Reflecting on Matthew for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 22:34-40

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Polemics continue as the Pharisees return with another challenge for Jesus. This time they send a scholar of the Mosaic law. The question is a simple one: Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

This is not a trick question but is designed to see if the Galilean preacher has the knowledge necessary to be teaching others about God and his will for their lives. Jesus replies by citing the love commandments from Deut 6:5 and Lev 19:18.

The first is part of the Shema, the monotheistic creed of Israel that the faithful recited as part of their daily prayers. It is the greatest commandment of the Torah because it spells out the highest obligation of every person, which is to love the Lord with the combined strength of one’s heart, soul, and mind. The love he demands is not simply affection or emotion but a commitment to keep the Lord’s covenant.

The second commandment calls us to love our neighbor with the same solicitude with which we naturally care for our own needs. Earlier Jesus applied this precept to friends and enemies alike (5:43–48), declaring it one of the requirements for gaining eternal life (19:19). Together the two love commandments sum up the Ten Commandments, three of which delineate our responsibilities toward God and seven of which concern our duties toward others (see Exod 20:2–17).

To stress the point, Jesus adds that the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. Literally, the text says that the Torah and the Prophets “hang” on the double love commandment, as though these two precepts support the full weight of biblical religion in all its various aspects. No other commandment of the Bible is properly observed if either one of these is transgressed or compromised, for the aim of all divine Scripture is to bring us out of ourselves to love and serve God and our fellow human beings.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 22:15-21

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The trap comes in the form of a question: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? The Pharisees are trying to force Jesus into a dilemma. By giving him only two options for an answer, they hope to back him into one of two predicaments.

If Jesus affirms the propriety of the tax, he will come off as a Roman sympathizer, discrediting himself in the eyes of numerous Jews for whom the Roman rule of Judea was an intolerable burden. On the other hand, if Jesus forbids paying the tax, the Herodians are sure to report him to Roman authorities for instigating a tax revolt. The last time a charismatic Galilean led a tax revolt in Palestine the Romans responded with appallingly brutal force.

Immediately Jesus detects their malice and knows that they are testing him. So he asks them to show him the coin that pays the census tax. Little did they realize what was happening. By producing the coin used for the tax, the Pharisees are publicly exposed as hypocrites. They may oppose Roman taxation in principle, but apparently they are in the habit of paying it just like every other Palestinian Jew

….Instead of walking into the trap, Jesus slips through it, taking advantage of the situation to make an important point. He says, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Just as Jesus exposed his questioners as hypocrites, so now he exposes their question as a false dilemma. He is saying that political and religious obligations can both be legitimately met. Paying taxes is not a compromise of one’s duties toward God, nor does serving God exempt one from supporting the civil government.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 22:1-14
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The parable of the wedding feast is about our response to God’s call.

It cautions us first of the dangers of indifference. When the Father invites us into a relationship with his Son, we can either choose to respond or we can quietly decline the invitation and go back to our personal pursuits as though nothing has changed and no new demands have been placed on our lives.

Another danger brought to our attention is indignation. Many people fight the idea that we are all sinners in need of salvation. In such cases, the good news and its call for repentance can seem like a threat to our happiness and our deepest desires for fulfillment in life. This can put us on the defensive and even provoke a hostile response toward those who challenge us with the claims of Christ.

Finally, the parable warns us against incomplete conversion. The man without the wedding garment had neither ignored nor refused the invitation to the feast. But his yes to the call of God was not carried through in his life. He wanted the good things of the kingdom, but not enough to break with his sinful ways and live as a committed disciple.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 21:33-43
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The confrontation becomes explosive when Jesus says directly to the chief priests and elders that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you. If they had not caught on so far, Jesus makes his allegory clear: they are the wicked tenants who will be removed from leadership over God’s people. Care over God’s kingdom will be given to a people that will produce its fruit—a new people of God (1 Pet 2:9), whom Matthew’s readers would understand to be the Church (see 16:18).

Continuing to use the stone imagery, Jesus’ words about one who falls on this stone alludes to Isa 8:14–15, where the Lord becomes a stumbling stone for the unfaithful. The image of a stone that will crush anyone on whom it falls and that person being dashed to pieces recalls Nebuchadnezzar’s vision of a statue signifying a series of pagan kingdoms that was shattered to pieces by a stone. In the vision, the stone represents a new kingdom that becomes like a mountain filling the earth (Dan 2:35, 44–45).

These two Old Testament stone images come together in Christ. As the stone of Isaiah, Jesus is the one over whom the unfaithful Jewish leaders stumble. As the stone of Dan 2, Christ’s kingdom—despite the opposition in Jerusalem—will become like a large mountain, toppling pagan empires and becoming a great worldwide kingdom.

Hearing Jesus challenging message, the chief priests and the Pharisees (who also were present) want to arrest Jesus, but they did not want to upset the crowds, who view him so favorably as they did John the Baptist (22:26). The crowds consider him a prophet.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 21:28-32
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Despite the temple authorities’ evasive answer, Jesus exposes their rejection of John the Baptist with a parable about a man with two sons. The father asks his sons to work in the vineyard, an Old Testament image for Israel that Jesus has already utilized (20:1–16; Isa 5:1–7). The first son refuses his father. In a culture where sons are to honor and obey their fathers (Sir 3:1–16), the son’s initial I will not is a shameful act of defiance. But he later changed his mind and went out into the field.

Although the second son agreed to work the field and even honorably addressed his father as “lord” (translated “sir” in the NAB), in the end he disobeyed and did not do the father’s will—reminiscent of Jesus’ teaching in 7:21 about those who call him “Lord” but do not do the Father’s will and do not enter the kingdom.

Obviously, the first son is the one who did his father’s will. Even the chief priests and elders recognize that. But what Jesus says next would have utterly dumbfounded them. Jesus tells them that the tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God before you. Tax collectors and prostitutes were considered to be at the bottom of the socioreligious scale and outside God’s covenant—the kind of people the chief priests and elders looked down on the most. Yet, like the first son, these notorious sinners, who rebelled initially, repented when they heard the exhortation of John the Baptist. That Jesus would say these sinful outsiders will enter God’s kingdom before the chief priests and elders would have been completely astounding—and offensive.

At the same time, Jesus links the chief priests and elders with the second son. They had the law, and by taking office they affirmed that they would do God’s will. But when God sent his prophet John the Baptist calling all to repent, they did not believe him. They will find themselves watching the sinners enter God’s kingdom before them. It is implied that if they fail to repent, they will be left out of the kingdom (8:11–12).

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 20:1-16a
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The parable of the vineyard workers shines a spotlight on the extravagant generosity of God. The late hires received from the divine landowner the same compensation as the early arrivals, yet this was neither earned by their efforts nor owed to them according to the terms of the contract. It was not something they deserved or merited. It was simply a gift that the Lord was free to bestow at his good pleasure.

The early hires, however, mistook divine generosity for divine injustice. Theirs was an instinctive human reaction to an unfulfilled expectation (“we should have gotten more than the latecomers”) combined with a perception of unfairness (“the latecomers got a better hourly rate than we did”). Many of us can relate to the perspective of the disgruntled workers; their initial reaction— and perhaps ours—is to think they have been cheated.

But this is not the case, as the landowner explains in verses 13–15. The injustice lies instead with the grumbling laborers, who have become envious of the others. Envy is not simply jealousy, which is the desire to attain or possess what another person has. Envy is the sin of being upset at another’s good fortune. Scripture traces its beginning back to the devil himself (Wis 2:24).

The parable thus conveys a theological message about God’s goodness as well as a moral message that cautions readers against envy. The challenge is to rejoice at the liberality of God manifest in the lives of others. None of us is deserving of his grace or has a claim on his blessings. We all have reason to be grateful that the Lord is “generous” (v. 15).

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Philippians for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross

From Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, by Dennis Hamm, SJ, commenting on Philippians 2:6-11
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The Son, who had already emptied himself of divinity, humbled himself, becoming obedient to death. Since “obedient to death” could seem to describe death as Christ’s master, a clearer translation is that of the NRSV: “obedient to the point of death.” This obedience to the Father as a humble servant characterizes the whole earthly life of Jesus (see Mark 10:45).

Even death on a cross is not an addendum but the very climax of the statement. In Paul’s world, death on a cross was the ultimate extreme not only of pain but also, and especially, of humiliation. Paul is, after all, expanding on the self-abasement of Jesus. First came his self-emptying in the incarnation; then came his self-humbling in his human life, which culminated in the most humiliating death of all, the gruesome form of Roman execution reserved for criminals who were noncitizens of the empire, especially slaves. If the city of Philippi was filled with inscriptions posted by citizens boasting of their accomplishments in the Roman honors race, Paul counters this mind-set with his acclamation of Jesus Christ’s self-emptying humility—to which God the Father responded by bestowing the supreme honor that is about to be described.

At verse 9 there is suddenly a complete reversal. Because of this, God greatly exalted him. The Greek verb for “greatly exalt” (hyperypsoō) means in effect to “hyper-exalt.” Though the hymn surely alludes to Jesus’ resurrection, the emphasis here is on the lofty status to which he has been raised. Jesus’ exaltation is not a matter of being raised from the human to the divine, since he already possessed “the form of God” and “equality with God.”

Rather, it was the Father’s public vindication of the supremely honorable human life of the Son. Christ is now, in his human nature, exalted to divine glory and enthroned as Lord of the universe. This reversal from humiliation to exaltation evokes Isaiah’s fourth servant song, where God foretells that his suffering servant shall “be exalted and glorified exceedingly” (Isa 52:13 LXX). The humiliated one is glorified!

© 2013 Dennis Hamm, SJ, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 18:15-20
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In ancient Judaism, the terms to bind and loose were associated with the authority to teach and to grant or withhold forgiveness of sin. Significantly for this passage, the terms also denoted juridical authority to include or exclude persons from the community of faith.

While this authority was given to Peter uniquely in 16:19, it is now bestowed on the disciples as a whole. In this context, it refers to their authority to make decisions regarding the status of unrepentant sinners in the Christian community. Jesus notes how decisions by his leaders on earth have the authority of heaven behind them.

If two of you agree: Since the context concerns seeking the lost (18:10–14), bringing a sinner to reconciliation (18:15–16), and the Church’s authority to exclude an unrepentant sinner from the community (18:17–18), the united prayer of two disciples here refers particularly to the Lord’s attentiveness to prayers for erring brothers or sisters and for guidance regarding how to care for them. As Nolland observes, “behind the binding and loosing of verse 18 stands the praying of verse 19.”

The juridical theme continues with Jesus’ words about two or three being gathered together in my name. When Christ’s disciples gather to pray, they pray in his name and he is present. In essence, the disciples’ prayer becomes Jesus’ prayer, which will be answered by the Father.

This teaching may reflect a conviction later expressed in rabbinic tradition to the effect that when two Jews sit together to discuss the law, God’s presence abides between them. The disciples, however, gather not around the Torah but in Jesus’ name, and Jesus becomes the new divine presence abiding with them.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 16:21-27
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In the preceding episode Jesus spoke for the first time about his suffering and death. Now he says that disciples are expected to follow him down this road. Where he goes, his disciples must also go. Jesus will surrender his life for them. Will they be willing to surrender their lives for him?

Jesus first insists that every disciple must take up his cross and follow his Messiah. Our familiarity with this language dulls us to its meaning. Few of us have ever witnessed anything so barbaric as the crucifixion of a human person. The Romans perfected this technique of execution, yet Roman citizens thought it inappropriate to mention it in public conversation.

Jesus, however, invites us to think of the Christian life in precisely these terms. He demands a commitment of faith that is ready to embrace the will of God wherever it leads, even unto death (as in 26:39). The call is backed by a promise that everyone who loses his life for the sake of Jesus will find it in the end (see commentary on 10:38–39).

Incentive for embracing this radical commitment is the prospect of final judgment. Jesus will eventually return as the Son of Man, accompanied by the angels of heaven, and will render his verdict on the lives of everyone. He will be the world’s final judge, the one who determines the eternal destiny of all.

The basis on which we will be judged will be our conduct (see Ps 62:12; Rom 2:6). From the perspective of Matthew’s Gospel, this will entail a judgment of our words (12:36–37), our thoughts (5:28–30), our actions (7:21), our willingness to forgive others (6:14–15; 18:35), and our commitment to works of mercy (25:31–46).

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 16:13-20

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Several indicators, including the metaphor of a building, suggest that Jesus envisions his Church as a temple of believers (as do other New Testament texts; see 1 Cor 3:16–17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:19–22; 1 Pet 2:4–6).

The expectation of a messiah that was shaped by the oracle in 2 Sam 7:8–17 held that the coming son of David (royal messiah), like the original son of David (King Solomon), would construct the house of the Lord in the midst of his people (2 Sam 7:13; also Zech 6:12–13). Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah thus entails the expectation that he will build the Lord’s temple in the age to come.

A second indication that the rock imagery is connected to the building of a temple lies in Jesus’ statement that the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against his Church.

In the symbolism of Israel’s theology, the gates of the netherworld were the opening leading down to Hades, also called Sheol, or the Pit, which was the dark and gloomy underworld hidden deep within the bowels of the earth. There the souls of the dead sank down into a shadowy, joyless existence. There also, in Jewish thinking, was the habitation of infernal powers that bring death and deception into the world of the living (see Rev 9:1–6; 11:7; 20:1–3).

Later, rabbinic Judaism believed that the foundation stone of the temple capped off the shaft leading down to the underworld. Peter is now given a comparable role in the living temple built by the Messiah. Thanks to the blessing of Jesus on Peter, now made the rock of the new temple, neither death, nor the devil, nor his deceiving spirits shall ever prevail against the Church.

© 2010 Curtis Mitch, Edward Sri, and Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.