Tag Archives: Pharisees

Woe to Us Too!

Woe to Us Too!

We’re reading from the 23rd  Chapter of Matthew today, always a tough section to talk about.

One benefit modern scriptural studies give us– and we should be thankful for it– is a better understanding of the past. For instance, as we read from the 23rd chapter of Matthew’s gospel today, it helps to understand the times they were written. Otherwise, we can get a distorted picture of the people whom Jesus loved, the Jews, whom he seems to condemn exclusively in our gospel today.

Matthew’s gospel was written in Syria or Galilee about 40 or 50 years after Jesus had died and rose again. By then, relations between his followers and the followers of the Pharisees had soured as Pharisaic Judaism tried to pull together Jewish life after the terrible destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD.

Relations between the two groups were not amicable, to say the least, and as we know, when tempers flare, words can become unfair.

We’re hearing some unfair words in Matthew’s gospel today. Matthew’s sharp polemic, says Rudolf Schnackenburg, a modern commentator on the gospel, “does not really do justice to the conduct of the scribes and Pharisees, not even for the time of alienation between Judaism and Christianity.“ In other words, Matthew’s exaggerating the faults and weaknesses of his opponents.

So, should we ignore these powerful “woes” Jesus speaks? Better, perhaps, to apply them to a wider audience than Matthew does. The 19th century British historian Lord Acton famously said, “Power tends to  corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” He was speaking about the temptation that affects anybody in power to use it for his or her own aims.

Matthew’s woes apply just as well to Christians and their leaders. They can be hypocritical, proud and opinionated too. Instead of hearing Jesus’ words meant only for others, then, let’s hear them meant for his followers–and ourselves as well.

Woe to us too!

The Cross of Confusion

Mark’s Gospel describes growing numbers following Jesus in Galilee as he begins his ministry, but growing numbers also find him hard to understand, the gospel says.

VATICANCRUC

Scribes come from Jerusalem and say he has a demon, the Pharisees begin to plot with the Herodians, the followers of Herod Antipas about putting him to death. When they hear about him in Nazareth, his relatives say, “No, he doesn’t have a demon. He may be out of his mind,” and they come to bring him home.

Besides the leading elite and people from his hometown, ordinary people begin to distance themselves too. They may be the people in Mark’s Gospel today who question him “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Mark 2, 18-22) Not only Jewish leaders and scholars, not only his own family and his hometown, but ordinary people of Galilee find him too much for them.

Jesus brought change, radical change, and change can be hard to accept. Many who heard him weren’t ready for new wine, they preferred the old.

Commentators describe Mark’s gospel as a Passion Narrative with a prelude. In other words, Mark’s early stories announce the story of his Passion and Death and Resurrection. Jesus dies alone, forsaken by many ordinary people who flocked to him at first.

Commentators also see Mark’s gospel written to help the Christians of Rome facing a surprising brutal persecution by Nero in the mid 60s. Rome usually singled out Christian leaders in times of persecution, but this persecution seemed to strike at ordinary Christians as well. The senseless, arbitrary persecution left Rome’s Christians confused and wondering what this all meant. Mark’s account reminds his followers they must follow him without always understanding.

Confusion and lack of understanding are part of our world today, aren’t they? We are living in a time of rapid changes. For many, the old wine, the “old days” are better.

The Cross of Jesus may not come as hard wood and nails. As in Mark’s Gospel, it can come in confusion and lack of understanding. A Cross hard to bear.

Putting in the Seed

J.Tissot, The Sower, Brooklyn Museum

In one of his poems, “Putting in the Seed,” Robert Frost describes a farmer’s love affair with the earth. It’s getting dark and someone from the house tries fetching him to come in. Supper’s on the table, yet he’s a

“Slave to a springtime passion for the earth.
How Love burns through the Putting in the Seed
On through the watching for that early birth
When, just as the soil tarnishes with weed,
The sturdy seedling with arched body comes
Shouldering its way and shedding the earth crumbs.”

Can’t you see that farmer zestfully casting seed on the waiting earth, eagerly watching it to grow? Jesus sees the Sower as an image of God, casting saving grace onto the world in season and out, because he loves it so much.

 If you have ever been to Galilee and seen the lake and the surrounding lands abundant with crops, you know this is a blessed place. It was in Jesus’ time too. Here, the sower scatters his seed with abandon, hardly caring where it goes: on rocky ground, or amid thorns, or on the soil that gives a good return.

God the Sower sows blessed seed, no matter how badly our human world appears, or how badly it receives. In his parables Jesus acknowledges rejection as well as acceptance, but the sower still sows. Grace is never withheld, and that makes us hope.

And is it just the  human world God loves? Doesn’t his love extend to all the earth God calls “good” in the Book of Genesis? We worry about our planet earth, and with reason.  How fragile it has become, what damage we careless humans do! We are concerned rightly for its future.

The nature parables we are reading in Mark’s gospel tell us to hope for our earth too. Though it is not immune from the threat of destruction and degradation, God loves it still. He’s a Sower at work. Blessed be the Lord God of all creation, may you sow your blessings on all.

Out of Heart, Out of Mind

Byzantine Mosaic of Jesus Healing the Man with the Withered Hand

23rd Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)

Luke 6:6-11

On a certain sabbath Jesus went into the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him closely to see if he would cure on the sabbath so that they might discover a reason to accuse him.

Dressed in their Sabbath best, the laser keen eyes of Jesus’ analysts beamed through the hollow sockets of their exterior masks to size him up. A man with a withered hand happened to be there—conveniently? Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time: some commentators wonder if the handicapped man was “planted” to trap Jesus1. At any rate, the poor brother was regarded as a snare on this occasion. The hunters were fixed on their prey.

But he realized their intentions and said to the man with the withered hand, “Come up and stand before us.” And he rose and stood there. 

Luke alone of the Synoptics narrates this detail of Jesus reading the hearts of his accusers. Masquerading in the divine presence was impossible; the thoughts and intentions of the heart were transparent to Jesus. 

What was the disabled man thinking? Was he hoping that the famed teacher and healer would restore him this day? We are not informed, as the decoy’s subjectivity was drowned out by the intensity of the protagonists. Silently he obeyed Jesus’ summons to “stand in the midst” of the assembly. 

Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good on the sabbath rather than to do evil, to save life rather than to destroy it?” 

With the deftness of a cross-examiner, Jesus put forward an either/or question that completely circumvented the legal issue of “working” on the Sabbath. The question was rhetorical: doing evil and destroying life were obviously out of the question. However, doing good or saving life hardly occurred to the disputants, but not because their tradition did not encourage it. In fact, the Mishnah Yoma (a pillar of Talmudic literature) did permit saving human life on the Sabbath: “every potential danger to human life overrides Shabbat” (8:6). 

The clash with Jesus was not inevitable. If more care had been taken to reflect on the essence of the law as handed down to Moses and the prophets, concord might have been possible. After all, the Law and the Prophets were given in preparation for the coming of Christ.

Passion and anger, unfortunately, overrode wisdom and intuition. 

Looking around at them all, he then said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so and his hand was restored. 

Jesus’ merciful heart overcame intimidation and suffered the consequences, but what a joyous day for the brother who was healed! 

But they became enraged and discussed together what they might do to Jesus.

If the good of another does not spontaneously evoke joy, something is deeply amiss in the depths of the heart. The word Luke used for “enraged” suggests irrationality, from anoia (ἄνοια)—“no mind.” The whole group exploded into folly, madness, fury and rage. Heart, mind, reason, emotions, and senses went to war in the interior battlefield. The heart and mind were crushed to the ground by the stampede of anger and its minions. 

The God whom the scribes and Pharisees wanted to honor stood before them unrecognized. Beyond sight and sound, he was actually inseparable from them, living within and upholding their very existence. But to the exterior senses, Jesus was reduced to a target and an object of wrath.

-GMC

1 New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, edited by G.J. Wenham, J.A. Motyer, D.A. Carson, R.T. France, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000, p. 990.

The Sign of Jonah

Jonah Vomited from the Whale, Third century, Rome, Catacomb of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter.

16th Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)

Matthew 12:38-42 

Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.”

What is wrong with asking for a sign? Gideon asked for a sign and received it (Judges 6:17). King Ahaz was invited by the Lord himself to ask for a sign, refused, yet received one against his will (Isaiah 8:11-23). King Hezekiah received a sign from the Lord unasked, to assure him that he would live another fifteen years and that his city would not fall to Assyria (Isaiah 38:5-8).

Before a request is even made, the Lord already knows the conditions of hearts. Gideon’s feeling of uncertainty mixed with the sincere will to obey brought upon him the Lord’s indulgence. As far as Ahaz was concerned, religion was irrelevant to politics; God had no place in his heart. In his case, asking for a sign would at least acknowledge God’s existence and relevance. Hezekiah’s spirituality was barely developed and on the verge of collapsing. Divine mercy took pity on him.

In the case of the scribes and Pharisees, the verbal request for a sign masked a deep-seated envy and hatred of Jesus in the depths of the heart. At best, the motive for seeking a sign was to confirm faith, but that motive was basically missing.

He said to them in reply, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it except the sign of Jonah the prophet. Just as Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights. At the judgment, the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and there is something greater than Jonah here. At the judgment the queen of the south will arise with this generation and condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here.”

The pagan Ninevites and the Queen of Sheba were cut to the heart by the divine wisdom offered by Israel. Unlike Jesus’ contemporaries, their hearts were amenable to divine shaping. The sign-seekers before him were only out to test and accuse him. Others were lukewarm, indifferent, and looking for a show.

Signs from Abraham, Moses, David, and all the prophets and kings recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures prepared the Israelites to identify the true Messiah. But aside from that, persons with hearts open to truth, goodness and beauty could not fail to recognize something “not of this world” in Jesus. Even Gentiles without any experience of the Hebrew tradition recognized “something greater” than anything the world had ever seen (e.g., the Roman centurion, the Samaritan woman, and the Canaanite woman).  One miraculous healing alone transformed a community; the people of the covenant witnessed hundreds.

Recognition of divine truth requires the eye of the heart. Scriptural knowledge is a boon, but not a guarantee of faith. The head without the heart is blind.

Jesus left them with the sign of Jonah, a prefiguration of his death and resurrection, which even the disciples did not fully understand until his mission had been accomplished.

-GMC

A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break

Byzantine icon, The Good Shepherd

15th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday (Year II)

Matthew 12:14-21

The Pharisees went out and took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. 

What a rabble-rouser, this Jesus! Picking grain on the sabbath, and then healing a man with a withered hand—in the synagogue, of all places! How dare he lecture the authorities on “doing good on the sabbath”! Such were the thoughts fomenting among the Pharisees. Buried alive under the letter of the law, their hearts turned stone cold when confronted with their twisted ethic of prioritizing an animal on the sabbath over a human being (Matthew 12:11). 

When Jesus realized this, he withdrew from that place.

There was no point in contending or debating. The hearts of the Pharisees were dead set against him. Another word from him would only add kindling to the fire.

Many people followed him, and he cured them all, but he warned them not to make him known.

People were suffering, and so the work of healing and mercy must go on. Jesus acted according to his nature; he could not do otherwise. Love must prevail over all obstacles, even the threat of death. The nature of divine love, however, is unassuming: it acts but seeks no credit. Goodness is as natural, abundant, pervasive, and invisible as the air everyone breathes. What need was there for any special recognition?

This was to fulfill what had been spoken through Isaiah the prophet: Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved in whom I delight; I shall place my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not contend or cry out, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory.

The Spirit-filled servant prophesied by Isaiah flowed as gently as water over hard and sharp rocks, but just as invincibly—smoothing them over time and conquering them by love. Uncontentious and without fanfare, the lamb of God came to lead the weak and frail to victory in the valley of humility. 

And in his name the Gentiles will hope.

-GMC

Another Point of View

Close-up view of wheat. Licensed by Bluemoose under CC BY-SA 3.0.

15th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year II)

Matthew 12:1-8

Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.”

If the wheat plants in this story could speak, they might shake their heads in wonder and ask, “Who is picking on who?”

As Jesus and his disciples were picking their heads of grain, a bunch of busybody Pharisees with wandering eyes began to pick on the pickers. 

A strange scenario! The wheat, for their part, joyfully welcomed the Lord of the sabbath to pick their heads and eat them. That is what they were made for. Never was a greater “honor” bestowed on wheat than to nourish their own Maker, though honor was not in their vocabulary. 

The whole field pricked up their wheat ears as Jesus explained: “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry, how he went into the house of God and ate the bread of offering, which neither he nor his companions but only the priests could lawfully eat?”

Silent applause. A glorious day in the history of wheat was being recounted, when the youthful David, the great champion over Goliath and future king of Israel, nourished himself and his companions with the holy bread at the hands of the noble priest Ahimelech (I Samuel 21:1-6). 

“Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests serving in the temple violate the sabbath and are innocent?”

Deep silence. How were the Pharisees going to respond to that obvious incongruity in their charge against Jesus? If picking grain on the Sabbath was unlawful, why not the more laborious work of temple sacrifice and ritual?

All of this sounded like nonsense to the wheat, for whom nature was simple and straightforward. When a creature was hungry, it ate. When thirsty, it drank. Every day belonged to the Lord of creation; simply to exist was to give him praise. The rules and regulations of humankind were simply baffling, and not a little unnatural (in the humble opinion of the wheat). 

“I say to you, something greater than the temple is here. If you knew what this meant, I desire mercy, not sacrifice, you would not have condemned these innocent men. For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”

Thunderous silent applause from the acres of wheat surrounding the conversation. Mercy! What a novel idea! Didn’t the humans realize that to be was to be merciful? To live was to love? The wheat knew this and gave thanks continually for the sun and soil, water and air, and the diligent hands of the farmer who nurtured them day after day. The simplest things eluded the most intellectual of creatures. 

As Jesus and his disciples departed, the Spirit of the Lord whispered to the wheat, “Today you have nourished your Maker and become his Body and Blood. In days to come you will work with me to divinize his brothers and sisters by feeding them his Body and Blood.”

The wheat entered into a silent alliance with the Spirit but did not consider it an honor. Their obedience was wholly spontaneous and unself-conscious.

-GMC

Related post: The Law Incarnate

Authentic Personhood

Widow’s Mite: 6th century image

9th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday

Mark 12:38-44

In the course of his teaching Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.”

The scribes who liked to parade their status lived on the outside, in the smokescreen of public image. In contrast, the widow commended by Jesus acted in accordance with the image of God imprinted on her heart.

And what is the image of God? “All mine are thine, and thine are mine” (John 17:10). Selfless love and dispossession are at the heart of the Trinity. The extravagant generosity of the widow forgetting herself and giving away her entire livelihood mirrored the divine poverty.

The truth of the heart cannot be detected by eyes and ears. Jesus, with the eyes of the spirit, “saw” the mountain of gold deposited by the widow in contrast with the mites tossed in by the rich. 

The widow beloved by Jesus is a mirror of authentic personhood, for self-divestiture is Trinitarian. Emptiness and fullness are two sides of the same coin stamped with the divine image. Emptied of self, the false boundaries of the ego yield to the mutual indwelling of persons and the fullness of divine love. If the Trinity is truly “all in all” (I Corinthians 15:28), we lose nothing and gain everything in giving ourselves away. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34).

-GMC

The Royal Image

9th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday

Mark 12:13-17

“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Should we pay or should we not pay?”

The Pharisees and the Herodians thought they had Jesus cornered. Popular political figures at the time like Judas the Gaulonite had rallied many devout Jews to view Caesar as an enemy of religion; God alone was their ruler. If Jesus answered “yes,” he would lose his followers. If he answered “no,” they could report him to the Roman authorities as a rebel and be rid of him.

Jesus was completely unfazed. He answered their question with another question. Looking at a Roman coin in their possession he asked, “Whose image and inscription is this?” Out of their own mouth came the reply, “Caesar’s.” Then came Jesus’ unforgettable response: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

It’s not that God is not sovereign over the whole world, but earthly governance also has its proper sphere. Render to earthly authorities what is theirs, Jesus says, but what is everlasting and permanent—your very persons—give to God. Earthly coins corrode and decay, but the image of God stamped upon you lasts forever. We are the coin of God (St. Augustine). God’s image and inscription are imprinted upon our humanity. 

The hypocrisy displayed in this episode came to its climax before Pontius Pilate when Jesus was handed over to be crucified. The chief priests themselves said, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15)

-GMC

22nd Sunday C: Friend, Come Up Higher

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Meals of every kind are described in the New Testament. Jesus begins his ministry at a wedding banquet in Cana in Galilee, John’s gospel says. Before his death, he has a meal with his disciples and after his resurrection he has some meals with them again. Martha and Mary and his friends in Bethany celebrate the return of Lazarus from the dead at a meal. His enemies say he ate too many meals with tax-collectors and sinners. Some of Jesus’ most profound teachings and actions take place at a meal.

Today in our reading from Luke’s gospel Jesus is invited to a Sabbath meal at the home of one of the leading Pharisees, but this meal is different from those just mentioned. They were carefully watching him, the gospel says. At a Sabbath meal God is thanked for his gifts, which he gives to all, but at this meal Jesus is being watched. He’s not an ordinary guest as he enters this home. He’s there to be measured and grilled by his hosts and put in his place.

At the time of Jesus it wasn’t unusual for a symposium to take place at a meal, especially in the home of someone like the leading Pharisee in today’s gospel. A symposium was an occasion when there would be a discussion of issues: questions would be raised, controversial matters would be debated. It was a time for people with quick wits and sharp tongues to show off how smart they were.

At this meal Jesus was going to be discussed; questions and controversies about him would be brought up and he would be disposed of. So we might imagine the guests at the Pharisee’s home on that occasion were like spectators at a prize fight, looking for the best seats to watch and maybe even take part in the contest themselves.

If this meal was a symposium, and I think it was, listen carefully to Jesus’ words to those who were there. He doesn’t just tell his hearers about common etiquette; he reminds them what this meal should be all about. This is a Sabbath meal. It’s a time for thanking God for the gift of life. It’s a time for rejoicing, not for showing off how smart you are. This is time when God calls us up higher. “Friend, come up higher.” From our small places here on earth, from the smallness we might consider our lives to be, God calls us up higher. It’s not a time pulling people down with your smart words.

For that same reason, this is a meal where everyone should have a place at the table, not just the wealthy and the privileged, the smart and the powerful, but “the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

Now, that’s what our Mass is about, isn’t it? Our Mass is our Sabbath meal where we give thanks for the gift of life. We give thanks to God. It’s right and just, our prayers say. We do this at all times, “always and everywhere,” but now we do it as disciples with Jesus our Lord. We listen to his word, we come to him in the bread and the wine, and through them he comes to us.

“Lift up your hearts.” “Friend, come up higher.” We lift up our hearts to the Lord. God calls us to come up higher, to see our gifts and the destiny we’re promised, to recognize our relationship with one another, to let go of the fears and doubts that cloud our minds, to feel the peace and hope God wishes us to have. The Mass prepares us for the life beyond this time. . “The Mass is ended. God in peace.” “Thanks be to God.”

Our Mass is a wonderful teacher, and we’re meant to take what it teaches and make it part of the rest of our lives. Let me give you a simple example, since we’re speaking about meals. Suppose we could make our meals, our eating together, Sabbath meals, where we enjoy the gifts of God we find in food and in one another.

That may sound like a strange suggestion. It sounds strange because eating together is becoming a endangered practice today. For one thing, a lot of people eat alone today, or if they come to a meal they might as well be eating alone.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our meals became times when we experienced those words of the gospel: “Friend, come up higher,” when we build each other up instead of tearing each other down, when we all feel welcome by others, even the stranger and the outsider, when we enjoyed the gifts of God in food and human companionship.