TWENTY-FIRST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 23, 2020
ISAIAH 22:19-23. ROMANS 11:33-36 MATTHEW 16:33-36
he first scripture reading in the Sunday liturgy is chosen to compliment the Gospel passage. This week, it’s taken from the prophecy of Isaiah. It announces the downfall of Shebna, King Hezekiah’s comptroller. Isaiah tells him that he will soon be replaced by Eliakim. “I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts, no one shall open.”
Today’s Gospel recounts Simon’s profession of faith in Jesus: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Because of his insight Jesus awarded him the keys to the kingdom of heaven and changed his name. “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church…I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”
The two accounts use the image of keys. Peter is given the keys to the king
dom because he’s a man of faith and recognizes the truth about Jesus; he is the Christ. Shebna has the keys of the palace taken from him because he’s corrupt.
Both accounts initiate a time of change. Simon, the loyal disciple and man of faith, has his name changed to Peter designating the new role he is to play in the kingdom. Shebna, the corrupt and grandiose comptroller of the palace who colluded with the Assyrians against Judah, will be divested of his position. The keys will be taken from him and given to Eliakim, an honest, loyal and virtuous man.
Both passages deal with revelations. Peter is revealed as the future leader of the Church who is given the power to forgive sin. Shebna is revealed as a thief and a traitor and will have his power taken from him and given to another.
Both of these passages aren’t difficult to understand. Shebna is deeply corrupt and pays the price for his treachery. Peter is a good man and receives a good man’s reward, the keys to the kingdom of God.
I could reflect on Peter as the rock. I could reflect on the power Peter was given to forgive sins. I could reflect on the nature of Shebna’s corruption – grandiosity, thievery and treason. But I find that, since the beginning of the pandemic in March, I’ve been tending to look at the scriptures in a different way. I look at them through the lens of prophecy because I think we’re in a prophetic moment. Sometimes prophecy comes through the voice of an oracle like Isaiah. Sometimes it comes through the interpretation of events or reading the signs of the times.
No one can ignore the epidemic that has turned our entire world upside down. Millions of people have fallen sick and hundreds of thousands have died. The economic impact of the pandemic has been devastating and is deepening. So many people are hurting. So many are questioning why this is
At least two things are happening. The pandemic is revealing the dark truth of our socio-economic-political dysfunction. Our healthcare system is showing its systemic inequality. Our national economic safety nets, like unemployment compensation and social security help just enough to keep the poor, poor. The pandemic is calling us to renew and revamp our social and economic structures. It’s revealing the impotency of our politics. It’s calling out our corruption. It’s giving us a chance to change.
At the same time it’s revealing our primary strength: the tenacity and selflessness of good people everywhere. Think of the multitude of our heroic front-line workers, the doctors and nurses, the EMS workers, the personal attendants, the postal workers, the train and bus personnel, the cleaners and janitors, the delivery persons, the supermarket workers, the meat packers, the teachers. They’re the rock our society is built upon and yet, tragically, many of them are the lowest paid workers in the nation.
The scriptures today speak of keys. In one case the keys to a new world were awarded to the man who saw the truth. In the other case the keys were taken away from a corrupt man who feels himself above the truth.
Looking at this moment in our history as a prophetic moment, I see the pandemic as a catalyst calling us to change and reform our society. There has been too much suffering in the world. It’s not the world God created. It’s the world we created. We’re being challenged to open our eyes to the truth – to be brave and courageous and to take all the political, economic and social steps necessary to make the world a better place for every person. Only then can the keys to the kingdom of light and truth be offered to us. Only then can we be awarded the keys to “a new heaven and a new earth.”
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TWENTIENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 16, 2020
ISAIAH 56:1, 6-7. ROMANS 11:13-15, 29-32. MATTHEW 15:21-28
In today’s Gospel passage Jesus leaves Palestine and withdraws to the region of Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. A Canaanite woman begins to follow him, calling out over and over again, “Have pity on me Lord, Son of David. My daughter is tormented by a demon.” It’s noteworthy that this
pagan woman is addressing him as the Messiah, the Son of David!
He ignores her, but she’s persistent! When the disciples ask Jesus to send her away he reminds them that he “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Having said that, he should have sent her away, but he didn’t. Instead, he
tells her that, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” This sounds so unlike Jesus to us. But the word Jesus uses for dogs is playful, not insulting. A better translation would be doggies, tiny lap dogs!
The woman picks up on his ironic joke. “Please Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall form the table of their masters.” Impressed by the depth of her faith, he instantly cures her daughter.
In this dark time of national populism when even Christians silently tolerate our government locking up brown children in cages because “they’re not one of us,” this passage is particularly poignant.
In the society Jesus lived in, the world was clearly divided, “them and us.” This divide was dictated and enforced by the religious leadership. It’s clear that Jesus didn’t follow these populist traditions so engrained in his society. He traveled outside of Palestine, cured many Gentiles and even praised the depth of their faith as witnessed in the passage today. He regularly suffered attacks from the religious right for his position. Eventually, they had him executed.
Today, let’s think about the “them and us” phenomenon tragically deteriorating the ideals on which our country was founded. This scene with Jesus and the Canaanite woman compels each of us to question to what extent I might have bought into the them-and-us dynamic? What must I do to permit Jesus to begin healing this situation? How can I be part of the remedy?
Lord Jesus, Son of David, you healed the Roman Centurion’s slave, the Samaritan leper, the Gerasene demonic. You offered eternal life to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. I beg you to heal my heart and the heart of my country. Cleanse the stains of racism and privilege from my mind and heart and soul. Give me the strength to suffer as you suffered when you reached out to the foreigner and the outcast. Lord Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner.
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NINETEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 9, 2020
1 KINGS 19:11-13A. ROMANS 9:1-5 MATTHEW 14:22-33
The fourteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which we conclude today, is perhaps the most emotionally charged chapter outside the Passion Narrative. Let me recap the progression of events beginning with the conclusion of chapter thirteen that ends with a sad and disturbing scene. Jesus is rejected by the people of his home town, Nazareth. They see his healings. They listen to his preaching. But because of their familiarity with Jesus and his family they were strangely put off by him. They asked, “where did this man get all this?” In fact, their lack of faith in him was so deep that “he did not work mighty deeds there.”
Chapter fourteen immediately picks up and intensifies the darkness. It begins with Herod’s “profession of faith” in Jesus. This may seem like a contradiction, but think of the times demons address Jesus as the Son of God. It often seems that the powers of darkness acknowledge Jesus before the people he’s teaching and even before his disciples. Herod had been hearing of the mighty powers that were at work in Jesus. He came to the conclusion that Jesus must be John the Baptist risen from the dead.
Matthew immediately reminds us of the events of John’s death. We all know the story. Herodias, Herod’s present wife and ex-wife of his brother Philip, had been plotting to murder John because he publically condemned her and her marriage to Herod. She had already managed to get him arrested and imprisoned. But her real opportunity for revenge came at a banquet celebrating Herod’s birthday. Everybody was there, his military leaders and members of his political inner circle. We could easily conclude that Herod and his guests were drunk by the time Salome, Herodias’ daughter, performed a dance for the guests. She “delighted Herod so much that he swore to give her whatever she might ask for.” Herodias took advantage of the situation and prompted her to ask for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. Fearing political embarrassment Herod granted her request. After the banquet John’s disciples asked for his body so that they might give him a proper burial. They then went and informed Jesus of his execution. “When Jesus heard of it, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself.”
It is no accident that Matthew places the account of John’s death in the very same chapter in which he gives the account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish. He’s clearly contrasting the love celebrated in the Eucharistic banquet of the kingdom of God with the depraved banquet in Herod’s earthly kingdom.
The account of the multiplication of the loaves and fish implies that the disciples have the same power to feed the multitude. By his command, “Give them some food yourselves,” he’s reminding them that he came to serve and not to be served. To be his disciples and to celebrate the Eucharistic meal they need to follow his example of self-giving.
After the crowd of five thousand had eaten their fill Jesus sent his disciples off in a boat to the other side of the lake. He retreated into solitude again. Meanwhile, a storm blew up catching the disciples a few miles off shore. Their boat was being tossed about by strong winds. The disciples feared for their lives.
It was the fourth watch of the night, between 3:00 AM and 6:00 AM. According to folk lore, it was the time when spirits and phantoms were returning to their graves after a night of wandering. Suddenly, they saw a figure walking on the water. They began to scream in horror – it was a dybbuk, a ghost!
A voice broke through the howling wind. “Take courage; it is I; do not be afraid.” Could it be Jesus? Peter challenged the spirit. “Lord, if it is you command me to come to you on the water.” Peter stepped out of the boat and miraculously stood on the water, but he gave into his fear and began to sink screaming out, “Lord, save me!” Without any hesitation Jesus reached out to him. The two of them stepped into the boat. The wind subsided. The storm passed. Everyone was safe.
Jesus’ comment to them was part admonition, part disappointment. He had entered the storm with them. He responded immediately to Peter’s plea for help. Yet, they still didn’t grasp who he was. “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” There’s sadness in his question. The people of Nazareth had outright rejected him. In spite of the miracle of the loaves and fish the disciples had still not put their faith in him.
They continued crossing the lake and came to Gennesaret, a predominately Gentile area. Word got out that Jesus was there. People brought their sick to him to be healed. Their faith was great. They believed that if they merely touched the tassels on his cloak they would be healed. Matthew concludes the chapter by testifying that whoever did touch him was cured.
As I said in the introduction to this reflection there’s a great deal of sadness surrounding Jesus. He’s rejected by friends and family in Nazareth. He’s mourning the death of John the Baptist. He feels pity for the crowds when they come to him for healing. He’s saddened by the disciples’ lack of faith.
The chapter also presents contrasts. Herod’s diabolical banquet is set against the scene of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, an icon of the Eucharistic meal in the kingdom of God.
The rejection Jesus experienced from the people of Nazareth is contrasted with the deep faith of the Gentiles in Gennesaret.
The storm at sea focuses this chapter. Jesus suffered in this life not only on the cross but through the rejection of friends, relatives, political and religious figures and even his disciples. His suffering, rather than separating him from the world, created a bond with the suffering human family. There will be ups and downs. There will be storms, sometimes terrifying storms, but he will walk with us. He’ll reach out his hand to each of us. We should never be afraid to cry out in faith, “Save me, Lord!” Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to walk on the water with him.
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SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, July 26, 2020
1 KINGS 3:5, 7-12
We’re concluding our reading of the 13 th chapter of Matthew’s gospel today which consists of a string of seven parables each imaging the kingdom of God. This week we’re reflecting on the last three in the series. Let’s get right into them.
1. “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and
goes out and sells all that he has and buys that field.” It has been a long time since I’ve had the pleasure of lounging on the beach. But I remember, from the olden days, seeing beach combers wandering along the beach with electronic metal detectors. They were looking for things like lost wedding rings or gold ear rings – anything of value.
Well, in Palestine, at the time of Jesus, it was not unheard of that someone found a real treasure buried in a field. Palestine was in itself an unimportant country on the coast of the Mediterranean. Because of its geography it suffered, but survived, countless invasions.
The powerful countries of the north and the west like Assyria, Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt frequently engaged in wars among themselves and other smaller countries. The main roads that connected these countries snaked through Palestine. So, it was common for families to flee the advancing armies with the hope of returning after the armies marched through. Families would sometime bury their valuables before fleeing. Sadly, some of them never returned. Like today’s beach combers there were always people who wandered around looking for a dent in the soil that might signal a buried treasure. From this common phenomenon Jesus spun his parable.
(Focus Thought) Many of us carry the hope of discovering a treasure and, with it, a new life. Are you searching for a treasure, temporal or spiritual?
What do you think about letting go of everything you value in order to buy the field with the buried treasure? What are your thoughts and feelings about letting go of the things you value?
2. “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that pearl.”
In the Roman Empire, and throughout the Middle East, pearls were highly valued because of their delicate beauty. They came from the sea which was considered the source of all life and therefore had a mystical quality. Pearls aren’t like gold or silver that’s mined from the earth and must go through a series of processes to become the valued coin or the piece of jewelry. A pearl is beauty itself.
(Focus Thought) Are you searching for a deeper meaning to your life? What is the pearl that, if you possessed it, would put your soul to rest? Take special note of your feelings as you think about the meaning of this parable.
3. The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. When it is full they haul it ashore and sit down to put what is good into baskets. What is bad they will throw away.
Hmmmm. This sound a little bit like last week’s parable of the wheat and the weeds. They grew together only to be separated at harvest time. Here the image is more aggressive. Fisherman cast their nets when they see the water moving, bubbling in a way, because a school of fish is swimming just below the surface. With strength and precision, the nets are cast over the school and immediately yanked back to the boats to catch as many fish as possible. After the haul, the catch is separated. The fish are kept. What’s unwanted is thrown back into the sea.
(Focus Thought) Have you ever experienced the excitement of hope? I’m thinking of a song from West Side Story that poetically catches that excitement: Something’s Coming. “Could be, who knows? There’s something due any day I will know right away soon as it shows. It many come cannonballing down through the sky, gleam in its eye, bright as a rose. Who knows?” What are you hoping for? What’s just under the surface? You can almost see it. You can almost reach out and touch it.
You’re not sure what it is – but you know – it’s there. Don’t be afraid to think about this. It can bring up feeling. Don’t be afraid of thoughts that seem illogical or off the topic. Respect every thought and feeling. Don’t be afraid to cast the net out onto the unknown.
Matthew concludes this chapter of parables with an important maxim. “Every scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.”
Through the Focus Thoughts we’ve been looking inside ourselves. These parables are symbolic maps meant to guide us as we travel the inner path. Our fears, hopes, dreams and even our style of living are the things that can inhibit or help our spiritual development. This is what Jesus refers to as “the old.” When we recognize them, we can be more prepared to begin a new way of living – a spirit-filled way of living. This is the foundation of new life in the kingdom of heaven.
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EIGHTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME, August 2nd, 2020
ISAIAH 55:1-3 . ROMANS 8:35, 37-39. MATTHEW 14:13-21
I’m beginning to write this reflection at 3:30 PM on July 27th. I’ve just spent the last three hours watch- ing U.S. Representative John Lewis being brought to Washington, D.C. to lie in state at the Capitol, the first black legislator to receive this honor. I watched the well-choreographed procession to the rotunda. I listened to the speeches and prayers during the ceremony. Those who spoke were politically correct and said good and positive things about him. It was John Lewis himself, however, who ignited the fire of the Spirit on the Capitol today. The audience sat quietly, deeply respectful and at time tear-filled as they listened to a recording of Representative Lewis’ 2014 commencement speech to the graduates of Emory University.
He spoke about his life. He spoke about leaving his little rural town with his parents when he was four years old to visit Troy, Montgomery, Tuskegee and Birmingham. He read signs: white man, colored man, white woman, colored woman, white man waiting, colored man waiting. He later asked his parents, “why?” They answered the four-year old. “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way. Don’t get into trouble.”
He continued. In 1955, when he was fifteen, listening to the radio, he heard about a woman named Rosa Parks, and the words of a man named Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1957 he met Rosa Parks. In 1958 he met Dr. King. What he saw in them in- spired him “to get in trouble – good trouble, necessary trouble.” He took the torch from them and bravely set the direction of his life. At the conclusion of his story, he challenged the graduates. “Keep your eyes on the prize!”
As I began reading the three scripture passages for this Sunday I could hear John Lewis’ voice speaking in each one. First was Isaiah’s call. “All you who are thirsty, come to the water. You who have no money, come, receive grain and eat. Come, without paying and without cost, drink wine and milk!” Isaiah is telling us that God’s arms are open, embracing everyone to the Promised Land – black, white, brown, Asian, Indige- nous, straight, gay, rich, poor.
Representative Lewis interpreted the prophecy in this way. “We all live in the same house and it doesn’t matter if we’re black or white. Find a way to create the beloved community, the beloved world, a world of peace, a world that will recognize the dignity of all human kind.” This is God’s promised land. “Keep your eyes on the prize.”
The Gospel passage begins, “When Jesus heard of the death of John the Baptist, he withdrew in a boat to a de- serted place by himself.” This matter- of-fact sentence has so much to teach us. Don’t ever think that Jesus wasn’t gripped by fear. Don’t think he never carried the weight of sadness and mourning. Don’t think that Jesus was never challenged by doubt. In spite of all the challenges and hostil- ity he faced, he never gave up. He continued the work of the kingdom. He never lost sight of the promised land. When the crowds interrupted his silent mourning, he cured those among them who were sick. He sat them down and fed them with five loaves and two fish because his love was powerful enough to do that. Jesus never lost sight of the prize
his colleague, Timothy. Paul was humble enough to use himself as an example of dedication to the principles Jesus manifested in his life and preaching. Today, the day Represen- tative John Lewis lies in state at the Capitol, is a most appropriate day to listen to Saint Paul’s message to his co-worker. John Lewis heard the message of Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he witnessed their fidelity to the Gospel. He accepted the torch they extended to him. Today he extends the torch to anyone who is courageous enough to accept it. I’m concluding today’s reflection with Saint Paul’s exhortation to Timothy. It spoke to John Lewis. May it speak to us.
“I remind you to stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self- control. So, do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God. Take as your norm the sound words you heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard this rich trust with the help of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us”
(Timothy 1:6-8, 13-14)
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