29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 22, 2017
Matthew 22:15-21

Background:

In last week’s gospel Matthew recounts Jesus telling the parable of a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son. As the parable unfolds, the king invites the good and the bad from the streets. When the guests are finally assembled, one is found without proper attire. The parable sets up the closing verse, “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” (Matt 22:14) The text for this Sunday’s gospel follows directly after last week’s text.

This Sunday, Matthew tells his readers that the Pharisees joined with the Herodians in an attempt to shame Jesus. The Pharisees did not approve of the Roman rule. Under normal circumstances they would not join with the Herodians, who were loyal to Rome. Among the common people there were some who longed for a rebellion that would overthrow the power of Rome. There were also those who had made peace with the situation, and there were even those who learned how to profit from Roman occupation.

The question before Jesus is based in the struggle between living what the Pharisees would understand as being faithful to God’s ways, or setting aside God’s ways in order to not cause a disturbance with the Roman authority. Because Jesus is a threat to both the Pharisees and the Herodians, they have come together to trap him. They begin by complimenting Jesus, but their goal is to protect their positions of power and authority.

Jesus’ response to them is to first ask to see the coin that is used to pay the tax. By producing the coin, they demonstrate that they are in possession of a coin that has the image of the roman emperor Tiberius, with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus, high priest.” The Pharisees would have been offended by hearing Augustus described as divine, and they considered such an image as a form of idolatry. Yet they have joined forces with the Herodians. When Jesus asks them whose image is on the coin and what is the title given, he is making them publicly acknowledge their breach of faithful adherence to the ways of God that they have been preaching. This is not the Jesus who quietly let those slip away who had accused the woman caught in adultery.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Can you recall a recent situation when you were being asked to take sides?
  2. Has there been a time when you felt you needed to take a stand against something that was not right?
  3. In the gospel, those who approach Jesus compliment him as a person who is not concerned with anyone’s opinion. Where in the gospels do you see examples of Jesus not being concerned with the opinions of others? Where is he a person who is very much concerned with the opinions of others?
  4. They also say of him that he is not concerned with a person’s status. Where in the gospels do you find examples of Jesus’ disregard of a person’s status? Are there also places where he seems to be very concerned about the status of others?
  5. Jesus says, in verse 21, to give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. What is it that does not belong to God?
  6. When you are describing things like the place where you live, the automobile that you use, the shirt that you are wearing, do you use expressions like: my car, my house, my shirt?
  7. Are there places where you are struggling with how to live in a right relationship to the material possessions that have been entrusted to you?
  8. Can you take some time to talk with God about how you use possessions, how the opinions or the status of others affects you, or some other aspect of your living as a child of God in the real world in which you live?

 

 

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Rachel Joyce Photography

October 15, 2017
Matthew 22:1-14

 

Background:

This is the third consecutive Sunday gospel where Jesus is addressing the Jewish religious leaders. Two weeks ago, the gospel contained the parable of the two sons who were told by their father to go to work in the vineyard. Jesus concluded the parable by telling the leaders that tax collectors and prostitutes were entering God’s realm before them. (Matthew 21:28-32) The gospel for last week was the parable of the tenants who refused to share the harvest with the landowner. (Matthew 21:23-43) Today’s gospel focuses on the consequences of refusing the invitation to the reign of God. The common theme running through all three is that those who appear to enjoy the favor of God reject their responsibilities/relationship, and others assume the responsibility/relationship in their stead.

Scripture scholars believe that the parable, as told here by Matthew, went through stages of development. The parable that Jesus told was the simple story about being invited to a great banquet and the need to be ready to respond to the invitation whenever it came. The second stage was when the Christian community added elements to the story. The celebration became a wedding feast prepared for his son by a great king. God is the king and the son is Jesus. Some who refused to accept the invitation are those who reject Jesus and his teaching. The last development of the parable happened when the part about the person without a proper garment for the wedding was added. At this stage it reflects a Christian community that now includes Jews and Gentiles, and members who are struggling to remain faithful and others who have become apathetic.

The parable itself reflects a common scenario of the day. Typically, banquets were for the elite of society. People associated at banquets with others of a similar status in the community. When a banquet was being planned, a preliminary invitation was sent to those on the guest list. They checked among their peers to see who was going to attend, and more importantly, who was going to decline the invitation. When the banquet was ready, a second announcement was made for guests to assemble. In the parable, those who are refusing offer flimsy excuses, and others’ refusals are confrontational in the way they treat the agents of the host. The host’s retaliation would be expected. But going to the crossroads or city squares to invite others would not have been unexpected. These squares were the gathering place of the community; people from the elite as well as the lowest parts of society would be there. In today’s parable, they are all invited, and everyone knows that they are all invited. The social distinctions that regulate honor and acceptable relationships are being torn down by this King. A new social order is being established—but it is not without expectations. One must still have a wedding garment.

In the first reading (Is 25:6-10) for this Sunday, the prophet Isaiah uses the image of a great banquet as the culmination of God’s saving activity. It is an image designed to bring hope to those whose lives were filled with great suffering. That reading offers a focus for reflection on the gospel. One suggestion would be to see the kingdom of God as an attitude we are invited to participate in and live in our lives. God’s invitation is for us to live God’s radical generosity, compassion, and forgiveness each day of our lives, with those in our families, in our neighborhoods, and elsewhere in the world. There are those who clearly refuse that invitation, and those who would like to accept it but struggle on all kind of levels. As a church, we are also blessed with those who seem to engage the kingdom in a full and remarkable way. The saints in history and in our communities mentor the rest of us in living the kingdom of God today.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you received invitations that surprised you?
  2. Have you received invitations that you wanted to decline?
  3. Have you ever been involved in arranging the guest seating so that everyone would be seated with people they would enjoy being with?
  4. What is it about a wedding banquet that makes it a good comparison to the reign of God?
  5. Do you know people who seem to be gifted at inviting and including those who might be considered “odd” or “outsiders”?
  6. Where in your community are the places that people are welcome no matter their social standing, background, or political opinions?
  7. In the parable, with whom do you find it easiest to identify: the king, the king’s son, the invited guests, the king’s servants, the king’s soldiers, those invited later, or the guest without a proper garment?
  8. What elements of a wedding banquet speak to you of the Kingdom of God?
  9. How does this parable speak to you of God’s invitation to you?
  10. Can you take some time to talk with God about God’s invitation to you, how you have been responding to that invitation, or perhaps your desire to carry God’s invitation to others?

 

 

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 8, 2017
Matthew 21:33-43

Background:

In last week’s gospel, Jesus told the parable of two sons who were asked to work in their father’s vineyard. This week Jesus addresses a second parable to the leaders of the people. This parable gives the impression that the landowner has personally done the difficult work of setting up the vineyard. The vineyard is the result of the personal toil and care of the landowner, in contrast to a large land baron who would have had laborers do the work of establishing the vineyard. As it appears in the gospel text, it is easy to associate the creator of the vineyard with God, the tenant farmers with the religious and civil leaders of their day, those sent to collect the portion of the harvest due the owner as the prophets, and the Son as Jesus. In this form, the Christian community can see the hand of God working in their being rejected by Jewish civil and religious leaders and the enthusiastic response of the Gentiles. There is much here for prayerful reflection for the contemporary reader of the text.

Scripture scholars give us another source for prayerful reflection here. They believe that as the parable was told by Jesus, it ended with the rejection of the first messengers sent to collect the landowner’s share of the harvest, and it did not contain the personal involvement of the owner in establishing the vineyard. In this form, the parable reflected the lived experience of most of the peasants that Jesus addressed in his daily preaching to the crowds. Scholars believe that small groups of farmers would have been fortunate enough to work land that they actually owned. These would still have to barter for necessities of life and for seed for the next year’s crop. They also paid a variety of taxes, religious tithes, and social responsibilities. A farmer who worked his own land would be left with about 20 percent of the yearly crop to feed his livestock and family. The typical peasant who worked someone else’s land had far less to live on. In the original parable, Jesus identified with the plight of these poor peasants whose everyday life was extremely difficult and who sometimes made foolish decisions in hopes that they could change their life for the better. At this level, the parable also contains a great deal for our reflection.

This rather simple parable as told by Jesus has been reworked by subtracting some elements and adding others.  The early Christians who told the parable as they remembered Jesus’ telling of the story did so in order to find meaning for their lives, their struggles, and their relationship with God. In that effort to find meaning, the story itself changed into the form we find in the gospel text. There is fruit for reflection here too. The parable changed from the original story as told by Jesus to the parable as we find it today in Matthew’s gospel, in an effort to find God speaking to people in the present. This too is part of the revelation of God, and how God worked and is working to speak to us in our day as we pray and reflect on this text.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. What is your experience of telling and retelling stories of importance to you in your life? Do you ever find new meaning or new details of the story that were not apparent earlier?
  2. Do you find the inconsistence in family stories as a source of inspiration or frustration?
  3. Have you ever been so frustrated by your life situation that you spoke or acted without good judgment?
  4. Have you ever gone away and asked someone to care for your house, garden, or pet? Did they fulfill your expectations?
  5. The landowner in the parable seems to have done the difficult work of planting the vineyard and erecting the structures to protect it, as well as building the wine press. The work of the tenants is to water, prune, and protect the vines from those who might harm them or steal the fruit and, finally, to tend to the harvest. Does the nature of the metaphor itself give you any insight into your role and God’s role in the world?
  6. How does your life reflect that God is the creator and you have been entrusted with care of creation?
  7. Have there ever been times when you acted as if that which has been entrusted to your care belongs to you? Are there also times when your actions express your belief that God is the creator and you are God’s steward?
  8. In the parable, the landowner keeps sending his messengers, and, finally, his own son, to the tenant farmers, even though they are treated cruelly each time. What does it say to you about God’s relationship to you?
  9. Can you talk to God as the Creator and your role as steward, the gift of creation with which God has blessed you, or some other aspect of this parable that is meaningful for you?

 

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

October 1, 2017
Matthew 21:28-32

 

Background:

In the final line of last week’s gospel, Jesus declared that the last will be first and the first will be last. (Matthew 20:16) As Matthew unfolds his gospel, he next describes the following sequence of events. Jesus makes his third and last prediction of his suffering and death. The mother of James and John petitions Jesus that her sons sit at his right and left when he enters his Kingdom. The other ten disciples become indignant at the request. Jesus then addresses all the disciples, instructing them by contrasting the usual use of authority with his own understanding; Jesus declares that greatness is found in those who desire to serve. The 20th chapter of Matthew’s gospel ends with the account of Jesus healing a blind man outside the town of Jericho.

The 21st chapter of Matthew begins with Jesus entering Jerusalem riding a donkey and the crowds crying out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” Jesus enters the temple area and overturns the tables of the moneychangers and those selling doves to the pilgrims for offerings. The chief priests and the scribes confront Jesus. The following morning, as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he curses a fig tree because it hasn’t borne fruit and it dies immediately. As Jesus is teaching in the temple area, the chief priests and the elders question his authority to teach. Jesus says that he will respond to their question if they will answer a question for him. From where did John the Baptist get his authority? No matter how they answer him, they will bring embarrassment upon themselves, so they refuse to respond. This dialogue leads into Jesus telling the parable that is the text for today’s gospel.

Stories about two sons were a common way of making a point. The stories of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) and Jacob and Esau (Genesis 25:23-27:46) are familiar. The prophet Ezekiel tells the story of two sisters Oholah and Oholibah who represent Samaria and Jerusalem in his story. (Ezekiel 23:1-49) In the gospel, the son who refuses to go to work in the vineyard has broken with accepted norms of behavior and insulted his father, who would typically have the legal right to punish him and even put him to death.

Jesus is very shrewd in the way he phrases the question he puts to the chief priests and the elders. He does not ask which son has honored his father. People of the day valued honor more than obedience. To their thinking the son who only said he would work in the vineyard was more honorable than the one who said he would not. (There are no private conversations in this culture.) But Jesus has asked who actually did what the father asked of him.  Jesus is suggesting that they are like the first son, who in appearance says that right thing, but whose actions are lacking. In fact, their maintaining a virtuous appearance prevented them from responding with care and compassion to the needs of the sinners and those on the fringe. Jesus does not say that they will not enter heaven, but he does say that tax collectors and sinners will enter before them. Many of the sinners were baptized by John, and changed their lives. Many of the religious leaders were also baptized by John, but they had not changed their lives. As a result, the respect they so sought to maintain on earth will not be mirrored in heaven.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do you remember an occasion when it was impressed upon you the need to respect your elders?
  2. Are you aware of a time when you were concerned about saying the right things and doing the right things in order to impress another?
  3. As years pass, are you finding yourself more tolerant of the flaws in those around you?
  4. Are you becoming more aware of your own need for conversion?
  5. What is it like for you to go to confession?
  6. What does the fact that the Church makes the sacrament of reconciliation available without limit say to you about the Church’s understanding of the human condition, and her understanding of the desire of God?
  7. Where are you in this gospel text? Are you one of the people Jesus is addressing with the parable? Are you one of the sons? Are you one of the by-standers watching the dialogue unfold between Jesus and the elders?
  8. Can you take some time to talk with God about your experience of this short dialogue?

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 24, 2017
Matthew 20: 1-16

Background:

The gospel text for last Sunday was the familiar but difficult parable of the servant who had been forgiven a great debt but refused to forgive his fellow servant. (Matthew 18:21-35) In selecting the gospel text for this Sunday, the Church skips over the 19th chapter of Matthew’s gospel and asks us to reflect on the parable that opens chapter 20.

In the 19th chapter, Matthew recounts that Jesus departed from Galilee and entered Judea. Great crowds followed him and he healed many. In order to test him, the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife. Jesus’ response challenged the accepted practice of the day. Then Matthew records an occasion when children were brought to him for a blessing. The disciples rebuked Jesus, but he rejected their criticism. Next, a man approached Jesus asking what must be done to possess eternal life. Jesus told him to keep the commandments, but, if he wanted to be perfect, he should sell everything and give to the poor. This led the disciples to ask the question, “Who can be saved?” Peter then asked what they would receive for having left everything to be his followers. Jesus responded, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life. Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Matthew 19:29-30) While the 20th chapter begins by stating that Jesus addressed the parable to the disciples, Matthew has placed it in the context of Peter’s questions about what they can expect to receive for having left everything to become his followers.

The gospel text for today twice contains a reference to the last being first and the first being last. At the end of the parable, the owner summons the foreman and tells him, “… give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.” (Matthew 20:8) The theme appears again in the last verse of the text. This theme is also present in the other gospels. In Mark, Jesus instructs the twelve: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35) Later, when the rich young man comes to Jesus asking what he needs to do to enter eternal life, Jesus tells the disciples that, although it is impossible for humans, entering eternal life is not impossible for God. “But many that are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31) Luke also records Jesus teaching this same message. When asked by someone in a crowd about how man will be saved, Jesus likens the Realm of God to a master of a house who locked the door and others came and called from the outside to be admitted. But the Reign of God will be filled with those who come from the farthest ends of the world. “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13:30) Because this theme of the first being last and the last being first is repeated in all three gospels, it must have been an important part of Jesus’ teaching, and also significant for the early Christian community.

As Jesus told this parable, it probably functioned as way to respond to those who objected to Jesus because he seemed to focus his ministry and attention on the crowds and those who did not keep the religious traditions.  Jesus’ parable reflected a God whose compassion and generosity was without limits and not reserved for those who were the chosen or even the obedient. This God went out and sought workers and treated them as one would treat a family member; they received a full portion for their labor. Such an image of God was very different from a God who expected ritual purity or had chosen people.

For the first Christians, who retold the parables of Jesus and reflected on them for insights into their relationship with God, being faithful disciples often meant being rejected by family and community. Some did not persevere–they lost focus of this relationship with God that Jesus spoke of when he talked about the Kingdom of God. Being first in the Kingdom of God lost its appeal next to the hardship of rejection. It was a daily struggle to maintain a way of life that was counter to the cultural tradition where the people thought of themselves as chosen people. The early Christians were ridiculed by most of their neighbors. Many of the early disciples eventually left the community.

Consider the context, as this parable of Jesus is written and incorporated into the gospel. It takes on new meaning in light of the fact that, in general, the Jews were not accepting Jesus as the Messiah, and yet many gentiles were. The idea that “the first will be last and the last will be first” took on further significance. Those who came to faith and had personally experienced the teaching of Jesus were not superior to those who came later, who may have never encountered the historical person of Jesus.

Today we are fortunate to be able to have the insight into the dynamic way God is speaking through the teaching of Jesus, and through this parable. Biblical scholars help us appreciate how God is present in the scriptures, calling each generation into an authentic relationship with our God. 

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. What is your experience of looking for work? How does that experience influence how you hear this gospel?
  2. If you were to imagine yourself as one of the workers in the parable for today, would you have been one of those hired at the very beginning of the day, or more likely at one of the later hours?
  3. How would you have felt as you came up to receive your wages? How would you have responded to the foreman and to your fellow workers?
  4. The workers object to what the owner did, because he has made those hired later in the day equal to those hired at the beginning of the day. Do you have a need to feel that you are special, significant in the eyes of another, and to God? Have you ever talked to God about your desire?
  5. At the end of the parable the owner asks those who are disappointed if they are envious. Are you aware of times when you have been envious of others? How does envy affect your relationship to others and to God?
  6. At the end of your life on earth, do you hope that God “will give you what is just?”
  7. Can you take some time to talk to God about how God’s generosity affects you, or about any other sense of yourself that arises as you reflect on this parable?

 

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 17, 2017
Matthew 18:21-35

 

Background:

The gospels for last week and this week center around Jesus’ instruction on the disciples’ need to deal with conflicts in ways that do not cause harm to the community. Last week Jesus told the disciples that when one feels they have been offended, they should seek reconciliation with that person, even if they are unaware of their transgression. The goal of Jesus’ instructions seems to be engaging others over perceived sources of conflicts, before they cause divisions. In today’s gospel Jesus addresses another source of conflict – the need for forgiveness within the community. The text begins with Peter asking about how many times he should forgive, which leads into Jesus’ parable on the importance for the disciples to act out of the same need to forgive others as they hope God will have for them.

Peter asks if forgiving another person seven times is sufficient. Jesus insists the members of his community should forgive seventy-seven times. Other translations of this text render it seventy times seven. The point is the same.

Jesus makes his point through a parable which illustrates the underlying values of sharing with others the forgiveness that they have received from God. Verse 23 especially indicates that Jesus is telling the parable to demonstrate how forgiveness is in the realm of God. It also reflects the Near Eastern reality where kings exercised power of life and death. The first debtor owed ten thousand talents. The second owed one denari. It took six thousand denarii to have the equivalent of one talent. The contrast in the amount owed is consistent with the punishment that each could receive. The first could lose wife, children, all his property and most importantly his status as a free person in society. The second man is put in prison until he can repay what he, his family and friends can raise. The response of both men to the possible punishment is exactly the same; it is only the outcome that is different. The last line of the text makes the point. God is like the generous king in the parable who is willing to forgive our great debt. The disciples are expected to imitate that generosity in their own dealings with one another.

The parable also is a window into a very different culture. The role that the community plays in bringing their non-forgiving member to the attention of the King who had just forgiven him his debt is not out of character. The social pressure on the King to act if he is going to safeguard his reputation within the community is a powerful force that may not be immediately recognized by most westerners as we reflect on this text.

In our society, offenses and events of the day are often reported in terms of economic impact. Wars, hurricanes, and the merger of companies are given a dollar value while relationships and people’s lives that will be affected throughout the community are not taken into account. (Money is easier to count than the number of people affected.) Our approach is much different than what would have been the norm for Jesus. The real damage with sin was what it did to the relationships. In the parable, the king forgives an impossible debt (t would have taken 164,000 years of working 7 days a week for a laborer to earn 10,000 talents). He most likely did so because to not do so would mean he would lose honor with the rest of his household. Equally important is the fact that he also must put the servant in jail because of that same code of honor. This society functioned very differently than our own.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever struggled to forgive another?
  2. Can you recall mistakes that you have made where you have felt like you were never truly forgiven?
  3. Are there also significant occasions when you have been able to forgive others?
  4. What do you think Peter is feeling as he asks his question at the beginning of the text?
  5. What effect does that have on your relationships?
  6. Are there people you know who seem to have a great ability to forgive?
  7. AA asks members in recovery to begin to forgive those who have offended them. Why?
  8. What can you learn from this? Would you benefit from having a mentor in the area of forgiveness?
  9. In your opinion, is there a difference between forgiving and forgetting?
  10. Can you talk to God about your awareness of God’s desire to forgive you, your unworthiness of that forgiveness, or some other thought or feeling that this text raises for you?

 

 

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Soup Kitchen, Paris,
Tavik František Šimon, 1927

September 10, 2017
Mt 18:15-20

 

Background:

The last two weeks the gospels have focused on an occasion that was a turning point for both Jesus and for the disciples. Two weeks ago, Jesus asked the disciples who they believed he was. Peter spoke up saying, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16) Last week, Jesus told the disciples that his role as Messiah would mean suffering, rejection and death. Peter again spoke up and expressed his hope that Jesus would be spared such a fate. After correcting Peter with verbal force, Jesus also instructed them all that if they were to be his followers, they too must be willing to lose their lives. Last week’s text ended the 16th chapter of Matthew’s gospel.

The gospel for this week is taken from the 18th chapter of Matthew’s text. The church, in choosing texts for our reflection at Sunday Masses, has decided to skip the entire 17th chapter and the first 14 verses of the 18th chapter at this point in the liturgical year. If time permits, it may be helpful to read those verses on your own. For those who do not have the opportunity to read the text that will be skipped in the Sunday Lectionary, here is a list of the events that Matthew describes in those verses.

The Transfiguration of Jesus
Jesus’ instruction regarding the coming of Elijah
The healing of a boy who is possessed by a demon
A second prediction of Jesus’ suffering and death
Jesus being questioned about paying the temple tax
Jesus teaching the disciples that the greatest in the realm of God is like a little child
A stern warning to those who would lead a child into sin
The parable of the lost sheep

The last two teachings of Jesus in the above list draw attention to Jesus’ concern for the lost. They provide the backdrop for the instruction to the disciples in the text for this week. 

Jesus lived in a culture where allegiance to family and honor were deeply-held values. In this society, conflict could easily escalate into violence. Therefore, there was a real need to deal with any conflicts that might arise as quickly and privately as possible. Once a transgression reached the public forum, it became a matter of honor for one to demand restitution or inflict similar or greater damage. The motivation in the gospel is, clearly, to reach out in compassion in a way that does not draw attention or embarrassment to the person who feels they have been offended.

Jesus’ instruction puts the responsibility for taking action on the one who experienced a perceived offense. The obvious omission is the determination of who is the true source of the offense. That does not seem to be the issue for Jesus. Restoring the relationship, and avoiding violence that can be passed on from one generation to the next, is the focus.

Typically, in this culture, disagreements were not settled by logic or by a convincing line of reasoning, but rather by the number and status of those who could be gathered to support one’s point of view. Therefore, if the private and personal approach did not restore the relationship, then one used other means that were part of the culture, like getting others, and, if needed, the church involved. If that was unsuccessful, the person lost their relationship with the community. They were treated as a non-member of the community or as a traitor. While this may sound harsh in the world in which most contemporary western Christians live, in a culture like Jesus’ where conflicts could easily lead to violence and death, treating another as lost or cut off is comparatively mild.

The second part of the text stresses the responsibility that the community played in reaching out to the lost and alienated of the community. What was bound on earth by those disciples of Jesus was bound in heaven. Those who failed to maintain their relationship, or refused to be reconciled, would also find it so in heaven. Nowhere in the instruction does it indicate that this admonition is meant just for the apostles or for those who exercise roles of leadership. It is addressed to all the disciples. 

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Have you ever been aware that your actions or words could lead to bloodshed and/or death? What do you think it would be like to live in that kind of situation? Can you think of people who do live in that kind of fear even today?
  2. Have you ever had to stop associating with a person because of the potential physical or moral damage that might occur to yourself or another if the relationship continued?
  3. Do you know people who have forgiven another’s insults or violence? How does that affect them? What have you learned from them?
  4. Do you also know people who have been unable to forgive another? How does that affect them?
  5. To what extent have you reached out to another in order to save a relationship? Has it been worth it?
  6. What is the most challenging part of this gospel text for you?
  7. What is the most encouraging part of this gospel text for you?
  8. Can you talk to God about your desire to be a person who seeks to bring reconciliation whenever the possibility of harm arises in your relationships?

 

The gospel background and reflection questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 3, 2017
Matthew 16:21-27

 

Background:

In the gospel text from last week, Peter stated that he believed that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus responded to Peter by telling him that he was blessed, and that his [Jesus’] heavenly Father had been the source of that revelation. That Gospel ended with Jesus strictly ordering the disciples not tell anyone that he was the Messiah. This Sunday’s gospel text follows immediately.

In this text, Jesus was teaching the disciples that he was not the kind of Messiah that most people were expecting. Verse 21 makes it clear that he would suffer, die, and be raised from the dead, and that the religious leaders of the day would be involved in the events that would unfold. These events would take place in Jerusalem, the center of both religious and civil authority for Jews. The religious leaders mentioned were from the Sanhedrin, the highest court in the Jewish nation. This body of leaders had permission from Rome to function as a religious authority. Matthew seems to be implying that Jesus was viewed as a threat, and not only to Rome’s civil order. He had also disturbed the religious leaders enough that they were seeking a way to have him put to death. In a culture where one’s status and existence depended on being part of a network of relationships, and where privacy was not valued, it would have been almost impossible for Jesus and the disciples not to have heard rumors of the plot against Jesus. 

The culture and the lived reality of day focused almost exclusively on the present. People of the day did not think in terms of the future and the world of possibilities. A pregnant woman might think about the birth of the child. A farmer may plan for the harvest of a crop that was already beginning to grow. Even Jesus, when he spoke about the coming of the Kingdom of God, sounded like it had already begun to take place and would come into its fullness very soon. So here, when Jesus was speaking of his future fate in Jerusalem, it should be understood that he was speaking as a person with same understanding of the future as the people of his day.

The short dialogue between Peter and Jesus also should be understood from the culture of the day. While Jesus and the disciples would have been aware that the religious authorities were trying to discredit Jesus, and even considering his demise, Peter likely clung to some belief that as the Messiah, God would not permit any harm to happen to him. When Peter expressed his faith and trust in God to Jesus, Jesus responded to him as one who would have him abandon what he understood, as his role was to be faithful and obedient to God, even if it meant suffering and his own death. Jesus’ honor was to be found in being faithful to the will of God. Salvation history was filled with men and women who had endured great suffering and even death in their service of the will of God. Jesus’ own cousin, John the Baptist, had given his life rather than be untrue to what he believed God was asking of him.

Recall too that in the desert, Jesus had wrestled with Satan, who tempted him to use his divine powers to change his human reality and to display his divine authority. He resisted that temptation at that time. During his public life, he was challenged to perform signs that would demonstrate his authority. He refused. Now Peter was suggesting that Jesus somehow escape from the fate that his life and preaching had brought. Jesus called Peter “Satan,” or the one who was acting as an obstacle to God’s will. He was making it clear to Peter and to his disciples that he was totally committed to be faithful to the path he had chosen. Those who would try to persuade him from that path in any way were acting like Satan in the desert.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. What is your attitude toward pain and suffering? Can you think of different times when you have both avoided pain and suffering, and when you have knowingly done things that you knew were going to painful?
  2. What is the most difficult kind of pain for you to endure? Are there also types of pain for which you seem to have a high tolerance?
  3. Do you know people whose primary mode of living seems to be “avoid all pain at all cost”?
  4. Have you ever chosen a life course that you knew was going to upset people and even make your life more difficult, if you chose one way of acting over another? What was that time of decision-making like for you? How did that decision affect how you think about yourself today?
  5. Have you ever acted as though not talking about or not thinking about some dire consequences would prevent them from happening?
  6. Have you ever acted out a hope that good and loving God-fearing will lead to a tranquil and well-ordered life?
  7. What do you think Peter was feeling as this situation unfolded?
  8. What do you think would have happened if Peter had said in response: “How else do you expect me to think? I am human, only human, and will always be human. I am frustrated when you expect me to think like anything other than a human!”
  9. Do you ever find yourself believing that God may be upset with you?
  10. Can you take some time to talk to God about how God looks upon you and your efforts to be in an honest and faithful relationship, or anything else that rises within you from this text?

 

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Christ’s Charge to St. Peter (cartoon for the Sistine Chapel)
Raphael, Date: 1515

August 27, 2017
Matthew 16:13-20

Background:

The gospel from last week described Jesus’ travel to the pagan region of Tyre and Sidon and his encounter with a Canaanite woman there. After that encounter, Matthew reports that Jesus returned to the Jewish region and the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Great numbers of people follow him into the mountains, where he cures the lame, the blind, and others. After the crowd has been with them for three days, Jesus once again tells the disciples to give them something to eat. They have only seven loaves and a few fish. Jesus has the crowd recline on the grass, and he blesses the bread and has the disciples once again distribute it to the crowd, and then he has them collect what is left. This time seven baskets full of leftovers are collected. The crowd having been dismissed, Jesus and the disciples get into a boat and make their way to the district of Magadan where he encounters Pharisees and Sadducees who ask him to produce a sign from heaven. Jesus leaves them without responding to their request. When they get to the other side of the sea, Jesus tells the disciples to be aware of the leaven of the Sadducees and Pharisees. Because the disciples have forgotten to bring bread for the trip, they presume Jesus is talking about the leaven for bread. Jesus means the leaven of the Sadducees and Pharisees’ teaching. All this leads to the Gospel text for this week.

Like this week’s text from Matthew, Mark’s gospel also recounts an occasion when Jesus asks the same questions that are posed here. (Mark 8:27-29) In Mark’s account, Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, but not that he is the “Son of the Living God.” Also in Mark, Jesus does not comment on Peter’s profession of faith, but he tells the disciples not to speak to others of what they have heard. Then Jesus speaks to them for the first time of his passion and death. Peter, hearing this for the first time, responds by taking Jesus aside and voicing some objection to what Jesus is saying. Jesus replies by telling Peter to “Get behind me Satan, you are not thinking as God does, but as human beings do.” (Mark 8:33b) Mark’s account is powerful, but the reader will benefit from keeping the two accounts separate. Matthew’s account presents its own insight into Jesus’ ministry and its own invitation for our response.

As the reader reflects on this gospel, it will be helpful to be aware that people from Mediterranean cultures have a very different sense of themselves than most westerners. They are “other”-orientated to the extent that they may not have a sense of who they are apart from their family or clan. From this perspective, Jesus is not quizzing his disciples to see if they know his true identity, but he is really trying to sort out for himself who he is. There are other passages in the gospels where the importance of this group identity surfaces.  Jesus’ opponents write him off as being from Nazareth. They operate under the presumption that to know his family and where he comes from is sufficient to know the individual. Jesus too, as person of his day, would be working out of the same mindset. From his perspective, his question is a natural part of his search to understand who he is.

 

Reflection Questions:

  1. Are you a person who values your independence?
  2. Have you ever had to go against the wishes of family or friends to pursue your goals?
  3. Has there been a period when you were searching for direction or even discovered you were not happy with the direction your life was heading?
  4. When you hear Jesus ask the disciples who people are saying that he is, how do you relate to that question? What feelings does that question invoke in you?
  5. If Jesus asked you who you say that he is, how would you respond?
  6. What do you think Peter felt when he heard Jesus say: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”?
  7. Can you ask Jesus who he says you are? How do you hear Jesus responding?
  8. Can you talk with Jesus about his response?

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time

August 20, 2017
Matthew 15:21-28

Background:

Last’s week’s gospel ended with the disciples giving Jesus homage. They had witnessed Jesus walking on water, rescuing Peter from the raging sea, and finally calming the chaos of the mighty winds. When their boat finally landed at Gennesaret, the people recognized Jesus and they brought the sick for him to cure. The Pharisees and Scribes from Jerusalem questioned Jesus as to why his disciples did not respect the tradition of washing before meals. Jesus responded by questioning their breaking of the commands of God by excusing someone from the obligation to care for a parent if they would declare that the money needed was instead dedicated to God. Jesus quotes the great prophet Isaiah to support his case. Then Jesus publicly humiliates them by turning his attention to the crowd that had gathered and offering them an instruction about what it is that really defiles a person. His instruction is only one verse, “It is not what enters one’s mouth that defiles that person; but what comes out of the mouth is what defiles one.” (Matthew 15:11) The disciples approach Jesus to make him aware that he has offended the Pharisees and Scribes. Jesus disregards their concerns and continues calling them blind guides, and he goes on to explain his teaching on what it is that really defiles a person.

It is with that instruction on what truly defiles a person that Matthew begins his account of Jesus’ entrance to the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon, and then he has the encounter with the Canaanite woman that is the gospel text for this week.

Mark also recounts Jesus’ traveling to this region and his encounter with this woman. (Mark 7:24-30) In Mark’s account of the encounter, the woman is described as Syro-Phoenician, not a Canaanite. Mark’s account omits part of the dialogue that Matthew has included in verses 22-24. Mark does not include Jesus’ praise for the woman’s faith that Matthew includes in verse 28. But Mark includes a statement from Jesus that the children of Israel must be fed first. The difference in their accounts is that Mark adds to his account that the woman went home and found that her daughter had been healed. Scholars believe that Matthew had access to Mark’s gospel, and some believe he also had access to another older account as well.

If we focus on Matthew’s text, the first verse indicates that Jesus entered the pagan territory of Tyre and Sidon without any indication that he was compelled to do so. His actions are a contradiction of his own instruction to the disciples when he sent them on their mission to the lost sheep of Israel. “Do not go into pagan territory or enter a Samaritan town.” (Matthew 10:5b) The understanding of the day viewed the border between Jewish and Gentile territory as being set by God, to separate God’s holy land, given to the people of Israel, from the pagan territory. The woman that Jesus encounters is described as a Canaanite. This description was rarely used at this point in history. It recalls the tribes that were occupying the land before the Jews gained control of the area. The Canaanites were one of the primary enemies of the Israelites. Besides being a pagan and one of the most hated enemies of God’s people, she was also an unescorted woman in a strictly gender divided society. All of these factors make Jesus’ contact with her a threat to his honor.

Jesus breaks with what was traditionally understood as sacred norms of behavior, enters the pagan lands, and encounters this mother whose daughter is possessed by a demon. She calls him “Son of David,” and asks that Jesus have pity and mercy on her. The request for mercy is a request to honor a debt that is owed. By calling Jesus “Son of David,” she is placing him in the line of King David and asking him to act according to David’s reputation of being a compassionate ruler. Even when she is ignored and insulted she continues to treat Jesus with respect and honor. Matthew does not tell us what is motivating the woman, but she seems to touch Jesus in a way that leads him to both cure the daughter and remark about the faith of the woman. There is no indication in the text that Jesus had gone there with the intention of extending the blessings of God’s healing to non-Jews. The opening part of the dialogue seems to indicate that he had no intention of doing so. Yet that is what happened.

Matthew’s account places more focus on the woman and the fact that she was a Canaanite, among the enemies of Israel, outside the covenant of Israel. As such, Jesus’ interaction with her is breaching serious boundaries. The catalyst for this encounter was the faith of this woman. “O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” What had been a barrier between Jesus and this woman has become the bridge connecting them.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Do you recall an experience when you were called a name?
  2. Have you ever been the object of discrimination?
  3. Have you ever felt pressure to act with discrimination towards another?
  4. Why would Jesus even go into the region of Tyre and Sidon and risk such an encounter?
  5. Can you envision this scene as it unfolds? Where does it take place? Who is in the crowd? What is the mood of the crowd, of the disciples, of the woman, and of Jesus as the scene unfolds? What is your mood as the scene unfolds?
  6. What are some of the reasons that would justify Jesus’ initial response to this woman? Have you ever been asked to send away someone who was in need?
  7. What is it that connects Jesus and this woman?
  8. Have you ever felt like you were being ignored or sent away by God?
  9. Why would Matthew include this encounter in his gospel?
  10. How is God speaking to you in this text? How will you respond?

 

 

The reflection and questions are written by Fr. Paul Gallagher, OFM.
They are edited by Sister Anne Marie Lom, OSF and Joe Thiel.