Friday of the Fifteenth Week of the Year

Years I and II Gospel Mt 12, 1-8 Once on a sabbath Jesus walked through the standing grain. His disciples felt hungry, so they began to pull off the heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees spied this, they protested: "See here! Your disciples are doing what is not permitted on the sabbath." He replied: "Have you not read what David did when he and his men were hungry, how he entered God's house and ate the holy bread, a thing forbidden to him and his men or anyone other than priests? Have you not read in the law how the priests on temple duty can break the sabbath rest without incurring guilt? I assure you, there is something greater than the temple here. If you understood the meaning of the text, 'It is mercy I desire and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned these innocent men. The Son of Man is indeed the Lord of the sabbath."

Commentary on Matthew 12:1-8

Today’s story follows immediately on yesterday’s words of Jesus inviting those carrying heavy burdens to come to him for comfort and relief. Those burdens were understood to be the yoke of the Law which could weight so heavily on the ordinary person. Today we see what kind of burdens it entailed.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through a cornfield. The disciples were feeling a little hungry so they began plucking ears of corn to eat. Nothing wrong with that. Gleaning, especially where the poor were concerned, was not regarded as stealing. "When you go through your neighbour’s grainfield, you may pick some of the ears with your hand, but do not put a sickle to your neighbour’s grain" (Deuteronomy 23:26).

Yet the Pharisees criticised the disciples’ behaviour before Jesus. They were not upset by the plucking of the corn but because it was done a sabbath day. Most manual work was forbidden on the sabbath, including for instance, reaping. So we read in Exodus: "For six days you may work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; on that day you must rest even during the seasons of ploughing and harvesting" (Exodus 34:21). The question that would come immediately to the legalistic mind would be what exactly constituted harvesting. In the minds of the Pharisees, who would put the strictest interpretation in order to be on the safe side, what the disciples were doing contravened the Sabbath requirements.

Jesus would have none of this nonsense. He gave two examples which the Pharisees would find difficult to criticise:

First, David’s soldiers, because they were hungry, went into the house of God and ate the loaves of proposition, that is, bread which was laid out as an offering to God. According to the law, only the priests were allowed to eat this bread.

Second, he pointed to the priests on temple duty who not only worked on the sabbath but did more work than usual on that day (like priests today!). Yet no one found fault with them.

Jesus has two further and more powerful arguments:

- He calls his accusers’ attention to a saying from the prophet Hosea (Hos 6:6): "It is mercy I desire, not sacrifice." What this means is that the measure of our behaviour in God’s eyes is not our observance of law but the degree of love and compassion we have for our brothers and sisters. Laws are for people; people are not for laws. That is why a truly loving act always transcends any law. If the Pharisees had fully understood the meaning of Hosea’s words, they would not have "condemned these innocent men".

- Finally, Jesus simply says, "The Son of Man is indeed the Lord of the sabbath." Jesus as Lord is not bound by even the God-given laws of Israel. If, in the eyes of Jesus, his disciples are innocent, then they are innocent.

Every time we read texts like this we have to look at how we as Christians behave both individually and corporately. Legalism and small-mindedness can very easily infect our Catholic life. We can start measuring people – including ourselves but especially others – by the observance or non-observance of things which really have little to do with the substance of our Christian faith. Of course, we can also go to the other extreme of having no rules at all.

There is a very demanding law to which we are all called to subscribe and that is the law of love. It allows of no exceptions. But its practice can only benefit both the giver and the receiver.

Saturday of the Fifteenth Week in Ordinary Time

Gospel Mt 12:14-21

The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesus  to put him to death.

When Jesus realized this, he withdrew from that place. Many people followed him, and he cured them all, but he warned them not to make him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet:

Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,

my beloved in whom I delight;

I shall place my Spirit upon him,

and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.

He will not contend or cry out,

nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break,

a smoldering wick he will not quench,

until he brings justice to victory.

And in his name the Gentiles will hope.

Commentary on Matthew 12:14-21

Jesus is becoming a figure of controversy.  We saw yesterday how he was accused by Pharisees of condoning the breaking of the sabbath on the part of his disciples.  Far from apologising, Jesus defended his followers and implied that he himself was greater than the Law.  immediately afterwards he went to a synagogue and, in spite of a challenge about healing on the sabbath, went ahead and cured a physically handicapped man.

At the end of this story, Matthew says, “The Pharisees went out and began to plot against him, discussing how to destroy him.”  He was seen as a severe threat to their authority.  And that is where our reading begins today.

Jesus was fully aware of their plotting and so he disappeared from sight for a while.  We should be clear that Jesus did not go out of his way to confront and attack people.  Still less was his behaviour deliberately designed to create trouble for himself. There are people like that; they go out of their way to make trouble for others and for themselves.  Jesus never behaved in such a way.  He did not want to attack or be attacked by certain people.  He did not deliberately engineer his own sufferings and death; quite the contrary.  So now, as things get hot for him, he withdraws for a while.

At this point, Matthew, who, we remember is writing for a Jewish readership, shows how Jesus’ behaviour corresponds to a prophecy in the Old Testament.  This is something he does a number of times.

The passage is from the prophet Isaiah (42:1-4) and it shows Jesus as full of the Spirit of God campaigning for justice for peoples everywhere.  He is the servant whom God has chosen, “my beloved in whom I delight”.  He is no demagogue shouting from a soapbox. “He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.”  He moves around quietly and, at the same time, is tolerant and understanding of the weak.  His behaviour is described beautifully as, “The bruised reed he will not crush; the smouldering wick he will not quench.”

We, too, are called to live and proclaim the Gospel without compromise but to do so without any taint of arrogance or bullying and, at the same time, with patience and understanding for those who are not yet ready to answer Jesus’ call.

Monday of the Fifteenth Week of the Year

Years I and II Gospel Mt 10, 34--11, 1 Jesus said to his apostles: "Do not suppose that my mission on earth is to spread peace. My mission is to spread, not peace, but division. I have come to set a man at odds with his father, a daughter with her mother, a daughter-in-law with her mother-in-law: in short, to make a man's enemies those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother, son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me. He who will not take up his cross and come after me is not worthy of me. He who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin, whereas he who brings himself to nought for me discovers who he is. "He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me. He who welcomes a prophet because he bears the name of prophet receives a prophet's reward; he who welcomes a holy man because he is known as holy receives a holy man's reward. And I promise you that whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is a disciple will not want for his reward." When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he left that locality to teach and preach in their towns.

Commentary on Matthew 10:34

We come to the final part of Jesus’ apostolic discourse in chapter 10.

At a first reading, today’s passage could be puzzling, not to say highly disturbing, to some. Jesus seems to contradict everything that he has said and done so far. "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring but the sword." But do we not call Jesus the Prince of Peace? Does Jesus not say during the Last Supper discourse in John’s gospel that he has come to give his peace to his disciples, a peace that no one will ever be able to take away from them? (John 14:27)

And Jesus goes on to apply to himself a passage from the prophet Micah (7:6): "For I have come to set ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s enemies will be those of his own household’." It sounds a terrible thing for Jesus our Saviour to be saying. But it expresses not what he wants to happen but what he sees as an inevitable outcome of his message of love. It says more about us than about him.

Unfortunately, what Jesus says has only been confirmed again and again. We have mentioned before the paradox that the message of Jesus about truth, love, justice and freedom for people everywhere is seen by some as highly subversive and dangerous. And people who subscribe to this vision of Jesus and try to implement it in their lives are likely to run into headlong opposition with those who have a totally different vision of life and who see Jesus’ vision as a real threat to their interests. In a world of conflicting ideologies, philosophies, cultures, traditions, ethnic and religious identities, to declare that one is opting for the Way of Jesus is often to invite opposition, persecution and even death.

What Jesus says here is a fact – and was already a known experience when this gospel was written. Christianity divided families and, in some places, it still does. But people who see and understand and accept the vision of life that Jesus offers know they have no choice but to follow it, even if close family members object. To go with Christ is to enter a new family, with new bonds. A family which, for its part, does not at all reject those who reject it. The Christian may be hounded and hated and expelled by family members but that is not the way he/she is going to respond to them. On the contrary, the dearest wish of the new Christian is that his family members will be able to see what he sees and, until they do, he will pray for them, bless them and love them.

Jesus then goes on to lay down the conditions necessary to be a genuine disciple. "Anyone who prefers father or mother to me is not worthy of me." In many cultures – in Asia for instance – this is a hard saying and seems to fly in the face of the filial piety and respect for the authority of elders which is at the heart of such societies.

It is not, in fact, in conflict. Love and respect for family members is a very high value for the Christian but there are even higher values which may take precedence. Filial piety and parental authority can be very inward-looking, too centred on just this group of people. Racial, national and religious identity can also be very narrow and intolerant in its understanding.

Christianity is outward-looking and realises that there are people out there whose needs are even prior to those of my family. To the Christian his blood family are only some among many brothers and sisters who have to be loved, served and cared for. One is also never bound to follow family requirements which would be against truth, love, justice, honesty… As a Christian, I cannot obey a parent or other family member who practices dishonesty in business, who cheats, who sexually abuses, who practices racism or narrow-minded nationalism and the like and urges me to do the same.

Jesus, as the Word of God, stands for a level of truth and integrity and love which is the ultimate measure of all that I do and say. I cannot conform to the wishes of anyone, however close, who falls short of that measure. But my Christian love and concern for that person will not be diminished, in spite of how I may be treated.

To live like this can at time involve pain, separation, intense suffering and even death. This, I think, is what Jesus means when he says that I am not worthy of him unless I am willing to take my cross and walk with him. There is a price to be paid for being true and loving and just. This also is what he means by ‘finding’ live and ‘losing’ my life. To ‘find’ life is to take the easy way of accommodation and compromise, not to mention material gain and pleasure; to ‘lose’ is to let go and let Jesus take charge.

Of course, as Jesus points out, in the long run it is the ‘losers’ who find and the ‘finders’ who lose.

The discourse ends with some advice about finding Jesus in other people, especially his own followers. Anyone who welcomes a follower of Jesus, whether that person is a ‘prophet’ (a missionary) or a ‘holy man’ (an ordinary Christian) welcomes Jesus himself and welcomes the Father also. Even to give a cup of cold water to a Christian because he is a Christian will not go unrewarded.

The discourse is then clearly brought to an end by Matthew saying, "When Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples he moved on from there to teach and preach in their towns."

Tuesday of the Fifteenth Week of the Year

Years I and II Gospel Mt 11, 20-24 Sodom on Judgment Day as with you. Jesus began to reproach the towns where most of his miracles had been worked, with their failure to reform: "It will go ill with you, Chorazin! And just as ill with you, Bethsaida! If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Tyre and Sidon, they would have reformed in sackcloth and ashes long ago. I assure you, it will go easier for Tyre and Sidon than for you on the day of judgment. As for you, Capernaum, 'Are you to be exalted to the skies? You shall go down to the realm of death!' If the miracles worked in you had taken place in Sodom, it would be standing today. I assure you, it will go easier for Sodom than for you on the day of judgment."

Commentary on Matthew 11:20-24

After the apostolic discourse of chap 10, Matthew goes back to narrative. In two passages preceding today’s Jesus reassures the disciples of John the Baptist that he is indeed the "one who is to come", that is, the Messiah and Saviour-King.

This is followed by a passage where Jesus complains of those who close their minds to God’s word. John the Baptist led the life of an ascetic in the wilderness and they did not listen to him. Jesus socialised freely with all kinds of people and they accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard.

So today Jesus warns three towns where he spent much of his time: Chorazin, Bethsaida and especially Capernaum. If Jesus had done in the pagan towns of Tyre and Sidon what he had down in these predominantly Israelite towns, they would have converted long ago. Even Sodom, the biblical image of the very worst in immorality, would have done better.

It is important for us to realise that, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is primarily speaking to us today. If many non-Christians had been given the opportunities that we have received through our membership of the Christian community, they could very well be living much more generously than we do. To what extent are we listening to God’s word? How much of it do we try to understand? And how much of it is reflected in our lifestyle? Are we clearly and obviously followers of Christ and his Way?

Wednesday of the Fifteenth Week of the Year

Years I and II Gospel Mt 11, 25-27 On one occasion Jesus spoke thus: "Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to the merest children. Father, it is true. You have graciously willed it so. Everything has been given over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son but the Father, and no one knows the Father but the Son -- and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him."

Commentary on Matthew 11:25-27

Yesterday we saw Jesus severely chiding the people of three cities where he had shown many signs of his divine origin for their slowness to believe in and accept him. Today he speaks with warmth and

praise of those who have become his followers.

He remarks, in a prayer he makes to his Father, that it is not the learned and clever, the Scribes and Pharisees, the religious experts, but "the merest children", his disciples, who have been graced with understanding the secrets of the Kingdom. They are children not only in their lack of learning and sophistication but also in their openness to hear and learn, a virtue lacking in those who regarded themselves as intellectuals.

This was in fact a reflection on the actual development of the early Church. It was a grassroots movement which spread most among the lower levels of society and among slaves. It would not be until later that Christianity spread to the higher echelons and become the faith also of the ruling elite and the intellectual classes. As Jesus says today, "Yes, Father, for that is what is pleased you to do."

In growing and spreading in this way, Christianity showed, first, that it was really the work of God. It worked against powerful forces which tried very hard to obliterate it but in the end the power of truth and love were too strong for even the strongest opponents.

Second, it revealed the truly catholic nature of the Christian faith. It was never an exclusive domain of either the political or educated elite. It has appealed and continues to appeal to people at every level of society from intellectual giants like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and John Henry Newman to the totally illiterate. Both can sit side by side and together hear the Gospel and celebrate the Eucharist.

Finally, Jesus suggests that knowing him and, through him, knowing the Father is a gift that he gives. We can all, of course, open ourselves to that gift. Why some of us do and others do not is something we cannot understand in this life. It is a gift which is offered, never imposed and again no one can know who are those who have been offered it and turned it down.

Let us today thank God that we have been among those who have listened and accepted and been graced. But we know we have a lot more listening and accepting yet to do. Jesus stands at our door and knocks today and every day. It is up to me to what extent I open that door and let him come in.

Thursday of the Fifteenth Week of the Year

Years I and II Gospel Mt 11, 28-30 Jesus spoke thus: "Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.

Commentary on Matthew 11:28-30

The Gospel in many of its passages is very demanding and requires an unconditional commitment to the following of Christ. We have seen that clearly in the contrast Jesus made between the demands of the Law and what he expected from his followers. But, again and again, that is balanced by the other side of God – his compassion and his understanding of our weakness and frailty.

Today he invites "all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest". He seems to be referring to the burden of the Law and the many other legalistic observances which had accumulated over the generations. In fact there was a common rabbinic metaphor which spoke of the ‘yoke of the Law’. We will see some of this in the two remaining readings of this week. Jesus did not have much time for this kind of religion. He invites us to come to him instead and experience comfort and consolation.

Jesus invites us to take on his yoke instead. A yoke can be heavy but it makes it easier for the ox to pull the cart or the plough. Jesus’ yoke is the yoke of love. On the one hand, it restricts us from acting in certain ways but at the same time it points us in the right direction. In the long run, it has a liberating effect. It is not unlike the idea of the "narrow door" which Jesus invites us to go through rather than follow the wide road to nowhere.

Jesus asks us to learn from him in his gentleness and humility. This was in stark contrast to the severity and arrogance of other religious leaders. Not only are we to experience the gentleness of Jesus, we are also to practise it in our own dealings with others.

I think it is commentator William Barclay who offers another lovely idea. It was quite common to have double yokes when two animals pulled a vehicle together. Barclay suggests that Jesus is offering to share his yoke with us. He and I will pull together and he will share the burden with me. In either case, he assures us that his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Jesus expects us to give all of ourselves to him but, when we do so, we discover that what he asks is absolutely right for us. To follow Jesus is not to carry a great weight but to experience a great sense of liberation.

If we have not found that experience yet then we are not yet carrying the yoke of Jesus.