“All their works are performed to be seen”

This reading from Matthew (23: 1-12) seems more relevant than ever. In it, Jesus warns his disciples and the crowds about the scribes and Pharisees.

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice,” Jesus begins.

Then he warns, “They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them. All their works are performed to be seen.

Then Jesus goes further:

“They widen their phylacteries and lengthen their tassels. They love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Rabbi.

“As for you, do not be called ‘Rabbi.’ You have but one teacher, and you are all brothers. Call no one on earth your father; you have but one Father in heaven. Do not be called ‘Master’; you have but one master, the Christ.

“The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

How often today do we run into those who seek to teach us “the way” but don’t live by the teaching? Those who call themselves “Christian” or “minister” but fail to live up to the title? I cannot tell you how often I see someone on social media like Twitter who includes Christian in their bio but fails miserably to show mercy or compassion or love.

Everyone wants to be a teacher but few want to live the life of the teacher. Everyone wants to be seen as devout and humble and received as righteous and a leader, but few want to do the work to meet all the requirements.

Jesus’ message is clear: Live by the rule of love these people say they believe in as taught in the Gospel, but don’t live by their example. And don’t put yourself up as the example, but live by the rule of love.

 

“Which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

In the Gospel according to Matthew (22: 34-40), a scholar of Jewish law from the Sadducees comes to test Jesus. He asks, “Which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Without hesitation, Jesus instructs him,

“You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart,
with all your soul, and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself. “

Then Jesus tops it off with this rejoinder: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

I’m not sure what the scholar expected Jesus to say. Perhaps that there is no one commandment greater than another, it’s not the “Top 10 List of Greatest Commandments”? This is such a clear and concise and confirming answer.

Whenever I hear people point out the faults of others, especially when citing a commandment that someone has broken, I rarely if ever hear them cite either of these. And I often hear them complain about a list of other infractions that aren’t even on the list of commandments as if they were, and these people often fail to exhibit that they are being faithful to these two commandments.

While there are whole parts of the Gospel that supposed Christians love to quote over and over again, there are whole other parts that they love to skip over, this being chief among them.

Jesus clearly here tells us that more important than any other infraction against God is the failure to love God and love our neighbor. All other law depends on it. If you don’t put these commandments at the top of the commandments that guide you, the others mean little.

If you’re going to put a statute of The Commandments on your home, at your business, or on display in your public spaces, let it be these two commandments. Observance of the others will follow if you begin with these.

“Many are invited, but few are chosen”

Perhaps you have heard these words before. These are from Matthew 22: 1-14. In it, Jesus tells the chief priests and elders the parable of the king who gives a wedding feast for his son, but none of the officially invited guests come. Instead, they go about their daily routine or they abuse or murder his servants. So the king exacts revenge on the evildoers and burns their city. The feast is ready so the king sends out more servants, this time on the main roads to invite anyone they find, the good and the bad. Out of all the guests, the king finds one who isn’t dressed for the occasion — him the king has tied up and thrown out into the dark.

I paraphrase here because this is a long reading, but there are several interesting parts of what is a complex parable.

Jesus begins the parable by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king
who gave a wedding feast for his son.” Then he goes on to say, “He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.” This is a direct reference to the people of Jesus’ day, but very like also people throughout history since Jesus’ days. Jesus preached to the Jews and many wouldn’t listen, especially the chief priests and the elders. Later, the Apostles also preached to the gentiles, many of whom also wouldn’t listen.

A bit later Jesus says, “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” Today, the Gospel is preached and many go about their business, some of them even calling themselves Christians. They scorch others with their words and their misdeeds as if they never even heard Jesus speak.

The most confusing part for me is this near the end: “But when the king came in to meet the guests
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment. He said to him, ‘My friend, how is it that you came in here without a wedding garment?’ But he was reduced to silence. Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet, and cast him into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’” Is that a reference to not being prepared? Is that a reference to showing up as if you’re part of the celebration but not having your full heart into it? Is that to say that you say one thing but think or do another? People who come to church but aren’t really believers, or who say they are believers but exhibit something else entirely? Who is Jesus really speaking to there?

Jesus then ends his parable with these words: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” Many are invited and don’t show up; many are invited and do show up, but few of the invited are chosen to stay. Such is like the Kingdom of heaven.

 

“The last will be first, and the first will be last”

This is the last sentence from Matthew 20: 1-16. We have read it a few times elsewhere in Matthew.

In this reading, Jesus tells the disciples the parable of the landowner who hires workers for his vineyard and pays them all the same regardless of the time of day they start work. When one of the workers who started the earliest complains that he is being paid unfairly, because he spent the most time working in the hot sun, the landowner rebukes him.

“My friend, I am not cheating you.
Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?
Take what is yours and go.
What if I wish to give this last one the same as you?
Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money?
Are you envious because I am generous?”

And Jesus ends the parable with the words, Thus, the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

There are many ways of looking at this parable. Some in this day of labor law might wonder that Jesus thinks it’s OK to pay someone less for doing more work. Others in this day of fewer worker rights might see it as justification for paying less for working harder. But Jesus’ message here, as when he says it in other parts of Matthew, has little to do with paying workers for their labor and everything to do with salvation.

People often put themselves first over others because of their wealth, because of their position of power or popularity, or because they were the first to accept Christ as their Savior. What Jesus says here is that prominence or imminence isn’t eminence. In the kingdom of God, faith is what matters. Not when it occurred, not in what order, but the fact that you obtained it. In faith, we are equals. But if you put yourself above others, as in other matters of life you will be received as the lesser.

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord”

If you think there were no strong women in Jesus’ life you would be wrong. There was Mary of Magdalene, Mary the sister of Martha and Martha herself, the Samaritan woman who sought after Jesus’ help to cure her sister and wouldn’t take no for an answer, and of course, there was Jesus’ mother, Mary, whom God the Father chose wisely.

In this reading from Luke (1: 39-56), Mary who is with child visits her elder cousin Elizabeth, who is also with child — the child who will become John the Baptist. Upon Mary’s greeting, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps with joy. And Elizabeth is amazed.

“Blessed are you among women,
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me,
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears,
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

(This, by the way, is the origin of the Catholic prayer to Mary, the Hail Mary.)

And Mary shows both great faith and great strength as she replies:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.”

And then Mary goes on to list the great things that God has done for all of Israel.

Mary was a woman of great faith, putting all of that faith on the line when the Angel of the Lord came to her and announced the favor of the Lord was upon her and she accepted her role to become the Mother of Jesus, the Son of God. That took real strength.

It also took great strength when Mary and Joseph thought they had lost 12-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, to thankfully find him in the Temple preaching. And to see him leave home to take on his ministry yet turned away by those in his own community. Then to be turned away by him when they sought him on the road. But most especially, it took strength and faith to watch Jesus dying on the Cross.

God the Father surrounded Jesus with the right people, including strong women, especially his mother Mary. It’s unfortunate that The Church shies away from women leaders in ministry when we have such wonderful examples to draw from in scripture.

“What good must I do to gain eternal life?”

Most of us wonder from time to time what God asks of us and what it takes to gain eternal life. In Matthew 19: 16-22, Jesus tells a young man asking that very question: “Keep the commandments.” When the young man asks Jesus for specifics, Jesus names the commandments:

“You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;
you shall not steal;
you shall not bear false witness;
honor your father and your mother;
and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Then the young man says the he has kept all of these commandments. “What do I still lack?” he asks. Then Jesus tells the young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this point, the young man walks away sadly, because he has many possessions.

This is the reading for today’s Mass in the Catholic Church, but Matthew continues the story  telling his disciples that it is very hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God — “It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

I continually run into people who stress keeping the commandments, but they often forget Jesus’ admonition to give up all they possess and give to the poor. Some even deny that Jesus commands them to give to the poor, preferring to demonize the poor and glorify the rich. Yet Jesus says right here in Matthew that living by the commandments isn’t enough and that being rich is likely an impediment to getting into heaven.

Farther down in Matthew (19: 29-30) Jesus tells his disciples, “Everyone who has given up home, brothers or sisters, father or mother, wife or children or property for my sake will receive many times as much and inherit everlasting life. Many who are first shall come last, and the last shall come first.”

I also hear people ask what life is about, why we are put here on Earth. From all that I’ve read in the Gospels, it occurs to me that God put each of us on Earth not to build possessions for our sole amusement but to share with others for the benefit of all. We’re here to help each other. If God is generous to us, he expects us to be generous with others. All others. To “love your neighbor as yourself.” Remember, Jesus said that was the second most important commandment.

What good must we do? Although living the commandments is important so is loving others, loving them enough to be our “brother’s and sister’s keepers” — even when they aren’t our blood brothers and sisters.

“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

In this reading from the Gospel of John (Jn 6:51-58), the Jews are amazed at Jesus’ claim:

“I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

But Jesus responds:

“Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died, whoever eats this bread will live forever.” 

Roman Catholics take Jesus’ words literally, believing that the celebrant at Mass transforms the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood in the same way that Jesus did during the Last Supper.

But there’s a metaphorical way to read this scripture from John, too. Accepting Jesus into our lives as our savior welcomes his body and blood in our lives, and he will live in us forever. So if you don’t believe in the transformation of mere bread and wine into the actual body and blood of Christ, you can certainly believe in the metaphorical body and blood of Christ present in your soul, which can transform your life.

I’m not sure The Church would accept that metaphorical trade off, but it’s one way for non-believers to look at this bit of affirming scripture and see how it can be true for them, too.