When Yes Is No, And No Is YesRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY'S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 21: 28-32
26th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people:
"What is your opinion?
A man had two sons.
He came to the first and said,
'Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.'
He said in reply, 'I will not, '
but afterwards changed his mind and went.
The man came to the other son and gave the same order.
He said in reply, 'Yes, sir, 'but did not go.
Which of the two did his father's will?"
They answered, "The first."
Jesus said to them, "Amen, I say to you,
tax collectors and prostitutes
are entering the kingdom of God before you.
When John came to you in the way of righteousness,
you did not believe him;
but tax collectors and prostitutes did.
Yet even when you saw that,
you did not later change your minds and believe him."
Next Sunday is the 26th Sunday of Ordinary time—there are 34 in toto—and the Gospel of Matthew is a text from the end of Chapter 21—there are 28 in all, including the Passion and Resurrection. Thus, the liturgical year and the narrative of St. Matthew are heading with increasing speed toward the climax of the Gospel. For the evangelist Matthew, this will be the establishment of the worldwide Christian Church and, concurrent with that, the acceptance of Israel’s failure to embrace Jesus as the promised Messiah from God. I need to insert an important footnote: it is quite possible that Matthew’s antagonism toward the Jews was influenced in no small way by struggles taking place in Matthew’s own community, as well as Matthew’s belief in an imminent arrival of Son of Man and the day of judgment. Vatican II, the Pontifical Biblical Commission (most recently in 1993; paras. 35,36, and 71) and the catechesis of all popes since John XXIII have emphasized that hostility toward Jews and anti-Semitic attitudes and actions are sinful and antithetical to the full saving mission of Christ and cannot be taken literally from Scripture texts taken too literally.
It is true that the Matthean narrative is a story of effort and apparent failure. In the early stages of this Gospel, Jesus’ preaching ministry is centered in Galilee, far from the bright lights of Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark, and Luke agree that after a period of time in the hinterlands Jesus “set his face for Jerusalem,” the historical, liturgical, and theological center of Israel’s life. The purpose of this pilgrimage was the intention to proclaim the coming of the kingdom and the fulfillment of the New Jerusalem, described in Isaiah 60, an apocalyptic text that portrayed Israel as the universal home of all those of good will and thirsting for God. Jesus’ anger is directed in part at the narrow and parochial vision of his own people who even banned saving contact with its own blood—the tax collectors and prostitutes mentioned twice in Sunday’s Gospel text. Isaiah 60, by the way, is the first reading for the Catholic Mass of the Epiphany every year.
As I mentioned last week, Matthew uses the image of the vineyard three times in his Gospel: last week, in the parable of the generous employer; this week; and next week when the vineyard is the setting for a final judgment. The story line is easy enough to follow. Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem; Chapter 21 opens with the “Palm Sunday” entry. Jesus is no longer addressing Galilean peasants but the old guard of Israel’s temple practice—the chief priests and elders of the people. To them he offers in question form the metaphor of two sons—one who “says no” to his father but eventually meets his responsibilities; and the other who quickly assents but proves to be unfaithful to his father’s order.
The authorities have no choice but to give the answer they did. It is not clear from this text if they realized they were the object of the metaphor. Next Sunday, in Matthew 21:45 they do, and the realization leads them to begin plotting Jesus’ death. In this text, however, Jesus is rather blunt that there is something amiss, that the answer given by the chief priests is not the de facto correct answer, that in truth they have still not obeyed the father’s will.
There are two lines of interpretation here. Jesus issues the stunning warning that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. Matthew is careful to avoid saying that public sinners are entering the kingdom instead of them; but the chief priests and elders are certainly losing place. The reason that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of them is that the former believed in John’s message of righteousness whereas the priests had not. John the Baptist exercised ministry closer to Jerusalem; his teaching, his baptism, and his martyrdom must have been well known to Roman and Jew alike in the holy city. Although Matthew does not mention baptism here, he implies that the despised sinners were profoundly changed; Jesus marvels that “… even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.” The charge against religious authorities is that they did not take John the Baptist seriously, which gives us some idea of his significance in the eyes of Jesus.
The second major interpretive theme of Sunday’s Gospel is the setting of Matthew’s Christian community in 80 A.D. or thereabouts. It centers around the mission of the Church, particularly the outreach beyond Judaea to the Gentile world which began in the late 40’s with the vision of St. Paul. The destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was understood by many Christians as God’s retribution against the Jews for their collective failure to accept Jesus as Messiah (though Catholicism does not hold that position today.) If we consider Sunday’s Gospel in the light of the tension between the Jewish and Gentile missions, the parable takes on another level of meaning.
The two sons become the Chosen People and the pagan Gentile world respectively. The first son [the Gentile world] rejects the father’s request at first, but later comes around. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, the Church in Rome was well established. The second son represents Israel, which embraces God’s word quickly at the onset but by Jesus’ day did not understand the meaning of its own Scripture and thus did not accept the kind of Messiah Jesus proved to be. In October 8’s Sunday’s Gospel—another vineyard vignette—the break will become solidified when the king sends a stream of representatives to his laborers, and finally his own son, to bring peace, but to no avail.
"Call The Union Rep"Read Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 20: 1-16
25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus told his disciples this parable:
"The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner
who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.
After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage,
he sent them into his vineyard.
Going out about nine o'clock,
the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace,
and he said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard,
and I will give you what is just.'
So they went off.
And he went out again around noon,
and around three o'clock, and did likewise.
Going out about five o'clock,
the landowner found others standing around, and said to them,
'Why do you stand here idle all day?'
They answered, 'Because no one has hired us.'
He said to them, 'You too go into my vineyard.'
When it was evening the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman,
'Summon the laborers and give them their pay,
beginning with the last and ending with the first.'
When those who had started about five o'clock came,
each received the usual daily wage.
So when the first came, they thought that they would receive more,
but each of them also got the usual wage.
And on receiving it they grumbled against the landowner, saying,
'These last ones worked only one hour,
and you have made them equal to us,
who bore the day's burden and the heat.'
He said to one of them in reply,
'My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?'
Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last."
I had a good laugh on myself when I read Sunday’s Gospel for the first time. My immediate reaction was something like “these guys need to see the union rep.” When I opened R.T. France’s commentary on the same text, imagine my surprise at his introductory remark, “Any union leader worth their salt would protest at such employment practices.” [p. 748] Although his commentary runs to 1169 pages, Dr. France has a way of cutting to the chase. Indeed, this is a provocative Gospel—who reads this text without a sense that the arrangement is unfair, that the early-bird shift has been “cheated,” if you will, in the doling of wages at the end of the day?
This is the point of the parable. The kingdom of God operates in a different universe of values, and this is startling and seemingly unfair. As France puts it, “we cannot detach ourselves from the ruling convention that rewards should be commensurate to the services rendered.” Put in a religious framework, we expect that God’s reward of his disciples should be commensurate with their performance; virtue and morality are zero-sum games in the final analysis. Again, to quote our commentator, [but] “God rules by grace, not by desert.” If you have been following the entire text of Matthew this year, his Gospel is filled with metaphors of God’s excesses; from the lilies of the field to last Sunday’s Gospel where a king forgives a massive debt out of graciousness. Next Sunday’s Gospel is a colorful rendering of what Jesus would later say to Pilate on Good Friday, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Nor are the courts of that kingdom.
The best theological lesson I ever learned came as I was entering puberty, roller skating with some girl classmates who were blossoming before my eyes. As we passed my house, my skate caught a crack in the cement and I went down like a harpooned whale. The girls all stopped and burst out laughing. I picked up a stone to throw in their general direction, only to hear my mother’s voice from our front porch. “Put that down.” But like Jonah in the desert, I wailed, “It’s not fair.” “Nothing in this life is fair,” came her philosophical response.
Through my adult education I came to learn that justice is a virtue, though the Catechism’s definition (para. 1807) is timid and archaic in view of Matthew’s Gospel: "Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good.” The end game here is harmony and good ordering. By contrast, the scenario at the climax of Matthew’s parable does not create “harmony;” it produces wondrous surprise among the late day workers and consternation among the early workers. At the very least, the justice of the kingdom of God requires a major reset in conventional attitude.
France’s analysis of the text [pp. 746-752] provides us with a richer explanation of the dynamics at work here. As in last week’s Gospel, the authoritative figure—in this instance, the landowner—is representative of the heavenly Father. The image of the vineyard will be used twice more in the Matthean text and draws from the familiar Old Testament name for Israel as “God’s vineyard.” The workplace scenario is the early morning job pool, where a landowner selects a number of workers given his needs for the day. Laborers enjoyed neither contracts or job security; a “day’s wage” was shorthand for the cost of sustaining a family. [I should add here that in my early days as a counselor for the state I shared a building with a private job pool, and very little has changed in the process…though the Gospel mentions nothing of prostitutes who start loitering at the pay booth around 4 PM.]
The critical point to be noted in this narrative is that there was an element of luck to being chosen at sunrise in the first place. There is nothing in the text which states that the other unemployed laborers were bad or indifferent; the selection process at sunrise is driven by the specific need of the landowner. In fact, at 5 PM, when the landowner encounters unemployed laborers, they explain that “no one has hired us.” [They had been passed over for other crews.] France suggests that the unchosen laborers may have been handicapped or passed over for some reason that made them less desirable, since the landowner evidently had place for them to work. “They are victims rather than culprits.” [p 750]
The reverse order of payment in the evening is an indicator that things are not going to play out as one might expect. The “5 PM crew” receives wages for a full day [i.e., enough to assure family sustenance.] The Gospel does not indicate what their reaction was, though we can easily imagine. It is the “dawn patrol” that grumbles to the landowner, though in fact the terms of their agreement have been met. Their distress is a perceived unfairness over the owner’s generosity toward a segment of the labor pool that, at the very least, has endured tough times landing work. St. Luke’s Gospel has a similar vignette: when the Prodigal Son is welcomed home by his father, the older brother becomes angry because of his father’s largesse toward the younger sibling.
France explains that the grumbling laborers make the mistake of setting “human standards of ‘fairness’ in contrast with God’s uncalculating love…. No one has a right to preeminence or to a higher reward in the kingdom of heaven.” [p. 752] God gratuitously bestows the rewards of the kingdom. From another vantage point, the parable here shows that the graciousness of God has been extended to all the workers, even the grumblers. The best take-away from Sunday’s Gospel is our dependence upon God’s judgment of mercy. While it is true that “using one’s talents” wisely is blessed by God, we would never have the inclination or ability to do so without the prompting of God. We can honestly say that we all belong to the “5 PM crew.”
A Day LateRead Now
The Tuesday Gospel commentary will be a day or so late. My parish is commemorating the death of its founding pastor--and a personal friend of mine for nearly forty years, Monsignor Patrick J. Caverly. His body was brought to the church this afternoon and will lie there in repose till the funeral Mass at 5 PM Wednesday. He married Margaret and me back in 1998. May he Rest In Peace.
Finally Got It RightRead Now
In the confusion of last week and Hurricane Irma, I accidentally wrote this commentary for last Sunday, and not next Sunday (September 17). So, back for a return engagement....
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 18:21-35
24th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Peter approached Jesus and asked him,
"Lord, if my brother sins against me,
how often must I forgive?
As many as seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.
That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who decided to settle accounts with his servants.
When he began the accounting,
a debtor was brought before him who owed him a huge amount.
Since he had no way of paying it back,
his master ordered him to be sold,
along with his wife, his children, and all his property,
in payment of the debt.
At that, the servant fell down, did him homage, and said,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back in full.'
Moved with compassion the master of that servant
let him go and forgave him the loan.
When that servant had left, he found one of his fellow servants
who owed him a much smaller amount.
He seized him and started to choke him, demanding,
'Pay back what you owe.'
Falling to his knees, his fellow servant begged him,
'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
But he refused.
Instead, he had the fellow servant put in prison
until he paid back the debt.
Now when his fellow servants saw what had happened,
they were deeply disturbed, and went to their master
and reported the whole affair.
His master summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked servant!
I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me to.
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 each of you forgives your brother from your heart."
R.T. France (p. 672ff.) introduces Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel as “Living together as Disciples: The Discourse on Relationships.” The Lectionary, unable to include the entirety of Matthew’s texts in Year A, had to make judicious decisions about what segments to feature in the Sunday calendar. There are many places in Vatican II documents, not to mention other Church statements and nearly all catechetical texts—that strongly recommend daily study of the bible with a commentary, to fill in the gaps. Father Daniel Harrington’s Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew (2007) is a suggestion that immediately comes to mind.
Sunday’s Gospel is the conclusion of Chapter 18, and it follows the preceding texts: (1) The disciples’ spat over who is the greatest among them: (2) to enter the kingdom, one must become childlike; (3) the terrible punishment of scandalizing “a little one” who believes; (4) searching for the lost sheep from a flock of 100; (5) how to deal with a brother’s sin; (6) the authority of tying and binding [sin]; (7) the power of brothers praying together. Then follows Sunday’s texts, Peter’s question about how often to forgive, and Jesus’ parable about the unforgiving steward.
It is not necessary to single out a precise theme line in any chapter of the Gospel; our numerical New Testament chapter arrangements, including Chapter 18 of Matthew, were determined by the famous English bishop, Stephen Langton, around 1205 A.D. However, the ordering of Gospel material is critical to the mind of the author, in this case Matthew. In Chapter 18 there is a thread of community life: we shouldn’t strive for superiority, we need the humble and trusting attitude of a child (and woe to the one who betrays that), every human is worth saving, together we can save others from sin, and together our prayers command the direct attention of God.
Peter’s question in 18:21 “how many times must I forgive my brother?” is not the bloodless question it appears to be; in American parlance, nobody wants to be an all-day sucker. France reminds us that the context of the question is the fellowship of the twelve, the future core of Jesus’ surviving ministry. The fact that earlier in the chapter there is a procedure for a recalcitrant brother might have been the genesis of Peter’s question: how many times can a community forgive its members, or a family its blood relatives, before the act of forgiveness is meaningless?
Jesus’ answer, that forgiveness be extended 77 times, is an idiom for endlessly, until recently rendered “70 times 7” in English. The phrase “77 times” is borrowed from Genesis 4, where Cain is confronted by God for his murder of Abel. Cain fears that his sin will mark him as a man to be destroyed, but God marks him with “the sign of Cain” and assures him that his killer would be avenged sevenfold, i.e. to extermination. In an obscure fashion, Matthew reaches back to the treatment of the world’s first cold blooded killer by God, who protects him. Jesus is telling Peter in effect that if the heavenly Father protects Cain through what would be a long and productive life (Cain would have a family and establish a city), the disciple of Jesus must forgive without calculation of what is fair.
The gratuitousness of forgiveness proclaimed by Jesus should not surprise us, for he had previously charged his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” The break from tradition is that Jesus declines “legal perfection” in favor of “loving perfection,” and in his crucifixion, will demonstrate what perfect love and forgiveness would look like.
In the famous parable that follows, we see the lesson that “a community of the forgiven must be a forgiving community.” For France, the parable is the working model of the Church. The king is God, and his servants are we, who populate his kingdom. The king/master is all powerful, but chooses inestimable beneficence in his dealings with the servants. In his accounting, he comes across one servant who owes him a huge amount, later identified as a loan, with emphasis upon the huge. While no figure is mentioned, it was great enough that the entire family would be sold into slavery to cover the debt.
Moved with pity, the king absolves the full debt unconditionally, a metaphor of God’s treatment of all of us who live in massive debt to God’s life and goodness. The only unspoken condition—so obvious that the king felt no need to say it—was the expectation that a man forgiven so much would continue the tradition toward his peers who owed him. This, of course, did not happen. The text reads that the forgiven servant “found” one of his fellow servants and literally beat him into submission. France calculates that the second servant’s debt was one six-hundred-thousandth of the debt forgiven the first servant by the master. The other servants, like any tight-knit group, know the details of this gross turn of events and feel compelled to report it to the king/master.
The king, not surprisingly, is outraged. The punishment for the servant’s failure to forgive a minor debt is worse than anything we might have imagined. He will be tortured until he pays back the original debt to the king, which being impossible, means he will be tortured into perpetuity. God’s justice and mercy is neither aimless or unstructured. Forgiveness “from the heart” is our command, lest we be treated like the ungrateful servant.
It is a sobering thought that we do carry around within us memories of injustice, cruelty, betrayal, or envy toward at least some persons. While we abstain from outright violence or revenge, this Gospel asks where we are in our hearts regarding such individuals or institutions, and makes the forgiving spirit the keystone of God’s kingdom on earth.