Reflecting on Matthew for the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 11:28

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Jesus shifts from addressing the Father to addressing the world of potential disciples. Come to me is Jesus’ invitation to all who have toiled and become tired in spirit. He invites them into a personal and rewarding relationship with him.

In the context of Jesus’ ministry, those who are burdened are probably those who are struggling to bear up under the demands of the scribes and Pharisees, who “tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders” (23:4).

The benefit of answering Jesus’ call is spiritual rest. This is more than a promise of everlasting repose in the life to come. It is also a promise of inner peace in this life, the kind of peace that quiets the mind and heart and surpasses human understanding (see Phil 4:7). Of course, the followers of Christ will continue to experience frustration, trials, and suffering, but these burdens become lighter and more bearable with the Lord’s help.

The invitation includes a summons to bear the yoke of Jesus. This is a call to discipleship, to submit oneself to the instruction of the Messiah. Disciples are bidden to learn from Jesus not only by heeding his words but also by imitating his life, which is a perfect incarnation of his words. Only in Christ is the message and the messenger one and the same. He who preaches the importance of being “meek” (5:5) is also he who shows us what it means to be meek (see also 21:5).

Finally, Jesus declares that his yoke is easy, his load is light. In the biblical world, a load-bearing yoke was a curved beam laid across the back of the neck and shoulders with chains or suspension ropes at each end. Peasants used them for hoisting and carrying heavy objects. No doubt this was backbreaking work. Given this background, it is worthwhile to consider why Jesus would speak of his tutelage as an easy yoke. Most likely, it is a creative way of saying that discipleship is not effortless, but neither is it an exhausting burden.

© 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 Solemnity of All Saints

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 5:1-12a

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Jesus frames the beatitudes with the same blessing at the beginning and the end of this list—for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (5:3, 10)— “indicating that all the several kinds of blessedness are aspects of the one supreme blessing of possessing the Kingdom of Heaven.”

Though the promises in the central beatitudes (vv. 4–9) are given in the future tense (they will . . .), the fact that the foundational blessing of the kingdom (vv. 3, 10) is given in the present tense (“theirs is the kingdom. . .”) indicates that the happiness envisioned in the beatitudes is not only for the distant future, but also can be experienced to some degree even now, as the kingdom of heaven dawns in Christ’s ministry (4:17).

Jesus’ beatitudes represent a reversal of values, turning the world’s standards for happiness upside down. Many of the people whom the world would consider to be among the most miserable—the poor, the mourning, the meek, the persecuted—Jesus proclaims to be in an advantageous situation, for God looks now with favor on them and assures them of consolation in the future.

Jesus thus challenges his followers to see life from God’s viewpoint, not the world’s. When his followers live by God’s standards, they are truly in a fortunate state in life, no matter what their circumstances may be, for they bring a glimmer of the joy and hope of the heavenly kingdom into the afflictions of the present world.

Ultimately the beatitudes are nothing less than a portrait of Christ’s own life. Matthew depicts Jesus as meek (11:29; 12:15–21; 21:5), merciful (9:27–31; 15:22; 17:14–18; 18:33; 20:29–34), and persecuted (27:27–31, 39–44). As an indirect portrait of Jesus, the beatitudes “display the mystery of Christ himself, and they call us into communion with him.”

© 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 Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 28:16-20

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Every lifelong commitment must have a beginning. Discipleship begins with a sacramental initiation, with baptizing all new followers of Jesus in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit.

Although the doctrine of the Trinity would not be clearly articulated by the Church until the fourth and fifth centuries, the seeds of this teaching are present in this command of Jesus and in many other New Testament texts. Besides that, readers of Matthew first encountered the Father, Son, and Spirit in the context of Jesus’ own baptism (3:13–17). Thus the relationship of baptism to the three Persons of the Trinity does not come out of the blue, for they have already been linked together at that earlier point in the Gospel.

Along with baptism, new disciples are to be instructed in the teachings of Jesus. The importance of hearing Jesus’ words and putting them into practice, emphasized in the Sermon on the Mount (7:23–27), is here confirmed. Of course this will entail an introduction to basic principles and precepts, but eventually the disciple is to receive a full presentation of all that Christ commanded. The gospel is meant to give shape and direction to our entire life, so believers must be informed of how it impinges on family matters, economics, relationships, employment, government, education, and so on.

In other words, the good news of Jesus Christ must ultimately go beyond personal formation to a broader inculturation. The Lord wants the truth of his message to Christianize all nations as nations. Only when both individuals and societies are conformed to the gospel can we say that the Father’s will has been done “on earth as in heaven” (6:10).

The parting words of Jesus bring our minds back to the beginning of Matthew, where Jesus received the name Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us” (1:23). Here the same idea is expressed in the statement: I am with you always.

This is his promise to remain forever present with the Christian community (see 18:20). The disciples are not left to rely on their own resources as they march forth with the gospel. Jesus is there to unleash its power and to prepare the hearts of all who receive it. When the disciples proclaim the good news, it is the words of Jesus that the hearers accept or reject (see 7:24–27). When the disciples administer baptism, it is Jesus who baptizes “with the holy Spirit and fire” (see 3:11). It is the active presence of Christ that makes the Church the “universal sacrament of salvation” for the world.

© 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 Epiphany of the Lord

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 2:1-12

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The magi’s long journey reaches its climax as they enter the house and see the child with Mary his mother.

This reference to Mary and the child in a house in Bethlehem can stand in complete harmony with Luke’s account of the child being laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). Since first-century peasant homes in Palestine often had the lodging place for persons on one level and animals dwelling with a manger on a lower level, the house the magi visit in Matt 2 might be the same house where Jesus was born in Luke 2. Another possibility is that Jesus was born in a cave near Bethlehem (a tradition that goes back to second-century pilgrims traveling to Bethlehem) and that later the holy family moved to a more comfortable dwelling, a house, which is where the magi find them.

The magi do not simply kneel before Christ; they prostrated themselves on their faces and did him homage. Though prostration before kings was common in the ancient Near East, elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel prostration and giving homage are associated with divine worship (4:9–10; 14:23; 15:25; 28:9, 17). The Gentile magi, therefore, offer Christ the worship that Herod, the chief priests, and scribes failed to offer.

The gifts of gold, frankincense (an expensive perfume used for incense in worship), and myrrh (an exotic spice) represent luxurious gifts fit for a king. They recall the Gentile queen of Sheba bringing spices and a large amount of gold for King Solomon (1 Kings 10:1–2). Jesus, the new son of David (1:1–17), is welcomed with similar gifts by these Gentile magi. The gifts also recall prophecies about the nations coming to pay homage to the king of Israel, falling down before him and offering gifts of gold and frankincense (Ps 72:10–11; Isa 60:1–6). As such, this scene underscores that Jesus is not just king of the Jews (2:2)—he is king of the whole world.

© 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 Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 25:31-46

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The opening verse sets the scene. It is the return of the Son of Man surrounded by heavenly angels and seated majestically on his glorious throne. Christian tradition interprets this as a vision of the last judgment, when the thoughts, words, and deeds of the entire human race are weighed in the balance by Jesus the judge.

The Son of Man’s first action is to assume the role of a shepherd who divides the sheep of his flock from the goats. It is often pointed out that Middle Eastern herdsmen normally allow their animals to graze together and that sheep and goats tend to be valued equally. This makes it difficult to say for sure why the judgment is depicted as a separation of sheep from goats. Nevertheless, it is clear from the outset that the sheep represent the saints, for they are placed at the Lord’s right, which in ancient cultures represented the good, fortunate, or honorable place (see 1 Kings 2:19; Ps 110:1), while the left represented the bad, unfortunate, or dishonorable.

The verdict of the king is that those on the right are blessed by the Lord and are the beneficiaries of his kingdom. These have shown themselves to be children of the Father and thus heirs of his heavenly estate (see 5:9, 44–45). Ever since the foundation of the world this plan of salvation was in place in the grand designs of the Almighty.

The reason for all this is then revealed. Whatever else can be said of the righteous, they have led lives of generosity and compassion toward others. They supplied basic human needs to the hungry and thirsty of the world. They took in a stranger, put clothes on the naked, sat at the bedside of the ill, and helped comfort those in prison. Serving their fellow human being through acts of kindness and mercy has secured their heavenly inheritance. The sheep are surprised to learn, however, that in caring for the needy they have cared for the Lord himself.

© 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 Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

From The Gospel of Matthew, by Curtis Mitch and Edward Sri, commenting on Matthew 25:14-30

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When the master returns to settle accounts with his servants, the first two are praised and promoted. Since both made a 100 percent return on their investments, both are told: Well done, my good and faithful servant and Come, share your master’s joy. Having been trustworthy in small matters, they are promised great responsibilities. This is the same principle enunciated in 24:47, namely, that fulfilling spiritual duties well earns even more of the Lord’s trust.

Then the servant in charge of one talent renders his account with an excuse for giving back the same amount. Because he knew his master to be a demanding person, raking in profits wherever he could, he was paralyzed with fear at the thought of losing his master’s money. This is why he buried the talent rather than invested it.

The reply of the master is a stern and stinging rebuke. In his view, the very reason cited for burying the talent should have been the motivation to trade with it. The fact that the servant knew his master to be a tough businessman should have prompted him to pursue some kind of financial undertaking. Even the small amount of interest he could have earned from a bank would have been better than no return at all. But having failed to make even a minimal effort, he is branded a wicked and lazy servant.

Confining ourselves to the storyline of the parable, the master’s rebuke seems excessively harsh. But if the talents represent each servant’s “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven” (13:11), then the severity of the charge is understandable. Being entrusted with the message of salvation entails great responsibility. To sit on that message or to bury it for ourselves is a serious breach of responsibility to the Lord, who calls us to share his good news with the world. He does not want us to give it back to him unshared and unfruitful.

© 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 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.