Sunday’s text as “Retribution” sayings, in that the entire series of sayings copes with responses to good and evil. He points out that the Law of Moses, like other ancient and modern law codes, regulated the extent of retributive punishment. There must be proportionality to the offense: one eye in retribution for an eye destroyed, a tooth for a tooth, etc. In states in our own nation where the death penalty is employed, the same principle of Israelite Law is upheld. (France, p. 217)
Jesus, as is evident, does not entertain this thinking. In France’s words, “Jesus’ concern is only with the inappropriateness of such a formula to personal ethics Applied to that context it becomes a justification for ‘getting your own back.’” (p. 217) He notes that many who have understood the true thrust of Jesus’ teaching here have often declared it to be not only extreme and unwelcome, but also practically unworkable in the real world, in part because it encourages the unscrupulous and the feckless.
Part of the accurate understanding of Sunday’s text depends upon the realization that Jesus is unveiling a different sense of virtue in the Kingdom of God, a shift away from the juridical and toward the intentional, to establish a “greater righteousness” in France’s words. Non-resistance, uncalculated generosity, concern for the other—each of these becomes the new touchstone for the morality of the Kingdom, its first line, if you will. France concedes—as would most of us—that unlimited generosity to beggars can wreck an economy and does little for the beggar eventually. But the first instinct of the Christian is feeding, not means determination. Matthew’s Gospel will address such questions in later chapters.
An obvious question here is whether Jesus’ new ethic of the pursuit of Godliness is a repudiation of Israel’s Law, then in force during Jesus’ lifetime. A brief and pithy answer would be to say that Jesus has created an apples and oranges set of circumstances. The Law would remain (as does Catholic morality today, for that matter) as a necessity in an imperfect world, an aid to sort out human behaviors that society must deal with. But observance of the Law was no longer the end game: the Pharisee described in Luke’s Gospel parroting his observances does not even hold a candle to the humble publican who did not even dare to cast his eyes upward.
“Fulfillment of the Law” in Jesus’ context consists of leaving it behind in favor of a different order entirely, that of the righteousness of the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned above, this phrase of Jesus, to be perfect as the Father, has been the jumping off point of many a prayer reflection on my part. For this teaching is as much a statement of anthropology as it is morality, cutting to the question of what is a man. It is no longer possible to divide one’s religious self from the rest of life, a serious flaw in any religion which defines completeness in observance.
In the new Kingdom of God, a man or woman is perpetually established upon the quest for perfection, or better put, the full perfection of God lived on earth. St. Paul conveys the same idea when he speaks of becoming a “new being in Christ” in baptism. I hear people tell me that they listen to inspirationals on their IPod or cell phones in between the important events of their day. The essence of Sunday’s Gospel calls for a state of mind in which the perfection of God, the quest for his kingdom, animates and permeates the “big things” and the “important things” that make up life. The things of religion are no longer catch as catch can, but the constitution of a life.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 5: 17-37
SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to his disciples:
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.
I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.
Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away,
not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter
will pass from the law,
until all things have taken place.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments
and teaches others to do so
will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.
But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments
will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
"You have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.
But I say to you,
whoever is angry with his brother
will be liable to judgment;
and whoever says to his brother, 'Raqa,'
will be answerable to the Sanhedrin;
and whoever says, 'You fool,'
will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar,
and there recall that your brother
has anything against you,
leave your gift there at the altar,
go first and be reconciled with your brother,
and then come and offer your gift.
Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court.
Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge,
and the judge will hand you over to the guard,
and you will be thrown into prison.
Amen, I say to you,
you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
"You have heard that it was said,
You shall not commit adultery.
But I say to you,
everyone who looks at a woman with lust
has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
If your right eye causes you to sin,
tear it out and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.
And if your right hand causes you to sin,
cut it off and throw it away.
It is better for you to lose one of your members
than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
"It was also said,
Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.
But I say to you,
whoever divorces his wife - unless the marriage is unlawful -
causes her to commit adultery,
and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
"Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors,
Do not take a false oath,
but make good to the Lord all that you vow.
But I say to you, do not swear at all;
not by heaven, for it is God's throne;
nor by the earth, for it is his footstool;
nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King.
Do not swear by your head,
for you cannot make a single hair white or black.
Let your 'Yes' mean 'Yes,' and your 'No' mean 'No.'
Anything more is from the evil one."
The Lectionary for Sunday’s Mass provides the option for a shorter version of this Gospel text to be proclaimed, so it is quite possible you will not hear all this material at your Mass. Given that next Sunday is the Catholic Charities Appeal in my own diocese, I am next to certain we will hear an abbreviated form of this text to allow time for the bishop’s video. Moreover, this text is of such length that homilists will be hard pressed to incorporate all of it into sermons, and given the inclusion of Christ’s teaching on divorce, it is a good guess that this text will draw considerable attention.
R.T. France refers to this text as “Fulfilling the Law.” (p. 177) As the first sentence makes clear, Jesus has not come into the world to undo the centuries of Israelite Law that he himself grew into, but to bring forth its full content and to correct d errors of interpretation on such matters as taking oaths and divorce. France points out that this text is the most exhaustive treatment of one theme in the New Testament, namely, fulfillment of the Law. It is an instruction to the disciples on how they are to teach the Law. The product of this teaching is a vision of life that goes far beyond what traditional commentators had arrived at, and in a lesson devoid of acrimony or disrespect, Jesus says in effect that the Law of Moses contained a much more enlightening portrait of the Kingdom of God that only Jesus himself has been able to elicit.
France looks at the history of interpreting the opening paragraph, which Christians often misinterpreted as an indication that Jesus was at his core a hardline fundamentalist, particularly considering his citing specific moral dilemmas further down the chapter. The biblical scholar observes that the Gospel speaks of the Law and the Prophets together, and not “the Law as preached by the prophets.” Law and prophets are taken together in Jesus’ thought as futuristic or apocalyptic features moving relentlessly toward fulfillment. In Matthew 11:13 Jesus says that “all the prophets and the law prophesied until John [the Baptist].” The only conclusion one can draw is that observance of the law and listening to the prophets are a process leading to new and glorious fulfillment of the Kingdom of God in Jesus.
The phrase “Amen, I say to you…” is found thirty-six times in Matthew, and it is used to convey power and authority in its emphasis, and in the opening text here it has the effect of saying that the Law in its integrity will last until “hell freezes over,” as France puts it. It is wise to remember, too, that Matthew’s Gospel was written around 80 A.D., when it is safe to say that a Christian law and observance was becoming established. The text can correctly be applied to the Apostolic teaching of the Church as it applied in Matthew’s time, and it is true that Christian Law could be at variance with Jewish law in matters of cleanliness, or the need for circumcision to enter the Kingdom of God. Also in this opening paragraph, it is helpful to keep in mind Matthew 23’s condemnation of the Scribes and Pharisees in terms of how not to teach and observe the Law.
The next paragraph begins a series of citations or examples from the long and venerable tradition of Jewish Law. Each of these teachings—on murder, anger, adultery, divorce, oath taking, etc.—have the same structure. Jesus quotes the Law, but then introduces his commentary with “Amen, I say to you…” to expand upon or return to the purity of the Law in its full setting. Put another way, Jesus draws a powerful comparison between the Law as tolerated in his day and the way in which God intended the Law to be understood in its fullness. France describes Jesus’ commentary on the Law here as a contrast between the legal correctness of the scribes and the more demanding ethic of Jesus which was summed up in the Beatitudes a few weeks back, “be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect.”
Time does not allow for discussion of Jesus’ teaching on divorce, although it can be said that Jesus was stricter and more absolute on the subject than religious jurisprudence of the day would have been. Later in the Church Year we will hear Matthew 19:3 where he is asked his opinion directly on the matter.