Year A: The Gospel of
Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.
University of Notre Dame
1st Baptism - A (Mt 3:13-17)
The church celebrates today a beginning. In the gospel we are told of a public event in which Jesus was authorized by God to begin his career in which he would say incredible things about God’s kingdom and perform powerful signs and wonders. Luke tells us that Jesus is now thirty years old, not necessarily his chronological age, but the time when men were considered suitable for roles in public life. In this sense, Jesus experiences a transformation from one state to another; he ends the life of village artisan which kept him fixed to his family, trade and location, and he begins a totally different type of public life, that of a prophet powerful in word and deed. This is an exhilarating time, pregnant with hope and tasting of ripeness.
Jesus’ transition to this new role and status does not happen in isolation, nor do any of the great transitions in our lives, such as marriage or ordination or appointment to office. We gather that Jesus has been with John the Baptizer for some time now, perhaps as his apprentice. He has certainly been shaped by John’s preaching (“repent, the kingdom of God is at hand”) and his purifying rituals. John then has been Jesus’ teacher or elder who has steered him through the transitional phase of becoming a public person. John’s washing becomes more than purification for Jesus, but rather a transcendent experience of his assuming a new role and status. At his baptism, Jesus is no mere penitent experiencing the end of a purificatory ritual; this is the ritual in which he is chosen by God for a public role of great political significance, to be the next and greatest prophet. Whereas John’s gestures of washing and whatever words he said sufficed for the majority of people coming to him, Jesus’ transformation is defined by the “spirit of God” descending like a dove, by the rending of the heavens, and by the heavenly voice. We know from this that power (“spirit”) is given Jesus, i.e., the power of God; the open heavens tell us that the earthly event taking place is orchestrated by God; and the voice which speaks from heaven commissions Jesus as “Beloved Son” and declares him utterly holy (“in whom I am well pleased”).
Just what role and status does Jesus assume here? What actions does this authorize him to perform? Although the text says “son” here, the authorized actions are those of a prophet: to preach the kingdom of God and to act powerfully on behalf of God’s poor. According to the gospels, Jesus has done neither of these before; this is the beginning of his public life. The significance of the heavenly voice will return to us at the transfiguration of Jesus, when the disciples are commanded to “listen to” this beloved son. This occurs just as Jesus is turning his face to Jerusalem and his death. Hence, we see his life divided in two: Galilee and Jerusalem. Each half has its characteristic actions authorized by God: preaching/healing in the first half and teaching his way of discipleship in the second. Both halves, moreover, equally require a divine authorization; God first commissions preaching and healing, but secondly legitimates Jesus’ “way” to the cross, during which he teaches his way.
When one thinks about it, the New Testament describes very few appearances of God. One might turn to Paul’s commissioning revelation (Gal 1:16; Acts 9) or the revelations given to John the Seer in Revelation. All the more is this baptismal theophany significant. Most appearances of God signify that a commissioning is taking place. For example, the thing that Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Isaiah and Jeremiah share with Jesus is that all of their commissions by God occur in the context of a theophany, a manifestation of God’s presence. This adds greatly, then, to understanding the significance of dove, rent heavens, and heavenly voice: we are told of a theophany, a divine commissioning of Jesus.
Finally, the gospel begins with some sort of disagreement between John and Jesus. The Baptizer initially refuses to perform his rite for Jesus, because he, the teacher, should receive the ministry of his student. Jesus tells him to go ahead and baptize him. Other places in the New Testament indicate some rivalry between John’s disciples and those of Jesus; both groups are in the same business (purification, preaching), and Jesus’ group seems to gain at John’s expense. John’s remarks here clearly seek to prevent such rivalry and envy; John insists that he serves Jesus and that his role is to herald him to the crowds. So small an event reflects so human a reaction.
2nd - A (John 1:29-34)
The choice of John’s gospel here bridges last Sunday (Jesus’ baptism) and next Sunday (the beginning of Jesus’ ministry). It is another chance to deepen our appreciation of the meaning of Jesus’ baptism because it brings us a fulsome commentary on that event from John the Baptizer. Some time after the event itself John sees coming toward him Jesus who has been transformed by his theophany. Recognizing this, he identifies Jesus with a new name which describes Jesus’ new role and function: “Behold the Lamb of God.” This way of describing Jesus never appears again in this gospel, so we have difficulty grasping what it means. It identifies Jesus as someone exceptionally close to God; and “lamb” suggests some sort of sacrificial animal, which explains Jesus’ role as one “who takes away the sin of the world.” Not just Israel’s sin, but the sin of the world. Recall that the name “Jesus” means “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Jesus then mediates between God and humanity, removing the barrier between them, namely “sin.”
John the Baptizer functions here as an evangelist, heralding the good news about Jesus. This may be important, because in Jn 3:25-30 we learn of envious conflict between his disciples and those of Jesus. John and Jesus are not rivals, in, but fact John’s role is precisely to serve Jesus. Hence we continue to listen to what he has to say about Jesus. He acknowledges Jesus’ precedence over him: temporally John comes before Jesus, which in many instances would indicate his superiority (e.g., firstborn). But John rejects that meaning by saying something about Jesus’ absolute priority to him: “he was before me.” That is, he existed (in heaven) before John was born. Hence, Jesus is of a totally different and superior order of being than John. Like many people in this gospel, John declares that he “does not know” Jesus, just as Nicodemus does not know what Jesus tells him, or the Samaritan woman or Martha. But like many others, he receives a gift of knowledge from God to grasp in loyal faith this Jesus. Like all hearers of the gospel, he moves from “not in the know” to “in the know.”
What God reveals to him is the correct way to interpret the elements of the baptism of Jesus. When he saw the Spirit descend as a dove upon Jesus, he knew that God was commissioning Jesus for a new role of power and purification. Moreover, the Spirit “remained on him”; that is, this phenomenon indicates a constant empowerment or a bond of lasting duration. Many prophets and kings were filled with the Spirit, but did not sustain the power and perception of that moment. “Remaining” is one of those key words in this gospel which suggests enduring membership and continual loyalty. John’s revelation about Jesus continues with his citation of God’s own interpretation of Jesus’ baptism: when God’s spirit descends and remains on Jesus, this signifies that Jesus will in turn bestow the Holy Spirit on others through his words of wisdom and his acts of power. He concludes with a confession of Jesus as “Son of God.” Thus the Baptizer delivers the “first christology” of this gospel when he calls Jesus “Lamb of God,” “one who takes away the world’s sins,” “Spirit” filled, and “Son of God.”
Everything John says here is focused exclusively on Jesus. What then should we think of all this? As with the synoptic accounts of Jesus’ baptism, we learn how to think about Jesus: we know his role (savior: takes away sins), his status (Lamb of God, Son of God), and his closeness to God (Spirit remains on him). We know him duly and fully authorized by God, so he is no pretender or deluded peasant. We know also that many will change from “not in the know” to “in the know” as they come closer to Jesus and share his circle. We have, then, a functional understanding of Jesus presented here; we are eager now to see Jesus beginning his career.
3rd - A (Matt 4:12-23)
Today’s gospel narrates the beginning of Jesus’ career. And since all beginnings usually contain motifs, themes and images which are subsequently developed, we read carefully to notice the rich thematic contents of the “gospel in miniature.” Matthew first tells us something about geography, not meaning for us to stop with the literal knowledge we can get from consulting a map of Israel in the time of Jesus. Jesus moves from Nazareth to Capernaum, that is, from his village where he performed the role of artisan in a very closed society to a modest-sized town just built to exploit the fishing industry in the lake. Capernaum signifies for Jesus the place where his new public role of speaker and healer replaces his old artisan role. We should not think that this social mobility was common or acceptable. Most people remained in the villages where they were born, continued the same trade or craft taught them by their family, and conformed to the social expectations of family and friends. But Jesus’ transfer to Capernaum signals a break with this and creates prejudice against him precisely for his abandonment of Nazareth. Matthew, moreover, interprets Capernaum as more than a fishing town. He quotes the best authority available, the prophet Isaiah, for the full significance of this town, “in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali. . .Galilee of the Gentiles.” Since it was unlawful for Judeans to mix in any way with non-Judeans (Acts 10:28), Matthew signals that “Capernaum” stands for either communities of both Judeans and Gentiles or for regions totally non-Jewish. Of course Matthew intends more than a geography lesson, for in the gospel we will read that Jesus crossed the sea – that is, entered the Decapolis or gentile lands and that he traveled to Tyre and Sidon – ancient pagan cities. The point simply is that Jesus’ strategy from the very beginning was to include, not exclude. As Paul said, in Christ there is no male, female, slave, free, Judean or Greek. God’s salvation extended to all and included all. Thus Jesus’ geographical move heralds a mission strategy which will include Gentiles; they are not God’s second choice, as their place is established in the beginning of the gospel.
The quote from Isaiah contains another element of this gospel summary. Jesus’ target audience is a most unlikely group of people, namely “those who sat in darkness...those who sat in the region and shadow of death.” This group includes all sinners, for whom Matthew tells us Jesus was “Jesus,” who would save his people from their sins (1:21). Included also are people with “every disease” and “every illness.” These groups were traditionally interpreted as people out of God’s favor and so apart from God’s blessings of health. Something very strange is happening: Jesus’ ministry includes all peoples in terms of geography and status. Yet in the face of this strangeness Jesus preaches the Kingdom of God, which obviously will include repentant sinners and healed and purified bodies.
Continuing our investigation of the programmatic character of Jesus’ inaugural actions, we note that next he invites two sets of brothers to join him and so to take up a new role and status. As regards their new role, although literally fishermen, they will become fishers for the Kingdom of God. But first we notice the process of this calling: 1. a word is spoken, which is heard in faith; 2. no calculus of the social or economic cost occurs, as the two pairs of brothers “immediately” react; 3. Jesus calls them to make the same kind of social transition as he did: they leave trade/livelihood, family and social network to become itinerants. When we consider what it means to leave family in this culture, we are truly amazed of what Jesus asked of the brothers. One’s basic identity was that of one’s family; sons were taught the trade of their father and were expected to remain forever with the extended family of elders and cousins. This network provided for them what health care and retirement funds are for us, since there were no non-family resources (i.e., social welfare) to assist. Hence loyalty to family was the paramount virtue; all sons knew what duties they owed their parents and families. Yet it is this sacred bond which Jesus unravels here. A higher Father and a more sacred family require the brothers to turn away from the most central value they knew. How could Jesus ask so much? Several things suggest themselves here. First, the brothers’ reaction is an ideal or model for other; it describes the highest cost paid to do the right thing. Second, their reaction is “immediate,” and so is idealized as the most perfect response. Third, since first things are always programmatic, then the role and status of these four brothers among the followers of Jesus is indicated: these four will have the closest and longest association with Jesus. For which reason he commissioned them first of all his disciples, “I will make you fishers of people.” Later Peter becomes “the rock” and Peter, James and John are the select inner circle who are privy to great events in Jesus’ life, such as the raising of Jairus’’’ daughter, the transfiguration, and Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer.
The gospel concludes by telling us that Jesus both preached (“teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom”) and healed (“healing every disease and every infirmity”). We know that most of Israel’s classic prophets were likewise “powerful in word and deed.” And so the very minimum Matthew says about Jesus is his unmistakable prophetic role. This is important because it clarifies Jesus’ own public role and status as authorized by God. His critics will later try to label him an agent of Satan, but we know that, despite appearances, Jesus serves only God. As we noted above, the ‘Kingdom” which Jesus preaches is one of the richest blessings being bestowed on the most unlikely people. This pattern will remain a hallmark of Jesus’ ministry; that is, he is a physician to the sick, whether they are sinners or infirm. What a remarkable note by Matthew that Jesus cured “every” disease and “every” illness. Nothing can resist Jesus’ power, nor does his power exclude any.
4th - A (Matt 5:1-12)
Careful readers recognize that Matthew’s gospel gathers Jesus’ sayings into five great blocks of teachings, the first and longest of which is the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Jesus ascends a mountain, calls his disciples to himself and teaches them. How simple, but how symbolic. Mountains in the Bible and Matthew are places of revelation by God or a prophet. The specialness of this geographical feature indicates that instruction is given apart from the usual places, such as Temple and synagogue. One expects a new teaching or revelation from God.
Today’s gospel focuses on the beginning section of the Sermon which is called the “beatitudes.” In Greek the term is “makarism,” which basically means “how honorable” or “how worthy.” It does not mean that this person is “happy” for being thus. Rather the focus is on the approval and worth which Jesus gives to disciples who have had shameful experiences because of him. This may sound strange, but we ought to think of it as Jesus’ validation of and canonization of those who have paid a great price to follow him. These, then, are not general philosophical reflections on the typical human condition; they are not generic at all, but ruthlessly specific in engaging the value system of Jesus’ world.
Here it aids us to follow the lead of the scholars who remind us that the earliest tradition of this material contained only four “makarisms” (see the four in Luke 6:20-23): how honorable are the poor, the mourning, the hungry and the ostracized. No one in these categories would think of themselves as “blessed” or “happy,” since these are terrible and crushing experiences. But Jesus declares them “honorable” and “worthy” of praise. It helps us to be clever in our reading and notice how the last makarism about people ostracized is both the final and the longest and the climactic “makarisms.” It tells us that a disciple (“. . .on my account”) has been banned, shunned, and ostracized by some group. Since official excommunication from the synagogue is not intended here nor political persecution, we look elsewhere for the source of this social disaster. Many things suggest that in view is the family which has risen up against one of its members for breaking faith with synagogue and tradition to become a disciple of Jesus. After various pressures were applied to enforce conformity to the family’s wishes, the malefactor – most likely a second or third-born son – is cast out of the family, expelled from its house, chased off its land, and set adrift. In the eyes of the village or town he is a dishonorable son who has shamed his father and family by his rebellious behavior. But Jesus calls him noble and honorable and worthy of respect for the price he has paid to be Jesus’ faithful disciple.
If a son were disinherited and banned, the most immediate results would be just what we find in the other three original “makarisms.” If landless and pennyless, he will be “poor.” The ancients distinguished “working poor” from “begging poor.” Maybe 90% of the population could be classed as “working poor”: artisans and farmers lived in a subsistence mode just managing to get by year after year. Poor, yes, but working poor. There were other persons who because of illness or disreputable profession or other catastrophic circumstances were reduced to the utterly shameful situation of begging for their daily bread. It is just such “begging poor” that Jesus honors. The makarism about banning and ostracism supplies the immediate cause of a disciple being suddenly reduced to the state of “begging poor.” The other two makarisms fill out the picture. If landless and family-less, then this person will truly be “mourning.” Not for their sins and not for dead relatives. Rather they mourn the loss of family which provided the necessities of life, meaning, identity, and security. Moreover, this ostracized person will indubitably be “hungry,” that is, literally without bread to eat. He can no longer go to his family’s fields and gather fruit and grain; he will drink no more milk from the goat or share the family’s wine. Yet as shameful as these people are in the eyes of family and village, Jesus greatly honors these disciples who have payed so steep a price. How “honorable”are those whom others shame.
How frequently we have to be reminded of the reforming quality of Jesus’ remarks. Just as Mary spoke of the reversals of God, who casts down the mighty and raises the lowly, so here we need to keep in mind the topsy-turvy world of Jesus in which least is greatest, first is last, and “shamed” is “honorable” in his world. This might help us grasp the significance of other “makarisms” which talk about the “meek,” “merciful,” “peacemakers,” and “persecuted.” The cultural world of Jesus valued macho behavior and aggressive postures; it did not respect or consider worthy those who were trampled down or dispossessed; the “meek” were simply despised for their weakness. But those who were treated in this shameful manner as disciples of Jesus are honored and valued. Likewise, honor in that society resided in exacting vengeance; failure to retaliate meant worthlessness. But whereas their culture despised those who did not take vengeance, Jesus declares them honorable. In fact, later in the Sermon Jesus will dilate on this material in his remarks about “an eye for an eye” (5:38-42).
What then is the gospel here? One might look in two directions. Jesus himself will talk more about this material in the Sermon, but what is more important, he will model this in his own experience of rejection and hatred during his passion. He would never ask of his followers what he himself was not prepared to model. Where is value in our world? who and what is “honorable?” Just a guess, but are we not so coopted by our culture that we are in many ways help captive by its materialism and individualism – hardly hallmarks of discipleship. Finally, we are urged to see things through Jesus’ eyes and to value what he values. We may have to reevaluate what we and others think of members of our own families and others. Crazy may not be so crazy after all.
5th - A (Matt 5:13-16)
This small piece of the Sermon on the Mount contains two images, salt and light. They have great significance in the cultural world of Jesus, although they may not mean much to modern urban dwellers. Take salt, for example. To the ancients, it was long known as the primary condiment in the rather boring diet. It was, moreover, appreciated as an essential ingredient in healthful living. It could preserve food against spoilage. It was, then, a common but highly valued thing. Finally, it was also used in combination with other materials to line the inside of the ovens used to bake bread. In all these suggestions of the meaning of salt, the issue is its eventual failure to do its job. If it no longer seasons, preserves or aids in baking, then it has no place in the household and is discarded. But Jesus is not talking about salt, but disciples. Flavored with his teaching, they should naturally do their salty work of enriching other things. But if they cease to do so, they will suffer a kind of banning from the group similar to the discarding of impotent salt. Clearly Jesus tells his audience that there is a severe sanction for lack of faithfulness in the task of discipleship.
The second image, light, is taken for granted by us. We enjoy electricity, even in remote places, which powers our lights as well as the appliances in our homes. Our neighborhoods are illuminated at night; and the streets of our cities are ablaze nightly with lights. But in Jesus’ world there was no electricity, no city lights, and no home illumination except for the occasional lamp fueled by olive oil. But in calling his disciples “light of the world,” Jesus describes their important role in spreading the gospel. By their lives and especially by their faithfulness the disciples attest to the goodness and the power of Jesus’ word. This is similar to the responsibility of parents to model Christian behavior to their children, which reinforces their oral instruction. Thus discipleship means hearing the gospel in our ears but also reflecting it in our actions. Remember the anger of Jesus against “hypocrites”! This applies also to disciples, should they confess Jesus with their lips but fail to act according to his gospel.
So who gets the glory? In Jesus’ world, men and women could earn the respect and praise of their peers by acting in virtuous ways, such as with courage, justice or temperance. But in many instances we know that they acted so as to be honored. For example, Paul praises people “who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7), assuring them that they will achieve their aim. But Jesus’ remark cuts across this cultural grain. He too commands his disciples to act virtuously in public (“let your light shine before all”); but glory belongs, not to the disciple, but to God: “they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” Just as Jesus has reformed the system of value reflected in the “makarisms” in 5:1-12, honoring and valuing what the culture calls shameful, so here disciples live virtuous lives in accordance with the gospel, and yet the glory is God’s, not theirs. Finally, we should remember that in an age without any news media whatsoever, Jesus’ gospel was spread by word of mouth and by the lifestyle of disciples. Good theology leads to good behavior. Hence the lives of disciples are as eloquent as any sermon or speech given about Jesus.
Let’s admit it: this reading seems very abstract and even idealistic. Who can do it? Jesus surely knew the stuff of which ordinary disciples are made; would that we were more faithful and heroic. Yet, weak as we are, the Lord calls us to be outstanding in our following of him. He does not say that we must win Olympic honors, chair great corporations, invent lifesaving products, etc. Ours is a call to live like Jesus himself. As we ourselves say, “actions speak louder than words.”
6th - A (Mt 5:17-37)
We take up now the next part of the Sermon on the Mount, the “Antitheses.” Structurally this part begins with a claim by Jesus that he is not lawless or disdainful of God’s covenant law. Upon this principle he then states that while Moses’ law prohibits murder and adultery, his teaching expands and completes those laws. He would make them perfect by addressing not just external behavior but passions and plots deep within the human heart.
In the “Antitheses” Jesus contrasts his reading of the Law with that of Moses, and so “anti-thesis” or contrast is the important structural technique to observe in 5:21-26, 27-32, 33-37, 38-42, and 43-48. In the first “Antithesis” Jesus states the Law, “You shall not kill” and then proceeds to call off all aggressive behavior which accompanies the urge to kill. Jesus prohibits “anger,” a passion aroused when someone feels injured or hurt in some way by another. It is a reaction to a challenge of some sort. And in Jesus’ world it was honorable, even required, to seek revenge and vengeance. But not for Jesus’ disciples; for they must swallow their pride and step aside from the game of push and shove played everywhere by all. Nor may they hurl abuse and insult at another, either to would or to retaliate. All aggressive behavior is forbidden the disciples. The most difficult of Jesus’ saying tells us that even if a person were performing the most honorable of actions, that is, offering God praise and glory, and remembered that “a brother has something against you,” he should stop the sacrifice and make restoration to the injured person. Obviously the sacrificer has previously hurt or injured “a brother,” and thinks to have gotten away with it. But Jesus demands that the aggressor stop the fight and offer satisfaction for the attack. This strikes me as nearly impossible to imagine: Jesus’ world seems never to have learned to say “I’m sorry” and to ask for forgiveness. Yet that is what is called form. The man who must make this gesture is doing something which he previously thought of as shameful; no one starts a fight and then backs down – the classic sign of a coward. Yet Jesus calls his disciples to step apart from the endemic aggressive behavior characteristic of that culture.
The second law which Jesus reforms prohibits adultery, that is, the shameful seduction of a neighbor’s wife. This too is an aggressive action whereby a man injures another man by seduction of his wife. No greater offense can be imagined in that world. Thus by prohibiting both aggressive physical behavior and offensive sexual seduction, Jesus has outlawed the two basic ways that men had for earning a reputation. Whatever honor a man enjoys will not come from aggression. Just as Jesus condemned internal passions such as anger, so too in regard to adultery he banned lust in the eye. Disciples must be pure both in outward action and inward desire. To underscore this Jesus says what all understand: to save the whole body we sacrifice a member which is poisoning us. Although he then speaks about cutting off or gouging out a contaminating member such as eye and hand, since the context is lust and adultery, we should probably infer that he extends this to the genitals of the offending male. There is a long tradition of speaking of the male penis as “hand.”
Next Jesus addresses the issue of divorce. Once more, we should step into Jesus’ world and learn what divorce meant then. First of all, marriages were not romantic unions of two people who had fallen in love; rather, they were unions of two families, each of which sought to gain economic, social and political advantage through the marriage. Hence divorce meant the severing this larger contract and the shaming of the discarded wife which would surely be an insult to her family. Then why divorce? Especially if a wealthier or better socially situated woman was available, a man’s divorce would be seen as an aggressive move on the part of the divorcing husband, who seeks to increase his honor and standing. Again, the aggressive game of male competition for respect is in view. And again, Jesus simply stops this game; his disciples may not continue to act like typical males; whatever honor may be earned must come from service of others and obedience to God’s will, which are traditionally feminine virtues!
Finally, Jesus takes up the issue of male posturing through boastful speech. Again, aggressive behavior is the issue. People swear false oaths for the purpose of either hiding their own guilt or attacking another by lies and calumny. They also swear vows to back up their speech. Thus the speaker seeks honor in his speech, either defending himself and attacking others. Jesus would clear up this behavior by simple prohibition of all such verbal posturing. A disciple will say a simple “Yes” or “No” and so refuse to participate in the verbal games of the village.
Therefore, we have seen Jesus reform the Law of Moses by extending the prohibitions in it from mere external actions to include passions of the heart. His discourse touches on the pivotal value of his world, the quest for honor and glory. Inasmuch as the path to these was typically through physical and sexual aggression, Jesus is calling off the game entirely. No disciple may act in aggression against another. Nor may disciples claim worth through oaths and vows or swearing falsely. While we wish to be as gender-inclusive as possible in our reading of Scripture, this gospel clearly has male disciples in mind, whose aggressive behavior is censored. All of this serves to reform the bedrock culture of Jesus’ world. Disciples must become a new creation.
7th - A (Matt 5:38-48)
With today’s gospel we finish the “Antitheses” in the Sermon. The pattern we noticed in last Sunday’s gospel continues here: a significant piece of the Law of Moses is cited which is then perfected or even superceded by Jesus. The two antitheses here both have to do with social relations and both reflect the typical aggressive behavior of the male world in Jesus’ time. In the first case, Jesus cites what is generally known as the lex talionis, that is, the system of strict justice in which the scales are finally balanced: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. We note that the front of the human face is in view, namely “eye” and “tooth.” The situation envisioned here is the deliberate injury to face, what we correctly call an “affront.” In the world of ancient honor and shame, insults had to be given face to face to be effective; what greater insult than to strike someone and cause permanent injury to the most honorable part of the body, the face, its eyes and the teeth of its mouth. The insult here is weightier than the injury, as all in the village would know of this aggressive action. Both are in view, insult as well as the injury. Jesus’ world, moreover, considered revenge and vengeance to be virtuous actions; a man should retaliate. He has a right to do so. Thus, the insulted and injured man would seek satisfaction by comparable aggression against his enemy. Stop! says Jesus. His disciples do not play this game. If struck, they turn the other cheek, allowing themselves to be utterly shamed in the public’s eye. If one’s outer garment is seized, the disciple should give up the inner garment too, thus being stripped naked, a most shameful experience. If forced against his will to go one mile (generally thought of as forced labor for the Roman army), he will go two. Hence, two things are clear. First, Jesus directly attacks the value world of his culture. But by stopping all aggressive action, including retaliation, his disciples lose face before their peers; their reputation collapses; they pay a frightful price to be disciples. Second, Jesus honors them and offers a commendation of their worth which supercedes the opinion of others.
In the last antithesis, Jesus cites “Love your neighbor” from the Law of Moses and balances it with a common social maxim, “Hate your enemy.” He reveals what everyone in his world recognizes and does: divisions and distinctions are made between “us” and “them.” We “love” ours, but “hate” what is other. “Love” and “hate” are code words here which refer to social cohesion for ethnic groups but hostility to groups which are not we, such as Samaritans or Gentiles. Jesus again attacks the value system of his world by telling his disciples that they must love their enemies and pray for those who assault them. In the previous antitheses Jesus instructed his disciples to stop the aggressive game of challenge and response in the sense that one should neither attack nor seek retaliation when attacked. Now he tells the disciples to do positive benefit to those who have harmed them. In short, they must erase the categories of “friend” and “enemy,” loving and blessing even the enemy. This would only be unintelligible and outrageous in the ears of the village.
If there is no human illustration of the worth and wisdom of loving
enemies, then we find one in Jesus’ description of God. God does not recognize
the categories of “friend” and “enemy.” His “love”
extends impartially and inclusively to all, the good and the bad. His benefaction
of “sun” and “rain” extend to all. If this is true,
then God does not participate in the aggressive game of insulting and returning
insults. God on the contrary provides the magic of agriculture to all, even
those who shame Him. Is God then “shameless?” Has God no honor?
The answer must be that God determines the social norm. If human behavior does
not measure up to that, we are the ones who act shamelessly. God’s
norms and actions are beyond criticism. Our world and its pervasive aggressiveness,
then, are shameless. But we are not expected to be conformed to our world. We
must be “perfect” in the same way that “God is perfect.”
The honor attached to “perfection” is precisely that of loving and
blessing our enemies. If we do not find our world turned upside down, we are
not listening to Jesus.
8th - A (Matt 6:24-35)
In typical biblical fashion, Jesus speaks in terms of opposites. Whereas in last Sunday’s gospel we found contrast between enemies and friends, love and hate, today we hear of two different kinds of “masters,” and the impossibility of serving both. Immediately Jesus applies this contrast in a story which illustrates “serving” God rather than wealth. Service of wealth (or “mammon”) would mean putting it first in our desires and behavior. That is, serving mammon means being anxious over one’s life -- what to eat and drink, or anxious over one’s body -- what to wear. Two possibilities arise: one might dedicate oneself to the pursuit of these things, or one might fear losing them. This threat of losing them can compel us to act in ways contrary to the gospel.
As we focus on the story that Jesus tells, we need to know an important piece of cultural information. Jesus’ remarks about birds of the air and lilies of the field reflect a profound but typical cultural division of the world along gender lines. Put simply, the whole world was gender divided: male and females occupied different spaces, did different tasks and performed different roles. Males acted in public (fields, markets, courts) whereas females focused on the world of the household and so limited their presence to it and the places that aided it (the common well and ovens). Males, by virtue of their social role, farmed and hunted, with the result that their tools, plow and weapon, were male tools. Female tools, on the other hand, pertained to clothing production (a loom) and food preparation (pots). Male roles were those of leadership of their families; females followed and submitted to their husbands. This is the world Jesus sees here.
A man, whom we will call “the husband,” is told to look at the birds of the air. These birds do not do male tasks: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns. Yet their paternal Parent feeds them generously. A female, whom we will call “the wife,” is told to look at the lilies of the field. These lilies do not do female tasks such as weaving and clothing production. Yet the great king Solomon never wore robes as glorious as these common flowers. So, the story is of a gender divided world, which indicates the gender-divided ways in which males/husbands and females/wives are anxious about what to eat and what to wear.
Something more is going on here. We are smack in the middle of consideration of self worth, that is, one’s reputation and honor in the eyes of others. In antiquity it was truly the case that “clothes make the man.” They reflect one’s wealth and status, what we call status symbols. They are meant to impress. Feasts and banquets too served to display one’s wealth, modest as that may be among peasants. They too signaled social importance, even as they offered pleasure and nourishment. Jesus enters this discussion by a series of comparison. Are not males of “more value” than the birds; are not females worthy of greater clothing than the grass of the field? All of this builds up to the climatic comparison: is not service of God more honorable than that of mammon? Will not faith in God and loyalty to this heavenly Patent pay a greater dividend than anxious service of wealth? The pursuit of wealth which brings worth and prestige characterizes the Gentiles; ought not true Israelites stand apart from and against this honor system?
Jesus draws important conclusions. He declares that God, our heavenly Parent, knows that we have great human needs for food and shelter and clothing. But the path to them lies in “serving God” and not mammon. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” we are told. To understand this, we should bring all that we have learned about this “kingdom” from Jesus’ various remarks. This kingdom surprisingly turns human codes of status and worth upside down: last is first, least is greatest. This kingdom, moreover, foolishly includes all the wrong people, that is, those thought unclean or sinful or of no worth; even despised Gentiles are welcome. In this kingdom God foolishly shines and rains on all, not just the favored people. Hence “seek first the kingdom of God” means to put it first in one’s life and to act in the bizarre way that Jesus describes elsewhere in the Sermon on the Mount, especially the makarisms (5:1-12).
But one last question should be asked? Why are this man and woman
(husband and wife?) without land and food and clothing? Drought? Possibly, but
there is no evidence of such at the time of Jesus. Excessive taxation and confiscation
of the family land? A real possibility! But let us look back to the 4th Sunday
of Ordinary Time, to the last makarism discussed there. In 5:11-12 Jesus describes
a rebellious son banned from his family and expelled from its property. No doubt
he will worry about food; he has no land to farm anymore. And if the female
in today’s story is his wife, then she too will suffer the loss of all
that is needed for clothing production: wool and loom. These disciples who have
suffered this terrible misfortune for the sake of the gospel are here addressed
by Jesus. Honorless in the eyes of their families and neighbors, they are of
“more value” in the eyes of Jesus. They have indeed “sought
first the kingdom of God” by faithfulness and loyalty to Jesus, and now
Jesus wishes to offer a reward for their painful, but noble behavior. It must
be that in Jesus’ larger view he expects other disciples to welcome, feed
and clothe those who have lost all for Jesus’ sake. One only has to reflect
on the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matt 25 to see that Jesus does
indeed expect, demand and sanction the material comfort of those who are anxious
about what to eat and what to wear.
9th - A (Matt 7:21-27)
Today’s gospel concludes Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, and its location at the end of the Sermon provides many clues about how we read it and pray over it. Most speeches end with an exhortation which arouses support for the speaker’s argument. So too, Jesus makes many statements here calculated to motivate disciples to accept, but especially to put into practice the gospel he has just preached. We have here two blocks of material, different in content but similar in aim. The first has to do with people who say “Lord! Lord!” but do not follow up this confession with actions. The second is a parable which compares and contrasts housebuilders who build wisely on rock or foolishly on sand.
In the first part Jesus warns that not everyone with noble lip service, “Lord! Lord!” enters the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of the Father in heaven. Throughout the gospel Jesus campaigns against mere lip service of God; such people he calls “hypocrites.” Their lip service deceives us by crediting them with virtue on the basis of words alone. As we say, “talk is cheap.” Jesus then pronounces a judgment against such deceivers and hypocrites. A day is surely coming on which secrets will be revealed and recompense allotted. Some will claim that they deserve God’s blessing for their actions and words. They say “Lord! Lord,” itself a correct honoring of Jesus. They do many things “in his name,” such as prophesying, casting out demons, and performing mighty works. These folk are clearly within the group of disciples: they say the right thing about Jesus and they act “in his name.” Yet Jesus sees that something is wrong. He judges that they have not done “the will of my Father in heaven.” What could that be? Using the Sermon on the Mount as “the will of God, judgment must have to do with not valuing what Jesus values in the Makarisms (5:1-12). It may pertain to failure to Jesus’ reform of the Law of Moses (5:20-48), or it may include failure to “seek first the kingdom of God” (6:33). The failure envisioned here seems to exclude a discipleship lived with a face toward one’s family and neighbors, in favor of a glitzy public life where prophecy, exorcisms and healing bring great honor. Such people have listened to Jesus and seen his works, but their hearts are untouched by his gospel. And so Jesus says that he does “not know” them, that is, he does not own them or value them. This is tantamount to their expulsion from his kingdom. Harsh, awesome, severe? Yes, but then the gospel Jesus preached is of paramount value. Don’t we recognize the worth of something by its price? Here, the severity of the judgment tells us of the paramount worth of Jesus’ teaching.
Finally to conclude the Sermon Jesus tells a parable about two builders of houses. The literary form is the very common “comparison” taught in Hellenistic and Judean schools. For example, we all know the tradition of the “two ways” which contrasts the right way with the wrong one. At the very time when Matthew is writing, Plutarch composes biographies of noble Greeks and Romans, often making a direct and formal comparison between pairs of them.
This comparison is crisp and clear; it makes the perfect conclusion to the Sermon. Jesus begins by affirming the value of fully embodying his teachings: “everyone who hears my words and does them is like a man who build his house on rock.” The praise, then, is directed to a person who hears in faith and behaves virtuously, that is, a person whose life is whole in regard to the Gospel. He follows Jesus with his whole body, both ears and hands and feet. Judeans valued such integrity very highly, something Jesus is appealing to here. Complete and total faithfulness. This person is “wise,” whereas his counterpart who builds on sand is “a fool!” The wise man, who has a good foundation, builds a house to withstand all of nature’s worst: rains, winds and floods. Literally, he survives (along with his household). The “fool,” in contrast,” builds on sand, which has no permanency to it; faced with a similar test, his house is utterly destroyed in the face of rain, wind and flood. “And great was the fall thereof.”
What, then, is the bottom line here? Sooner or later, hearers of the gospel will be put to the test about their loyalty to Jesus. As a result of this parable, we know that our reactions and responses to the gospel have great consequences. If we give Jesus only lip service or think to cut a cheap bargain with him or bank all of our hope in behavior that is supposed to deceive him, we know that he is no fool and that he reads hearts. He is a Lord of honesty and principle. This gospel is not meant so much as to scare us by recognition of sanctions for poor performance, but rather to affirm that the wholehearted doing of the will of God brings a wonderful reward, that is, nothing less than “entering the kingdom of God.” This is an exhortation to performance, not fear. Moreover, it honestly says what we all know: actions speak louder than words. The right conclusion, then, is for us to cling constantly and completely to the “stone” which the builders rejected, but which is the cornerstone. His house will never fail, nor us within it.
10th - A (Matt 9:9-13)
All of us rise up in haste to separate our children from persons and places where they may be corrupted. This is a parent’s duty and it is right. But our world also needs certain people to cross over and preach to sinners, to help drug addicts come clean, to treat AIDs patients, and the like. In today’s gospel, we find Jesus playing just that role. The story begins with Jesus’ encounter with Matthew and his summons of him to be a disciple. This would be simply wonderful until we learn that Matthew is a toll collector. Historians distinguish tax collectors, who gathered the Emperor’s tribute tax (Matt 22:17-21), from toll collectors, who put a levy on all goods moved over this bridge or along that road. Tax and toll collectors both enjoyed the worst possible reputation, because to those who were forced to pay the taxes they were nothing but thieves. But Jesus summons one of these despised persons to join his inner circle. Will wonders never cease?
Because Jesus has done him a good turn, Matthew reciprocates by hosting Jesus at a banquet. To this meal Matthew invited his own professional peers (“many tax collectors and sinners”) and Jesus has brought his disciples. This mingling of these two groups is a social faux-pas with enough energy to cause an earthquake. What’s wrong? and why? We must remember what meals signified in Jesus’ world. First, “like eats with like,” that is, sinners ate with sinners, while observant Israelites ate with similar folk. Conversely, we know that Israelites were forbidden to eat with Gentiles (Acts 10:28). Why is this so? The answer lies in our understanding of the way rituals such as meals work. Put simply, they are ceremonies which function to confirm one’s identity, role and status in an institution such as the family or the party of the Pharisees. Thus, “likes eat with likes.” And each person would have a precise place at the table in terms of some local hierarchy; the host here is Matthew and Jesus is his chief guest. We know also that food and drink were apportioned to those at table in differing amounts and quality, with the best and most going to the highest ranking persons. But the very presence of “Jesus and his disciples” at the same table as the toll collector and his cronies signals to observers that Jesus is associating and eating with people he should shun. He, on the other hand, shows solidarity with people deemed religiously unclean. Observers like the Pharisees who see him eating with “tax collectors and sinners” conclude that he is like them, a sinner; and so he cannot be a prophet of righteousness, but rather a fraud and deceiver. The Pharisees got the message of the meal, but not in the sense that Jesus was an unclean hypocrite.
Put on the spot to justify his table fellowship with sinners, Jesus describes himself in a role according to which he is authorized to be on the other side of the line. He is a “physician,” whom society authorizes to deal with the “sick,” that is, with people from whom the rest of us separate ourselves because of our fear of contagion. Physicians have our approval for what they do: they should tend to the sick; they are trained precisely for this. As we said above, all cultures legitimate certain people to cross lines to aid the sick, the insane, the criminal, and the like. Thus by describing himself as a “physician,” Jesus defines his prophetic role to include concern for groups and professions whom others would normally shun. In this regard, we should never forget what Jesus’ own name means: “You will call him ‘Jesus,’ for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21). His name is his vocation: savior.
But since his critics are Pharisees, that is, lay religious specialists in Judea, he backs up his proverb about physicians with a citation from Hosea the prophet. This learned lay group prided itself on its comprehensive reading of Scripture lest even the least commandment be ignored. How shameful, then, when Jesus tells them to go back and read the prophet Hosea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (6:6). “Mercy” represents the kind of behavior Jesus displays, in this case, table fellowship with sinners. After all, “mercy” makes no sense for those who are well or holy or observant. God favors one way, “mercy,” but does not ask for “sacrifice,” a system of holiness based on separation from all that is unclean. God’s world was and is filled with those needing “mercy” in some form: refugees, paupers, addicted personalities, and the like. God has not excluded them; on the contrary, Jesus is their “physician.” Whereas Pharisees and others may separate themselves from others for fear of contamination, they are not the focus of Jesus’ ministry. He came to call sinners. In the gospel, then, “mercy” takes precedence over “sacrifice.”
11th - A (Matt 9:36-10:8)
The first part of today’s gospel functions as the conclusion to Matthew’s collection of the miracle stories of Jesus (chs 8-9). Throughout this material the evangelist has sprinkled special comments which interpret the meaning of the miracles. After narrating the cure of Peter’s mother-in-law and others in the village, Matthew indicates that Jesus’ saving actions fulfil what Isaiah prophesied: “He took away our infirmities and bore our diseases” (8:17/Isa 53:4). Later Jesus describes his ministry to sinners as that of a “physician” to the needy (9:12). And here the evangelist describes Jesus looking at the crowds: “He had compassion for them. . .harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” These comments are valuable to us for they highlight the meaning of Jesus’ healing ministry. He demonstrates compassion, both his and God’s; and so the ancient covenant bonds remain strong and alive. As his name “Jesus” signifies, he will save his people from sin and sickness. So he truly is our “physician,” whose target audience is precisely those in need. And he is our “shepherd,” protecting us, feeding us, and gathering us in safety together. Thus we learn that his miracles not only realize divine compassion for us, but also function as credentials for Jesus. They serve as proof that God is with him and that he is God’s unique prophet, mighty in word and deed. Finally, they remind us that God cares about our physical existence, whether we have sufficient food, health, social support and the like. Our spiritual God is genuinely concerned with our material selves.
Immediately after this, Jesus tells the disciples to pray that laborers be sent into the harvest, indicating that others must join him in his work. This prayer leads directly to the long sermon on mission (10:1-42), the second of Matthew’s five collections of Jesus’ words. As the disciples pray for laborers to be sent to the harvest, Jesus answers that prayer by appointing his twelve closest disciples to this task. Why these disciples? Tradition has it that eleven of these were prominent in the early church’s mission; but in that culture it was essential that public persons such as these indicate their credentials. We have, then, an old memory of Jesus himself during his earthly life authorizing certain specific people as his agents. We all recognize Peter and Andrew and James and John; these four often joined Jesus at special moments such as his Transfiguration, the raising of Jairus’’ daughter, and his prayer in Gethsemane.
These apostles (the word means “those sent”) are carbon copies of Jesus; just like him, they have authority to cast out demons, to heal every disease and every infirmity (see 4:23), to preach the nearness of God’s kingdom, and to make whole what is broken. Like Jesus, they will function in the traditional role of a prophet, mighty in word and deed. It is always striking to remind ourselves that the healing actions of Jesus did not cease with his ascension to God’s right hand. The gospel preached by Jesus speaks to the forgiveness of our sins and to the healing of our bodies. The church of Jesus which grew also had the keen memory that the “physician” Jesus continued his ministry through the authorized teaching of certain disciples and the miracles worked by them and others.
Curiously Jesus restricts the mission to Israel. Although Matthew’s gospel is filled with clear indications of an inclusive mission to both Judeans and Gentiles, these remarks of Jesus limit that mission for the moment. By the end of the gospel, it will be clear that Jesus revokes this and commands the apostles to “make disciples of all nations” (28:19). The importance of this might lie in our observation of a growth or development in vision of the church. It was capable of making dramatic and meaningful change (see Matt 15:21-28). We are watching decision making right before our eyes.
What, then, have we in this gospel? In one sense it functions
as a miniature of the whole gospel. It presents Jesus once more as our savior
and as God’s prophet who is mighty in word and deed. We see also Jesus’
compassion for the sick, which leads him to act himself on their behalf and
then to extend his work through the hands of his disciples. The kingdom that
he preaches, moreover, is filled with God’s benefaction made evident in
healing and preaching. Although restricted here to “the lost house of
Israel,” the mission will broaden to consider all of the “sheep
without a shepherd.” This gospel, moreover, is one of those rare moments
when we glimpse the beginning of a providential movement to ensure that laborers
will be sent into the harvests of every age and place. We pray, then, for such
to go to the neediest parts of our country and world, especially the lay ministers
of our church into whose care we are now being entrusted.
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