Category Archives: Year A

6 January 2019: Epiphany of the Lord

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 60:1-6   Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13   Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6
RCL: Eph 3:1-12
  Mt 2:1-12

The revelation of the Incarnation

White_gold_banner_sm Today the believing community celebrates the feast of Epiphany, which means “shining upon” or “manifestation.” This feast marks the twelfth day of Christmas, and, in many places, is the day to exchange gifts. The feast commemorates the Magi’s visit to Jesus. The Lectionary readings provide a larger context and meaning for this feast.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah symbolizes God’s saving act using light, return, and riches: the Lord’s glory shines on you, nations walk by your light, your exiles return (“your sons come from afar“), and the gentile nations bring riches and wealth to you. Isaiah reveals God’s great act of salvation. For Jewish hearers, God’s saving act is the restoration of Zion (Israel) to its pre-exile glory. For Christians, God’s saving act is the Incarnation.

In the second reading, the letter to the ekklesia at Ephesus reveals that God’s saving act includes the gentiles. The reading picks up two themes from the first Isaiah reading: the revelation of God in Christ (“the mystery made known to me by revelation”) and the universality of salvation (“the gentiles are co-heirs, co-members, and co-partners in the promise”). The Ephesians author explains the implications of the Magi’s visit: that gentiles are not simply included in God’s plan, but are co-equal heirs (with the Jews) to all God’s covenant promises.

In the gospel, Matthew tells the story of the gentile Magi who seek the newborn king of the Jews. Matthew sets up a deliberate contrast between the non-Jewish Magi who sincerely wish to pay homage to the king of the Jews, and Herod, the nominal king of the Jews, who feigns homage to Jesus in order to kill him. Matthew’s many Hebrew scripture references include the following:

  • The star. The ancients believed that a new star appeared at the time of a ruler’s birth. Matthew draws on the Hebrew scripture story of Balaam, who foretold that “a star shall advance from Jacob” (Num 24:17). Jewish tradition also associated stars with angels. Matthew’s guiding star recalls the angel God sends to guide the Israelites through the wilderness to the promised land (Ex 14:19). In the same way, God provides a supernatural guide to lead the Magi to Jesus.
  • The gentiles. The Magi were not Jews; they were Median and Persian priests who advised the king and interpreted dreams. In Jewish tradition, “Magi” suggest Daniel’s opponents in Babylon, who were associated with enchanters and sorcerers (Dn 1:20, 2:2, 4:6-7, 5:7). That is, such Magi were those least likely to be the first to worship the Jewish messiah. Matthew sets up one of his key themes: Jesus is welcomed by the least expected, while he is opposed and rejected by Jewish leaders.
  • The gifts. In the first reading (Is 60:1-5), Isaiah foretells that, when God restores Zion, the gentile nations will come to worship God, offering gifts of gold and frankincense. By including gold and frankincense in the Magi’s gifts, Matthew tells his hearers that Jesus is not only king of the Jews, but king of the whole world. Traditionally we understand these gifts mean the following: gold for a king; incense for a deity; and myrrh for embalming or death rituals. Each gift identifies an aspect of Jesus’ role in God’s saving plan.

The Epiphany readings describe the scale of God’s saving plan, stretching from Exodus, through Isaiah, into Matthew and Ephesians. Matthew’s point is that the Incarnation reveals that Jesus is God’s presence in the world. He uses signs and motifs (the star, the frightened ruler, the discovery quest, worship by gentiles) to show who Jesus is. Whose star are we following? To whom are we giving our gifts? Whom are we worshiping?

—Terence Sherlock


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24 June 2018: Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist: Day

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 49:1-6   Ps 139:1b-3, 13-14ab, 14c-15   Acts 13:22-26   Lk 1:57-66, 80

Lectionary note: Reading options based on celebration
The Lectionary presents two sets of readings for The Nativity of John the Baptist: The vigil of the Nativity of John the Baptist or The day of the Nativity of John the Baptist. This commentary uses the readings for The day of the Nativity of John the Baptist.

The Baptizer’s call to prepare and change

White_gold_banner_sm The Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist asks RCIA participants and believing community to recall how the Baptizer precedes Jesus in fulfillment of God’s saving plan.

The first reading is from the Deutero-Isaiah’s second Suffering Servant song. Jewish hearers understand the servant song as describing the Jewish people as a whole. From their earliest days, the Christian believing community read these prophetic songs as foretelling Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. The Lectionary editors link the reading’s themes of “naming in the womb” and prophecy with the Baptizer’s birth and mission.

In the second reading from Acts, Luke recalls Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary journey to preach to the gentiles. Paul makes his first proclamation in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because Paul includes the Baptizer’s role as precursor to Jesus (v 24-25) in his kerygmatic speech.

In the gospel, Luke presents the Baptizer as a prophet and Jesus’ precursor. Using repeating literary structures, Luke parallels the annunciations, births, circumcisions, and summaries of the Baptizer and Jesus to show how John prepares for Jesus:

  • Annunciation (Lk 1:11-20/Lk 1:26-38). The same angel, Gabriel, appears to Zechariah and to Mary. Gabriel tells both “Do not fear,” promises both they will have sons who will be “great,” and tells them the names of their sons. Gabriel then gives both a specific sign (Zechariah’s muteness; Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s conception) as a proof of God’s action.
  • Birth (Lk 1:57-58/Lk 2:6-20). At the Baptizer’s birth the neighbors rejoice; at Jesus’ birth the hearers are astonished and the shepherds praise God.
  • Circumcision (Lk 1:57-66/ Lk 2:21-33). Both boys are circumcised on the eighth day, according to Jewish law, and are named according to Gabriel’s instructions. Zechariah’s speech is restored when he names his son John. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s neighbors are awed by God’s action; Mary and Joseph are amazed by the prophecies about Jesus.
  • Summary (Lk 1:80/Lk 2:21-33). The Baptizer “grew and became strong in spirit;” Jesus “grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.”

John the Baptizer’s life foreshadows Jesus’ life, but Luke is careful to show how Jesus is greater than John.

This feast celebrates the birth of the Baptizer, recalling how his preaching and prophecy paved the way for Jesus. As Paul reminds his listeners in the second reading, the Baptizer called the people to metanoia (change of mind/heart) and to baptism as a sign of change. The sacrament of Baptism forgives sin, incorporates us into the believing community, and is a witness to our discipleship. The holy water we encounter when we enter a church building reminds us of our baptisms and our discipleship promises. Metanoia is not a one-time action; it is a continuous need. As we again hear the Baptizer’s prophetic call to conversion, we must ask: Am I doing all I should? What else should I be doing?

—Terence Sherlock

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7 January 2018: Epiphany of the Lord

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 60:1-6   Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13   Eph 3:2-3a, 5-6   Mt 2:1-12

Epiphany: the Gift is made present to all

White_gold_banner_sm Today the believing community celebrates the Epiphany. Epiphany means “shining upon” or “manifestation.” It is also called “little Christmas” or “Three King’s day,” and, in many places, it is the day Christians exchange gifts. Traditionally, Orthodox and Roman churches celebrate Epiphany on 6 January as the twelfth day of Christmas. The feast commemorates the magi’s (or “wise men”) visit to Jesus.

In the first reading the prophet Isaiah urges the Jews returning from Babylonian captivity to rebuild Jerusalem and Judah. He promises that God will restore the people and city to its former glory under David. God’s restoration draws “all nations” to Jerusalem. Foreign (gentile) kings will bring “gold and frankincense” as tribute and gifts. The Lectionary editors chose this reading to highlight the magi’s gifts in the gospel.

In the second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, the author summarizes Paul’s mission and message: God’s kingdom includes all people–gentiles as well as the Jewish people. Together the Jews and gentiles are “co-heirs, co-members of the body of Christ (the ekklesia), and co-partners in the gospel promise.” All are invited into God’s kingdom. This reading highlights the gentiles’ role in recognizing the kingdom.

Matthew’s gospel recounts the magi’s visit, which further reveals Jesus’ identity:

  • King of the Jews/Judeans. The magi are astrologers (early astronomers) who discern Jesus’ title based on naturally occurring celestial events (the star). They ask Herod, “Where can we find the king of the Judeans?” (Their question surprises Herod, because he rules the Jewish lands of Judea, Perea, and Galilee. That makes Herod king of the Judeans and king of the Jews, a title he wrangled from his Roman overlords. Matthew lets the magi’s question hang in the air as Herod spins his conspiracy theories about a potential rival.) Herod calls his Jewish priests and scribes and asks “What do you know about this?” They search Hebrew scripture and find the prophet Micah’s prophecy that the messiah will be born in Bethlehem. Matthew shows that both nature and scripture reveal Jesus’ identity to all who seek him.
  • Worthy of homage. The magi come to “do him homage.” Here and throughout this passage, Matthew uses the Greek verb προσκυνέω (“prohs-koo-NEH-oh”), which means “to prostrate before” or “to worship.” Matthew shows that the gentile magi recognize that Jesus is worthy not only of human honor, but of divine worship.
  • Gifts reveal Jesus’ destiny. The magi give Jesus not only honor and worship, they also give him symbolic gifts. Gold is an appropriate gift for a human ruler. Incense is a gift offered (burned) to honor a divinity. Myrrh is spice used as a salve and for embalming. Matthew shows that the gentile magi recognize Jesus’ kingship, his divinity, and his mission to suffer and die.

Marking the Christmas season’s end, Epiphany calls RCIA participants and the believing community to reflect on the incarnation’s meaning. God’s gift of God-made-flesh and God-with-us is given to us without any possibility of our repayment. The incarnation, like all sacraments, is God’s superabundant presence. Epiphany–manifestation–tells us that God is found everywhere (God’s kingdom is already here, open to all), God is worthy of our worship, and God’s giving-ness fuels us to give our own lives in service. What star do we follow? What king do we seek? What treasure do we offer?

—Terence Sherlock

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26 November 2017: Solemnity of Christ the King

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Ez 34:11-12, 15-17   Ps 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6   1 Cor 15:20-26, 28   Mt 25:31-46

Shepherds and kings, sheep and goats: taking sides

White_gold_banner_sm On this final Sunday of the liturgical year, the readings celebrate the solemnity of Christ the King. (Next week we start a new liturgical year centered on readings from Mark’s gospel.) The readings ask us to think about shepherds and kings.

In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel addresses the failed Jerusalem leaders (v 17). God holds the leaders responsible for the people’s exile in Babylon. God promises to take back the role of shepherding, rescuing, and judging the people. Christian hearers understand that Jesus, the good shepherd (Jn 10:11), fulfills Ezekiel’s prophecy: God has come to care for the people. The Lectionary editors chose this reading (especially Ez 34:16) because it parallels today’s gospel.

In the second reading from his first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth, Paul lays out the end-time timeline so the Corinthians can see their place in God’s redemptive plan. Christ, who is already resurrected and therefore the “firstfruit,” has begun his reign as the kingdom’s king and the believing community’s head. During this present time, Christ’s enemies are still active, although “under his feet.” At Christ’s second coming, “those who belong to Christ” will be resurrected. The end follows. Having destroyed every oppressive sovereignty, authority, and power, and overcome all his enemies including death, Christ hands back God’s kingdom to God. Through Christ’s redemptive act, God’s relationship with the redeemed world is once again restored and direct: God is all in all.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes how God, shepherd and king, will judge the whole world at the end of time.

  • The sorting. First century Palestinian shepherds grazed the sheep and goats together. In the evening, they separated the goats, who were sensitive to cold, from the sheep, who remained out all night. In the gospel, God the Shepherd sorts everyone from all nations, based on their service or love of others.
  • The right-side sheep. In the ancient world, the right hand or side is often used symbolically. The king’s right hand is a place of prestige, power, or honor. In Jewish tradition sheep symbolized honor, virility, and strength.
  • The left-side goats. In the ancient world, the left hand or side was believed unlucky or evil. The Latin word sinistra means both “left” and “evil;” it is the root of English word sinister. Because soldiers wore shields on their left arms, people thought the left side was weaker and less honorable. The ancients considered goats lascivious; goats symbolized shame and shameful behavior.
  • The surprise. Jesus’ hearers would expect that God would reward or punish disciples based on their love of others. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised to learn that God judges not just disciples, but all nations according to the law of love. Even the least one is the same as God, worthy of love and service.

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to consider God’s role as shepherd and king. As Ezekiel tell us, God alone shepherds, redeems, and judges the people. Paul describes God’s redemptive plan. Matthew identifies how the king measures each of us. Does the Shepherd see honorable sheep or shameless goats? To which side will the King sort us? Will we be surprised?

—Terence Sherlock

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19 November 2017: Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31   Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5   1 Thes 5:1-6   Mt 25:14-30

Kingdom come

Green_banner_sm On this final Sunday of Ordinary time, the readings’ themes focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings outline again what God requires of disciples who wish to enter the kingdom.

The first reading, from the book of Wisdom, presents an ideal woman serving her family and community. This woman is also Wisdom personified; a person’s reward for seeking Wisdom is a worthy spouse and children, a great household, and renown in the community. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because it mentions “receiving a reward for labors,” which echoes the gospel’s theme.

The second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian ekklesia, contains Paul’s response to concerns about the “time and season” of Jesus’ return. Seeking to calm the community he founded, Paul points out that no one knows when the end is coming. As children of the light and of the day, they shouldn’t worry about the coming judgement. Rather, they should rejoice, because the parousia marks their day of salvation. They need only to stay alert and awake.

Matthew’s gospel continues Jesus’ eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the talents. Matthew has adapted Jesus’ parable to emphasize its end-time themes.

  • The master’s charge. A man who is going on a long journey entrusts three slaves with varying amounts of money. He expects them to manage what they’ve been given.
  • The slaves’ actions. In the master’s absence, the first and second slaves work and trade the master’s money and double its value. The third slave, out of fear, buries the money he had been given, doing nothing.
  • The surprise. When the master returns, he demands an accounting. The master is pleased with the first two slaves’ work and results and invites them “to share in his joy.” Unsurprisingly, the master calls the third slave “useless” because he did nothing with his master’s money. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised that the master not only punishes the third slave, but disowns him (like the bridegroom disowned his teenage cousins in last week’s gospel). The master has the useless slave thrown into the outer darkness, where he is no longer a slave, but a non-person. The “outer darkness” is Matthew’s codeword for “denied entrance to God’s kingdom.” Matthew’s hearers understand that Jesus holds his disciples to a high standard: they must live the gospel to enter God’s kingdom.

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to examine God’s entry requirements for the kingdom. The first reading highlights actions. The second reading focuses on watchfulness. The gospel describes the consequences of discipleship. At the parousia, disciples will be called to account for what they have done with the good news God entrusted to them. Only those who grow the gospel by their words and actions will enter the kingdom. Are we faithful and productive stewards who promote and live Jesus’ message? Or are our choices and actions ruled by our own fear or laziness?

—Terence Sherlock

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12 November 2017: Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Wis 6:12-16   Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8   1 Thes 4:13-18   Mt 25:1-13

The wisdom of watchful waiting

Green_banner_sm As we near the end of Ordinary time and this liturgical year, the Sunday readings become eschatological: they focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings ask us how prepared we are to meet Jesus.

In the first reading, the Wisdom author writes to encourage the Jews in Egypt during a time of suffering and oppression (70-50 BC). This Wisdom passage has an eschatological theme: wisdom is unfading (v 12) and those who find wisdom reign as kings forever (v 21). The Lectionary editors chose this reading because of its similarity to themes in today’s gospel of wisdom, waiting, and the messiah’s coming.

In the second reading, Paul clarifies his teaching about the parousia (Christ’s return at the end of time). In this early period (30s-70s AD), the believing community expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes. Some Thessalonica community members have died; their friends and relatives worry that these “fallen-asleep ones” will miss the Lord’s return. Paul reassures them that Jesus’ own resurrection is his promise to all believers of their personal resurrections.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presents his fifth and final discourse, his eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the ten virgins. Jesus sets a scene that all his hearers would recognize–a wedding celebration at a bridegroom’s home.

  • First-century wedding culture. The groom and his friends have gone across the village or to a nearby village to bring the bride and her friends back to his home. The returning wedding party wanders through every village street and alley so everyone can see and cheer them as they pass. The ten virgins, the groom’s unmarried teenage relatives, wait for the meandering parade to return, so they can escort them into the groom’s home. Bored by waiting, the teenagers fall asleep.
  • The crisis. When the wedding party finally nears the groom’s home, the waiting guests call out. Awakened, the teenage lamp keepers immediately trim their lamps. The delay has depleted their lamps’ oil. Some teenagers brought extra oil; others did not. The ones without oil beg the ones with extra oil to share. The ones with oil refuse, worried there won’t be enough oil for all the lamps to last until the wedding party actually arrives. The ones without oil rush off to find oil. Meanwhile, the bridegroom returns with the wedding party, and all present go into the feast, locking the door after them.
  • The parable’s surprise. The five unprepared teenagers return with their now-full lamps and bang on the bridegroom’s door to be let in. They hear the bridegroom’s voice through the door saying, “I don’t know you.” In the middle east, family is everything. Jesus’ hearers would ask: Why would the bridegroom disown his relatives and bar them from his wedding feast?

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to think about who will enter God’s kingdom. The first reading highlights our need for wisdom. Paul emphasizes our need for faith. The gospel parable tells us we must be thoughtful and prepared. We are the lamp-holding teenagers waiting for the bridegroom’s return. Do we think that baptism guarantees entry to the kingdom? Do our words and actions mark us as part of Jesus’ family? How are we preparing for the bridegroom’s coming?

—Terence Sherlock

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5 November 2017: Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Mal 1:14b-2:2b, 8-10   Ps 131:1, 2, 3   1 Thes 2:7b-9, 13   Mt 23:1-12

Discipleship: service, not self-serving

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings remind us who we are.

In the first reading, the prophet Malachi criticizes the temple priests for neglecting their sacrifice and excoriates the Jewish people for their lax attitude toward the Mosaic covenant. Malachi calls all to change their ways or suffer future punishment. In the gospel Jesus issues similar warnings to his disciples about the right way and wrong way to act.

In the second reading, Paul reminds the Thessalonians that he has given them the good news freely, without charge and without “burdening” them. On missionary trips, Paul repaired tents to support himself. During the day he would set up a stall in the marketplace and mend leather items; at night he would meet in the Thessalonians’ homes and preach the good news. Paul gives thanks to God for the Thessalonians’ faith in receiving the good news as God’s word, and for continuing to live in faith.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus, who has been sparring with various religious leader factions (see Mt 21-22), now vehemently denounces the scribes and the Pharisees.

Scripture scholars point out that Matthew constructed this speech. Although some criticisms undoubtedly originated with Jesus (for example, see Mk 12:38-40), other criticisms date to a time after Jesus’ earthly ministry. These other criticisms reflect the conflict between Pharisaic Judaism and Matthew’s community when Matthew composed his gospel (80-85 AD). This speech is not purely anti-Pharisaic; Matthew recognizes the same faults are present in his believing community. He is warning his ekklesia to examine their own conduct and attitudes, such as:

  • Saying vs doing. Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with failing to practice what they tell others to do. Jesus tells his disciples that what they say and what they do must be the same.
  • Being honored vs being honorable. Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees with using religious practice to receive honor from people rather than to give honor to God. Jesus tells his disciples that despite their apparent differences (Jewish vs gentile, learned vs untutored, urban vs rural), all are equal–they are siblings of the same Father.
  • Knowing the difference between serving and being self-serving. Jesus tells his disciples that the greatest among them will be the one who serves all. Disciples teach Jesus’ message and meaning of service only when they are serving others.

This week’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to apply Malachi’s complaints and Jesus’ critiques to our own lives. Edwyn Hoskyns, a twentieth century Christian theologian, has written “we are all Pharisees.” Who doesn’t like telling others how to live? Who doesn’t enjoy flattery and honorific titles? Humility is essential to discipleship and ministry. Without humility, we are in constant danger of failing as disciples, becoming the very people Malachi and Jesus condemn. Do we always practice what we preach? Do we recognize our dependence on God and each other? Do we serve others without expecting to be served?

—Terence Sherlock

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29 October 2017: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Ex 22:20-26   Ps 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51   1 Thes 1:5c-10   Mt 22:34-40

The greatest commandment

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask us whom we love and serve.

In the first reading, the book of Exodus defines laws of social conduct. Semitic thought is concrete, and gives concrete directives and examples. Honoring God and creating personal holiness requires specific acts. The Torah often casts these acts in a social context, giving Judaism a bias toward social action. In the gospel, Jesus also emphasizes action: love.

In the second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them to continue in their faith. When preaching to non-Jews, Paul begins from the faith they have received. Thessalonica was known as a city of cults. Based on Paul’s comment about “turning to God from idols” (1 Th 1:9) we can infer his community was primarily gentile. He praises them as “models for others who believe,” and “whose faith has gone forth.”

In Mathew’s gospel, the religious leaders continue their attacks on Jesus. In today’s conflict story, a Torah scholar tries to entrap Jesus.

  • The question. “Which commandment is the greatest in the law?” The Pharisees counted 613 commands (248 positive commands [“do’s”] and 365 negative commands [“don’ts”]) in the Torah. Torah scholars distinguished between great and small laws, and even the very great and very small commands. The scholar asks Jesus to name “the greatest of the greatest.” No matter what command Jesus cites, the Torah scholars will publicly argue against his choice, shaming him.
  • The answer. Rather than choose one commandment, Jesus quotes two well-known laws. But he connects the commands in a unique way–through the word love. The first command is from the Shema prayer (“Hear, O Israel,” Deut 6:4-5), recited twice daily by every Jew: You shall love the Lord your God. Jesus quotes a second command from Lev 19:18: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus notes that on these two commands of love hang the whole of the Law’s instruction and the Prophets’ teaching.

The greatness of Jesus’ teaching is not simply that he associates these two commands, but in the new dimension he gives to both by connecting them though the command to love. Each command requires the other: Without love of neighbor, love of God remains an empty emotion; without love of God, love of neighbor becomes a self-serving exercise in feeling good only about oneself.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to live both commands of love. The Greek word ἀγαπάω (ah-gah-PAH-oh) means “to have a warm regard for and interest in another,” or “to love actively.” This love is not an emotion, but an action; this action must be lived through specific acts, as exemplified in the first reading. God’s command to protect the disenfranchised–the foreigner, the widow, the orphan–forms the basis for compassionate social justice. Jesus’ restatement of the law of love connects love of God with love of the neighbor. We can’t claim to love God unless we also care for the stranger, the oppressed, the ignored, and those without a voice. We believe God loves us. Whom do we love? How do we serve?

—Terence Sherlock

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22 October 2017: Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 45:1, 4-6   Ps 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10   1 Thes 1:1-5b   Mt 22:15-21

Images and inscriptions of belonging

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask us to examine our attitudes about the things that belong to God.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah recounts how God acts to free the Jewish people from exile in Babylon. God uses the Persian king Cyrus, who conquered the Babylonians, to return the chosen people to their own land. The Lectionary editors pair this reading with today’s gospel to show how God directs human leaders and events to care those who belong to God.

In the second reading, Paul writes to the Thessalonians to encourage them to continue in their faith and, to answer their questions about the deaths of some believers. Although this letter is the earliest written document in Christian scripture (50-51 AD), it already articulates ideas that became standard Christianity. For example, within the first ten verses, Paul mentions God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, and faith, hope, and love.

In Matthew’s gospel, the religious leaders begin their attacks on Jesus. This story is a conflict or controversy story, a common literary form used in New Testament times. It describes the interaction between a teacher and one or more opponents. It has the following structure:

  • The challenge. The Pharisees joined with the Herodians to pose a loaded question to Jesus: “Is it permissible to give the poll-tax to Caesar or not?” If Jesus answers “yes,” he is no friend to the Jewish people who seek independence from Rome; he also implicitly denies that God is the only legitimate ruler of Judea. If Jesus answers “no,” he makes himself an enemy of the state. Either answer (or no answer) will shame Jesus, causing him to lose face with his supporters.
  • The response. Jesus knows his opponents’ malicious intent, and exposes their shameful behavior by calling the Pharisees “play-actors” or hypocrites. He then asks for the poll-tax coin. In first-century Jewish culture, religious leaders (Pharisees) would not have carried Roman coins. By quickly producing a Roman coin, they shame themselves by showing that they are not scrupulously observant. Jesus then asks: “Whose image? Whose inscription?” The image was the head of Tiberius Caesar. The inscriptions said “Tiberius Caesar, son of the divine Augustus” and Pontifex maximus, meaning “high priest.” The human emperor’s overt claims of divinity and high priesthood would offend any observant Jew.
  • A saying. “Give the things of Caesar to Caesar and to God the things of God.” Jesus indicates that Jews (and disciples) can meet both their religious and political responsibilities. But he also subordinates Caesar’s claims to God’s claims. Caesar’s coin–with Caesar’s image on it–belongs to Caesar. But the human person–made in God’s image–belongs to God.

Today’s readings challenge RCIA participants and the believing community to reflect on how God brings about the divine plan. God uses a non-Jew, Cyrus the Persian, to return God’s people from exile. Jesus reminds us that human leaders are about things, while God is about people. Too often political (and religious) leaders take the human personhood that belongs to God as their own right. We have a moral obligation to speak out and act against a Caesar who takes what belongs to God. To whom do we belong?

—Terence Sherlock

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15 October 2017: Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 25:6-10a   Ps 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6   Phil 4:12-14, 19-20   Mt 22:1-14

A king and his problem party guests

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite us to think about invitations, banquets, and worthiness.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah comforts the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. Isaiah tells the captives that God has a plan to destroy Judah’s enemies and save God’s poor. God will then host a victory banquet for all in Jerusalem. This banquet is the eschatological (end-time) feast that represents God’s universal invitation to salvation. Christian hearers recognize in Isaiah’s prophecy Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom repeated in today’s gospel.

In the second reading’s letter to the Philippi believing community, Paul thanks the Philippians for their gifts and support while he is in prison. Paul prays that “God will supply whatever you need,” just as the Philippians have met Paul’s needs. His closing doxology (“to God be glory forever”) asks God’s blessing on the Philippians.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus directs another allegorical parable to the chief priests and elders, using elements from Isaiah’s banquet story (first reading). The allegory has the following parts:

  • The first parable/allegory (v 2-9). Hebrew scripture uses king as an image for God, and the wedding feast as an image of the end-time messianic banquet. In Matthew’s allegory, the invited ones are the Jewish religious leaders whom the prophets (the king’s slaves) invited to God’s kingdom. Some invitees shame the king by begging off with poor excuses not to attend, but other invitees challenge the king’s honor by killing his slaves. The shamed king responds in anger, saying that those who shamed him were not worthy of his feast. The king tells his slaves to go out into the public gathering places and invite whomever you find. In the allegory, these new invitees are from “all nations.”
  • The second parable/allegory (v 10-13). The slaves gathered everyone they found, both bad and good, and brought them to the feast. (Like the parable of the dragnet [Mt 13:47-48], the kingdom gathers together the good and the bad. Sorting comes later.) When the king reviews the invitees, he finds one not properly dressed for the feast. The king judges that invitee not worthy, and orders him bound and thrown out of the feast. The allegory’s outside darkness is a place outside God’s kingdom.
  • The saying/interpretation (v 14). “Many are called/invited, but few chosen/elected.” Matthew concludes the allegory by reminding his community that they have been called/invited in the place of the others, but if they fail to live up to the invitation (wear the wedding garment) they will face the same consequences as the religious leaders.

In today’s readings RCIA participants and the believing community are challenged to examine their invitation and response to the banquet. Salvation requires more than accepting the invitation. We must also be worthily dressed to be among the chosen. That is, faith brings our invitation, but we must show continued righteousness as well. Jesus defines such righteousness in his sermon on the mount and other teachings. Do we think baptism alone will get us into God’s eschatological feast? Do we wear our garment–our words and actions–daily? Would the king judge us worthy of his son’s feast?

—Terence Sherlock

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