| 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
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?
||Ps 121:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8
||2 Tm 3:14-4:2
Prayer: more than persistence
During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite us to think about God and prayer.
This reflection focuses on the gospel only. Today’s gospel reading includes the parable of the widow and the judge, which is challenging for several reasons: (1) two interpretations surround the parable, (2) the parable relies on an unfamiliar (to us) rabbinical interpretive technique, and (3) some critical words have different translations. The gospel consists of the following parts:
- The parable (v 2-5). As we’ve seen in other parables, not all parable characters are exemplary. In today’s parable, both characters are unlikeable. The judge “neither fears God nor respects humans;” and the widow seeks “vengeance” against her opponent (not “a just decision” as appears in today’s translation). The judge finally grants the widow’s vengeance because he’s afraid she’ll turn violent (“strike me”). The Greek word ὑπωπιάζω (hoo-poh-pee-AHd-zoh) is a boxing term meaning “to give a black eye.”
- The first interpretation (v 1). Luke interprets the parable before he tells it. He sees the widow as the main character, and tells us to be persistent like the widow, to “pray without losing heart.” Luke interprets the parable for his Greek hearers who wouldn’t understand parable’s rabbinical context.
- The second interpretation (v 6-7) and the related saying (v8). The Lord interprets the parable after he tells it. He sees the judge as the main character and the key to the parable. Jesus uses a rabbinical interpretive technique called qal v’homer (“light to heavy”) to explain the parable. The judge’s actions provide a baseline (the “light” part): a flawed human judge renders a flawed judgement to a flawed human. Jesus then contrasts the parable’s flawed judge with God (the “heavy” part): God is a perfect judge who renders just and merciful judgements to flawed humans. To emphasize the contrast, in the Greek version of the gospel, Jesus describes God using the Greek word μακροθυμέω (mak-roh-thoo-MEH-oh), which means “patient.” That is, God judges us with patience despite our flaws and failures. (The translators of today’s gospel left out the word “patient,” obscuring the interpretation’s meaning.) Jesus closes by connecting God’s just actions with our faith. When the son of man returns, he may find a faith-less world, unable to accept God’s answers to its prayers. That is, God always answers our prayers, but sometimes we don’t like the answer.
A possible meaning: When we see the judge as the parable’s central character, we can begin to understand the parable’s possible meanings. Jesus calls the judge “unjust” because he renders his verdict out of fear, not out of justice. God is the just and patient judge who hears our petitions (prayers) and, despite our own failings, answers them justly. We may think that God sometimes answers us “unjustly;” this may cause us to lose faith. This is why Luke urges us to “pray without losing heart (faith).”
Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our prayer life. Do we ask God for what is good and just for all, or do we pray for vengeance? Do we appreciate God’s patience with our selfish prayers? Do we accept God’s answer to our prayer, or continue to ask for what we want? Do we reject and punish God when we think God doesn’t hear us?
||Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22
Discipleship: service to all
Between the Easter season and Advent, the Lectionary presents RCIA participants and all the believing community with stories and teachings from Jesus’ everyday ministry. This week Jesus gives his most important teaching on discipleship.
The first reading is from Isaiah’s fourth servant song. The Lectionary editors pair this reading with today’s gospel because Jesus is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s righteous one and suffering servant.
The second reading is a continuation of the letter to the Hebrews. In this section, the author compares Jesus to the Jewish high priest. Jesus “passed through the heavens” in the same way that the high priest entered the temple’s Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. God’s presence connected the Holy of Holies to heaven (Is 6). Jesus can “sympathize with our weaknesses” because his incarnation makes him fully human. As a human he was “tested in every way,” yet he remained “without sin,” living in perfect obedience to God’s will.
In the gospel, Jesus and his disciples continue “on the way” to Jerusalem. Jesus has just made a third prediction of his coming passion, death, and resurrection (Mk 10:32-34). As happened before with Jesus’ previous passion predictions, his disciples don’t understand. James and John outrageously request that Jesus guarantee them places on his right and left hand “in his glory.” Jesus asks if they can “drink the cup” he drinks or “be baptized” with his coming baptism. What is Jesus asking of his disciples?
- Drink the cup: In Hebrew scripture to “drink the cup” means to accept what God has planned, either a cup of blessing (Ps 16:5) or a cup of wrath (Ps 75:9). In Christian scripture, the cup stands for the Eucharist. The early ekklesia (believing community) understood the Eucharistic cup as the blood of Christ and the source of salvation to all who drink it (Mk 14:23-24).
- Be baptized: In Hebrew scripture, baptism (immersion in water) means overwhelming calamity (Ps 42:8). In Christian scripture, Jesus’ baptism prefigures his death. The early ekklesia understood baptism as uniting with Jesus in his death, dying to the self, and being reborn a new person (Rm 6:3-4).
James and John reply they are able, which tells Jesus that they are really clueless. When the other ten disciples hear what James and John are asking, they are indignant (literally “have a lot of grief”). Jesus calls them together and gives another teaching on discipleship. Unlike gentile rulers who use their authority to subjugate and to control people, Jesus’ disciples must imitate his humble and self-emptying love. In the kingdom, leaders serve, and the greatest one is the slave to all. Jesus sums up his mission: to serve and to give his life as ransom for many. Jesus fulfills the role of the righteous one and suffering servant from the first reading.
For RCIA participants and for all of us, Jesus presents another clear picture of discipleship: service. We don’t get to choose what service God calls us to perform (“drink the cup”) or how we will serve (“be baptized.”) Discipleship means giving up our personal preferences about service–dying to self–to bring God’s kingdom to others. We pledge our service at our Baptism, and we are strengthened to continue our service whenever we receive the Eucharist. Are we able to be servants and slaves to all?