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.

Reflecting on Matthew for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 15:21-28

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Jesus’ reputation as a healer and exorcist had apparently preceded him here, for a local mother whose daughter was afflicted by a demon identified him and pressed him to intervene.

At first, Jesus gave no answer to her pleas, and the disciples grew annoyed that she kept calling out for his help. When he finally responded, he explained his reason for not getting involved: his ministry was directed not to the Gentiles but to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (see 10:5–6). The people of Israel, being the Lord’s collective firstborn (Exod 4:22), stand first in line to receive the Messiah’s blessings (see Acts 3:26).

Not content with this response, the woman did him homage, which probably means that she bowed before him or performed some comparable gesture of reverence. Then she renews her request with the words, Lord, help me. Accepting his lordship, she is confident that Jesus wields the divine power necessary to release her little girl from demonic oppression.

Still, Jesus declines. It is inappropriate, he says, to toss the food of the children to dogs. His first priority is to bring blessings to the Israelites, the “children” of the Lord by covenant (Deut 14:1). The Gentiles, for their part, are depicted more like little house dogs than true family members, for they are ignorant of the God of Israel and his ways.

Many would have given up after this second failed attempt at soliciting Jesus’ help, but not this woman. Undaunted, she presses forward, engaging the details of the parable. Please, Lord, she begs, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.

At last Jesus responds favorably with glowing words of praise: O woman, great is your faith! He is impressed with her persistence and rewards it by freeing her daughter from the nightmare of demonic assault. And from that hour on, the woman’s daughter was delivered from the evil spirit.

© 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 Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 14:22-33

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The story begins with another trip across the Sea of Galilee. This time Jesus does not accompany his disciples in the boat. Instead, he sends them ahead to the other side while he stays behind. His intention is to create an opportunity for prayer. Practicing what he preaches, he seeks solitude on the mountain in order to converse with his Father “in secret” (6:6).

The disciples, meanwhile, struggle against foul weather for much of the night. The wind blows hard against their boat and churns up angry waves on the sea. Though they manage to get a few miles offshore, they have not reached their destination by the fourth watch of the night, a Roman designation for the final hours of darkness between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. Suddenly they are alarmed to see Jesus walking toward them on the sea.

The first reaction of the disciples is terror, for they thought they were seeing a ghost on the waters. Hoping to calm their fears, Jesus approaches and responds: it is I. This is a perfectly accurate translation of the Greek egō eimi and, on one level, they are words of reassurance for the disciples, identifying the speaker as their Master.

On another level, however, they are words of revelation, for they can just as accurately be translated “I am.” So understood, the statement recalls the Lord’s words to Moses from the burning bush: “I am who I am” (Exod 3:14). Elsewhere too God revealed himself as the great “I am” in the Old Testament (see Isa 41:4; 43:2, 10–11; 45:18). For those with ears to hear, Jesus’ declaration is nothing less than a claim to divinity using the familiar words of scriptural revelation.

© 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 Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 14:13-21

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Spectacular though it was, the multiplication of the loaves was not an unprecedented event. Similar miracles involving food appear in the Old Testament.

One thinks of the manna that rained down from heaven to feed the Israelites in the wilderness (Exod 16:4–21). So too Elijah, when he stayed with a poor widow of Zarephath, caused her nearly empty jar of meal and her depleted cruse of oil to supply the household with food throughout an extended famine (1 Kings 17:8–16).

Most relevant here is the miracle of Elijah’s successor, Elisha, who multiplied twenty loaves for one hundred men and still had some left over (2 Kings 4:42–44). Against this background, Christ’s miracle shows that he wields a power even greater than that of the prophets of Israel, for he started with fewer loaves than Elisha and fed a vastly larger crowd!

But the significance of Jesus’ action does not end here. The multiplication of loaves not only draws our minds back to the Old Testament; it also points us forward to the institution of the Eucharist.

Readers familiar with the Last Supper account are not likely to miss the connection between these events, for Matthew recounts them in similar terms. Notice that both events take place at the same time (evening, 14:15; 26:20), and those in attendance assume the same posture (reclining, 14:19; 26:20). Likewise, Jesus performs the same actions with the bread in both instances, and in the same sequence (took, blessed, broke, gave, 14:19; 26:26). Lastly, Jesus hands the broken loaves to the same recipients (the disciples, 14:19; 26:26).

No doubt Matthew considers the multiplication of the loaves an anticipatory sign of the Eucharist to be distributed as communion to the multitudes of God’s people.

© 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 Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 13:44-52

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At the end of the discourse Jesus asks his disciples if they understand all these things, referring to the parables taught that day.

Their affirmative response is significant. Understanding of the parables is precisely what Jesus said the crowds would lack (13:13–15). But truly hearing the word and understanding it is the chief characteristic of the seed that falls on good soil and bears fruit (13:23). Though the disciples still have much to learn, they do at least have an understanding of the kingdom’s mysteries that sets them apart from the crowds (13:10–17) and will make them fruitful in their mission (13:23).

Jesus says the disciples are like a scribe, a scholar of Scripture who was trained in interpreting the law. According to the book of Sirach, a true scribe can “penetrate the subtleties of parables” and be “at home with the obscurities of parables” (Sir 39:2–3 RSV). Unlike the scribes associated with the Pharisees who oppose Christ (12:38), Jesus’ disciples understand the parables. They are the new scribes of the kingdom because they have been instructed (literally, “discipled”) in the kingdom of heaven.

Jesus also says the disciples are like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old. As men who understand the mysteries of the kingdom, they see how Christ’s ministry (“the new”) fulfills the Hebrew Scriptures (“the old”), bringing God’s plan of salvation to its climax. Therefore the disciples are much better interpreters of the Scriptures—and thus better scribes—than the scribes allied with the Pharisees who have rejected Jesus (see 12:38).

© 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 Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 13:24-43

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The parable of the mustard seed builds on the previous one, showing that despite the enemy’s opposition to the kingdom, the harvest will yield tremendous results.

At first, the kingdom does not appear to be very large. It is like a mustard seed, which was proverbially the smallest of all the seeds. From this tiny seed, a great bush emerges. Jesus describes it as becoming so big that birds of the sky come and dwell in its branches—which recalls an Old Testament description of a great kingdom that gathers many nations as a large tree gathers birds who nest on its branches (Ezek 31:2–13; Dan 4:17–18).

In particular, Ezekiel foretold that Israel would gather the nations like a mighty cedar that shelters the birds of the air (Ezek 17:22–24). Jesus uses this parable to show how his kingdom movement, despite its small beginnings, will become like the prophetic large tree gathering birds, fulfilling Israel’s mission to the nations as Ezek 17 foretold.

….Commenting on the Church’s evangelizing efforts, Pope Benedict XVI warned that Catholics today must resist what he calls “the temptation of impatience,” that is, the temptation to insist on “immediately finding great success” and “large numbers.”

He says that immediate, massive growth is not God’s way. “For the Kingdom of God as well as for evangelization, the instrument and vehicle of the Kingdom of God, the parable of the grain of mustard seed, is always valid.”

He goes on to say the new phase of the Church’s evangelizing mission to the secular world will not be “immediately attracting the large masses that have distanced themselves from the Church by using new and more refined methods.” Rather, it will mean “to dare, once again and with the humility of the small grain, to leave up to God the when and how it will grow.”

© 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 Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 13:1-23

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While Jesus occasionally spoke in parables before, here he suddenly addresses the crowds “at length” in parables, giving several in rapid-fire succession. This movement from teaching the crowds primarily in a straightforward manner (Matt 5–7) to a new emphasis on parables (Matt 13) surprises Jesus’ own disciples, who ask, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” (13:10).

For the ancient Jews, a parable was a cryptic saying or story intended to stimulate thought. Parables were sometimes used to communicate God’s judgment on corrupt Israelites for their sins (see 2 Sam 12:1–10; Isa 5:1–7; Ezek 17:2–21; 19:2–19). As we will see, Jesus’ parables in Matt 13 address the indifference of many in Israel to his ministry (Matt 11) and the opposition of the Pharisees who are plotting his death (Matt 12).

When asked about the purpose of his parables, Jesus tells the disciples that knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been granted to you, but it will not be given to those who do not follow him. Those who have been open to Christ’s teachings will perceive even more: To anyone who has, more will be given. But those with closed hearts will be unable to penetrate the mysteries of the kingdom: from anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.

In the punch line (v. 13) Jesus sums up the reason he now teaches in parables. Many in Israel refuse to receive his message: they look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand. In a fulfillment quotation Jesus points to Isa 6:9–10, a text that tells how the prophet is sent by God to call the people to repentance but predicts that few will take the message to heart.

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