The Timeless RebukeRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 23: 1-12
31st SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
"The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people's shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
All their works are performed to be seen.
They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels.
They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues,
greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation 'Rabbi.'
As for you, do not be called 'Rabbi.'
You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers.
Call no one on earth your father;
you have but one Father in heaven.
Do not be called 'Master';
you have but one master, the Christ.
The greatest among you must be your servant.
Whoever exalts himself will be humbled;
but whoever humbles himself will be exalted."
It is a measure of the harshness of Jesus’ condemnation of his own religious community in Chapter 23 that R.T. France goes to considerable trouble to explain the context of Jesus’ own time and the context of the time and community when the composition of Matthew’s Gospel was completed, about fifty years later. (pp. 853ff) This “summary condemnation” which extends beyond the text chosen for next Sunday is a startling statement that leaves me at something of a loss to explain its ferocity. If one were to content one’s self with the safe interpretation that Jesus’ words are a historical anomaly directed at a cabal of religious leaders at a specific time for specific lapses, then the content of this Gospel is reduced to a highway accident scene with the state trooper waving rubberneckers along with the admonition “move on, nothing to see here.”
For much of the Church’s history the Gospels were read at face value, as historical chronicles. The primary work of academics involved harmonizing and accounting for differences in texts; St. John’s Gospel was often bracketed as “the mystical Gospel” for its evidently different style and emphasis. This was a particularly unfortunate for the Jews, for texts such as Matthew’s cited here provided Christians with justification for violent and prolonged anti-Semitic acts and teachings down to Vatican II. In the twentieth century scholars came to realize that the four Gospels were different for a very good reason: each evangelist was a theologian as well as a historian, endowed with a unique insight into the meaning of the Incarnation and its impact upon the followers of Jesus and the world.
Moreover, the geographic distances between the locations of authorship and the many years between Jesus’ life and the composition of the Gospel texts led scholars to the understanding that the Gospels are not simply descriptions of the past but laden with meaning for the present. In Matthew’s case this weekend, the words of Jesus to his own contemporaries have been brought forward a half-century later when two new factors came into play. First, Judaism had been broken by its four-year rebellion and siege, crushed by the Romans by 70 A.D., and the structures and groups attacked by Jesus did not hold the power they once did, given the forced scattering of Jews throughout the Mediterranean basin known as the diaspora. Matthew’s emphasis upon this narrative at least a decade after the fall of Jerusalem strongly suggests an enduring relevance of his powerful message to Jewish authorities.
Which brings us around to the second point, the fact that Matthew was writing for a Christian Church with strong Jewish roots. Many years had passed since Caiphas was the high priest of the Jerusalem temple, but Christians were still knowledgeable of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, thanks to the tradition handed down to Matthew. France comments that the acrimony between Christians and Jews, at the time of this Gospel, was intense—Jews were expelling Christians from local synagogues and exposing them to Roman persecutions. Romans generally had regarded Christians as a sect of Judaism; Jews were respected as good citizens in Rome, in part because Rome respected the antiquity of Jewish history and worship. Losing the Jewish mantra led to the charge of atheism against Christians.
That said, Matthew is writing for the salvation of his own Christian community. Were the sins of the leaders of Judah cropping up in the organic development of Christianity? And if this is the case, do the judgment texts of the end of Matthew’s Gospel have equal bearing today? Consider this: in the A Cycle there are only three more Matthean Gospels after Sunday: the parable of the stewards given various talents, with blessings for the best return and damnation for low results; the wise and the foolish virgins, with rewards to those far-sighted enough to fill their lamps with oil for the return of the bridegroom; and on November 26 the Feast of Christ the King, where those who have tended to the poor and powerless will be rewarded by the great king with everlasting life, and the others to an unimaginable desolation.
It is hard to imagine that Jesus [and Matthew, for that matter] intended this prolonged condemnation of religious success and failure for a relatively minute audience in history. France underscore this point (p. 855) when he explains that the recipients of Jesus’ diatribe were probably not blatant evildoers; further reading from Chapter 23 indicates that the Pharisees, for example, would walk hundreds of miles to make a single convert. Jesus’ textual audience was actually a very busy one in religious service. Their sin, according to France, was “their fundamental approach to religious life…the hypocrisy which is alleged is not so much conscious insincerity as a distorted perspective which makes them think that they are doing the will of God when they are missing the main point.” (p. 855)
The villains in Sunday’s Gospel are doing the right things for the wrong reasons and with faulty attitude. They love legality and order, and take considerable pride in their positions of authority. Jesus provides the proper perspective when he reminds his hearers that they are all humble servants before God the Father, and that mere rectitude means nothing as a substitute for brotherhood. The greatest among them is not the most learned but the servant of all. This teaching has great bearing upon Roman Catholicism, which for most of its history has endured a clerical caste. Curiously, Matthew 16:18 is often cited as the legal footing for a strong—even infallible--papacy, but models of Church leadership are tempered by Sunday’s Gospel text, which is not enamored by power and position.
Humble service in the imitation of Jesus, who came “not to be served but to serve” is the message of this text, but as our final weeks with Matthew will illustrate, although this text was originally directed at a set of religious leaders in time, its Gospel setting binds all readers in every generation to do the right for the right reason, i.e., in the honor of our One True Father.
Setting The Ground RulesRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 22: 34-40
30th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings here
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,
they gathered together, and one of them,
a scholar of the law tested him by asking,
"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him,
"You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
I regret missing last week’s Gospel post. I blame that on the joys of home ownership: our home insurance adjuster finally arrived to look at storm damage, and the HOA engineer came out to examine our plans for drainage improvement. They both gave us a lot of homework. So, this week I have some catching up to do. The Gospel I missed last week—render unto Caesar and to God—also appears in Chapter 22 (22: 15-22). If you are studying the full text of Matthew this year, you are aware that between the tax controversy of last Sunday and next Sunday’s Gospel is that most peculiar debate between Jesus and the Sadducees about the woman who married seven brothers in succession, only to be widowed seven times. I sometimes regret that the seven brothers’ saga did not make the cut, so to speak, in Cycle A.
Chapter 22 is full of contestation. Standing with Chapters 23 and 24, it illustrates the depth of acrimony between Jesus and the Jewish leadership in its various segments. In the matter of the poll tax controversy, the protagonists are the Pharisees and the Herodians (the latter from the court of the Roman-allied King Herod). In the seven brothers’ (or unlucky widow) controversy, the protagonists are the Sadducees, old school temple guard who did not believe in life after the grave. In next Sunday’s Gospel the battle is joined by the Pharisees alone, or more specifically, a lawyer chosen to represent the group.
The question itself of which of the commandments is greatest was not particularly life-threatening. R.T. France notes that rabbis “did discuss which of the commandments were heavy, and which were light.” The Mosaic Law contained 613 commandments, not ten, and some sort of hierarchy was necessary in the Jewish moral life. (p. 842) Moreover, the Pharisees expanded the Biblical law to include additional counsels and directives over time, something akin to Catholic moral practice.
To the Jewish authorities, Jesus did have certain vulnerabilities when presented questions on the Law. Matthew (and Mark and Luke) narrates several instances where Jesus invoked a higher law—he was diffident on the matter of “cleanness,” regularly eating and drinking with sinners. When the needs of preaching the kingdom were pressing, Jesus healed [i.e., worked] and performed miracles of healing and allowed his disciples to harvest food along the road on the Sabbath. However, France does not believe that Jesus’ own conduct is the point of the question. The more troublesome matter was the fierce, almost fanatical, adherence of various rabbis and teachers to their particular “school.” Whatever answer Jesus would give on the most important of commandments, he would alienate some segment of the Jewish community where he enjoyed considerable popularity at that juncture.
Jesus’ response of loving God and loving neighbor is brilliant on a number points. He combines two Biblical sayings prayed daily by Jews: Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. What Jesus does here is raise the bar on the discussion. The Pharisee had asked for an opinion on a body of laws. Jesus, by contrast, answers with the revealed principles that underlie the laws of all religion. As he puts it, “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments." One can also read into Jesus’ answer something of the psychology of religious conversion and life.
I wrote yesterday in Monday’s Morality stream that the heart of Catholic morality rests with the basic disposition of a man’s heart, his fundamental option; in the Catholic Catechism terminology the indwelling of the Holy Spirit directs the open soul toward an understanding of life mission and guides the acts and choices made in the pursuit of this Spirit-personality within us. This concept is not unique to Christianity. Judaism venerated God’s “spirit” or “breath,” as on Easter Sunday night when Jesus breathed over the disciples and prayed that they would “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
In his response to the Pharisee-lawyer, Jesus points out that the excessive legalism of the Pharisees was too black book, and not enough Spirit of God and embrace of others as one’s self. This explains his earlier claim that he had not come to destroy the Law and the Prophets [understood as “spirit filled men” then and now] but to bring them to fulfillment. And while his answer here did not lose him any admirers among the crowds, it did infuriate the Pharisees who would make common cause with their own religious enemies to bring down the Teacher, as we will see through November as Matthew’s Gospel in Year A comes to its climactic fulfillment.
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 22: 1-14
28TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB link to all three readings
Jesus again in reply spoke to the chief priests and elders of the people
in parables, saying,
"The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.
He dispatched his servants
to summon the invited guests to the feast,
but they refused to come.
A second time he sent other servants, saying,
'Tell those invited: "Behold, I have prepared my banquet,
my calves and fattened cattle are killed,
and everything is ready; come to the feast."'
Some ignored the invitation and went away,
one to his farm, another to his business.
The rest laid hold of his servants,
mistreated them, and killed them.
The king was enraged and sent his troops,
destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.
Then he said to his servants, 'The feast is ready,
but those who were invited were not worthy to come.
Go out, therefore, into the main roads
and invite to the feast whomever you find.'
The servants went out into the streets
and gathered all they found, bad and good alike,
and the hall was filled with guests.
But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, 'My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?'
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, 'Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.'
Many are invited, but few are chosen."
There is consistency between next Sunday’s Gospel and earlier passages from Matthew: the theme that people are called for a purpose, that they do not meet the desired goal, and they are replaced by others. This motif was certainly evident in the vineyard parables of the past two Sundays. But this parable adds a new twist: there are multiple layers of calls and rejections. The way this text is laid out, as R.T. France points out [p. 820ff], we have double invitations, double sets of expectations, and double sets of expulsions. [The Catholic Lectionary, alas, permits the proclamation of a shortened text, which does not include the expulsion of the man without a wedding garment, so some of you may hear a text where the literary balance is skewed. As my old Greek professor used to say, “Even Homer nods.”]
Matthew has more than sufficiently established the anger and heartbreak of God that his invitation to his chosen people as an entity has gone unheeded. In this narrative the king provides a wedding feast, most likely a reference to the “messianic banquet” image found frequently in the Bible. Psalm 23 is a very early example. Interestingly the son, for whom the wedding feast is held, makes only an early cameo appearance as the excuse for the occasion. The focus is clearly upon the king’s generosity and extravagance of the meal—multiple calves and choice cattle. One of the quirks of this tale is the illogical time line. The dinner is ready—hot and ready for serving; “everything is ready,” the king says—but a great deal takes place between the cooking and the actual sit-down.
In the first instance a round of servants is sent out into the region to alert the (pre-invited) guests that dinner is served. This first call to feast is marked by a simple refusal. There is no reason given for their rejection. The king thus sends a second round of servants, this time armed with menus to extend the same invitation. This second invitation itemizes the good things the king has already done, i.e., prepared the dinner, so the refusal here is more disrespectful to the king. Many scholars see a reference to Israel’s prophets, who extended the call to God’s mercy over a protracted time and were often beaten and even killed.
Matthew’s account states that the range of reactions to the second invitations is extreme. Some just ignored the invitation and went on to farms and businesses. But others beat the servants and then killed them. The king, enraged, sends his armies, who kill not only the murderers, but also burn their city. The destruction of their city is an important qualifier—did Matthew and the early Church see the ruined city as a symbol of Jerusalem, which was in fact destroyed by the Roman army in 70 A.D., at least a decade before the composition of this Gospel? Given the future direction of the narrative, this interpretation has merit. It is worthy to note that the destruction of invited guests and their homeland [i.e., city] gives a sense of completeness to the king’s efforts to win their favor and allegiance.
The king is now in the position of hosting a dinner with no diners. I note with some humor the king’s aside that “the feast is ready;” it has been ready for quite a while, having survived, among other things, a military excursion; why didn’t it burn up (asks the world’s worst grill master)? So, a new invitation goes out, and it is indiscriminate, to “bad and good alike.” Some have interpreted this new invitation as the Church’s outreach to Gentiles, which is possible. It is also true that earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, a few Sundays ago, Jesus tells the chief priests that [Jewish?] prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the kingdom of God ahead of them. The parallel may be that the outcast Jews were coming into the Christian assembly along with Gentiles.
St. Luke also records this extended metaphor to this point, but only Matthew contains what is next. Once the guests are all seated to enjoy some very durable steaks, the king works the room and discovers a man not dressed in a wedding garment. There is some internal textual inconsistency; how would the man have formal attire if he been brought in off the street? St. Augustine theorized that it was the king’s responsibility to provide wedding wear, and the man refused the king’s largesse, a gross sign of disrespect. France does not agree with Augustine, explaining that wedding garb consisted of “decent, clean, white clothes such as anyone would have had available…to turn up in ordinary dirty clothes was an insult to the host.” (p. 826)
France sees symbolism here in a man invited to a free feast who will not even trouble himself to prepare. As France puts it, “Entry to the kingdom of heaven may be free, but to continue in it carries conditions.” (p. 827) The improperly dressed dinner guest has produced no fruit, so to speak, and will be cast into the outer darkness. The text to describe his punishment, “'Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” comes from the non-Biblical source 1 Enoch, an apocalyptic work in circulation around this time. The language employed here conveys utter desolation.
It was a sobering thought then, as it is today, that Christians are just as vulnerable to rejection by the Father in judgment as the Jewish people they replaced. As this Gospel winds down to Good Friday, it will become clearer that the true children of the banquet will be those who stood faithful to the Messiah in his time of trial, and later in the persecutions facing the young Christian Church. Baptism will be no more a guarantee of salvation than circumcision. When Jesus’ Jewish enemies claimed priority as sons of Abraham in blood, Jesus replied that he could raise sons of Abraham from the very stones on the ground. In this respect, the New Testament will be no different from the Old. Perseverance and good works would separate the wheat from chaff, then and now.
A Timely ReminderRead Now
NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: MATTHEW 21: 33-45
27th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB links to all three readings
Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
"Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,
another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
'They will respect my son.'
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
'This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.'
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?"
They answered him,
"He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times."
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
Therefore, I say to you,
the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit."
This Sunday is third in a row featuring a metaphorical setting in a vineyard. For those looking for the significance of a “vineyard” in the Messianic discourse, we need look no further than Sunday’s first reading. I have a link here for Isaiah 5 in its entirety, in which a vineyard is prepared for maximum growth of select grapes. However, the harvest is more than disappointing, and the land owner (Isaiah 5:4) laments, “Why, when I waited for the crop of grapes, did it yield rotten grapes?” He goes on to pass a terrible judgment on the land itself: “Now, I will let you know what I am going to do to my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!”
For Isaiah, “the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, the people of Judah, his cherished plant.” Thus, the wrath of God is directed at the land of Israel and its people.” The historical Isaiah preached between 742 and 701 B.C., a time when the Assyrians were constant threats to Israel’s existence. In fact, Isaiah’s death may have coincided with a siege of Jerusalem itself in 701. Isaiah’s parable in Chapter 5 makes eminent sense in that the forces attacking Israel could destroy the land and its inhabitants.
In Matthew’s text, Jesus begins again by directing his words to the religious establishment, i.e., the chief priests and elders of the people. For the third time he sets off with a landowner and a farm or vineyard. In this third instance Matthew details the laborious investment of time and labor. No stone is unturned here; R.T. France comments that a landowner was generally quite rich, since the first good harvest would not come to fruition for at least four years. (p. 809; see home page)
When the time comes for the first harvest, the master sent servants or slaves to obtain his produce. The tenants of this estate are more cruel and violent than those we encountered two weeks ago, the ones who grumbled about the pay scale. The representatives here are successively beaten, stoned, and killed. Finally, the tenants kill the master’s son, with the clear intention of seizing the enterprise altogether. This is outlandish; as France puts it, “the story has moved away from everyday reality, and as often happens in parables…the intended symbolism has apparently invaded the story line: the murder of the son represents the forthcoming execution of Jesus.” (p. 809)
The mistreatment of the master’s son and his murder are acts of rebellion and murder; it may be that Matthew—more than Luke and Mark, who report the same parable with slightly less violence—wants to emphasize the gravity of the love God has poured out upon his vineyard Israel and its people and the utter disregard for that love demonstrated in rebellion, acts, of violence, and most of all, the slaughter of the master’s own flesh and blood. When pressed for their opinions on this scenario, the chief priests, not surprisingly, can only answer that “those wretched men” would be put to “a wretched death.” Interestingly, the same priests add a conclusion quite different from Isaiah 5, where the vineyard is destroyed. The priests state that the vineyard will be leased to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper time.
In other words, the vineyard will continue as a going concern, but under new management. Implied here is that Israel will continue under new management as well. Not for nothing did Jesus appoint twelve apostles as the pillars of the new twelve tribes of Israel. In his own commentary on the parable, Jesus states that “the stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Having killed the son, the old tenants of Israel’s vineyard will be replaced by that rejected son and his followers. Again, this Gospel must be read in the light of the struggles existing between Jews who embraced Jesus and those who rejected him as Messiah, roughly around 80 A.D. and after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem.
Jesus himself detours from Isaiah 5 and states to his clerical listeners that “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruit." One way or another, God’s will cannot be thwarted. It will do the Christian hearers of this parable no good if they receive this text with smugness. Israel lost its place in the vineyard because it failed to produce and it failed to acknowledge its true place in the pecking order of God’s plan. Complacency and arrogance plagued our fathers in faith; there are no guarantees that our Christian failures in the vineyard will not bring us, too, to a “wretched death.” Sunday’s parable is not simply a tale of another peoples’ sin; it is a challenge to examine our individual and corporate custodianship of the kingdom with this fall harvest.