This Sunday's Gospel

Exegetical notes and homily themes to get you started this weekend:

2/16/20 – Sunday 6 / Epiphany 6
2/23/20 – Sunday 7 [ROMAN lectionary]
2/23/20 – Last Sunday after Epiphany [COMMON lectionary]

2/26/20 – Ash Wednesday
3/1/20 – Lent 1
3/8/20 – Lent 2 (Roman lectionary)
3/8/20 – Lent 2 (Common lectionary)
3/15/20 – Lent 3
3/22/20 – Lent 4
3/29/20 – Lent 5
4/5/20 – Passion (Palm) Sunday


February 16 – Sixth Sunday of the Year [A] / Sixth Sunday after Epiphany [A]

“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets.  Amen, I say to you, I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place . . .
“You have heard it said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother is liable to judgment . . . ”
“ . . . if you bring your gift to the altar and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”
Matthew 5: 17-37

THE WORD:

Today’s Gospel is the first indication of trouble between Jesus and the leaders of the Jews.  The role of the scribes evolved from that of recorders and codifiers of the Torah into that of interpreters of the specific rules and regulations of the Torah.  The Pharisees, the “separated brethren,” removed themselves from everyday activity in order to keep the Law assiduously, thereby serving as a model to the Jewish people who held them in great esteem.
  
While the scribes and Pharisees were extreme legalists in their interpretation of the Law, Jesus is the ultimate supra-legalist.  He takes their legalities a step further: The Spirit of God, which gives life and meaning to the Law, transcends the letter of the Law.  Jesus preaches that we cannot be satisfied with merely avoiding the act of murder but must also curb the insults and anger that lead to murder; we cannot be satisfied with justifying separation and estrangement but must actively seek reconciliation and forgiveness; we cannot be satisfied with just fulfilling contracts in order to avoid being sued but must seek to become honest and trustworthy persons in all our dealings.  Jesus comes to teach an approach to life that is motivated neither by edict nor fear but by the recognition and celebration of the humanity we share with all men and women.
  
For Jesus, the human heart is decisive.  It is the “new” Law's emphasis on the attitude of the heart that perfects and fulfills the principles and rituals of the "old."

HOMILY POINTS:

By our compassion and caring for others, by our ethical and moral convictions, by our sense of awareness and gratitude for all that God has done for us, we do the great work of passing on the Gospel of reconciliation and justice – and God is with us as we struggle to figure out and explain the complexities and struggles of life for the benefit of ourselves and our children and those who overwhelmed by it all who come to us for help.
     
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of “fulfilling” the Law — not abolishing it.  Jesus seeks to restore the spirit of mercy, justice and reconciliation that gives meaning and direction to every just legal code, challenging us to look beyond legalisms and social and cultural yardsticks — and our own narrow interests — to recognize people in need and our responsibility as followers of Jesus to seek them out, to advocate for them, to welcome them.  

Faith begins in the heart, Jesus says.  What we say, what we do, what we decide, are all responses to the God who speaks to us in the depths of our hearts, the God in whose image and likeness we have been created.   Christ speaks not of rules and regulations but the much deeper and profound values of the human heart. 

The truth is not contained in laws, oaths, statistics or rituals but in the Spirit of God that prompts us to make the decisions we make, the wisdom that leads us to the enactment of just laws and the celebrations of rituals that meaningfully remember and celebrate God's great love for us. 

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus asks us to consider the weight and meaning of what we say – and to realize the chasm that often exists between our words and our actions.   

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February 23 – Seventh Sunday of the Year [A]

“But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.”
Matthew 5: 38-48

THE WORD:

In Jewish law, the accepted understanding of retaliation – “an eye for the eye” – was intended to restrict vengeance and to keep violence within limits.  But Jesus teaches his Jewish hearers to respond to injustice with the “perfect” righteousness of God.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus points to three offenses that might seem relatively minor to us — but not to the poor of the Gospel.

First, there is the slap on the cheek.  In Gospel times, a superior could slap a worker or slave with the back of his right hand.  Such a slap meant to insult and humiliate, not injure.  But by turning your cheek when struck, you force the one striking you to hit you with an open hand, thus making him face you as an equal.  Such a “turning” of the cheek robs the aggressor of the power to humiliate and, in effect, shames the aggressor.

Then there is suing over your coat.  In Jewish culture, nakedness was considered a grave humiliation — for the one who was responsible for another’s nakedness.  Near Eastern hospitality demanded that no person ever be so shamed.  So if someone makes an unreasonable demand for your tunic, Jesus says, give them your coat as well.  Give them everything so that they might realize the injustice of their avarice and greed.

And finally, there is going the extra mile.  A Roman soldier could compel anyone to carry his equipment for one mile, and no more.  Going a second mile puts the Roman soldier in a difficult position: he could be severely punished by his superiors for abusing his authority.  By going the second mile on your own volition, Jesus teaches, you’re making the hated Roman treat you as an equal.  You’re saying, “You can compel my obedience but not my gift.”

What Jesus is asking his hearers in today’s Gospel is to respond to injustice and cruelty not with aggression but with humble dignity and self-respect.  To act with the righteousness of God is to break the cycle of violence and fear by initiating a new cycle of generosity and justice.

In the second half of today’s Gospel, Jesus continues to take the Law beyond the boundaries, parameters and measurements of the official interpreters. 
   
Of course, nowhere in the New Testament does phrase “hate your enemy” appear – the concept of “enemy” was an assumption on the part of the scribes and Pharisees, who defined an enemy as anyone not a Jew.  But Jesus challenges that assumption:  God’s love unites all men and women, on whom the Father's “sun rises and sets as well.”  However justified retaliation might appear to be, Jesus calls us to seek reconciliation instead of vengeance.

In the Greek text of Matthew’s Gospel, the word used in today’s text for love is agape.  The word indicates not a romantic or emotional kind of love we have for the special ones in our lives but, rather, a state of benevolence and good will.  The agape that Jesus asks us to have for our “enemies” means that no matter how much he/she hurts us, we will never let bitterness close our hearts to that person nor will we seek anything but good for that “enemy.”  Agape is to recognize the humanity we share with all people who call God “Father” – and it begins within our own households and communities.  

HOMILY POINTS:

In every tense confrontation and unreasonable expectation and to every undeserved cry for help, Jesus asks us to respond with the compassion and mercy of God, to act with the conviction that we can break such cycles of irresponsibility and selfishness, that we can heal another’s brokenness, that we can bring back the lost and marginalized by seeking to re-create such situations in the “perfect” love of God.  

Despite the violence done to us, regardless of the injustice we have suffered, Jesus asks his disciples to take that first, difficult, awkward step to forgive.  Our first concern, as Jesus’ followers, must be God’s work of reconciliation: to love the unlovable, to reach out to the alienated, to dismantle whatever walls divide and isolate people and build bridges that bring people together. 

The real challenge of Jesus’ teachings on loving one’s enemies is not “loving” some group designated by a label based on politics, sociology or economics or “loving” some remote “sinner” we will never have anything to do with; the challenge of today’s Gospel is to love the people we live with and work with and go to school with, the people we struggle with, the people who annoy us (and whom we annoy).

 “To love our enemies” is not just to declare a cease-fire but to create and maintain an atmosphere where reconciliation is always possible and actively sought.  The Jesus of the Gospel instills within us a vision that sees beyond stereotypes, politics and appearances and recognizes and honors the goodness possessed by every human being. 

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February 23 – Seventh and Last Sunday of after Epiphany [A] 

Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
Matthew 17: 1-
9

THE WORD:

On this Sunday before the beginning of Lent, we hear Matthew’s account of the extraordinary transformation of Jesus that Peter, James and John witness on Mount Tabor.

Matthew’s account of the “transfiguration” (which takes place six days after his first prediction of his passion and his first instructions on the call to discipleship) is filled with images from the First Testament: the voice which repeats Isaiah’s “Servant” proclamation, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the dazzling white garments of Jesus.  Matthew’s primary interest is the disciples’ reaction to the event: their awe at this spectacular vision will soon wither into fear at the deeper meaning of the transfiguration -- a meaning that they do not yet grasp.  As the disciples will later understand, the transfiguration is a powerful sign that the events ahead of them in Jerusalem are indeed the Father's will.

HOMILY POINTS:

The use of the Greek word “transfiguration” indicates that what the disciples saw in Jesus on Mount Tabor was a divinity that shone from within him.  This coming Lenten season (which begins on Wednesday) is a time for each of us to experience such a “transfiguration” within ourselves – that the life of God within us may shine forth in lives dedicated to compassion, justice and reconciliation.

Peter's reaction to the Christ of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with his reaction to the Christ of Good Friday:  While totally taken with the transfigured Christ in today’s Gospel, Peter is afraid to even acknowledge knowing the condemned Christ.  Lent calls us to descend Mount Tabor with Jesus and journey with him to Jerusalem and take up our cross with him, so that the divinity we see in the transfigured Jesus may become in us the Easter life of the Risen Christ.

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February 26 – Ash Wednesday [ABC]

“Your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”
Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18
Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart . . .
Joel 2: 12-18
We implore you, in Christ’s name, be reconciled to God.
2 Corinthians 5: 20 - 6:2

THE WORD:

The readings for this first day of the Lenten journey to Easter call us to turn.

In Hebrew, the word for repentance is to turn, like the turning of the earth to the sun at this time of year, like the turning of soil before spring planting.  The Lenten journey that begins on this Ash Wednesday calls us to repentance – to turn away from those things that separate us from God and re-turn to the Lord.

In today’s Gospel, from his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus instructs his listeners on the Christian attitude and disposition toward prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  Such acts are meaningful only if they are outward manifestations of the essential turningthat has taken place within our hearts.

Around 400 B.C., a terrible invasion of locusts ravaged Judah.  The prophet Joel saw this catastrophe as a symbol of the coming “Day of the Lord.”   The prophet summoned the people to repent, to turn to the Lord with fasting, prayer and works of charity.

In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul alternates between anger and compassion, between frustration and affection in defending his authority and mandate as an apostle in the face of attack by some members of the Corinthian community.  In today’s second reading, the apostle appeals for reconciliation among the members of the community, for a re-turn to the one faith shared by the entire Church.

HOMILY POINTS:

As the earth will “turn” toward the sun in the weeks ahead transforming the dark and cold of winter into the light and warmth of spring, so these ashes mark the beginning of a Lenten transformation of our souls and spirits.

The Spirit who called Jesus to the wilderness calls us, as well, to a forty-day “desert experience,” a time to peacefully and quietly renew and re-create our relationship with God, that he might become the center of our lives in every season.

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March 1 – First Sunday of Lent [A]

Jesus was led by the Spirit in the desert to be tempted by the devil.
Matthew 4: 1-11

THE WORD:

In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ 40-day desert experience, Jesus is confronted with several choices.  All of the tempter’s offers would have Jesus sin against the great commandment of Deuteronomy:  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”  (Deuteronomy 6: 5)  The tempter offers comfort, wealth and power, but Jesus chooses, instead, the course of humble and prayerful servanthood that the Father has chosen for him.  All of Jesus’ responses to the devil’s challenges are found in Deuteronomy (8: 3, 6: 16, 6: 13).

HOMILY POINTS:

The Spirit who called Jesus to the wilderness calls us, as well, to a forty-day “desert experience,” a time to peacefully and quietly renew and re-create our relationship with God, that God might become the center of our lives in every season.

This First Sunday of Lent confronts us with choices: personal profit, comfort and glory or the life of God.  The season of Lent calls us to embrace God’s Spirit of truth that we may make the choices demanded by our complicated and complex world with courage, insight and faith.

Lent is the season for meaningful fasting: fasting not just for the sake “of giving something up” but fasting from whatever derails or hampers our relationship with God and alienates us from others, fasting from everyday distractions in order to put our time and energy into the things of God.

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March 8 – Second Sunday of Lent [A]

ROMAN LECTIONARY:
Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.
Matthew 17: 1-9

THE WORD:

In today’s Gospel, Peter, James and John witness the extraordinary transformation of Jesus that we know as the “transfiguration.”  Matthew’s account (which takes place six days after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and his first instructions on the call to discipleship) is filled with images from the First Testament: the voice which repeats Isaiah’s “Servant” proclamation, the appearance of Moses and Elijah, the dazzling white garments of Jesus.  Matthew’s primary interest is the disciple’s reaction to the event: their awe at this spectacular vision will soon wither into fear at the deeper meaning of the transfiguration: a meaning that they do not yet grasp.  As the disciples will later understand, the transfiguration is a powerful sign that the events ahead of them in Jerusalem are indeed the Father’s will.

HOMILY POINTS:

To experience transfiguration is to realize that there exists within each of us the “divinity,” the love of God, that enables us to transform our lives and the lives of those we love.  It is exactly that love — that “divinity” — that Peter, James and John behold in Jesus on the mount of the Transfiguration.  The power of that sacred presence shines through us, as well, even when we do not notice it or are unaware that God’s love is in our midst. 

Peter’s reaction to the Christ of the Transfiguration contrasts sharply with his reaction to the Christ of Good Friday:  While totally taken with the transfigured Christ in today’s Gospel, Peter will be too afraid to even acknowledge knowing the condemned Christ on Good Friday morning.  Lent calls us to descend Mount Tabor with Jesus and journey with him to Jerusalem to take up our cross with him, so that the divinity we see in the transfigured Jesus may become in us the Easter life of the Risen Christ.

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March 8 – Second Sunday of Lent [A]

COMMON LECTIONARY:
Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus:  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
John 3: 1-17

THE WORD:

The Pharisee and teacher Nicodemus comes to Jesus in the middle of the night (in John’s Gospel, night/darkness symbolizes the lack of faith/light).  A man of learning, Nicodemus is one of the Jewish elites who were favorably disposed toward Jesus but were struggling to grasp the full meaning of his teachings.  For the writer of the Fourth Gospel, Nicodemus represents exactly the kind of timid disciple the evangelist seeks to persuade to come forward and openly profess his/her faith in Jesus as the Christ.

In their exchange, Jesus explains that the kingdom of God he proclaims transcends time and place, that God’s reign is a state of being: to enter the realm of God demands an interior transformation in the Spirit.  Invocating the image of Moses’ staff of a bronze serpent raised to save the Israelites from the bite of poisonous snakes (Numbers 21:9), Jesus foretells his own crucifixion, when he will be “lifted up” for the glory of God and the salvation of humankind.  And, in one of the most famous verses in John’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of a God who is motivated by love so great that the Father has given the world his own Son not to condemn but to save.

HOMILY POINTS:

Despite our own life’s experience, wealth and status, we are incomplete and lost until we are “reborn in water and the Spirit”: to be immersed in the Gospel principles of justice and reconciliation, to be transformed in God's spirit of humility and compassion.

To be “born in the Spirit” is to see things with the eyes of God, to honor what God honors, to love as God loves us.  The kingdom of God that Jesus speaks of in the Gospel transcends boundaries and labels, stereotypes and traditions, the color of flags and the color of skin.  In God’s eyes, we are all his children; in God's heart, we are all brothers and sisters to one another.

While we tend to see God as the great cosmic Ruler, a mysterious Being totally detached from us and removed from the human experience, Jesus reveals God as a loving Father who created us and our world out of love and seeks to restore his beloved creation through an even greater act of love: God’s becoming human himself in order that his beloved humanity might realize God’s dream of becoming holy and sacred.

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March 15 – Third Sunday of Lent

Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well:
“ . . . whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst, a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
Many of the Samaritans of that town began to believe in him because of the word of the woman who testified, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have done.  Could he possibly be the Christ?”
John 4: 5-42

THE WORD:

Jesus’ meeting the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well illustrates the principal role of Jesus as the Messiah: to reconcile all men and women to the Father.  As a Samaritan, the woman is considered an outcast by the Jews; as a known adulteress, she is scorned by her own village.  With kindness and dignity, Jesus reconciles her to God.

This Gospel has long had a special place in baptismal catechesis:  In revealing himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman, Jesus speaks to her of the fountain of water he will give -- the life-giving waters of baptism.  From Jacob’s well springs forth the living waters of the Messiah Christ.

The Samaritan woman is, for the evangelist John, a model of a disciple’s experience of faith:  In a personal encounter with Jesus, she confronts her own sinfulness and need for forgiveness; she then comes to realize the depth of God’s love for her; reconciled with God, her life is transformed; she is then sent forth to share with others her “faith story” of what she has seen and heard of this Jesus.

HOMILY POINTS:

Water is the predominant symbol in today’s readings:  As water sustains life and cleans away the grime and filth that can diminish and destroy life, in the waters of baptism, the sins that alienate us from God are washed away and we are reborn in the Spirit of compassion and community.

All of us who have encountered Jesus are called to be reconcilers, not judges; we are called to lift people up, not drive them to their knees.  In so many ordinary ways we can help one another realize new life and hope in Christ if we are willing to tear down the walls that divide us, to reach over the distances between us, to build bridges over chasms of mistrust and prejudice. 

Easter transformation begins with a recognition of our sins and failings.  As Jesus confronts the woman at the well with the reality of her own sinfulness and brokenness, we must confront our own sinfulness and, in doing so, realize our need for God.  Sin is a reality in the lives of each one of us; but through Christ, forgiveness, reconciliation and rebirth, are just as real and possible.

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March 22 – Fourth Sunday of Lent [A]

The healing of the man born blind:
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
“Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him . . .
“I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do not see might become blind.”
John 9: 1-41

THE WORD:

In his accounts of Jesus’ “signs,” the writer of the Fourth Gospel displays great skills as a dramatist.  His story of the healing of the man born blind is really a play with six scenes: the blind beggar’s healing with the mud Jesus mixes on the Sabbath; the townsfolk’s reaction to his cure; the beggar’s testimony before the Pharisees; the testimony of the blind man’s parents; the beggar’s second appearance before the Pharisees (resulting in his expulsion); the beggar’s return to Jesus.

While his synoptic counterparts recount Jesus’ miracles as manifestations of his great love and compassion, John “stages” Jesus’ miracle to reveal the deeper meanings of Jesus’ mission of redemption as the Messiah.  The healing of the blind beggar heightens the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees.  The teaching of this itinerant Rabbi threatens the structured and exalted life of the scribes and Pharisees.  They seek to discredit Jesus – and this miracle gives them the opportunity.  In using spittle, kneading clay and rubbing it on the man’s eyes, Jesus breaks the strict rules prohibiting any kind of manual labor on the Sabbath.  The miracle itself becomes secondary; the issue becomes Jesus’ breaking of the Sabbath.  Jesus’ teachings and healings so threaten the comfortably ordered lives of the Jewish leaders that they seek some way to discredit what he has done, so they condemn Jesus’ mixing of the mud as a clear violation of the Jewish prohibition of any kind of work on the Sabbath. 

The inquisition of the blind man and his parents and his expulsion from the temple are important parts of Jesus’ story for the evangelist and his readers.  John and his community of Jewish-Christians are experiencing the same rejection: many of them have been expelled from their synagogues and the temple for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah

HOMILY POINTS:

Our faith, our embracing of the Spirit of God, demands that we see things not with the eyes of practicality, self-interest and profitability alone, but with the eyes of Christ’s selflessness and humility: to see beyond appearances and superficialities and look deeper to discover the timeless and profound truths of the human heart.  To see the world in the light of Christ empowers us to re-create our world, to shatter the darkness of injustice and hate with the light of justice and compassion.

Jesus says that the man he heals was born blind “so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”  In his blindness, the man’s healing becomes the manifestation of God’s goodness and grace for his family and neighbors.  Christ calls all of us to such an understanding of faith: that the moments of greatest hurt and difficulty in our lives — the crosses laid upon our shoulders — can become manifestations of God’s grace through understanding compassion, and patient forgiveness.

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March 29 – Fifth Sunday of Lent [A]

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!”  The dead man came out, tied hand and food with burial bands, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  “Untie him and let him go.”
John 11: 1-45
                                                 

THE WORD:

As was the case in John’s account of the healing of the man born blind (last Sunday’s Gospel), the raising of Lazarus is more than just a sign of Jesus’ love and compassion.  Each of the seven miracles that John includes in his Gospel (“the Book of Signs,” as this section of John’s Gospel is titled) is dramatized by the evangelist to underscore some dimension of the redemptive nature of Jesus’ work.  Today’s Gospel, the climactic sign in John’s Gospel, is presented in five distinct, self-contained scenes: Jesus receiving the news of Lazarus’ death, the disciples’ protesting Jesus’ return to Judea, Martha’s pleading with Jesus, Jesus’ emotional arrival at the tomb, and the miraculous raising of Lazarus.

The raising of Lazarus is clearly intended by John to demonstrate Jesus’ power over life and death.  The raising of Lazarus plays like a rehearsal for the events next week’s liturgies will celebrate.

HOMILY THEMES:

As Jesus called out to Lazarus to be untied from the wrappings of the dead and to be free to live once again, so we are called to be free from those things that keep us too busy from loving and being loved.

Resurrection is an attitude, a perspective that finds hope in the hardest times and uncovers life among the ruined, that reveals light in the darkest night.  To each one of us belongs Jesus’ work of resurrection at Lazarus’s tomb: to help others free themselves from their tombs of dark hopelessness and the fear and sadness that bind them. 

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April 5 – Sunday of the Lord’s Passion: Palm Sunday [A]

THE WORD:

Blessing and Procession of Palms:  Matthew 28: 1-11

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into the city of Jerusalem is framed by the prophecy of Zechariah (9: 9).  The Messiah will come, not as a conquering warrior astride a noble steed, but in lowliness and peace, riding on an ass.  The Messiah-king is one with God’s just: the poor and lowly of the world.  Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem in such a public and deeply symbolic way (which is followed immediately in Matthew's text by the routing of the money changers from the temple) sets up the final confrontation between Jesus and the chief priests and scribes.

The Passion:  Matthew 26: 14 - 27: 66   

While the Blessing and Procession of Palms commemorates Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the Liturgy of the Word focuses on the passion and death of the Messiah.  In his Passion narrative, Matthew frames his account in the context of the First Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah.  Matthew portrays a Jesus who is totally alone, abandoned by everyone, but who is finally vindicated by God (the portrait of the Messiah depicted in Isaiah and Psalm 22).

Scripture scholars believe that Matthew (and Luke) adapted their material from the evangelist Mark, whose Gospel is generally believed to be the first to be written.  Almost 80 percent of Matthew’s Passion account is identical in vocabulary and content with Mark.  Matthew, however, adds several details not found in Mark’s Gospel, including the death of Judas, Pilate’s washing his hands of responsibility for Jesus’ death, Pilate’s wife’s dream (in Matthew’s Gospel, divine guidance is often revealed in dreams – Joseph’s dream to take the child and his mother to Egypt, the magi’s dream to flee Bethlehem), the posting of guards at the tomb after Jesus’ burial.

Matthew is writing his Gospel for Jewish Christians who themselves have suffered at the hands of the Jewish establishment.  Many have been expelled from their synagogues and the temple for their insistent belief in Jesus as the Messiah.  Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin (the most controversial aspect of the Passion narratives historically) is pivotal in Matthew.  Matthew is the only Gospel writer who names Caiaphas as high priest during the proceedings and describes in great detail the chief priests’ manipulation of Pilate and the crowds.  Matthew presents to his Jewish Christian community Jesus as a model of suffering at the hands of the Jews (it is Matthew’s Passion account that includes the troubling line spoken by the crowds, “Let his blood be upon us and our children”).  The tearing of the sanctuary veil symbolizes for Matthew's community a break with their Jewish past.

As is the case throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Gentiles and not the people of Israel first recognize the truth about Jesus: only Pilate and his wife recognize the innocence of the condemned Jesus.

Reading 1:  Isaiah 50: 4-7

Reading 1 is taken from Deutero-Isaiah's “Servant songs,” the prophet's foretelling of the “servant of God” who will come to redeem Israel.  In this third song, Isaiah portrays the servant as a devoted teacher of God's Word who is ridiculed and abused by those who are threatened by his teaching.

Reading 2:  Philippians 2: 6-11

In his letter to the Christian community at Philippi (in northeastern Greece), Paul quotes what many scholars believe is an early Christian hymn (Reading 2).  As Christ totally and unselfishly “emptied himself” to accept crucifixion for our sakes, so we must “empty” ourselves for others.

HOMILY POINTS:

There is a certain incongruity about today’s Palm Sunday liturgy.  We begin with a sense of celebration:  we carry palm branches and echo the Hosannas (from the Hebrew “God save [us]”) shouted by the people of Jerusalem as Jesus enters the city.  But Matthew’s account of the Passion confronts us with the cruelty, injustice and selfishness that lead to the crucifixion of Jesus.  We welcome the Christ of victory, the Christ of Palm Sunday – but we turn away from the Christ of suffering and of the poor, the Christ of Good Friday.  These branches of palm are symbols of that incongruity that often exists between the faith we profess on our lips and the faith we profess in our lives.

The Gospel calls us to take on what Paul calls the “attitude of Christ Jesus” (Reading 1) in his passion and death: to “empty” ourselves of our own interests, fears and needs for the sake of others; to realize how our actions affect them and how our moral and ethical decisions impact the common good; to reach out to heal the hurt and comfort the despairing around us despite our own betrayal; to carry on, with joy and in hope, despite rejection, humiliation and suffering. 

Matthew portrays a Jesus who has been totally abandoned by his disciples and friends.  There is no one to defend him, to support him, to speak for him.  He endures such a cruel and unjust death alone.  Yet, amid the darkness, a light glimmers:  The prophecy of a new temple “not made by human hands” is fulfilled in the shreds of the temple curtain; a pagan centurion confesses his new-found realization that this crucified Jesus is indeed the “Son of God”; and a member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, is embolden to break with his fellow councilors and request of Pilate the body of Jesus.  The Passion of Jesus should be a reason for hope and a moment of grace for all us as we seek the reign of God in our own lives – however lonely and painful our search may be.

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