NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 16: 21-27
22nd SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus began to show his disciples
that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly
from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed and on the third day be raised.
Then Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him,
"God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you."
He turned and said to Peter,
"Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me.
You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do."
Then Jesus said to his disciples,
"Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world
and forfeit his life?
Or what can one give in exchange for his life?
For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father's glory,
and then he will repay all according to his conduct."
As often happens in the Lectionary, two different segments of the Gospel are included in “the Sunday reading.” This presents a challenge to catechists and particularly preachers, who find themselves in the position of explaining distinct “meaning segments” and somehow tying them together. Interestingly, the official Roman ritual does not demand this of the homilist. Para. 65 of the GIRM instructs that “[the homily] should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners.” This is not exactly the style of Protestant preaching as a rule, as the Catholic “explaining of texts” does not have the punch of “rousing to conversion,” the general Protestant understanding of the sermon.
What Catholics could learn from Protestants about preaching the Word is a topic I would like to return to down the road in another post, though in this Sunday’s segments there is considerable rousing in the very texts, and too much explaining might only tend to distract from or soften the bluntness of some very hard truths from Jesus: (1) a person who does what Jesus does is bound to suffer greatly; (2) to think otherwise is to think like Satan, and not God; (3) a true believer has no choice but to deny himself and take up the cross; and (4) each of us will certainly meet judgment for how we measured up.
This text follows last Sunday’s Gospel where Peter identifies Jesus as the Messiah, and where Jesus commands his disciples to keep his messianic identity a secret. In the first segment of this Sunday’s Gospel it is clear why Jesus demanded secrecy. Peter demonstrates here that while he might grasp the proper titles for Jesus’ identity and work, he has little understanding of the contents and the consequences of what he has said earlier. If an intimate of Jesus could miss the mark by a mile, what of the wider body of disciples and the crowds in general? To Peter’s credit, R.T. France observes that Peter may have been overcome with the thought that Jesus the Messiah’s suffering and death are in fact the full divine plan as described in the Hebrew Scriptures. Peter was hardly the only human confused or scandalized on this point. Luke 24 describes in detail the theological anguish of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus on Easter; the divine plan was evidently an obstacle for many (most?) in the early Church.
As France wisely explains, (p. 636) Peter’s strong assertion that “no such thing shall ever happen to you” is a reaction to Peter’s own fate as well as Jesus’. It is beginning to dawn on the Rock that Jesus’ fate is his own, too, for Peter, as well as the rest of the twelve, have been designated as the leaders of the Twelve Tribes of the new and restored Israel. In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims Peter the building stone of his religious posterity. Peter’s consciousness of his own discipleship will take time to develop, and on the night of Jesus’ arrest Peter is more than just hedging his bets; he is in full denial. Until his faith in Jesus is fully established, Peter is a roadblock; hence Jesus’ “Get behind me, Satan!”
The second section’s teaching on the cost of discipleship is reported in the Gospels of Luke and Mark (Mark contains three distinct predictions of Jesus’ death). ** France takes umbrage at translators and preachers who soft-petal these hard words about the cost of discipleship with phrases like “self-denial” and “bearing crosses.” In fairness, even St. Luke—the first evangelist to understand that the Church might last for centuries—softens the original “take up his cross” to “take up his cross daily.” France argues that Jesus’ words here cannot be taken as “merely” metaphorical (p. 636); “discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom.”
The precise text of the second paragraph has an almost psychological ring, for it speaks of “wishing to save one’s life,” reflective of both a self-awareness of one’s place in the world and an acknowledgement of one’s deepest desires. In my college days, a popular term was “finding yourself,” though a lot of the searching was assisted with free love, drugs, and infatuation with causes of all sorts. In the Gospel context, Jesus is speaking here of not only saving life and limb, but also one’s psyche, or as I put it to patients from time to time, finding one’s North Star.
“To gain the whole world” is very close to the phrasing of the devil in Jesus’ temptation in the desert in Matthew 4: 8-10. In that instance, the devil offers Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,” to which Jesus replies, “Get away, Satan! It is written: ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.’” The linguistic and theological connection between the Temptation account and Jesus’ teaching on discipleship is hardly accidental.
The closing line of Sunday’s text is a description of final judgment. The Son of Man will come with his angels, but we know from Matthew’s Gospel that the Son of Man is another name for Jesus. Jesus will return in full glory precisely because he has fulfilled his own prophetic role as a disciple without reservation, having given of his psyche without reservation. In this context, the judgment described here is not a general review of moral decency or failure, but it is much more specific: how faithfully did one follow Jesus as a disciple, and by that measure one will be repaid.
It is worth noting that the Lectionary omits the final line of Chapter 16: “I tell you truly that that there are some of those standing here who will certainly not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingship.” France believes that this is a reference to the opening of Chapter 17, where Jesus takes Peter, James, and John to the mountaintop and is transfigured before them. In the Catholic Lectionary, the Transfiguration Gospel account is a traditional staple of the liturgy for the Second Sunday of Lent.
** One of my favorite superiors in my major seminary days was the late Father Maurice “Myer” Brick, O.F.M. After many years as a missionary in Brazil, he returned to the U.S. to become the director of finances for our seminary operations. One day I walked into his office with a spiritual book under my arm, The Cost of Discipleship. He took one look at it and laughed. “Red,” he said, “the only one who knows the true cost of discipleship is the book keeper.”
I am running about a day late this week. The usual Tuesday Gospel post will appear here on Wednesday instead. Thanks for your patience.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 16: 13-20
21st SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi and
he asked his disciples,
"Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
They replied, "Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,
still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
Simon Peter said in reply,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.
I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
Then he strictly ordered his disciples
to tell no one that he was the Christ.
It is a little hard to settle down to work after witnessing the total eclipse of the sun from an elevated portion of Clemson University’s golf-course. About sixteen things had to happen to us so we could see the full experience, and we were lucky on all sixteen. Clemson was a great place to go, (what it was like at Clemson, via CBS) though at lunch time we broke off from the main body on campus as two sole viewers in the wide-open spaces to enjoy this stunning event together.
But we have a Gospel ahead of us this weekend, and a very important one at that. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all follow a general outline: after an initial success of Jesus’ preaching and miracles, there is a growing opposition to Jesus on all quarters—from official religious authorities, to be sure, but even from others who began to grasp the challenge of the call of the Kingdom. All three Gospels have a moment where Jesus turns to his twelve, his intimates, and asks, in so many words, what about you? The question takes the form of identity: who do you say that I am?
Jesus, to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, has never really identified himself. The closest thing we get to an official title, and this is mostly through his actions, is that of ambassador and proclaimer of God’s coming Kingdom. His works have raised the hopes among his followers that he is prophet-like. If the crowds thought of him in the fashion of Elijah or Jeremiah or another classical prophet of Israel, this in itself is significant, for the last prophet Malachi had died three or four centuries before Jesus, and the consensus among the Jews was that the Spirit of God and animator of the prophets was “quenched from the face of the earth.”
But the prophets of the Bible had a rough time of it, and Jesus was faring little better. In the cauldron of emotion and confusion, it is now time to pull back the veil and clarify not just the identity and destiny of Jesus, but also Peter and the Twelve, as well as the followers who would survive him. Although the question by Jesus is addressed to the Twelve, it is Simon Peter who provides the answer in language perhaps greater than he knew. He identifies Jesus as “the Christ” in the Catholic NABRE translation; R.C. France translates the term as “Messiah.” Both translations convey the identity of one anointed by God to save Israel. The term “Son of the living God” here does not yet convey the doctrinal force of equality with the Father, as the Council of Nicaea would affirm in 325 A.D. Rather, the usage here comes from the Hebrew Scripture, specifically Psalm 2, “You are my son; today I have begotten you,” a unique relationship.
Unlike Mark, where Jesus commands secrecy, Jesus rejoices in Peter’s answer, indicating that Peter has received a form of divine insight to render such an identity. And because of this, Jesus identifies Peter as the rock upon whom he would build his church. France, writing from the Evangelical tradition, makes two points here that Catholics sometimes overlook. There is little doubt about a primacy of Peter in future events, but textually speaking, Jesus’ words apply only to Peter, and not to a line of successors. France recognizes how the Catholic tradition has made use of this text in developing the petrine office, or papacy. Second, the Greek word ecclesia (church) always applies to an assembly of people, not to a building or structure. In fact, in 1 Peter 2:5 the new temple of glory is described as made up of “living stones.”
That Jesus intended to leave behind the keys of binding and loosing (forgiving sin) is hard to dispute. Where there is some confusion in this text is whether the power of the keys is intended only for Peter. In John’s Gospel, for example, Jesus confers the Holy Spirit by breathing over all the disciples and conferring upon all of them the power to forgive sins, in his Easter Sunday night appearance. And even in Matthew’s Gospel, Matthew 18: 15-20 describes the use of power of forgiveness and damnation in a much more communal fashion. Again, as the Christian Church developed over time, its structures for reconciliation with the full Body of Christ, his “living stones,” would take shape as the times and the needs warranted.
There are still hard days ahead for Jesus, and eventually his followers. Having a better handle upon the true identity and mission of Jesus as the Christ in some ways makes them more culpable for their future misunderstandings and misconduct, notably their abandonment (even denial!) of the Savior. That Jesus accepted them back into his circle after the Resurrection is a manifestation of the mercy of the keys of forgiveness.
That Jesus would counsel secrecy—to tell no one he was the Messiah—was a precautionary strategy. As France notes, Jesus’ concept of messiahship was so strikingly different from “street expectations” that gross misunderstandings were inevitable. (p. 626) Much would be required yet of Jesus to bridge this gap, and much more by his disciples in gathering the “living stones” of God’s new ecclesia.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 15: 21-28
TWENTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon.
And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,
"Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David!
My daughter is tormented by a demon."
But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her.
Jesus' disciples came and asked him,
"Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us."
He said in reply,
"I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."
But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, "Lord, help me."
He said in reply,
"It is not right to take the food of the children
and throw it to the dogs."
She said, "Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps
that fall from the table of their masters."
Then Jesus said to her in reply,
"O woman, great is your faith!
Let it be done for you as you wish."
And the woman's daughter was healed from that hour.
It has been a few Sundays since we last examined Matthew’s Gospel, and this Sunday we find ourselves all the way to Chapter 15. R.T. France notes in his commentary that Chapter 15 will be followed shortly by Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. If you are studying the entire text of Matthew through the year, you are in good position to understand this episode about the Canaanite woman and her encounter with Jesus in the context of the “before and after.”
Sunday’s Gospel is preceded by a much longer segment (15: 1-20) on a seemingly pedestrian matter, the failure of the disciples to wash their hands. I have spent the past three weeks on a cruise ship and several planes; it is now common to have ship attendants at the entrance of each restaurant or public eating place personally squirting sanitizer into our hands to avoid the spread of such medical problems as the norovirus. Israel, in Jesus’ day, did not make a connection between handwashing and prophylaxis. For Jews, the issue of washing was part and parcel of a psycho-spiritual self-consciousness of personal and corporate identity of cleanness in the sense of holiness. Israel was that nation chosen by God, set apart, pure and uncontaminated by the pagan gentile world around it.
France writes that “it is hard to exaggerate the significance of ritual purity for the Pharisaic ideology.... In order to participate in the life and worship of God’s holy people a person must avoid ‘defilement’ which might arise through eating or drinking unclean food, through unclean bodily conditions, especially those involving fluid discharges….” [p. 576] This ritual lapse of the disciples—and maybe more to the point, Jesus’ reluctance to bring his followers to heel—opens the door to a dispute between the Master and Pharisees and scribes who have come from Jerusalem. Note that Chapter 15 takes place outside of Jerusalem, at some distance, where the population was mixed religiously, and where we might expect an encounter with a Canaanite [pagan] women.
But before Sunday’s text, Jesus issues a broadside against a religious mentality so strongly fixated on external specifics, and even beyond that, to a definition of cleanness—holiness and goodness—dependent upon outside influences. Jesus, in his explanation to his disciples, issues his famous dictum that “it is not what comes into the mouth that makes a person unclean, but what comes out of the mouth—that is what makes a person unclean. [15:11] Earlier in the chapter Jesus quotes Isaiah on the necessity of religion of the heart: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far away from me; it is in vain that they worship me, teaching people to obey merely human rules.” [15: 8-9]
This sets the table for Sunday’s reading which, as noted above, is far afield from Jerusalem. France puts considerable emphasis upon this sojourn to Phoenicia as an intentional junket into gentile territory to make a point. It would be inevitable that he would meet a Canaanite here, and Matthew sets up the question of what would Jesus do for her or say to her. In this case the petitioner, a pagan mother, is unclean, in Jewish theological thinking, simply as a pagan; moreover, her daughter is possessed by a demon, a personification of evil and uncleanness.
This text is easily misunderstood. The woman’s faith, whatever its interior formulation in her mind, is sincere and intense. Matthew notes that she “kept shouting.” She seeks nothing for herself but acknowledges Jesus in a divine idiom [“lord”] and as a reliable source of mercy for her daughter’s dilemma of demonic possession. Given her disposition, it is not bad enough that the disciples beg Jesus to send her away, but that Jesus himself says nothing, “not a word.” Even France describes the petition and initial response as “labored and painful.” [p. 590] The reader is left with two options of interpretation, neither of them very consoling. The text might convey Jesus’ effort to “tease out” greater faith from the woman, which at the least seems quite insensitive. Or it may be that in Jesus’ mind he was sent exclusively for the redemption of Israel; if this is the case, then the woman has pulled him off course with her entreaties.
The Christological branch of theology has long studied the Gospels for clues about what Jesus actually believed and thought. Most famous is the question of whether he knew he was divine in the sense we know he is divine, Second Person of the Trinity. Our Trinitarian terminology comes from the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D. and thus does not help us here. Matthew, Mark, and Luke would seem to indicate collectively that Jesus recognized a call to a unique mission, and he himself used the term “Son of Man” in these Gospels, which is not a divine equivalent.
Given the reality of the Incarnation, that the divine became human and thus adopted human characteristics and limitations, it is not blasphemous to hold that Jesus probably did come to gradual awakening of the scope of his mission. After his baptism Jesus collected a group of twelve to reestablish the twelve tribes of Israel. It may be that early in his ministry Jesus understood his mission—and his target audience—as the lost sheep of Israel. However, if one reads Matthew’s Gospel from cover to cover, one sees that much of that targeted audience was unreceptive, even hostile to him, as we saw in his efforts to correct the concept of cleanness above.
The harshness of this text is undeniable. Jesus rejects her request several times, and his admonition that “"It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs" is grating, though the New Testament uses the term “dogs” and “pagans” interchangeably at times. That said, there are some mitigating factors that balance our interpretation.
First, when push comes to shove, we will never know exactly what Jesus thought, but we have a better chance of understanding what the early church thought about pagans, i.e., it evidently required pagans to become Jews before admitting them to Christian baptism. St. Paul is venerated as the Apostle to the Gentiles precisely because he was able to convince the twelve that pagans could be baptized without circumcision, that it was not necessary to become Jewish to become Christian. This “Council of Jerusalem” described in the Acts of the Apostles has often been dated around 50 A.D., or about two decades after Christ. Historians feel confident enough with the idea that the church took some time in accepting a universal mission to the Gentiles and gradually disengaging from temple and synagogue.
Second, the woman’s repeated rejections only strengthen her faith and wisdom; her “even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters” is a brilliant demonstration of just how deep her faith really is. It amazes Jesus. What Matthew has depicted here is precisely the kind of faith Jesus has not found in Israel, particularly in the first section of Chapter 15. The Canaanite woman receives Jesus’ blessing and intervention. What seems at first glance to be a series of abject denials from Jesus may be a Matthean literary device to contrast the hard-heartedness of the “chosen people” with the intense faith of a pagan Canaanite. Faith is faith. A good heart will eventually find place at the Lord’s table. A happy conclusion to an admittedly protracted test of faith.