1 KINGS 3:5, 7-12 | ROMANS 8:28-30 | MATTHEW 13:44-46
We’re concluding our reading of the 13th 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 beachcombers wandering along the beach with electronic metal detectors. They were looking for things like lost wedding rings or gold earrings – 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 beachcombers 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.
WISDOM 12:13, 1619 | ROMANS 8:26-27 | MATTHEW 13:24-43
Today we’re thinking about the kingdom of heaven, the central theme of Jesus’ ministry. Sometimes, as in the passage we’re reading today, Jesus spins a parable that delivers an impression of the kingdom. What makes the kingdom difficult to describe is that it’s not a concept; it’s also, and primarily, an experience. As we walk the Christian journey, the kingdom will intersect our lives. Sometimes it may come as a flash of lucidity – but a definition may elude us. Sometimes it may not be a thought at all, but a feeling – a deep, down in the heart experience that’s difficult to describe I wish I could share with you a precise definition of the kingdom, but I can’t. What I can do, however, is focus the images Jesus uses to describe it. From that point on, I will leave it to you to form your own idea of the kingdom. There are three images of the kingdom in the gospel today. The first is a field of wheat that has lots of weeds. In the story the landowner declares that an enemy has planted these weeds. He can’t pull the weeds up because he’ll pull the wheat up along with it. So, he’ll let them grow together and separate them at harvest time. (Focus thought) There’s tension built into the story; an enemy has planted the weeds. It seems there’s opposition to the flourishing of the kingdom. What does this image teach us about the dynamics of the kingdom? The second image is that of a tiny mustard seed that grows into a tree. (Focus thought) What power is hidden in that tiny seed that transforms it into a tree? Power that manifests the energy of the kingdom in our midst? How? The third image is a lump of yeast that mixes with flour. (Focus thought) When yeast is mixed into flour, there is no longer yeast nor flour – combined, they become dough. What can this teach us about the kingdom? These little parables are meant to be pondered and prayed over. Let your heart guide your thoughts. Feel free to let your mind wander about with these images. All kind of ideas might surface. Respect them. As you reflect don’t ignore your feelings; they’re connected to the heart. We want our reflections to be thoughtful and personal – heartfelt. The Spirit works through the heart as well as the intellect. While reflecting, keep in mind what Jesus taught us: “The kingdom of God is among you.” (Luke 17:21)
ISAIAH 55:10-11 | ROMANS 8:18-23 | MATTHEW 13:1-9
The message Isaiah delivers to us today, and the parable Jesus spins, need to be stamped in our minds and hearts. They remind us that God’s word is always productive, whether it comes to us like gentle rain or like seeds tossed over the soil. We’re reminded that God is always reaching out to us. God is continually communicating with us. God is never silence.
We’re reminded, too, that we often don’t hear God’s word. Sometimes we’re only ready to hear a part of the message, or we hear it and then forget it. The parable of the sower presents the various ways we might miss hearing God’s word, ignoring it, not taking the time and effort to come to understand its meaning for our lives, or being so distracted by the lives we lead, that we don’t even realize that God’s speaking to us. Today’s message is clear: stop, be quiet, listen. God is speaking to you.
There’s an additional teaching in today’s scripture that we shouldn’t overlook. We’re disciples of Jesus, and so we’ve committed ourselves, like he did, to share the word of God. What we’ve heard, what we’ve understood, what we’ve integrated into our lives must be shared. Don’t forget what Jesus told his disciples as he sent them out on their mission. “Make this proclamation: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”
We’re open to the word of God. We listen for it; we take it to heart. But we’re also asked to share what we’ve heard. We do this by the example of our lives, by the advice and guidance we give, by preaching in whatever way we might preach. Sometimes we’ll be heard but not understood. Sometimes we’ll be ignored. Sometimes the word we share will touch a heart, and that word will yield “a hundred or sixty, or thirtyfold.”
ZECHARIAH 9:9-10 | ROMANS 8:9, 11-13 | MATTHEW 11:25-30
Today, we’re asked to reflect on the most famous invitation Jesus extended. “Come to me all who labor and are burdened, and I will give your rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
We’ve been reading chapter ten of Matthew’s Gospel for the past few Sundays. In that chapter Jesus was instructing his disciples in preparation for the preaching ministry they were about to begin. His invitation to “take my yoke upon you” was extended first to his apostles, and then to all disciples who would come after them. That’s all of us. Let’s think about this call.
Let’s look at the invitation Jesus extended to his apostles. They were his co-workers, his laborers. They accepted his call and carried the burdens his ministry demanded. Remember he told them not to take money with them or a change of clothes. He warned them that they wouldn’t even have a place to rest their heads at night. This was difficult stuff. Jesus was calling them in a radical way. But perhaps the most difficult part of the ministry would be the rejection that would come with it, a rejection Jesus himself experienced. Their teachings were condemned. They became social pariahs. They were arrested, some of them scourged and some executed.
The image of the yoke that Jesus used was well known to them. A yoke was a finely sculptured wooden beam that was secured over the shoulders of the ox. The plow was attached to the yoke so that the ox could painlessly lean into it to pull the plow. The yoke had to be precisely and uniquely shaved to fit perfectly so that the ox wouldn’t be bruised or chaffed. The yoke Jesus offers is his special care he gives to each one of us so that we might assist him in his ministry.
Most of us live securely within the structures of our society. We don’t fear the dangers that the apostles and early disciples did. Yet, we don’t seem to be as dedicated as the early disciples. We tend to hesitate taking on an active role in the ministry of Christ. I think that, deep down, we’re afraid of being rejected or threatened if we were to engage in his mission more publicly.
I think today’s gospel is asking each one of us, regardless of our age or social status to consider putting on the yoke of his ministry. To really be a Christian we have to discover when he meant when he said his yoke was easy and his burden light. That can only be achieved when we accept his yoke and begin plowing the field with him.
2 KINGS 4:8-11, 14-16A | ROMANS 6:3-4, 8-11 | MATTHEW 10:37-42
As a teacher and preacher, Jesus often used the tool of exaggeration to get the attention of his audience. I’m sure his message today got the attention of all of us.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” I’ve lost track of the number of people who have questioned me about this sentence. How could Jesus possibly ask that of his disciples? I always bring up the following sentence to add more stress to their question. “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me.”
We don’t hear this sentence like the people who first heard Jesus deliver it. During Jesus’ lifetime, when he was around eight years old, there was a revolt in Galilee lead by Judas, a zealot. In retaliation, Varus, the Roman general who squelched the revolt, lined the roads leading to Galilee with the crosses of 2000 Jews. The memory still haunted people’s minds. Why would he dare say something like this? His first demand to love him more than our fathers and mothers is clearly exaggeration. The second image would have sent chills down the spines of his listeners.
We Christians speak a lot about love, and much of our talk is warm and cuddly. That’s fine. A commitment to love should have the benefit of loved returned. Jesus loved his apostles, his special group of twelve disciples, and they loved him in return. We know that their love crumpled horribly during the last day of his life. All but one, the young man, John, abandoned him. They feared for their own lives, so they ran away and let him die alone.
Jesus’ teaching is so very important for our reflection. His command to “love one another as I have loved you” isn’t to be taken lightly. The love Jesus models is a sacrificial love. It’s love that gives without expecting to be loved in return. It means loving others even when they act unlovingly. It means carrying the cross of love.
JEREMIAH 20:10-13 | ROMANS 5:12-15 | MATTHEW 10:26-33
In this brief passage, Jesus speaks a simple message to everyone who believes in him. “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed.” In other words, the truth he speaks cannot be stifled. In spite of every imaginable opposition, the truth will come to the light, and it will find a place in every heart that accepts it.
Jesus is also alerting us, his disciples, to the challenge we’ll have in proclaiming this message. It will prove to be a dangerous and difficult battle. So, three times he cautions us not to be afraid to speak the truth.
That phrase, do not be afraid, is repeated 365 times in the bible. I guess God wants us to hear it and take it to heart. When the Gospels were written Christians were under persecution. They had plenty to fear. But in spite of the danger they shared the Good News Jesus announced, “the Kingdom of God is at hand.” He’s calling each of us, in our own unique way, to share the Good News – to preach the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Don’t be put off with the idea of preaching Jesus’ message. You don’t have to be preachy to preach; but you do have to believe that the Kingdom of God is within reach – you have to open your heart to it.
In the only prayer Jesus bequeathed to us, he defined the Kingdom of God; it’s life in perfect harmony with God’s will. “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The Kingdom of God will manifest itself to the world through the hearts of disciples like you and me. When we, one step at a time, hand over our will to God, the Kingdom of God takes a step into our world.
Handing over our will isn’t easy to do. So, he encourages us, over and over again, “do not be afraid.” Let’s go. Freefall into God’s hands and begin sharing the message. The Kingdom of God is at hand.
DEUTERONOMY 8:2-3, 14B-16A | JOHN 4:7-16 | MATTHEW 11:25-30
The gospel begins with a beautiful image: Jesus looking over the crowds that are following after him. He had delivered his sermon on the mount a while ago and had been curing the sick as he traveled from town to town preaching in the synagogues. His heart is filled with pity for them. They’re troubled. He has awakened feelings they’ve buried long ago, feelings of poverty, and emptiness. They’re orphaned, motherless, fatherless, abandoned. They’re lost souls. They’re sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus turns his gaze to the disciples around him and announces, “The harvest is abundant.” Then he begins to pick his first laborers, twelve of them: Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, Thomas, Matthew, James, Thaddeus, Simon, Judas. But what a group!
One will deny that he ever knew Jesus. Another will betray him by handing him over to the Jewish authorities. One will deny that Jesus rose from the dead. One, the tax collector, was a traitor to the Jewish nation. One was an assassin! This is the first set of laborers. Others will follow, but this is the first group, the model group. How did they accept the call to labor in the vineyard of the Lord?
This group of misfits preached throughout the Roman empire and beyond. They established many Christian communities in Italy,
Syria, Greece, Lebanon, Turkey, Armenia and even India. Peter and James wrote letters to their communities instructing them in the Christian way of life. They trained and assigned leaders to the communities to nurture them and to see to the continued spread of the gospel message. This group changed the world.
We’re the recipients of their labor. This account of the first disciples was given to us today so that we could hear the same call they heard. “But I’m not good enough,” you might say. “I’m not learned enough,” you might protest! “I’m not holy enough.”
Well, you’re not! And neither were they. But they said, “yes.” Look at the power of that word, nothing has been the same since they uttered it.
Jesus’ words are directed to us today: “Without cost you have received. Without cost you are to give.” He’s listening. Are you brave enough to say yes?
A third time the Lord called.
“Speak Lord. Your servant is listening.”
(1 Samuel 3:10)
DEUTERONOMY 8:2-3, 14B-16A | 1 CORINTHIANS 10:16-17 | JOHN 6:51-58
“As regards the Eucharist, give thanks in this manner. First for the cup. We thank you, our Father, for the holy vine of David, your servant, which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant. Glory be to you forever. And for the broken bread. We thank you, our Father, for the life and knowledge which you have made known to us through Jesus, your servant. Glory be to you forever. As this bread that is broken was scattered upon the mountains, and gathered together, and became one, so let your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom: for yours is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ forever.”
This quote is from a first-second century document, “The Didache.” It’s a handbook written by an anonymous Christian Community before the composition of the four gospels but after Paul wrote his letters to the Christian communities. It gives instructions for living the Christian life and directions for baptizing and celebrating the Eucharist. This passage I’ve quoted gives the words of blessing for the bread and wine. It’s certainly different from the ritual we celebrate today. It consists of three prayers of thanksgiving: thanks for the cup, thanks for the broken bread, and finally a prayer of thanks for all who share the bread.
The prayer recognizes Jesus as the holy vine of David, the messianic king, inaugurating the kingdom through the life and knowledge he brought from the Father. The bread, broken and shared, celebrates the community’s participation in Christ’s life of selfgiving.
The early vision of the eucharistic gathering that the passage from the Didache provides, can, I believe, help enrich our present experience of the Sunday gathering. It stresses the unity of those gathered. As the blessing reminds us, wheat was gathered and made into one loaf. So, we pray that the community will unite so profoundly that it will become the one body of Christ. The breaking and sharing of the bread symbolizes Christ’s breaking and sharing of himself and invites our participation in his unconditional love.
We may forget, sometimes, that the Eucharist speaks prophetically. When we pray that we become one body – the body of Christ – we should be aware that we are being challenged to live the unity that we celebrate. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian he admonished the community for dividing into factions. He asked them, “Can Christ be divided?”
It’s more important than ever for Christians to heed the prophetic call for unity. The world we live in is suffering so profoundly because of its disharmony and disunity. The Eucharist we celebrate compels all true followers of Christ to plant the seeds of unity in a disunited world by the way they live and interact. This is no easy task. That’s why Jesus warned us, “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.”
As we celebrate the Feast of the Body of Christ today, let’s lift up the Didache’s prayer consecrating the bread and the community. Let’s commit to Christ’s call break and share the bread of unity. “As this bread that is broken was scattered upon the mountains, and gathered together, and became one, so let your Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into your kingdom.”
EXODUS 34:4B-6, 8-9-11 | CORINTHIANS 13:11-13 | JOHN 3:16-18
“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
This is our gospel message today. Can there be any message that carries more hope and consolation? When we contemplate the accounts of what Jesus said and did, these words stand out as a summary of his teachings and actions – love – love with no limits love unconditionally poured out.
Think of some of the things Jesus did. He told the religious leaders to throw the first stone if they themselves hadn’t sinned when they dragged an adulterous woman before him quoting the law that she should be stoned. He healed a leper by touching him, an act of horror and disgust to the people of his day. He entered into communion with traitors and sinners, like the tax collectors, Matthew and Zacchaeus, by eating with them. He offered “living water” to the Samaritan woman who was rejected by society because of her numerous marriages. He assured the revolutionary who was crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” He looked down from the cross at the crowd condemning him and prayed, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing.” Can anyone deny God’s love for us when we look at Jesus’ actions?
Did Jesus get angry at people? Yes. He was angry with the religious leadership who were rigid and judgmental. Did he get frustrated by people who refused to hear his message of love and forgiveness? Of course! But as today’s gospel passage goes on, “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Never forget his teaching, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” He was calling us to act like him, to think like him, to be like him. Paul testified to this call when he wrote to the Galatians: “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” As followers of Jesus we have to be so careful not to fall into pre-Jesus ways of thinking: accusatory, intolerant, judgmental. We’re called to open our hearts to divine love to be healed by that love, just as the leper was healed by the touch of Jesus’ hand. We’re not called to self-righteous condemnation of others. We’re called to preach hope, consolation and God’s unconditional and unending love.
Let’s conclude this reflection by reminding ourselves of what Paul wrote to the Romans. “In all things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
ACTS 2:1-11 | 1 CORINTHIANS 12:3B-7, 12-13 | JOHN 20:19-23
It was fifty days after Passover. It was the Feast of Shavuot, the celebration commemorating the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai. It was a day to eat festive pastries, to decorate homes and synagogues with flowers and to bring all the children to synagogue to witness the reading of the ten commandments. It was a day to contemplate Israel’s binding contract with God, the Law.
But it wasn’t so festive for the disciples of Jesus in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. They were in hiding even though they had seen Jesus many times since his death. He spoke with them and instructed them about his life and mission. Some of them saw him ascend to the Father, but even though he promised to send the Spirit to them, they were frightened. They felt empty and, frankly, abandoned.
It happened suddenly. It was a loud sound of wind howling through the room, but they felt nothing. Then there was fire, small flames that looked like tongues that moved around the room attaching themselves to the disciples. And as the tongues touched them, they began to speak languages that weren’t their own. The Spirit Jesus had promised was embracing them. They were filled with courage, each one boldly giving witness to the Jesus event and proclaiming the message about the Kingdom of God.
People on the street heard the commotion – the wind and the cacophony of voices. A large crowd formed. What in the world was going on? How could it be that everyone, the people from Turkey and Iraq, Egypt and Libya, Iran and India, Greece and Rome who were visiting Jerusalem, heard the disciples’ message simultaneously in their own language and dialect?
Luke was reporting this Pentecost event fifty years or so after the fact. He was thinking of that day, but also of the on-going Pentecost he was witnessing. By the year 85 AD when Luke was writing, there were Christian communities throughout the Roman empire in areas we call Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The Roman persecutions had begun twenty years before, but the communities were still growing, and the gospel was still being preached. The fire of Pentecost remained with the disciples. People of every language were hearing about Jesus, and accepting him as Messiah and Lord. The Kingdom of God was near.
Today, you and I are reflecting on the same Pentecost event that the early disciples experienced; and, like Luke, we’re simultaneously looking around the world of today. We see people still reaching out to the tongues of fire; they’re proclaiming the Gospel and people are listening – in China, North Korea, India, throughout Africa and the Middle East. In so many of these places the persecutions continue, but the message is still proclaimed.
We recall St. Paul, recently released from prison, writing to his co-worker Timothy: “This is the gospel I preach even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word cannot be chained. Therefore, I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they, too, may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus, with eternal glory.”
It’s Pentecost. We’re celebrating the giving of the new Law, the Law of the heart that Jesus proclaimed on the Mount. We’re celebrating our anointing with the Spirit. The Kingdom of God is indeed near; it dwells in our hearts. It empowers us to dedicate our lives to the preaching of the Gospel. It empowers us to be the “light of the world” and “the salt of the earth.”