This Sunday's Gospel

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

9/3/2017 – Sunday 22 / Pentecost 13
9/10/2017 – Sunday 23 / Pentecost 14 
9/17/2014 – Sunday 24 / Pentecost 15
9/24/2014 – Sunday 25 / Pentecost 16

10/1/2017 – Sunday 26 / Pentecost 17
10/8/2014 – Sunday 27 / Pentecost 18
10/15/2014 – Sunday 28 / Pentecost 19
10/22/2014 – Sunday 29 / Pentecost 20
10/29/2014 – Sunday 30 / Pentecost 21


September 3 – 22nd Sunday of the Year A / 13th Sunday after Pentecost A  [PROPER 17]

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Matthew 16: 21-27

THE WORD:

Peter’s confession of faith (last Sunday’s Gospel) begins a new phase of Matthew’s Gospel.  As he makes his way to Jerusalem, Jesus’ teachings will now be addressed primarily to his disciples on the events and work that awaits them in Jerusalem – and beyond.

The hostility between Jesus and the leaders of Judaism is about to reach the crisis stage.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus proclaims unambiguously that his mission as the Messiah includes suffering and death.  Peter is sharply rebuked by Jesus for his seemingly innocent remark that Jesus should be spared such a fate, but Jesus sees Peter’s refusal to accept such a possibility as a “satanic” attempt to deflect the Messiah from his mission of redemption.  To avoid suffering and hardship in order to opt for the easy and safe course is purely human thinking, an obstacle to experiencing the life of the Spirit. Authentic discipleship involves taking on the cross and “denying oneself” – disowning ourselves as the center of our existence and realizing that God is the object and purpose of our lives.
                          
HOMILY POINTS:

Jesus asks his disciples to detach from the ephemeral and shallow in order to attach to the lasting, fulfilling things of God: compassion, reconciliation, justice. 

The cross that Jesus asks his followers to take up is not a cross that cedes to crucifixion but a cross that is the means to resurrection.  In embracing Jesus’ spirit of humble servanthood and compassion, we take up his cross, not out of a sense of self-loathing or pessimism, but out of a sense of conviction and hope that the demands of the cross will result in the life and love of the Easter promise.

Christ urges us to “lose” that part of our life that is centered in ephemeral, perishable things so that we may “gain” lives grounded in the love of God: to lose our anger, our disappointment, our need for control in order to find meaning and purpose in doing for others and contributing to the common good.  In “dying” to ourselves we become something greater; in letting go of the temporary and the fleeting we become richer; in the suffering we endure we become stronger, in the failures we experience we become wiser.  

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September 10 – 23rd Sunday of the Year A / 14th Sunday after Pentecost A  [PROPER 18]

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone . . . If he does not listen, take two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church . . .
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
Matthew 18: 15-20

THE WORD:

Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel is a collection of Jesus’ sayings on the practical challenges facing the Christian community, including status-seeking, scandal, division and, the topic of today's reading, conflict.

Today’s Gospel reading sounds more like regulations devised by an ecclesiastical committee than a discourse by Jesus (this chapter has been called the “church-order discourse” of Jesus). But the real point of Jesus’ exhortation is that we must never tolerate any breech of personal relationship between us and another member of the Christian community.  At each stage of the process – personal discussion, discussion before witnesses, discussion before the whole community – the goal is to win the erring Christian back to the community (the three-step process of reconciliation outlined by Jesus here corresponds to the procedure of the Qumran community).

Jesus’ exhortation closes with a promise of God's presence in the midst of every community, regardless of size, bound together by faith.

HOMILY POINTS:

Today’s Gospel outlines a process of reconciliation among divided members of a community.  Jesus calls his hearers to seek honesty and sincerity in all relationships, to put aside self-interest, anger and wounded pride, and take the first step in healing the rifts that destroy the sense of love that binds family and friends, church and community – the love of Christ is the "debt" that binds us to one another.

In the “rules” and “procedures” for bringing sinners back to the community he lays out in today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to build communities that are inclusive, not exclusive: to bring the lost back, not out of pride or zealousness, but out of “the debt that binds us to love one another.”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks of the “church” — not the institutional capital ‘C’ Church, but the lower-case ‘c’ church that is you and I, human beings who struggle to follow Jesus.  That is the important lesson of today’s Gospel: the ability of individuals who come together as disciples, inspired by the Gospel Jesus, to accomplish great works of compassion, reconciliation, healing and justice. 

Today’s exhortation by Jesus is designed to help us create and maintain households of love and forgiveness and communities of reconciliation and peace, where even the smallest and youngest and least able to contribute are as welcomed and honored as we would welcome and honor Christ himself.  Christ promises that whenever we gather in his name, he is in our midst.  Sometimes it requires an extra sharp and focused vision of faith to realize and recognize Christ with us, but he is always there.  Christ’s presence should move us, inspire us, transform us into a community of disciples and witnesses of his resurrection.    

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September 17 – 24th Sunday of the Year A / 14th Sunday after Pentecost A  [PROPER 19]

The parable of the unforgiving debtor:
“’Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?’
“So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives one another from your heart.”
Matthew 18: 21-35

THE WORD:

The cutting edge of Jesus’ teaching on love is that nothing is unforgivable nor should there be limits to forgiveness. 

It is ironic that Peter should ask the question about forgiveness that introduces the parable of the merciless steward, since Peter himself will be so generously forgiven by Jesus for his denial of Jesus on Good Friday.  It was common rabbinical teaching that one must forgive another three times; the fourth time, the offender was not to be forgiven.  Perhaps Peter was anticipating Jesus’ response to his question by suggesting seven rather than the conventional three times; but Jesus responds that there should be no limit to the number of times we must be ready to forgive those who wrong us (“seventy times seven times”), just as there is no limit to the Father’s forgiveness of us. 

As the king in the parable withdraws his forgiveness of his servant because of the servant’s failure to forgive another, so will God withdraw his forgiveness of the unforgiving and merciless among us.  God's forgiveness is not entirely unconditional: if we do not share it, we will lose it.

HOMILY POINTS:

Forgiveness can only be given out of love and, therefore, demands sacrifice on the part of the forgiver.  To forgive as God forgives means to intentionally act to purge the evil that exists between us and those who harm us, to take the first, second and last steps toward bridging divisions, to work ceaselessly to mend broken relationships and to welcome and accept the forgiven back into our lives unconditionally, totally and joyfully. 

Forgiveness begins with empathy: being able to see a situation from the perspective of the other.  As the story of the unforgiving servant makes clear, such empathy is not easy: it means overcoming our own anger and outrage at the hurt we have suffered and focusing our concern, instead, on the person who wronged us; such empathy means possessing the humility to face the hurt we have inflicted on others as a result of our insensitivity and self-centeredness.  

Before our merciful Father in heaven, every one of us is an insolvent debtor – but the great mystery of our faith is that God continues to love us, continues to call us back to him, continues to seek not retribution but reconciliation with us.  All God asks of us is that we forgive one another as he forgives us, to help one another back up when we stumble just as God lifts us back up.

The Risen Christ calls us to seek reconciliation that transforms and re-creates: forgiveness that is joyfully offered and humbly but confidently sought; forgiveness that transforms the estranged and separated into family and community; forgiveness that overcomes our own anger and outrage at the injustice waged against us and focuses on healing the relationship with the person who wronged us and ruptured that relationship.  Christ-like reconciliation also means possessing the humility to face the hurt we have inflicted on others as a result of our insensitivity and self-centeredness.

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September 24 – 25th Sunday of the Year A / 16th Sunday after Pentecost A  [PROPER 20]

The parable of the generous vineyard owner:  “Are you envious because I am generous?  Thus the last will be first, and the first will be last.”
Matthew 20: 1-16

THE WORD:

The parable of the generous vineyard owner (which appears only in Matthew’s Gospel) is the first of several parables and exhortations challenging the Pharisees and scribes and those who criticized Jesus for preaching to tax collectors and sinners.

Jesus makes two points in this parable:

First, the parable speaks of the primacy of compassion and mercy in the kingdom of God.  The employer (God) responds to those who have worked all day that he has been just in paying them the agreed-upon wage; they have no grievance if he chooses to be generous to others.  God's goodness and mercy transcends the narrow and limited laws and logic of human justice; it is not the amount of service given but the attitude of love and generosity behind that service.

The parable also illustrates the universality of the new Church.  The contracted workers, Israel, will be joined by the new “migrant workers,” the Gentiles, who will share equally in the joy of the kingdom of God.

HOMILY POINTS:

Today’s Gospel strikes at our tendency to judge everything and everyone in terms of how it affects me.  How someone else benefits or is lifted up doesn’t matter — my hurt feelings trump their joy.  Christ calls us to embrace the vision of the generous vineyard owner: to rejoice in the good fortune of others and their being enabled to realize their dreams, instead of lamenting our own losses and slights. 

We have our scales, yardsticks, actuary tables and market indices to measure what is just and what is not; but God is generous, loving and forgiving with an extravagance that sometimes offends our sense of justice and fair play.

Christ calls us to look beyond labels like “tax collector” and “prostitute” and seek out and lift up the holiness and goodness that reside in every person who is, like each one of us, a child of God.  The parable of the generous vineyard owner invites us to embrace the vision of God that enables us to welcome everyone to the work of the harvest, to rejoice in God’s blessings to all, to help one another reap the bounty of God’s vineyard. 

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October 1 – 26th Sunday of the Year A / 17th Sunday after Pentecost A  [PROPER 21]

The parable of the two sons:  “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.  When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did.”
Matthew 21: 28-32

THE WORD:

Today’s parable of the two sons is a devastating condemnation of the Jewish religious leaders whose faith is confined to words and rituals.  Jesus states unequivocally that those the self-righteous consider to be the very antithesis of religious will be welcomed by God into his presence before the “professional” religious.

Prostitutes and tax collectors were the most despised outcasts in Judaism.  In light of the First Testament tradition of God’s relationship with Israel as a “marriage” and Israel’s disloyalty as “harlotry,” prostitution was considered an especially heinous sin.  Tax collectors were, in the eyes of Palestinian Jews, the very personification of corruption and theft.  According to the Roman system of tax collection, publicans (tax collectors) would pay the state a fixed sum based on the theoretical amount of taxes due from a given region.  The publican, in return, had the right to collect the taxes in that region – and they were not above using terrorism and extortion to collect.  Tax collectors, as agents of the state, were also shunned as collaborators with Israel's Roman captors.

Jesus’ declaration that those guilty of the most abhorrent of sins would enter God’s kingdom before them deepened the Jewish establishment's animosity toward Jesus. 

HOMILY POINTS:

Jesus’ simple story of the two sons takes the Gospel out of the realm of the “theoretical” and places the mercy of God into the midst of our messy, complicated everyday lives.  Compassion, forgiveness and mercy are only words until our actions give full expression to those values in our relationships with others; our calling ourselves Christians and disciples of Jesus means nothing until our lives express that identity in the values will uphold and the beliefs we live. 

The words of the Gospel must be lived; Jesus’ teachings on justice, reconciliation and love must be the light that guides us, the path we walk, the prayer we work to make a reality.  Discipleship begins within our hearts, where we realize Christ’s presence in our lives and in the lives of others and then honoring that presence in meaningful acts of compassion and charity.  

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus shatters labels and stereotypes in order to uphold the sacred dignity of all men and women in the eyes of God.  Christ calls us to move beyond our own contemporary version of the designations of  “tax collector” and “prostitute” to recognize, instead, the holiness that resides within the soul of every person, who is, like us, a child of God.  

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October 8 – 27th Sunday of the Year [A] / 18th Sunday after Pentecost [A]

The parable of the vineyard owner and his murderous tenants:  “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that will produce its fruits.”
Matthew 21: 33-43

THE WORD:

Today’s Gospel parable “updates” Isaiah’s allegory of the friend’s vineyard (Reading 1).  God is the owner of the vineyard who has “leased” the property to the religious and political leaders of Israel.  Many servants (prophets) were sent to the tenants, but all met the same fate.  The owner finally sends his own Son, who is brutally murdered “outside” the vineyard (a prediction of his crucifixion outside the city of Jerusalem?).  With this parable, Jesus places himself in the line of the rejected prophets.  The owner finally comes himself and destroys the tenants and leaves the vineyard to others (the Church) who yield an abundant harvest.  This parable is intended to give hope and encouragement to Matthew's Christian community, which is scorned and persecuted by its staunchly Jewish neighbors.

HOMILY POINTS:

Fear, selfishness and bigotry can kill whatever chances we have of turning our part of God’s vineyard into something productive; but, through justice, generosity and compassion, we can reap a rich and fulfilling harvest, regardless of how small or poor or insignificant our piece of the vineyard is.

Like the tenants in today’s parable, we are too quick to reject whatever scares us or threatens us, whatever we don’t understand, whatever challenges us and the safe little worlds we have created for ourselves.  In Christ, God calls us to look beyond the “stones” of our fears and welcome Christ (in whatever guise he may appear) into this vineyard of ours, aware that he calls us to the demanding conversion of the Gospel but determined to sow and reap the blessings of God’s reign.    

Christ the Messiah comes with a new, transforming vision for our “vineyard”: a vision of love rather than greed, of peace rather than hostility, of forgiveness rather than vengeance, a vision that enables us to reconcile even the ugliest and smelliest dragon among us.  

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October 15 – 28th Sunday of the Year [A] / 19th Sunday after Pentecost [A]

“The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son:  ‘Behold, I have prepared my banquet, my calves and fattened cattle are killed, and everything is ready; come to the feast . . . Go into the main roads and invite whomever you find.’
“When the king came to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.  ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’  But the man was reduced to silence.  Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’  Many are invited, but few are chosen.”
Matthew 22: 1-14

THE WORD:

Jesus’ parable of the wedding feast is another illustration of Israel’s rejection of God’s promise.  The invitation is therefore extended to everyone – Gentiles, foreigners and those who do not know God -- to come to the Lord’s table.  (Matthew’s readers would see the “destruction of those murderers” and the “burning of their city” as references to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.)

Jesus tells a second parable within the parable of the wedding feast.  The wedding garment is the conversion of heart and mind required for entry into the kingdom.  The Christian who does not wear this mantle of repentance and good deeds will suffer the same fate as those who reject outright the invitation to the wedding.  As the apostle Paul writes (Romans 13: 14), we must “put on” the garment of Christ.

HOMILY POINTS:

God has invited each of us to his Son’s wedding feast: the fullness of God’s life in the resurrection.  The only obstacle is our inability to hear his invitation amid the noisy activity that consumes our time and attention.

God invites all his children to his table – distinctions drawn according to economic class or influence, discrimination by race or origin, reservations due to mental or physical ability disappear at the banquet of the Father.  In order to be able to take our own place at God’s table, we must first realize God’s vision for the human family at our own tables.

The parables of the king’s wedding feast and wedding garment confront us with the reality that we cannot be Christian without conversion; we cannot come to the feast of heaven while remaining indifferent to the empty plates before so many of the world's children; we cannot love the God we cannot see if we cannot love those we can see. 

The wedding garment of today’s Gospel is the garment of good works we make for ourselves for the Lord’s banquet: the garment sewn of repentance, joyful expectation and humble service to others.

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October 22 – 29th Sunday of the Year [A] / 20th Sunday after Pentecost [A]

“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”
Matthew 22: 15-21

THE WORD:

In today’s Gospel, two opponents of Jesus, the Pharisees and Herodians (supporters of Herod’s dynasty), join forces to trap Jesus.  If Jesus affirms that taxes should be paid, he alienates the religious nationalists; if he denies that taxes should be paid, then he is subject to arrest by the Romans as a political revolutionary.  But the very fact that his inquisitors could produce the emperor’s coin from one of their purses was to admit a Roman obligation:  If one used the sovereign’s coin then one automatically took on an obligation to the sovereign; in other words, the Pharisees and Herodians, in trying to trap Jesus, answered their own question.  But Jesus takes the debate to an even higher level by challenging them to be just as observant in paying their debt to God.

HOMILY POINTS:

The confrontation over Caesar’s coin is not a solution to any church-versus-state controversy; Jesus’ response to the Pharisees confronts them – and us – with the demand to act out of our convictions and to take responsibility for our actions. 

Jesus appeals to us to look beyond the simplistic politics and black-and-white legalisms represented by the coin and realize that we are called to embrace the values centered in a faith that sees the hand of God in all things and every human being as part of a single family under the providence of God. 

The Pharisees who confront Jesus with Caesar’s coin are trying to trap him into making a choice between one’s country and God.  But Jesus’ response indicates that one’s citizenship does not have to be at odds with one’s faith; in fact, when government seeks to provide for the just welfare of its citizens, it becomes a vehicle for establishing the reign of God.

God and Caesar do not have to be at odds, Jesus tells the Pharisees.  In God, we realize the dignity of every man, woman and child as sons and daughters of God and our brothers and sisters; in setting up systems of government, we provide for the common good of one another and protect the welfare of all, providing for public safety, educational opportunities and clean water and air. 

Jesus’ answers are not the clear, unambiguous solutions we hope for to these and many other questions.  But his response is the heart of living our faith: the struggle to return to God what is God’s.  Through prayer and discernment, each one of us has to do for ourselves the hard work of deciding exactly what is God’s will in our complex world of politics, money and human relationships. 

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October 29 – 30th Sunday of the Year [A] / 21st Sunday after Pentecost [A]

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second is like it:  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Matthew 22: 34-40

THE WORD:

In this Sunday’s Gospel, as in last Sunday’s, the Jewish leaders seek to trip Jesus up.  The question the lawyer poses was much discussed in rabbinical circles:  Which is the greatest commandment?  The Pharisees’ intention in posing the question was to force Jesus into a single rabbinical school, thereby opening him up to criticism from all other sides.  Jesus’ answer, however, proves his fidelity to both the Jewish tradition and to a spirituality that transcends the legal interpretations of the commandments: the “second” commandment is the manifestation of the first.  If we love the Lord God with our whole being, that love will manifest itself in our feeding of the hungry, our sheltering of the homeless and our liberating the oppressed.

HOMILY POINTS:

Jesus’ command to love our neighbor means seeing one another as we see ourselves: realizing that our hopes and dreams for ourselves and our families are the same dreams others have for themselves and their families. 

Every one of us, at one time or other, is an alien, outsider, foreigner and stranger.  The commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” is not confined to our “own” people or to a list of specific situations, but should affect every relationship we have and every decision we make.

As our society becomes more and more diverse, as science continues to make once unimaginable advances in all forms of technology, the ethical and moral questions we face become more complicated, difficult and challenging.  The Great Commandment gives us the starting point for dealing with such issues: to love as God loves us – without limit, without condition, without counting the cost, completely and selflessly. 

In our e-connected existence, the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel are especially challenging: to love with our whole heart and soul and mind requires us to “unplug” and be present to one another, to engage one another as our loving God is engaged with us, to seek not just images and perceptions of compassion but behold compassion and experience love in one another.  

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