The Passion of John the Baptist

JohnTheBaptist

On August 29, the Church remembers the death of St. John the Baptist, a prophet who was put to death through beheading because he spoke the truth.

There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist.  John’s preceding Jesus was clearly fixed in the Christian tradition, so much, that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus’ first appearance on earth, John the Baptist is brought forth to precede the appearance as well.

John the Baptist was a man of the desert and began his preaching in the desert:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path”  (Mk. 1:3; Mt. 3:3).  His long years in the desert before his appearance as a preacher and teacher of repentance (Lk. 1:80) were the source and time for many possibilities.  When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus’ own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes (Mt. 11:7-19; Lk. 7:24-35).  Jesus also testifies to John’s greatness in calling him a “witness to the truth, a burning and shining lamp” (Jn. 5:33-56).

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize- the one coming after me- the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten” (John 1:26-27).  When John’s own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently:  “No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven…” John says that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (Jn. 3:25-30).  The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.

John experienced the loneliness of an authentic prophet of Israel when he was the only one willing to say a truth that everyone knew, that King Herod was living with the divorced wife of his brother.  John is finally imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Mt. 4:12; Mk. 1:14; Lk. 3:19).  John was executed as a result of the foolish pledge made by Herod during a drunken orgy (Mt. 14:1-2;  Mk. 6:14-28;  Lk. 9:7-9).  Just as the Baptist and the Messiah are closely linked in their births so too are their fates so closely intertwined.

O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist
should go ahead of your Son
both in his birth and in his death,
grant that, as he died a Martyr for truth and justice,
we, too, may fight hard
for the confession of what you teach.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Image: The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio 

Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross

Get Behind Me cropped

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 31, 2014

Today’s Gospel from Matthew 16:21-27 presents us with the first prediction of Jesus’ passion. It follows the story told in Mark 8:31-33 and serves as a corrective to the misunderstanding of Jesus’ Messiahship as solely one of glory and triumph. Matthew’s account of the first passion prediction is also about the sufferings of the Son of Man. In the New Testament Greek text, Matthew’s formulation is almost identical with the pre-Pauline fragment of the kerygma in 1 Corinthians 15:4 and also with Hosea 6:2, which many take to be the Old Testament background to the confession that Jesus was raised on the third day.

By his addition of the words “from that time on” (16:21), Matthew has emphasized that Jesus’ revelation of his coming suffering and death marks a new phase of the Gospel. Immediately following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16:21). We are told that in response to Jesus’ statement, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (16:22). But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).

Peter’s refusal

Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ predicted suffering and death is seen as a satanic attempt to deflect Jesus from his God-appointed course, and the disciple is addressed in terms that recall Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in the temptation account (Matthew 4:10: “Get away, Satan!”). Peter’s satanic purpose is emphasized by Matthew’s addition to the Marcan source of the words “You are a stumbling block to me.” A readiness to follow Jesus even to giving up one’s life for him is the condition for true discipleship, which will be repaid by the Lord at the final judgment (16:24-28).

What is behind Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ suffering and death? Peter gives voice to the bewilderment and dismay of the other apostles at Jesus’ announcement of his imminent passion. “This cannot be, Lord! This should not be! It just isn’t fair or right!” Such a reaction portrays Peter’s and our own inability to understand the mystery of God at work in Jesus, and in our lives. Peter and the others are confronted with the harsh reality of God’s designs, completely unacceptable from the perspective of human logic. To undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, to take up a cross, to be killed – is this all part of Jesus’ package? Are there no incentives or benefits? Wouldn’t it be better to erase the cross and suffering from the whole plan? Is it really necessary? Is Jesus experiencing some form of depression in saying these things?

From “Rock” to scandalon

Just last week at Caesarea Philippi, Peter was called “Rock.” Now he is called scandalon – a stumbling block or stone! Jesus reminds Peter that he understands nothing of the reality and mystery of God’s designs for him and for us!

Jesus tells his disciples if they want to become his followers, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (16:24). What does it mean, “to deny oneself”? To deny someone is to disown him and to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the centre of one’s existence. Think for a moment of Peter who would later deny his friend and Lord – “I do not know him!” (26:74) It means precisely that for us as well. To deny myself means that I no longer know myself, I no longer take my own life into account, I no longer think of myself – I am no longer at the centre of my universe. But the action does not stop there: the whole force of this injunction rests on Jesus’ invitation “Follow me.” Everything said before and after are the necessary prerequisites for being able to love Jesus and stay with him, and to continue staying with him.

Following Jesus

This teaching of Jesus to the small group of the Twelve can be summarized as follows: “Whoever has accepted the personal call to follow me, must accept me as I am.” Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross! The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples! They are to get behind him and follow him as he goes up to Jerusalem.

That which gives fullness of meaning to the cross is to carry it behind Jesus, not in a journey of anguished solitude, hopeless wandering or rebellion, but rather in a journey sustained and nourished by the presence of the Lord. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life similar to his own. Those who would follow Jesus cannot avoid suffering. God’s ways are not our ways – today we are encouraged to conform our ways to God’s.

Discerning God’s will

Since Christ marks the termination of the Mosaic Law as the primary source of guidance for God’s people, the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Romans (12:1-2) how Christians can function – in the light of the gift of justification through faith – in their relation to one another and to the state. The Mosaic code included elaborate directions on sacrifices and other cultic observances. The Gospel, however, invites believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1). Instead of being limited by specific legal maxims, Christians are liberated for the exercise of good judgment as they are confronted with the many and varied decisions required in the course of daily life. Paul invites Christians to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds, so that they may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2).

Grasping the mystery of Christ

In his homily at the concluding Mass of World Youth Day at the Cuatro Vientos Airforce base in Madrid, Spain on Sunday, August 21, 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict said this of our belief in Jesus Christ:

Faith is more than just empirical or historical facts; it is an ability to grasp the mystery of Christ’s person in all its depth. Yet faith is not the result of human effort, of human reasoning, but rather a gift of God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person, with all our understanding, will and feelings, to God’s self-revelation. So Jesus’ question: “But who do you say that I am?”, is ultimately a challenge to the disciples to make a personal decision in his regard. Faith in Christ and discipleship are strictly interconnected.

And, since faith involves following the Master, it must become constantly stronger, deeper and more mature, to the extent that it leads to a closer and more intense relationship with Jesus. Peter and the other disciples also had to grow in this way, until their encounter with the Risen Lord opened their eyes to the fullness of faith.

Dear young people, today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.”

The Church’s fundamental mission

Returning to the Lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization that took place in October 2012, we find a striking connection between today’s Gospel reading and section #10, entitled “The First Evangelization Pastoral Solicitude and the New Evangelization”:

The new evangelization is the name given to the Church’s project of undertaking anew her fundamental mission, her identity and reason for existence. Consequently, it is not limited to delineated, well-defined regions only, but is a way to explain and put into practice the apostolic legacy in and for our times. In the project of the new evangelization, the Church desires to bring her unique message into today’s world and the present discussion, namely, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, begun in Christ Jesus. No part of the Church is exempt from this project. The Christian Churches of ancient origin must deal with the problem of the many who have abandoned the practice of the faith; the younger Churches, through the process of inculturation, must continually take measures allowing them to bring the Gospel to everyday life, a process which not only purifies and elevates culture, but, above all, opens culture to the newness of the Gospel. Generally speaking, every Christian community must rededicate itself to its programme of pastoral care which seems to become more difficult and in danger of falling into a routine, and thus little able to communicate its original aims and goals.

A new evangelization is synonymous with mission, requiring the capacity to set out anew, go beyond boundaries and broaden horizons. The new evangelization is the opposite of self-sufficiency, a withdrawal into oneself, a status quo mentality and an idea that pastoral programmes are simply to proceed as they did in the past. Today, a “business as usual” attitude can no longer be the case. Some local Churches, already engaged in renewal, reconfirm the fact that now is the time for the Church to call upon every Christian community to evaluate their pastoral practice on the basis of the missionary character of their programmes and activities.

Questions for reflection this week

1) What have been the principal obstacles and the most challenging efforts to raise the question of God in today’s world? What have been the results of asking such a question?

2) Have I ever “rebuked” God for an outcome or situation I wasn’t expecting? In the end, what did I learn from this experience? Did I grow from it?

3) Do my expectations of who Jesus is and what he wants from me keep me closed and resistant to anything beyond those boundaries? How do I form my ideas of Christ and His will? What are they grounded in – the truths transmitted by the Catholic faith, or something else?

4) When do I make sacrifices for my faith, my family, or others? Are they done grudgingly or with an attitude of joy?

[The readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Roman 12:1-2; and Matthew 16:21-27.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Let Us Not Forget that Peter Holds the Keys

Peter Keys cropped

Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 24, 2014

During my graduate studies in Israel in the 1990s, I spent time with the Israeli archaeological team working on the excavations of Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. Caesarea Philippi is situated about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee in the territory that had been ruled by Philip the tetrarch, a son of Herod the Great, from 4 BC until his death in 34 AD. He rebuilt the town of Paneas, naming it Caesarea in honour of the emperor, and Philippi (“of Philip”) to distinguish it from the seaport in Samaria that was also called Caesarea.

The place is now known as “Banias,” a deformation of the word “Paneas” referring to the Greek god Pan. At the time of Jesus, a fertility cult was thriving in the pagan temple to Pan at this location on the northern border of Israel and Syria at the foot of majestic Mount Hermon. It was here, in this centre of sexual excess and pagan worship to the Greek god Pan that Jesus inquired about the disciples’ understanding of his Messiahship. It was here that Peter acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah of the one true God. What a stunning backdrop for today’s dramatic Gospel story from Matthew 16:13-20!

Today’s Gospel story has parallels in Mark 8:27-29 and Luke 9:18-20. Matthew’s account attributes the confession to a divine revelation granted to Peter alone (16:17) and makes Peter the rock on which Jesus will build his Church (16:18) as well as the disciple whose authority in the Church on earth will be confirmed in heaven (i.e. by God; 16:19). In light of the rich Greek mythological background associated with this impressive site in Northern Israel, let us consider several words and expressions used in today’s Gospel.

“You are the Messiah”

In response to Jesus’ question (16:13) – “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” – the disciples list a whole series of labels that people have applied to Jesus. These names reveal the various expectations that surfaced about him. Some thought of him as an Elijah, working toward a real confrontation with the powers that be. Some saw him more like Jeremiah, no less vehement but concentrating more on the inner journey, the private side of life.

When Jesus asked Peter the critical question – “Who do you say that I am?” – Peter answered him: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (16:15-16). Given the majestic backdrop of today’s Gospel story, was Peter in fact pronouncing a death sentence upon all other gods, especially Pan, that were standing about him by acclaiming Jesus as the Son of the Living God? Did Pan’s death bring about an authority crisis for Tiberias and his potential to inherit the power of Augustus?

Son of the living God

“Son of God” must be understood against the Greek mythological background of the site where Peter’s confession occurred. The Greek god Pan was associated with a mountain in Arkadia and a grotto in Attika. Since Arkadia was not rich in large cattle, the goat was its characteristic beast and Pan was thus half-goat in shape. Pan became a universal god in Greek mythology, popular with shepherds, farmers, and peasants. In general Pan is amorous as is the nature of a god whose chief business it was to make his flocks fertile! He supposedly loved caves, mountains, and lonely places, and was a very musical creature; his instrument was the panpipe! Pan was a son of Zeus, therefore a son of god!

Peter declares Jesus to be “the Son of the living God.” The addition of this exalted title to the original Marcan confession of “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:27-29) eliminates whatever ambiguity was attached to the Messianic title. Peter’s declaration cannot help but take into consideration the Greek mythological background that was associated with Caesarea Philippi!

Flesh and blood

In verse 17, Jesus acknowledges Peter’s declaration saying to him: “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.” “Flesh and blood” is a Semitic expression for human beings, especially in their weakness. That Peter reveals Jesus’ true identity indicates that his knowledge is not through human means but through a revelation from God. This is similar to Paul’s description of his recognition of who Jesus was in Galatians 1:15-16: “…when God…was pleased to reveal his Son to me…”


You are the rock

Pope Francis passes the statue of St. PeterIn verse 18, Jesus revels Peter’s new identity:“You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church” (16:18). The Aramaic word kepa – meaning “rock” and transliterated into Greek as Kephas –is the name by which Peter is called in the Pauline letters (1 Corinthians 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:4; Galatians 1:18; 2:9, 11, 14) except in Galatians 2:7-8, where “Peter” is used. Petros (“Peter”) is likewise used in John 1:42. The presumed original Aramaic of Jesus’ statement would have been, in English, “You are the Rock (Kepa) and upon this rock (kepa) I will build my Church.” When Jesus declared Peter to be the rock upon which the Church would be built, was he referring to the massive stones which surrounded him in this area, and which housed temples to pagan gods and a secular leader? Were the deaths of the Great Pan and of Christ, both occurring under Pontius Pilate’s procuratorship, somehow linked? Did early Christians wish to see a link between these two events as Eusebius points out in his writings?

Matthew’s use of “church”

Matthew is the only evangelist to use the word “Church” (Greek ekklesia), here in verse 17. The word is used twice in today’s Gospel text. What might be the possibilities for the Aramaic original that would have been spoken by Jesus himself? Jesus’ “Church” means the community that he will gather and that, like a building, will have Peter as its solid foundation. That function of Peter consists in his being a witness to Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

The gates of Hades

Is the reference to “the Gates of Hades not prevailing over the Church” (16:18) in some way referring to the massive cave believed to be the entrance into the underworld, and from which gush up the mighty waters of the river Jordan? In the time of Jesus and of the New Testament writers, the predominant conception of Hades (Sheol) among Jews and Christians was the abode of the dead, not a place of punishment. The ancients believed that the Jordan sprang up in a large cave that is the centrepiece of the national park now situated at the mouth of the Jordan at Banias. The mouth of this cave was also believed to be one of the entrances into the underworld (Hades/Sheol). Once one entered this cave, there was no return to the land of the living.

This realm or abode was sometimes believed to house not only the human dead but also the demonic agents of death and destruction. In Jewish apocalyptic language, the end times also implied that the powers of cosmic chaos, retained since creation, would break forth from their restraint and bring about unparalleled tribulation and destruction on the earth. This power was kept welled up in a cave within the bowels of the earth. Scripture scholars have written that the image of the Gates of Hades is one of rulers of the underworld bursting forward from the gates of their heavily guarded, walled city to attack God’s people on earth. This image is certainly vivid when one understands it in its geographical context of Paneas.

Location, location, location

Paneas (Banias) and its rich and ancient history have set the stage for a new drama: one that will not be the adoration of a pagan god nor of the state, but adoration of the Son of the Living God, by the one upon whom the Church is built. It is certainly no coincidence that at Caesarea Philippi (Banias), Jesus was acclaimed by Peter to be the Son of the Living God. One cannot imagine that the massive rocks at the foot of Mount Hermon did not influence the Gospel writer, no less the speaker of the words, Jesus himself. A cave that ancients believed to house the destructive powers of the universe is suddenly said, not to withhold its destructive powers, but that these destructive powers shall not prevail against the power of the church. An ancient god who was said to possess the keys of the underworld is suddenly replaced by a mortal, Peter, now said to possess the keys of the Kingdom of heaven.

The keys of the kingdom

The image of the keys found in verse 19 is probably drawn from today’s first reading from Isaiah 22:15-25, where Eliakim, succeeding Shebnah as master of the palace, is given “the key of the house of David,” which he authoritatively “opens” and “shuts” (Isaiah 22:22).

In Matthew 18:18 all of the disciples are given the power of binding and loosing, but the context of the verse suggests that a special power or authority is given to Peter. That the keys are those to the Kingdom of heaven and that Peter’s exercise of authority in the Church on earth will be confirmed in heaven show an intimate connection between, but not an identification of, the Church and the Kingdom of heaven. The Church is the battleground between the powers of Hades and the powers of heaven. How many times over the past years have we felt that the gates of Hades have swung open on the Church, releasing upon it the fire and fury of hell?

In the midst of the storms, however, let us take heart and realize that Peter is given the keys that unlock the gates of heaven. Those gates too will swing open, and the kingly power of God break forth from heaven to enter the arena against the demons we face. Our faith assures us that Hades will not prevail against the Church because God will be powerfully at work in it, revealing his purposes for it and imparting the heavenly power necessary to fulfil these purposes.

Our own Caesarea Philippi moments

The struggle to identify Jesus and his role as Messiah continues today. Some say individual Christians and the whole Church should be Elijah figures, publicly confronting systems, institutions, and national policies. That was the way Elijah saw his task. Some say, like Jeremiah, that the reign of Christ, through his Church, is the personal and private side of life. Indeed, there are many in our world today who would like to reduce religion and faith to an exclusively private affair.

Jesus probes beyond both approaches and asks, “You, who do you say I am?” In Peter’s response, “You are Messiah,” blurted out with his characteristic impetuosity, we are given a concept that involves both of the approaches and transcends them. The Messiah came into society – and into individual lives – in a total way, reconciling the distinction between public and private. The quality of our response to this decisive question is the best gauge of the quality of our discipleship.

Everyone at some stage must come to Caesarea Philippi and provide an answer to “Who do you say I am?” Where are the Caesarea Philippis in my life where I have been challenged to identify Christ as who he really is for me, for the Church, and for the world?

Like Peter, do I struggle to accept how God acts in the world – through, as Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “the defenseless power of love” (Youth Vigil, XX World Youth Day, Cologne, Germany)? How does love transform scenes of tragedy and suffering today? How have I seen the power of God’s love at work in the trials and tragedies of my own life? In the storms of life, what consolation have I received because I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ?

[The readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Romans 11:33-36; and Matthew 16:13-20.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

With Jesus on the Periphery

Peripheries cropped

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 17, 2014

In the pre-conclave meetings of the College of Cardinals prior to the election of the new pope in March 2013, one very memorable and decisive intervention was made by the Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the morning of March 7, 2013. In his brief, four-minute address, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio spoke about the work of Evangelization in four concise points. He suggested, if the Church has a self-referential spirit, it interferes with its ability to carry out its mission. Two of the points he mentioned were:

1) Evangelizing pre-supposes a desire in the Church to come out of herself. The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographically, but also to the existential peripheries: the mysteries of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and indifference to religion, of intellectual currents, and of all forms of misery.

2) Thinking of the next pope: He must be a man who, from the contemplation and adoration of Jesus Christ, helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be the fruitful mother, who gains life from “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

Cardinal Bergoglio basically asked his brother Cardinals, gathered in the upper room, “Are we willing to break out of the strangleholds and unhealthy molds that have prevented us from announcing the Gospel and inviting others into the Church?” “Are we interested in transmitting the faith and bringing non-Christians to belief in Jesus?” “Are we truly missionary at heart?”

That four-minute intervention in the Synod Hall provides the key to understanding the man who would become Pope Francis, a pastor who “helps the Church to go out to the existential peripheries, who helps her to be the fruitful mother” by “the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

Sunday’s Gospel is precisely about Jesus’ going out to the periphery. In order to better understand the powerful significance of Matthew’s Gospel text for the 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time for Year A, it is essential to look at the wider context of Matthew’s Gospel. The evangelist wrote his story of Jesus for a Jewish Christian community caught in a tumultuous moment of history. The community was struggling to preserve its connection to its historical roots in Judaism and hesitant before a future that promised substantial, even earth-shattering change.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus begins his public ministry by insisting that his mission is only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (10:6; 15:24). Matthew’s Jesus anticipates this turning point from an exclusive focus on Israel to an inclusive mission to Jews and Gentiles as he encounters Gentiles who seem to push their way onto the Gospel stage. First, there were the three astrologers who read the stars and came seeking the Messiah (2:1-12). Then there was a Roman centurion of Capernaum who begged Jesus to heal his sick servant (8:5-13), and in doing so evoked in Jesus a vision of a future mission far beyond the boundaries of Israel. Who can forget the striking Gadarene demoniac whose tortured existence reaches Jesus as he comes ashore in the alien territory of the ten cities – on the other side of the lake (8:28-34)?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ provocative meeting with the Syro-Phoenician woman (15:21-28) is set outside the land of Israel in the territory of Tyre and Sidon in southern Lebanon. A foreign woman draws near to a Jewish man, pays him homage, and makes of him a daring and bold request: “Lord, son of David, have pity on me! My daughter is terribly troubled by a demon” (15:22). She demands that Jesus come to help her young daughter in distress. Jesus dismisses his disciples’ wishes that he distance himself from this foreign woman.

Yet Jesus responds quite forcefully to the woman: “I am a stranger here; I should not interfere.” It seems so out of character for him to say this.

“Lord, help me!” the woman pleads (15:25). Jesus’ next words are somewhat scandalous: “It is not right to take the food of children and throw it to the dogs!” (15:26) What an insult, that sees others not as human beings, but as animals eating leftovers! Are we not disturbed by Jesus’ rudeness, coldness, and indifference to this woman in need?

The Syro-Phoenician woman is desperate, along with her daughter who suffers from a demon: some kind of ailment that ostracizes and alienates both mother and daughter from the community. This troubled woman and her sick daughter simply desire to live normal lives again without grief, anxiety, and suffering. Jesus understands his mission – but not in relation to this woman. After all, he was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but he too experienced deep rejection from his own people to whom he was sent.

In this incredible Gospel encounter, the world of the troubled woman whose daughter is dying and the world of Jesus, the Jewish prophet who is being rejected, collide. And in that collision, something new was born, not only for the two of them but for the whole of Matthew’s Gospel community.

The Syro-Phoenician calls Jesus “Lord,” refers to him as “master,” and humbly says that she, like a dog at the table of his household, will gladly take the leftovers of his mission and power. She receives from him what his own people will not accept. Jesus is astounded at her faith. Through her insistence, perseverance, boldness, and courage, this stranger on the periphery forced Jesus to rethink his entire mission. The unnamed woman is allowed to participate in the Messianic salvation that is offered to all who believe in the Lord and keep his commandments, regardless of their origin, or social status, or condition. The woman proclaims that the love of God cannot be bound. Because of the Syro-Phoenician woman’s persistence, Jesus learned a powerful lesson of universalism, love, and service and thus extended his mission far beyond his own people, his own religion, and his own nation.

We must be honest, however, that despite the inclusive mission of Jesus beyond the lost sheep of the house of Israel, and despite the commission of the Risen Christ that his disciples go to all nations, the Early Church experienced much perplexity, strife, and poor pastoral planning as the Gospel moved beyond the boundaries of Israel and their Jewish Christian experience – almost in spite of the early community’s efforts. The contemporary Church continues to experience those same labour pains as we strive to bring the Gospel message to the ends of the earth, to the peripheries of our times.

In the first months of his Petrine ministry, the Pope who came from the ends of the earth wrote a magnificent blueprint for the mission of the Church called Evangelii Gaudium (“The Joy of the Gospel”). In paragraph #20, we read:

The word of God constantly shows us how God challenges those who believe in him “to go forth.” Abraham received the call to set out for a new land (cf. Gen 12:1-3). Moses heard God’s call: “Go, I send you” (Ex 3:10) and led the people towards the promised land (cf. Ex 3:17). To Jeremiah, God says: “To all whom I send you, you shall go” (Jer 1:7). In our day Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples” echoes in the changing scenarios and ever new challenges to the Church’s mission of evangelization, and all of us are called to take part in this new missionary “going forth.” Each Christian and every community must discern the path that the Lord points out, but all of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.

Who knows what will happen to us when we open ourselves up to God and allow his Word to work within us? Who can imagine what will happen when we break out of the strangleholds and chains that have prevented us from going to the geographical and existential peripheries of our times and places? We might meet strangers and outsiders who interrupt our lives, stop us in our tracks, and force us to ask deeper questions. We may end up, like Jesus, praising the still greater faith in those strangers and outsiders who end up evangelizing us!

Paul glories in his ministry

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (11:13-15, 29-32) the unbelief of the Jews has paved the way for the preaching of the Gospel to the Gentiles and for their easier acceptance of it outside the context of Jewish culture. Through his mission to the Gentiles Paul also hopes to fill his fellow Jews with jealousy. Therefore he hastens to fill the entire Mediterranean world with the Gospel. In God’s design, Israel’s unbelief is being used to grant the light of faith to the Gentiles. Meanwhile, Israel remains dear to God, always the object of special providence, the mystery of which will one day be revealed. Israel, together with the Gentiles who have been handed over to all manner of vices (Romans 1), has been delivered – to disobedience. The conclusion of Romans 11:32 repeats the thought of Romans 5:20, “Where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more.”

[The readings for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

(CNS photo/Enrique Garcia Medina, Reuters)

In Mary, Humanity and Divinity are at Home

Assumption

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – Friday, August 15, 2014

The Assumption of Mary, Mother of the Lord, into heaven, is a consoling sign of our hope. In looking to her, carried up amid the rejoicing of angels, human life is opened to the perspective of eternal happiness. Our own death is not the end but rather the entrance into a life that knows no death. I would like to offer a few reflections on the historical and pastoral significance of this important feast, and its relevance for our own lives.

Immaculate Conception

For Catholic Christians, the belief in the Assumption of Mary flows from our belief in, and understanding of, Mary’s Immaculate Conception. We believe that if Mary was preserved from sin by the free gift of God, she would not be bound to experience the consequences of sin and death in the same way that we do. We believe that because of the obedience and fidelity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, at the end of her earthly life, she was assumed both body and soul into heavenly glory.

History of the Assumption

For several centuries in the early Church, there is no mention by the Church Fathers of the bodily Assumption of Mary. Irenaeus, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose, and the other Church Fathers said nothing about it. Writing in 377 AD, the Church Father Epiphanius even states that no one knows Mary’s end.

As early as the 5th century, the feast of the Assumption of Mary was celebrated in Syria. In the 5th and 6th centuries, the Apocryphal Books were testimony of the unwillingness of the Church to accept the fact that the body of the Mother of God should lie in a grave. In the 6th century, the feast of the Assumption was celebrated in Jerusalem and perhaps even in Alexandria.

The first “genuine” written references to the Assumption come from authors who lived between the sixth and eighth centuries. It is mentioned in the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem, and others. In the West, St. Gregory of Tours mentions it first. St. Gregory lived in the sixth century, while St John Damascene belongs to the eighth century.

In the 9th century, the feast of the Assumption was celebrated in Spain. From the 10th to 12th centuries, there was no dispute over whether the feast could be celebrated in the Western Church. In the 12th century, the feast of was celebrated in the city of Rome and in France.

From the 13th century to the present, there has been certain and undisputed faith in the Assumption of Mary throughout the universal Church. In 1950, Pope Pius XII taught infallibly: “Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul to heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, 44).

“Assumption” or “Dormition”?

The Catholic feast of the Assumption is celebrated on August 15, and Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholics celebrate the Dormition of the Theotokos (“the falling asleep of the Mother of God”) on or around the same date. Eastern Orthodox Christians believe that Mary died a natural death, that her soul was received by Christ upon death, and that her body was resurrected on the third day after her death and that she was taken up into heaven bodily in anticipation of the general resurrection at the end of time. Her tomb was found empty on the third day. (One can even visit the Orthodox tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem. It is located near the Church of All Nations and the Garden of Gethsemane.)

Sign of the Kingdom

In presenting the “great sign” of the “woman clothed with the sun,” today’s first reading from the Book of Revelation (11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10) says that she “was with child and … cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery” (12:2). Just as the Risen Christ who has ascended into heaven forever bears the wounds of his redemptive death within his glorious body, so his Mother brings to eternity “the pangs” and “anguish for delivery” (12:2). We could say that Mary, as the new Eve, continues from generation to generation to give birth to the new man, “created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). This is the Church’s eschatological image, which is present and active in the Virgin Mary.

Unless Christ is risen

In the second reading for today’s feast (1 Corinthians 15:20-26), St. Paul addresses a problem among the Corinthians: their denial of the resurrection of the dead (15:12) and their inability to imagine how any kind of bodily existence could be possible after death (15:35). Paul affirms both the essential corporeity of the resurrection and its future orientation. His response moves through three steps: a recall of the basic kerygma about Jesus’ Resurrection (15:1-11), an assertion of the logical inconsistencies involved in denying the resurrection of the dead (15:12-34), and an attempt to perceive theologically what the properties of the resurrected body must be (15:35-58).

Any denial of resurrection (15:12) involves logical inconsistencies. The basic one, stated twice (15:13, 16), is that if there is no such thing as (bodily) resurrection, then it has not taken place even in Christ’s case. The consequences for the Corinthians are grave: both forgiveness of sins and salvation become an illusion, despite their strong convictions about both. Unless Christ is risen, their faith does not save.

Christ’s definitive victory over death, which came into the world because of Adam’s sin, shines brightly in Mary, assumed into heaven at the end of her earthly life. It was Christ, the “new” Adam, who conquered death, offering himself as a sacrifice on Calvary in loving obedience to the Father. In this way he redeemed us from the slavery of sin and evil. In Mary’s triumph, the Church contemplates her whom the Father chose as the true Mother of his Only-begotten Son, closely associating her with his saving plan of Redemption.

Life from barren wombs and empty tombs

The Gospel for today’s feast (Luke 1:39-56) invites us into the extraordinary story of two women who share their faith, hope, and happiness as they prepare for motherhood. It is an occasion for celebration between Elizabeth, who is old and barren, and Mary, a young betrothed virgin – a story of God’s ability to both give and sustain life. Our God causes life to surge forth from barren wombs and empty tombs! Mary’s trip to the hill country of Judah is also a manifestation of the coming Kingdom.

Mary is a model for each of us, and her Assumption into heaven reminds us that there is hope for you and me. What happens to the Virgin daughter of Nazareth at the end of her earthly pilgrimage will happen to each of us if we are faithful and obedient, as she was.

Taken up into heaven, Mary shows us the way to God, the way to heaven, the way to life. She shows it to her children baptized in Christ and to all people of good will. She opens this way especially to the little ones and to the poor, those who are open to divine mercy. The Queen of the World reveals to individuals and to nations the power of the love of God whose plan upsets that of the proud, pulls down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the humble, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:51-53).

Marian triptych

The Church celebrates three great moments of Mary’s life, knowing that they represent all of our lives: the Immaculate Conception, the Incarnation, and Assumption.

When Pope Pius IX proclaimed the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, the first moment, in 1854 with the bull Ineffabilis Deus, he referred explicitly to the biblical story of the Annunciation in Luke’s Gospel. The angel Gabriel’s salutation, “Hail, full of grace,” is understood as recognizing that Mary must always have been free from sin. God was present and moving in Mary’s life from the earliest moments. God’s grace is greater than sin; it overpowers sin and death. Through her Immaculate Conception, Mary was called for a special mission.

The second moment of Mary’s life is the Incarnation. Through the virginal birth of Jesus we are reminded that God moves powerfully in our lives too. Our response to that movement must be one of recognition, gratitude, humility, openness, and welcome. Through the Incarnation, Mary was gifted with the Word made Flesh.

The Church celebrates Mary’s final journey into the fullness of God’s Kingdom with the dogma of the Assumption, the third moment, promulgated by Pius XII in 1950. As with her beginnings, so too with the end of her life, God fulfilled in her all of the promises that he has given to us. We, too, shall be raised up into heaven as she was. In Mary we have an image of humanity and divinity at home. God is indeed comfortable in our presence and we are in God’s. Through her Assumption, Mary was chosen to have a special place of honour in the Godhead.

Mary follows our footsteps

Let me conclude these reflections on Mary’s Assumption with the moving words of Benedict XVI, spoken at his weekly General Audience at Castel Gandolfo on August 16, 2006. He said:

By contemplating Mary in heavenly glory, we understand that the earth is not the definitive homeland for us either, and that if we live with our gaze fixed on eternal goods we will one day share in this same glory and the earth will become more beautiful. Consequently, we must not lose our serenity and peace even amid the thousands of daily difficulties. The luminous sign of Our Lady taken up into Heaven shines out even more brightly when sad shadows of suffering and violence seem to loom on the horizon.

We may be sure of it: from on high, Mary follows our footsteps with gentle concern, dispels the gloom in moments of darkness and distress, reassures us with her motherly hand. Supported by awareness of this, let us continue confidently on our path of Christian commitment wherever Providence may lead us. Let us forge ahead in our lives under Mary’s guidance.

[The readings for the Solemnity of the Assumption are: Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26; Luke 1:39-56.]

A Prophet’s Depression, an Apostle’s Grief and a Disciple’s Fear

Walking on Water cropped

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 10, 2014

Chapter 19 of the First Book of Kings presents us with the aftermath of Elijah’s brilliant victory in the contest with Jezebel and the priests of Baal atop Mount Carmel. Just when Elijah should have been triumphant, he receives a message telling him of Jezebel’s murderous intentions, and is “afraid” (19:3). The exceedingly exemplary servant of God is now in a rut – believing that all of his efforts are in vain! In chapter 18, Elijah was at the height of success; in chapter 19 he is in the depths of despair. In chapter 18 he is on the mountain peak of victory; in chapter 19 he is in the valley of defeat. In chapter 18 he is elated; in chapter 19 he is completed deflated.

Mountaintop experiences

In today’s first reading from 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13, Elijah must learn that God is not encountered in the sound and fury of loud and spectacular events. God will not be conjured up by the zealous or boisterous activity of the prophet who now stands quiet and distressed atop the Lord’s mountain. Though various phenomena, such as wind, storms, earthquakes, and fire (Exodus 19:18-19), may indeed herald the divine presence, they do not constitute the presence itself which, like the tiny whispering sound, is imperceptible and reveals in a deep way the true face and presence of God. The Hebrew expression “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) literally means “a voice of low whispers, a sound of gentle stillness.” Though the wretched Jezebel was thundering, she was not in control. Though God was silent, he was not absent. Elijah’s God and our God is the God of signs and wonders but he is also the God of whispers and gentleness. Only when Elijah’s mind and heart are finally depleted of ambition and self-promotion, is God ultimately heard.

Elijah’s struggle with depression

Mount Horeb is the place forever associated with the source and essence of Israelite faith. Elijah arrived at the sacred mountain where he spent the night in a dark cave. The dark cave and the dark night are reflective of his own “dark night of the soul.” The story of Elijah in the cave on Mount Horeb is a classic example of one struggling with depression and burnout. Eventually it touches everyone – even God’s chosen people, his fiery prophets and leaders, his apostles and disciples!

Elijah’s depression wasn’t due to one single cause: it was the culmination of several factors. At the root of depression is almost always some form of fear. The great, fiery prophet of Israel is scared to death of wicked Queen Jezebel’s threats and thus flees for his life. How often are we like Elijah, fearful of failure, of being alone, unable to complete a task given to us, incapable of success, and weak in perseverance, patience, and hope?

The second factor is failure. Elijah had a very low self-esteem. Elijah was in a long line of prophets who also tried to address Israel’s lack of faith and apostasy and he was no more successful than his ancestors. How often do we feel that our efforts are in vain? That we aren’t able to make a difference, just like those who went before us? How often do we think that we contributed to a problem rather than being part of the solution? How often have we failed: The job didn’t work out. The relationship went sour. The marriage broke up. The addiction made me lose everyone and everything I had.

The third factor is fatigue, exhaustion, burnout. Elijah was physically exhausted and emotionally empty. This is the great danger of peak experiences. It is the risk of those who get lost in their work and mission, who are blinded by their own zeal, and have become crusaders and saviours bound for burnout rather than humble disciples and ministers who are poor servants, simply doing their tasks. Elijah didn’t take time to rest and relax, to sit back and see what God was doing around him.

The fourth factor can be described as plain futility. Elijah feels alone, hopeless, and has little hope for the future. He suffers from paranoia, thinking that everyone is out to get him. He looks at the world through very dark glasses. He doesn’t see any way out of his existential conundrum. How many of us are afraid, lonely, exhausted, burned out, and without any hope? How many of us have given in to despair, cynicism, meanness of spirit, and smallness of heart? How many of us have lost our faith in a God who can reverse barren wombs and empty tombs?

Elijah’s therapy

In order for Elijah to revive and renew his strength, he needed to get away. He needed physical, emotional, and spiritual rejuvenation. He had been so busy taking care of the needs of the nations that he had neglected the needs and concerns of Elijah the Tishbite. Elijah talked through his frustrations as he sat in the cave atop the mountain. In the midst of his feeling sorry for himself, God asked him point blank: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” God knew full well what Elijah was doing there. In fact, God helped him to get there! God listened patiently and non-judgmentally as Elijah poured out his feelings of anger, bitterness, and self-pity. Notice what God didn’t say to the pathetic prophet: “Elijah, my prophets don’t talk like that!” God didn’t make him feel guilty for his feelings. Instead God accepted him and listened to him.

What happened to Elijah happens to us, especially when we pay much more attention to negative events than to all the good that is happening around us. It happens when we are very hard on ourselves, and take ourselves far too seriously, and God not seriously enough! God intervened in Elijah’s sorry state and reminded him that his vision of life, his understanding of events, his view of God were terribly distorted.

Elijah needed to know that God was there and that there were in fact others who had not bowed down to Baal. Elijah thought he was the only one who was still faithful to God. God allowed Elijah to sit in the dark cave of self-pity for only so long. There was a new king of Israel and a new prophet to be anointed. The time for complaints and self-pity were over; Elijah now needed to get back to work. What can we learn from this whole episode atop the mountain? Perhaps the best way to stop feeling sorry for ourselves is to start feeling compassion for others.

Great sorrow and anguish

Today’s second reading (Romans 9:1-5) presents us with Paul, a man who had an unbelievable willingness to be sacrificed for his people. He was willing to be accursed, separated from Christ, if it would save his people. He was willing to swap his salvation for their doom if it would lead to their salvation. Paul felt the deepest emotion, love, and concern for his own people. He avails himself to the essential question of how the divine plan could be frustrated by Israel’s unbelief.

Paul speaks in strong terms of the depth of his grief over the unbelief of his own people. Israel’s unbelief and its rejection of Jesus as saviour astonished and puzzled Christians. It constituted a serious problem for them in view of God’s specific preparation of Israel for the advent of the Messiah. Paul would willingly undergo a curse himself for the sake of their coming to the knowledge of Christ (9:3; Leviticus 27:28-29). His love for his people derives from God’s continuing favour on Israel and from the spiritual benefits that God bestows on them and through them on all of humanity (9:4-5). Paul’s point is clear: God desires to use Israel, which had been entrusted with every privilege, in outreach to the entire world through the Messiah.

The reading from Romans 9 raises some significant questions for us. When was the last time you pleaded with a lost person to accept Christ? How does the possibility of being rejected affect the passion with which you share the Gospel? When you share the gospel, how convinced are you about its power to save the lost? About its ability to change the habits of sinners? About its real need in today’s modern society? What sacrifices are you willing to make in order to see the lost members of your family, your friends, or members of your faith community return to Christ or perhaps come to him for the first time?

“Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In today’s moving Gospel story (Matthew 14:22-33) set on the lake, the disciples, labouring against the turbulent sea, are saved by Jesus. Jesus’ power is expressed by his walking on the choppy waters (Matthew 14:25; Psalm 77:20; Job 9:8). Jesus challenges Peter also to walk on the waters! Because of Peter’s fear and weak faith, he begins to sink. When Jesus stretches out his hand and catches Peter, he reminds his disciples and the Church in every generation of his constant care for us. He teaches us that no storm will overturn the boat in which we sail, and no water will swallow us up in darkness.

At certain times in the contemporary history of our Church, everything seems to indicate shipwreck, fear, drowning, and death. But let us be honest and realize that the Church goes on, saving souls and journeying forward to its final harbour. In that blessed realm, beyond the seas of this life, all of the things that threaten God’s Church in this world will be gone forever. At times of turbulence, we must listen to the Lord, as Peter did, and cast our nets again into the deep; for it is our faith that is being tested – not as to whether we profess it or not, but as to whether we are ready to do something about it or not.

He calms the storms of life

Let us never forget this fact: we are on the waters with Jesus. He is in the boat with us, during the night and during the storms. The Lord does not abandon those who come seeking his mercy and his forgiveness. He walks upon the waters. He calms the storm. He guides the boat into safe harbour, and brings with him the great catch, the great feast, to which we are all summoned – the daily feast of his very self, his Body and Blood, our food for eternal life. This is cause for rejoicing!

[The readings for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Romans 9:1-5; and Matthew 14:22-33.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

All you who are hungry and thirsty, come to me!

Kurelek cropped

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 3, 2014

The memory of St. Paul in Rome

Each time I visit the Roman Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, I pause in the main courtyard before the striking statue of Paul the Apostle who seems to be solemnly greeting visitors and pilgrims to the shrine built in his memory. There is something very stirring about this rather unusual depiction of the great Apostle to the Gentiles. He dominates the courtyard with a very sombre expression, his head bent with what looks like a Jewish prayer shawl covering his brow. The sword of God’s powerful word is held tightly in his hand. Paul appears to be tired – bearing the burdens of the ministry, yet his bold, pastoral dynamism rises above the physical fatigue.

I understand better today’s second reading from Romans 8:35, 37-39 when I recall that great statue of St. Paul in Rome. The victorious power of God’s love has overcome every obstacle to our salvation and everything that threats to separate us from God. When Paul speaks of “present things and future things” (8:38), he may be referring to astrological data. He appears to be saying that the Gospel liberates believers from dependence on astrologers. Since hostile spirits were associated with the planets and stars, Paul includes powers (8:38) in his list of negative or evil forces. His reference to “height and depth” (8:39) may refer to positions in the zodiac, positions of heavenly bodies relative to the horizon. In astrological documents the term for “height” means “exaltation” or the position of greatest influence exerted by a planet.

“What can separate us from the love of Christ?”

Romans 8:35-39 is one of my favourite passages in the New Testament. It is vintage Paul. Paul clung to the faith, in good times and in bad, in sickness, scandal, and health. It was his bedrock: his love of the crucified Christ was the pledge of God’s unbreakable covenant, of God’s unceasing redemptive love for the world: “Can anything separate us from the love of Christ?” Paul cries out (8:35). This is the searing question deep in the heart of an ardent servant of the Gospel – of one summoned to and consumed by the mission. It is a question that surges from the mind and heart of a mature adult who has been around, who has experienced the Church from the inside and who still refuses to be undone by its scandals and frustrations; of a leader who had lofty ideals of community but also knew the sad realities of divisions and conflicts. It is the sigh of one who knew the reality of suffering and yet never ceased nourishing deep, tremendous Christian hopes: not little hopes but great hopes.

Matthew’s feeding of the multitude

The feeding of the five thousand (Matthew 14:13-21) is the only miracle of Jesus that is recounted in all four gospels (Mark 6:31-44; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:5-15). The story has been situated geographically at Tabgha, the place of the seven springs, on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee. While today’s Gospel may be seen as anticipating the Eucharist and the final banquet of the Kingdom (Matthew 8:11; 26:29), its view looks not only forward but also backward, to the feeding of Israel with manna in the desert at the time of the Exodus (Exodus 16), a miracle that in some contemporary Jewish expectations would be repeated in the Messianic age. The fragments left over (14:20) recall the story of Elisha’s miracle where food was left over after all had been fed (2 Kings 4:42-44). The word “fragments” (Greek klasmata) is also used, in the singular, to describe the broken bread of the Eucharist in the Didache 9:3-4.

Today’s miracle may also be considered to be a “compassion miracle.” As with many of Jesus’ other miracles, Jesus saw a tremendous need in this hungry crowd – and in his compassion he provided food for them. The emphasis in Matthew is not on the meal as a banquet symbolizing the superabundant blessings that God has in store for the future. Rather, Matthew’s emphasis is on God’s providential care for our basic needs even here in the present moment. No matter what the meaning of the food and the miracle represent, the meal was nevertheless Messianic, for its host was none other than the Messiah himself.

Matthew’s addition of the number of people present and fed at this miracle – “five thousand men, not counting women and children” (14:21) – is significant, because the total number could have amounted to twenty or thirty thousand people! Since the total Jewish population of Palestine at the time of Jesus was estimated at half a million, Jesus is presented as feeding almost one tenth of the population. Therefore, the miracle has political ramifications. The reality of being one people, inheritors of the promises made to the twelve tribes of Israel, is a reality capable of transforming not only the spiritual realm but social and economic life as well.

The backdrop of the temptations

We may also consider the multiplication of the loaves against the backdrop of Jesus’ temptations in the desert. There are striking parallels between the two scenes – the wilderness, the hunger, and people craving for bread. Though there may not be a devil present at the multiplication, nevertheless many of the pitfalls that assail the lives of spiritual people are indeed present. At the beginning of the story, Jesus has withdrawn from his ministry in order to recoup some of his energy. Then the crowd shows up with its hunger: first spiritual, then physical. Their needs represent everything from which he is “in retreat.” He does not turn them away. His own spiritual program is open to change and adaptability to new circumstances. The second temptation involves precisely this factor.

How often do we guard our own spiritual lives and itineraries in an absolute fashion? Faced with such an enormous crowd on such a hot day, I could just imagine Jesus recalling his confrontation with the prince of demons on another hot day in the desert far from Galilee. Jesus could very well be saying: “When I was in the wilderness, the devil came to me and told me to makes stones into bread. I told him that man doesn’t live by bread alone; he lives by the word. See this hungry multitude? What they need is the word. And a couple of days without food wouldn’t hurt them either. It certainly didn’t hurt me. So I’ll just give them a good, long, biblical lesson in the heat.” Jesus does not presume to impose his temptation in the wilderness and his triumph over it on these hungry people. His eyes are fixed on the intensity of their need, not on the relevance of his own personal experience.

The third temptation Jesus encounters in the wilderness is that of using limited resources and vast problems as pretexts for inaction. So many poor people, so few loaves! What good are several rather insignificant acts of charity when there are multitudes dying of hunger? In response to such “practical” questions as “What good will that do?” – whether five small loaves and two fish, one cup of cold water, or two widow’s mites – the answer Jesus gives is always the same. Blessed Teresa of Calcutta’s words ring in the back of my mind: “What we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But if that drop was not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be less because of that missing drop.” Jesus teaches that the disciples are to share whatever they have and there will be more than enough. Logic and human reason say, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish.” But Jesus asks that such meagre provisions, as well as the generosity of the disciples, be stretched to their limits.

Blueprint for Christian spirituality

Matthew’s threefold action of looking up to heaven, reciting a prayer of praise, and breaking the bread is a beautiful pattern that we could well apply to our own daily living, or to any event. Looking up to heaven means making contact with God (prayer); giving praise for whatever one has in mind; then sharing that gift with others. Matthew offers us a pattern for daily life. We begin by looking up to heaven and thanking and praising God for our life. We live that life by sharing it with others. Today’s Gospel offers us a blueprint for an authentic Christian spirituality that involves frequently raising our hearts and minds to God in prayer, giving thanks and praise for what is, and then sharing it with others.

The Multiplication on the Canadian Prairies

Whenever I read the multiplication stories of the New Testament, I cannot help but recall a magnificent mural depicting the multiplication of the loaves and fishes on the wall of the chapel of St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. The college was founded by the Congregation of St. Basil (Basilian Fathers), who brought to the prairie college the long Catholic tradition of a liberal arts education that integrates faith and learning. The College Chapel is dedicated to Mary, Queen of the Universe. The mural was painted in 1976 in only ten days by the late William Kurelek, a self-taught Ukrainian painter of the Canadian prairies. The mural leaves a powerful religious impression on the viewer, particularly the students who come to that beautiful little chapel to pray and the faith community that gathers there daily and weekly to celebrate the Eucharist.

What is striking about Kurelek’s mural is the figure of Jesus placed in the middle of the mural, symbolically holding together the large Prairie crowd. One notices that those distributing the baskets of bread are the Basilian Fathers themselves, dressed in their black cassocks, walking among the crowds and feeding them. For decades this group of priest educators gathered together young men and women and taught them. They walked among them and fed them in body and soul. The priests instilled in them a passion for the good that they must do, a passion to reach out to the poor, the hungry, and the wounded; a passion to reach out to the lost and bring them home; a passion to proclaim the truth of the Gospels. Even though Basilians no longer administer the college or teach at the University of Saskatchewan, their legacy lives on.

The Lord’s raised hand in the Kurelek mural is a sign to every generation: “Go and do same where you are. Do not be overcome by meagre resources and the fear of the daunting crowds. Trust in God. Walk among the people. Listen to them. Feed them, teach them and hold them together. Remember what happened on a Galilean plain years ago. Offer what little you have to the Lord and let him multiply your humble gifts to feed the world.”

“Come, without paying and without cost…”

Let us never forget that in Jesus, God’s salvation is freely extended to his people and to all nations; through him will the benefits assured to David be renewed. Let the words of the prophet Isaiah (55:1-3) inspire and embolden you to act:

All you who are thirsty, come to the water! You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat; Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk! Why spend your money for what is not bread; your wages for what fails to satisfy? Heed me, and you shall eat well, you shall delight in rich fare. Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life.

[The readings for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:1-3; Romans 8:35, 37-39; and Matthew 14:13-21.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

A King’s Prayer and a Kingdom’s Hope

Kingdom cropped

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 27, 2014

Solomon seeks wisdom

It is important to know the historical background for today’s first reading from the First Book of Kings 3:5; 7-12. Solomon had just been installed as the third king of Israel. The lot of leadership fell to him, the favored son of Bathsheba. Solomon is introduced to us, not as the legendary wise and good king, but as a man already compromised in his public life and personal relationships. Far from being the innocent child kneeling before God, he is more like the wayward son who prostrates himself before God, already aware of what will lead him away from the path of wise and discerning leadership. Solomon’s prayer for wisdom reveals a young king, unsure of himself at the outset of his reign.

The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that one needs wisdom. What did Solomon ask of his God? First he asked for an “understanding heart” (3:9) which means to “hear intelligently,” often with the implication of attention and obedience. This word could mean discern, give ear, listen, obey, perceive, or understand. He also asked that he might be able to “discern,” “to separate mentally, to understand, or deal wisely.” The Lord repeated this word in His answer as recorded in verse 12, and added yet another word – I have given you literally “a wise, intelligent, skillful or artful” heart. Solomon wanted to receive wisdom by carefully listening and obeying the Lord.

The wisdom Solomon asked for was related to the role he was assigned. God was pleased with his prayer, and gave him not only what he has asked but also what he has not asked: riches, honor, glory. And the story goes on to show how Solomon’s wisdom was such that Israel ‘stood in awe of the king, because they saw that the wisdom of God was in him.’ In the New Testament, when Jesus was teaching, he commented about Solomon’s wisdom, “now one greater than Solomon is here” (Matthew 12:42). Jesus was referring to Himself as the Christ, the Son of God.

When we ask for wisdom

This unique moment in the life of one of the great kings of Israel raises many questions for us. When asking for wisdom, we must believe that God will provide the wisdom we seek; we must trust Him to do it in His own way, which usually means that we will be in partnership with Him. Where in our life is the need for wisdom? Is there a willingness to be obedient and to look to God so that ours will be a righteous wisdom? Are we willing to partner with God for the acquisition of wisdom? Is there sufficient faith to believe that God will provide?

Conformed to the Son’s image

Today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:28-30) outlines the Christian vocation as it was designed by God: to be conformed to the image of his Son, who is to be the firstborn among many brothers (8:29). God’s redemptive action on behalf of the believers has been in process before the beginning of the world. Those whom God chooses are those he foreknew (8:29) or elected. While man and woman were originally created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27), it is through baptism into Christ, the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15), that we are renewed according to the image of the Creator (Col 3:10). Those who are called (Romans 8:30) are predestined or predetermined. These expressions do not mean that God is arbitrary. Rather, Paul uses them to emphasize the thought and care that God has taken for the Christian’s salvation.

How will we recognize the kingdom?

Jesus used a variety of images to refer to the kingdom of heaven. Throughout the New Testament, we read about a shepherd who has lost sheep, a woman who has lost a silver coin, a father who has lost a son. In these and many more stories, Jesus is saying that the Kingdom comes for us when we find what we have lost. Jesus started his ministry with the proclamation of the gospel: “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the kingdom could and should be like.

Parables about the kingdom

The historical backdrop of the parables is very important in our understanding of these marvelous stories. In the unsettled conditions of Palestine in Jesus’ time, it was not unusual to guard valuables by burying them in the ground (13:44). The first two of the last three parables of Matthew’s discourse (13:44-52) have the same point. The person who finds a buried treasure and the merchant who finds a pearl of great price sell all that they have to acquire these finds; similarly, the one who understands the supreme value of the kingdom gives up whatever he must to obtain it. The joy with which this is done is made explicit in the first parable, but it may be presumed in the second also. The concluding parable of the fishnet resembles the explanation of the parable of the weeds with its stress upon the final exclusion of evil persons from the kingdom.

Since Matthew tends to identify the disciples and the Twelve (13:52) this saying about the Christian scribe cannot be taken as applicable to all who accept the message of Jesus. The scribe instructed in the kingdom of heaven knows both the teaching of Jesus (the new) and the law and prophets (the old) and provides in his own teaching both the new and the old as interpreted and fulfilled by the new.

Conceptions of the Kingdom

The Kingdom of God is not – as some maintain today – a generic reality above all religious experiences and traditions, but it is, before all else, a person with a name and a face: Jesus of Nazareth, the image of the unseen God. We cannot marginalize Christian revelation and its ecclesial transmission by proposing a non-Christian vision where misuse of the terminology “Kingdom” or “Reign of God” is a substitute for Jesus Christ and his Church.

In the Lineamenta (preparatory document) for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization in October 2012, two particular passages and their references to the Kingdom struck me in light of today’s Gospel reading. Under sections #24 The “New Evangelization: A Vision for the Church of Today and Tomorrow” we read:

We are facing situations which are signs of massive changes, often causing apprehension and fear. These situations require a new vision, which allows us to look to the future with eyes full of hope and not with tears of despair. As “Church,” we already have this vision, namely, the Kingdom to come, which was announced to us by Christ and described in his parables. This Kingdom is already communicated to us through his preaching and, above all, through his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, we oftentimes feel unable to enflesh this vision, in other words, to “make it our own” and to “bring it to life” for ourselves and the people we meet everyday, and to make it the basis for the Church’s life and all her pastoral activities.

And in #25, “The Joy of Evangelizing,” we read:

A new evangelization means to share the world’s deep desire for salvation and render our faith intelligible by communicating the logos of hope (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Humanity needs hope to live in these present times. The content of this hope is “God, who has a human face and who ‘has loved us to the end’.” For this reason, the Church is, by her very nature, missionary. We cannot selfishly keep for ourselves the words of eternal life, which we received in our personally encountering Jesus Christ. They are destined for each and every person. Each person today, whether he knows it or not, needs this proclamation.

To be unaware of this need creates a desert and an emptiness. In fact, the obstacles to the new evangelization are precisely a lack of joy and hope among people, caused and spread by various situations in our world today. Oftentimes, this lack of joy and hope is so strong that it affects the very tenor of our Christian communities. This is the reason for renewing the appeal for a new evangelization, not simply as an added responsibility but as a way to restore joy and life to situations imprisoned in fear.

We therefore approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm. We will learn the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing, even at times when proclamation might seem like a seed sown among tears (cf. Ps 126:6). “May it mean for us – as it did for John the Baptist, for Peter and Paul, for the other apostles and for a multitude of splendid evangelizers all through the Church’s history – an interior enthusiasm that nobody and nothing can quench. May it be the great joy of our consecrated lives. And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world.”

[The readings for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: 1 Kings 3:5-12; Romans 8:28-30; and Matthew 13:44-52.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

“Let them grow together until harvest…”

Wheat field cropped

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 20, 2014

Once again in this week’s Gospel passage, images of growing trees, shrubs and plants provide us with powerful insights into the quiet and slow ways that God’s Kingdom grows among us and within us. Today’s Gospel story is peculiar to Matthew (13:24-33). Central to today’s parable of the wheat and the weeds is the preciousness of the wheat. The landowner refuses to lose any of it in order to get rid of the weeds.

Verse 25 speaks of darnel, a poisonous weed that in its first stage of growth resembles wheat. A weed may be growing next to a stalk of wheat and think it has a common destiny with the wheat, but its end is destruction. The weed is also harmful to the wheat, its roots trying to starve the wheat from its source. The refusal of the householder to allow his slaves to separate the wheat from the weeds while they are still growing is a warning to the disciples not to attempt to anticipate the final judgment of God by a definitive exclusion of sinners from the Kingdom. In its present stage it is composed of the good and the bad. The judgment of God alone will eliminate the sinful. Until then there must be patience and the preaching of repentance. We can learn much from God’s patience as we see Him allow both the good and the evil to grow together.

How important it is to remember this point when we grow so impatient with God’s role in human history. How often do we ask: “Where is the ultimate vindication that God has promised us?” How long, O Lord, until you show your might and power to rout our enemies? How long until you show your face to us? When we get stuck in such ruts, our moods are fixed more intently on the stubborn persistence of evil than on the slow emergence and growth of good. God loves goodness more than God hates evil.

The harvest spoken of in v 30 is a common biblical metaphor for the time of God’s judgment; (Jeremiah 51:33; Joel 4:13; Hosea 6:11.) Like the sower who scatters seed even where there is little hope for results, Jesus keeps open the lines of communication with those who have closed their hearts, their ears and their eyes to his word.

The great success of the Kingdom

The parables of the mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32; Luke 13:18-21) and the yeast illustrate the same point: the amazing contrast between the small beginnings of the Kingdom and its marvelous expansion. Jesus exaggerates both the smallness of the mustard seed and the size of the mustard plant. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is like that. This message of Jesus’ parable was certainly an encouragement to the early church when its progress seemed slow or was hampered by persecution. From these small seeds will arise the great success of the Kingdom of God and of God’s Word. Patience is called for in the face of humble beginnings. Jesus reassures the crowd that growth will come; it is only at the harvest that the farmer reappears. The growth of God’s Kingdom is the result of God’s power, not ours. Like the tiny mustard seed, the Kingdom of God is something that grows from a tiny beginning.

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s section of St. Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, (8:26-27) the Apostle to the nations reminds us that the glory that believers are destined to share with Christ far exceeds the sufferings of the present life. Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the punishment of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people. Only following patient endurance in steadfast expectation will the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence be realized.

Recognizing the Kingdom

Jesus started his ministry proclaiming: “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” But his disciples, then and now, keep on asking: “When is the Kingdom coming? How will we recognize it?” His usual reply indicated the difficulties of seeing the Kingdom where we are blinded by earthly images. Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as being near, “at hand,” and coming unexpectedly. He revealed the Kingdom in two ways. His miracle-working deeds revealed present power over evil; his parables contained messages of what the Kingdom could and should be like. For many, the Kingdom is a place free from evil, sin, strife, anxiety and fear. Don’t we all share a deep longing for a crop free from the weeds, for a world free from war, for a personality free from the weeds of anxiety of jealousy, fear, apathy, cynicism and despair? Far from being a seemingly unreal place, daily life can at times seem to be much more a battleground… a struggle to live in the midst of the weeds and chaff that try to choke us and take our life away. In Jesus, God broke through the power and domination of evil.

I often imagine Jesus running tiny, black mustard seeds through his fingers as he spoke to the crowds and his small group of followers in Galilee. One day he thought of them as he spoke about the Kingdom of God, and pointed to the tree that would grow from such tiny seeds. The seed in Jesus’ hand is tiny, simple and unimpressive. Yet he says that the Kingdom of God is like that. It is far more likely to begin in simple ways than in the dramatic.

God’s Kingdom broke through and entered the human scene in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. It is a slow process for the Kingdom to be fully realized. We long for a society free from the weeds of injustice, fear of nuclear power, war and the depletion of all of our resources. But we also know that such longings will never be fully realized and satisfied here. The distance from and longing for the full realization of that kingdom make our heart grow fonder for it. The hope represented by our longings is essential to human life, for without them we would be slaves and victims of despair and hopelessness.

Opposition and indifference to the Word

The Word of God takes root not without a struggle, due to the presence and action of an “enemy” who “sowed weeds among the wheat.” In his General Audience homily of September 25, 1991, Blessed John Paul II addressed this point directly:

“This parable explains the co-existence and the frequent mingling of good and evil in the world, in our lives and in the very history of the Church. Jesus teaches us to see these things with Christian realism and to handle every problem with clear principles, but also with prudence and patience. This presupposes a transcendent vision of history, in which one knows that everything belongs to God and every final result is the work of his Providence. However, the final destiny–in its eschatological dimension–of the good and bad is not hidden. It is symbolized by the gathering of the wheat into the barn and the burning of the weeds.”

There are weeds in the Church

During World Youth Day 2005 in Cologne, Germany, Pope Emeritus Benedict exclaimed to the throngs of young Christians and the curious mixed in:

“Here in Cologne we discover the joy of belonging to a family as vast as the world, including heaven and earth, the past, the present, the future. The Church can be criticized, because it contains both grain and weeds,” he told them, but “it is actually consoling to realize that there are weeds in the Church. In this way, despite all our defects, we can still hope to be counted among the disciples of Jesus, who came to call sinners.”

Five years later, on October 9, 2010, Benedict spoke of this parable in his weekly General Audience address that featured the spirituality of St. John Leonardi. Leonardi (1541-1609) and St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) were two humble priests committed to the reform of the clergy during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. Neri founded the “Oratory,” a community of priests and Leonardi founded a religious order and a seminary, with the sole purpose of reforming the clergy. Both men ministered to the people of Rome during not infrequent outbreaks of the plague and influenza. While Neri survived these outbreaks, Leonardi died from influenza in 1609.

In his talk, Pope Emeritus Benedict reminded us that the weeds and wheat exist in close proximity:

“There is another aspect of St John Leonardi‘s spirituality that I would like to emphasize. On various occasions he reasserted that the living encounter with Christ takes place in his Church, holy but frail, rooted in history and in its sometimes obscure unfolding, where wheat and weeds grow side by side (Mt 13:30), yet always the sacrament of salvation. Since he was clearly aware that the Church is God’s field (cf. Mt 13: 24), St John was not shocked at her human weaknesses. To combat the weeds he chose to be good wheat: that is, he decided to love Christ in the Church and to help make her, more and more, a transparent sign of Christ. He saw the Church very realistically, her human frailty, but he also saw her as being “God’s field,” the instrument of God for humanity’s salvation.

And this was not all. Out of love for Christ he worked tirelessly to purify the Church, to make her more beautiful and holy. He realized that every reform should be made within the Church and never against the Church In this, St John Leonardi was truly extraordinary and his example is ever timely. Every reform, of course, concerns her structures, but in the first place must have an effect in believers’ hearts. Only Saints, men and women who let themselves be guided by the divine Spirit, ready to make radical and courageous decisions in the light of the Gospel, renew the Church and make a crucial contribution to building a better world.”

[The readings for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Wisdom 12.13, 16-19; Romans 8.26-27; and Matthew 13.24-43.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

God’s Word is Never Spoken in Vain

Wheat cropped

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – July 13, 2014

In verse 10 of today’s first reading from chapter 55 of the prophet Isaiah, we read: “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater.” Rain may seem lost when it falls on a desert, but it fulfils some purpose of God. So the gospel word falling on the hard heart; it sometimes brings about change in one’s life; and even if so, it leaves people without excuse.

Not only does Isaiah compare God’s Word with rain, but he also compares it with snow – something else that is often not truly appreciated for what it really does. Snow’s main purpose is far greater than simply providing coating for ski hills, raw material for making snowmen and necessary covering for snowmobile trails. Its main purpose, like rain, is to provide water and moisture for the earth so that plants and trees are able to grow and live.

Every time snow and rain come down, they always provide a very necessary ingredient: moisture for germination and growth of seeds planted in the earth. They always accomplish their purpose. In verse 11, we see that God’s Word, like the rain and snow from heaven, always accomplishes its God intended purpose: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” What faith, patience and perseverance are required to accept this truth!

Patient endurance in steadfast expectation

In today’s second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans (8:18-23), Paul considers the destiny of the created world to be linked with the future that belongs to the believers. As it shares in the penalty of corruption brought about by sin, so also will it share in the benefits of redemption and future glory that comprise the ultimate liberation of God’s people (19-22). After patient endurance in steadfast expectation, the full harvest of the Spirit’s presence will be realized. On earth believers enjoy the first fruits, i.e., the Spirit, as a guarantee of the total liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (23).

Understanding the meaning of “parable”

The word “parable” is used in the Greek Septuagint to translate the Hebrew “mashal,” a designation covering a wide variety of literary forms such as axioms, proverbs, similitudes, and allegories. In the New Testament “parable” primarily designates stories that are illustrative comparisons between Christian truths and events of everyday life. Sometimes the event has a strange element that is quite different from usual experience (e.g., in Matthew 13:3 the enormous amount of dough in the parable of the yeast); this is meant to sharpen the curiosity of the hearer. As figurative speech, a parable demands reflection for understanding. To understand is a gift of God, granted to the disciples but not to the crowds. In Semitic fashion, both the disciples’ understanding and the crowd’s obtuseness are attributed to God. The question of human responsibility for the obtuseness is not dealt with, although it is asserted in Matthew 13:13.

Structure of Matthew’s Parable of the Sower

Let us take a closer look at the structure of Matthew’s sermon in parables (13:1-52) which is structurally the centre of his Gospel. The parables offered by Matthew serve as a varied commentary on the rejection of Jesus by the Pharisees in the two preceding chapters. The whole discourse in parables is the third great discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s account and constitutes the second part of the third book of the gospel. Matthew follows the Marcan outline (4:1-35) but has only two of Mark’s parables. The remaining two are most likely drawn from the “Q” source and Matthew’s special collection of stories. In addition to the seven parables, the discourse gives the reason why Jesus uses this type of speech (10-15), declares the blessedness of those who understand his teaching (16-17), explains the parable of the sower (18-23), and of the weeds (36-43), and ends with a concluding statement to the disciples (51-52).

Parable of the SowerSowing with abandon

To Jesus’ Galilean listeners who were close to the earth, the image of sowing seeds (Matthew 13:1-23) was a very familiar one. Today’s parable is startling on several accounts – it portrays a sower who is apparently careless. He scatters the seed with reckless abandon even in those areas where there is virtually no chance for growth. The first seed that falls on the path has no opportunity to grow. The second seed falls on rocky ground, grows quickly and dies as quickly. The third seed falls among thorns and has its life submerged by a stronger force. Finally the fourth seed falls on good soil, produces fruit– to astonishing, unknown, unthinkable proportions. The normal harvest in a good year might be sevenfold, never thirty, sixty, much less one hundred! The life-bearing potential of the seed is beyond imagination! The final yield is earth shattering! In the end, the parable portrays the sower as lavish and extravagant rather than foolish and wasteful.

In the explanation of the parable (18-23) the emphasis is on the various types of soil on which the seed falls, i.e., on the dispositions with which the preaching of Jesus is received (cf. parallels in Mark 4:14-20; Luke 8:11-15) . The second and third types particularly are explained in such a way as to support the view held by many scholars that the explanation derives not from Jesus but from early Christian reflection upon apostasy from the faith that was the consequence of persecution and worldliness respectively. Others, however, hold that the explanation may come basically from Jesus even though it was developed in the light of later Christian experience. The four types of persons envisaged are (1) those who never accept the word of the kingdom (Matthew 13:19); (2) those who believe for a while but fall away because of persecution (20-21); (3) those who believe, but in whom the word is choked by worldly anxiety and the seduction of riches (22); (4) those who respond to the word and produce fruit abundantly (23).

In no other instance does Jesus take such great pain to explain a parable than in this one. Too often this parable has been used to emphasize what happens to the seed– carried away by the devil, dying from a lack of roots, choked by the cares and wealth and pleasures of this life. How often have we considered the lavishness and generosity of God– throwing the seed in every direction? Jesus’ explanation clearly shifts the accent from the seed (the word), which was the focus of the parable, to the person who hears it (the soil). In so doing, it brings to the fore God’s extravagant generosity with the word.

God’s Word shall be accomplished

Whatever is God’s design in giving the gospel, it shall be accomplished. It is never spoken in vain, and never fails to produce the effect which he intends. Though it may seem that the Gospel often falls on barren rocks, or on arid sands; on extended plains where no vegetation is produced, or in the wilderness ‘where no human is,’ and seems to our eyes in vain, we know that this is not so. The words of the Gospel often fall on hard and barren human hearts.

The message of Jesus is addressed to the proud, the senseless, the avaricious, and the unbelieving, and seems to be spoken in vain, and to return void unto God. But it is not so. He has some design in it, and that will be accomplished. It is proof of the fullness of his mercy. It leaves people without excuse, and justifies himself. Or when presented apparently in vain – it ultimately becomes successful, and sinners are at last brought to abandon their sins, and to turn unto God.

The Gospel is indeed often rejected and despised. It falls on the ears of people apparently as the rain falls on the hard rock, and there are, so to speak, large fields where the gospel is preached as barren and unfruitful of any spiritual good as the extended desert is of vegetation, and the gospel seems to be preached to almost entire communities with as little effect as is produced when the rains fall on vast, barren deserts. In spite of some failure because of opposition and indifference, the message of Jesus about the coming of the kingdom will have enormous success. Though the gospel may not immediately produce all the good effects which we may desire, yet it will be ultimately successful to the full wish of the widest benevolence, and the whole world shall be filled with the knowledge and the love of God.

Allowing the Word to take root in our lives

This week may the Word take root in our lives. If we allow it to penetrate beneath the surface, we will begin to find ourselves, and find the areas of ourselves which seemed lost or broken, abandoned or forgotten, “unplugged” or “turned off” to the transforming power of God. Let us pray these words of St. Albert the Great:

“Let me leave behind my old life, so that the seeds of your Word won’t be eaten up by the birds of frivolous thought, or choked out by the thorns of worry. Give me a soft heart full of humility and joy, so that I will be good soil and bring forth fruit in patience.”

[The readings for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55.10-11; Romans 8.18-23; and Matthew 13.1-23.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.