Tag Archives: Gospel of Matthew

Learning in Bad Times

I find myself turning away from the news on television these days. I don’t think I’m the only one. The pandemic only seems to be getting worse, and we’re getting worse with it.

So we turn to the Good News.

I’m finding the Gospel of Matthew, which we’re reading these weekdays and on Sundays, helpful. It was written for people struggling with bad times.

The bad times were around the year AD 90 when the followers of Jesus in Galilee were reeling from the attacks of a resurgent Judaism. Those attacks are described in Chapters 10-12 of Matthew’s gospel.

Instead of closing their eyes and hanging on tight, Jesus tells his disciples to open their eyes and their ears, because there’s something for them to learn. “Blessed are your eyes, because they see and your ears because they hear. Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it and hear what you hear and did not hear it”  (Matthew 13:16-17). He says that as he teaches them in parables.

Bad times can be the best times to learn. Some of the best things we know; some of the best insights we have;  some of the most creative thoughts may come in bad times. God doesn’t stop speaking or teaching in bad times; God sows seeds and opens new avenues. New treasures, new pearls are there to be discovered in the ground we walk over and the jumble of things that seem to overwhelm us.

We will be reading soon the parables of the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price and the net that pulls up a bewildering variety of things from the sea.  It’s a message continued in the mystery of the Passion of Jesus. The disciples saw only death and failure there at first, but then they saw treasures in the wounds, the blood and water that flowed from his side, the words he said.

We don’t have to turn away from bad times. They’re times to keep your eyes and ears open, Jesus says. Like his first disciples, we should pray, not for blinders, but for “understanding hearts.”

“I Will Allure Her”

Resurrection of Jairus’ Daughter (Unknown author – Codex Egberti, Fol 25)

14th Week in Ordinary Time, Monday (Year II)

Hosea 2:16, 17b-18, 21-22; Matthew 9:18-26

Hosea, a prophetic instrument of God, had the unusual vocation of illustrating with his own life God’s undying love for his people. Directed to take an unfaithful woman for his wife who bore children with names denoting the consequences of infidelity, Hosea’s family became a mirror for Israel. The overarching symbol of a “marriage” between God and humanity in the Old and New Testaments was inaugurated by Hosea. 

After being banished from the lush garden of Eden, Adam and his progeny ran in every direction after worldly enticements—that which was “a delight to the eyes” (Genesis 3:6)—in the futile attempt to restore the immortal joy for which they were made. The carnival of sights, sounds, scents, tastes and textures of the city of Cain overwhelmed the spirit and sent the inner compass spinning. 

Thus says the LORD: I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart.

One does not fight fire with fire, but with its opposite, water. From the city of the world into the desert, Adam needed to be starved of the sensations and idols of the world in order to recover his divine sonship and origin. What “allure” did the desert and the wilderness have for a worldling? None, unless the still, small voice stifled by the clamor of the senses received a hearing from the inner spirit. Usually, only desperation after exhausting the decaying fruit of the city propelled surrender and retreat. 

Layer after layer of artificiality and unnatural conventions encrusted the human heart over many generations, yet the still, small voice was never completely silenced. The fundamental yearning for life, a voice above the din, was never destroyed. 

The synagogue official, Jairus, in desperation set aside the rumors and prejudices of the religious authorities against Jesus and sought his healing power for his daughter. The woman who suffered from hemorrhages for twelve years, and who was considered ceremonially unclean, broke with religious convention in search of the fundamental good, the fullness of life. Risking severe censure by reaching out to touch Jesus’ tassel, her faith and hope in the bearer of life trumped manmade rules. At the official’s house, Jesus walked into the unnatural fuss and commotion of professional mourners—flute players and wailing women—who “ridiculed him” for declaring the girl “not dead but sleeping.” The still, small voice calling out for life had been wrapped and mummified by a thousand artificial bandages. 

Life himself took the little girl by the hand and lifted her from the throes of death and mourning. In raising her up, Jesus showed himself to be the life-giving voice in the desert calling humanity back to the Father. 

I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD.


New Wine into Fresh Wineskins

13th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday (Year II)

Amos 9:11-15; Matthew 9:14-17

The disciples of John approached Jesus and said, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?”

Jesus and the Twelve must have appeared to the mourning disciples of the beheaded John the Baptist as a spiritually undisciplined band. The unduly curious inquirers received only a cryptic response: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?”

Jesus alluded to the joy and festivity of the week-long, traditional Jewish wedding in which the bridegroom and his closest friends rejoiced and sang together in cheerful abandon. The bridegroom has come, the one whom the prophets spoke about, as in the hopeful passage in Amos: On that day I will raise up the fallen hut of David… The juice of grapes shall drip down the mountains, and all the hills shall run with it. I will bring about the restoration of my people Israel…

Jesus’ first miracle was at the wedding feast of Cana when he turned water into the “juice of grapes,” saving the bridegroom’s party. 

The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast. Joy will turn into sorrow soon enough, Jesus said, and then his disciples will be as the Baptists’s—fasting and mourning.

More cryptic illustrations followed:

No one patches an old cloak with a piece of unshrunken cloth, for its fullness pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse. People do not put new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise the skins burst, the wine spills out, and the skins are ruined. Rather, they pour new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

A grand vision of a new era and a new Jerusalem came before the Bridegroom’s mind as he hinted at the superseding of the Old Law with the New, of the expansion of Israel to include the Gentiles. Persons with hearts of stone like the tablets of Moses will have hearts of flesh quickened by the Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26). The law will be written upon their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). 

Trying to patch the new onto the old was an exercise in futility. The cherished “temple” Jesus was sent to destroy and raise up again in three days was a threat to a centuries-old establishment. Social inertia and resistance to change would build up steam and eventually crucify the alleged king and bridegroom, unintentionally fulfilling his prophecy. 

These pictorial remarks likely left Jesus’ inquisitors more puzzled than enlightened. One sometimes wonders when reading the Gospels whether Jesus wanted to be understood or not in various interactions. Oftentimes no attempt was made to explain words that provoked misunderstanding. Perhaps knowing that his long-term vision was beyond the capacity of his listeners and also beyond the power of words, Jesus simply dropped images and hints here and there to be unpacked after his death and resurrection. We are still unpacking them.


From Miracles to the Cross

Jesus Heals the Paralytic, Mosaic at the Sant’Apollinare Nuovo – Ravenna. © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

13th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)

Amos 7:10-17; Matthew 9:1-8

The paralytic and his friends in the Gospels show us that we are never alone in our journey of faith. Together with our fellow pilgrims, we carry one another on a stretcher to Jesus. Hidden prayers are rising like incense from unknown caves and crannies throughout the world in the bosom of the Father. Mary, the saints and the angels also surround us by their love.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.”

Spiritual healing accompanied bodily healing; Jesus first reconciled the infirm man to God as God, healing the primordial wound. Hearts blind to divine realities saw only a man in Jesus, and thus charged him with megalomania.

At that, some of the scribes said to themselves, “This man is blaspheming.” Jesus knew what they were thinking, and said, “Why do you harbor evil thoughts? Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he then said to the paralytic, “Rise, pick up your stretcher, and go home.” He rose and went home. 

For Jesus, forgiving and healing proceeded from the same source; neither was “easier.” But empirical humanity rarely rouses from its spiritual slumber without a dazzling display of power or a dramatic crisis: When the crowds saw this they were struck with awe and glorified God who had given such authority to men.

Yet power and crises have limited long-term effect. The miracles of Jesus and the warnings of the prophets did not bring about lasting conversion or prevent their murders. Something deeper needed to be effected in the hearts of persons beyond sight and hearing. 

Those who mocked Jesus at the foot of the Cross challenged him, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down from the cross, that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:32). If Jesus had come down with power and might, he would have surrendered to his taunters and shown true weakness. Giving up his life out of love was paradoxically real, divine strength: “the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).

The ego is a hard nut to crack. A snapshot of Amos and Amaziah, and Jesus and the scribes, show God knocking on the shell of the “hard hearted” and the “stiff-necked,” and trying to enter their hearts. Miracles and words fell like rain on the shell, but did not penetrate to the interior spirit. The Cross alone cracked the ego and broke down the dam that let the “rivers of living water” flow in.


Pigs and Sirens

Icon of Jesus Healing the Demoniacs

13th Week in Ordinary Time, Wednesday (Year II)

Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Matthew 8:28-34

After Adam lost his one-pointedness, the single eye (Matthew 6:22) split in two and revolved in every direction like strobe lights in the theater of the world. Knocked off center from his still and tranquil union with God, he became a creature of distraction in search of entertainment and pleasure to fill his insatiable appetite. 

The descendants of Cain established the first city and pioneered the music and technology industries (Genesis 5:21-22). Murder escalated as distractions multiplied: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold” (Genesis 5:42).

When friendship with God was no longer a given, religion made use of forged instruments and tools in worship and sacrifice, but humanity fell into distraction, worshipping its own inventions instead.

I hate, I spurn your feasts, says the LORD, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings. Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps.

Ritual and music—servants of the liturgy—became idols in Amos’ day. The original harmony was found not in externals but in the “justice” of Adam’s faculties in which body, soul and spirit moved effortlessly in graced union with the Trinity. When the energy of the Holy Spirit animated the first-created person, “rivers of living water” flowed from within (John 7:38). Amos’ yearning plea hearkened back to this original harmony: But if you would offer me burnt offerings, then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream.

The demoniacs in Matthew’s Gospel portray humanity in its frenzy and madness of distraction, torn apart by multiple voices (“Legion”) and omnidirectional wandering. The approach of the Light invoked the wrath of the demons: “What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the appointed time?” 

Darkness recognized the Light, the original Source from which they freely departed. Its very existence depended on its Master. And so, its chaotic ensemble begged, “If you drive us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 

To the consternation of the townspeople, the demons rushed into the herd and drowned in the sea—an economic disaster. Two brothers and members of their own Body were healed, but capital was more important. The people “begged him to leave their district.” 

Why did Jesus allow the pigs to die? Just as “it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:29), it was better that the town as a whole—taken as one man—lose its economic base rather than drown in the sea. 

The loss of the pigs was no more extreme than the plucking out of an eye or the severing of a limb. Losses purify desire and reveal the heart’s true priorities. Great discipline, humility and silence are required to master the things of this world rather than to be mastered by them. “Music” (all human ingenuity), technology, and money are servants not idols, even in the sphere of religion. As the Sirens drowned many a man in Greek mythology, the pleasures and ambitions of this world are legion and lethal to the spirit if not ordered rightly.


“What sort of man is this?”

13th Week in Ordinary Time, Tuesday (Year II)

Matthew 8:23-27

“Lord, save us! We are perishing!”

The cry of the storm-tossed disciples was the cry of mortal Adam thrust into a broken world full of dangers and out-of-control tempests. Adam’s son Jesus, unbroken by sin, slept like a baby on a cushion in Edenic tranquility. 

He said to them, “Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?” Then he got up, rebuked the winds and the sea, and there was great calm. The men were amazed and said, “What sort of man is this, whom even the winds and the sea obey?”

This “sort of man” was none other than the paradisal man of the forgotten garden who ruled with gentleness and calm over the whole of creation as king. The winds and the sea recognized his voice immediately amid the din of terror and returned to peace. Harmony and grace emanated from every fiber of Adam’s being in the cosmic garden, a memory never forgotten by the elements. Adam’s friendship with the Father in the garden held all things together.

Due to the loss of oneness, the scattered shards of Adam have lived in fear within and without ever since the expulsion. Fundamental to oneness was trust among all the creatures, shepherded by their little king. 

Faith and divine friendship restore this original, simple trust and bring us into kinship with the soil, plants, animals, winds, seas, sun, moon and stars. The cruciform tree of life planted in the center of the exiled cosmos beckons us to eat and drink of it as one Body, and return to the Father’s garden.


Letting Go

Our Lady of Guadalupe

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Matthew 10:37-42

Jesus said to his apostles: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

The way of the Cross is paved with losses one after the other. In searching for the pearl of great price, illusion after illusion peels away until we arrive at the dimensionless core: nada. We brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it (Job 1:21). 

Losing our life to find it is essentially giving up what was never ours to begin with. Not a breath or a heartbeat is our own achievement. We are, at bottom, ex nihilo—created out of nothing. At the border between being and non-being the mind disappears into a cloud of unknowing and can see no further, as Ultimate Reality lies beyond the dyad of thinker and thought. 

If the possessive pronoun “mine” is really an illusion, we are simply stewards of time, life, relationships and circumstances. Each person is dealt a certain set of cards to be played in a limited space of time. 

We did not choose our parents, culture, epoch, blood type, height, race, gender, strengths, weaknesses, etc. Our individual selves in this world are fragments of Adam, borrowed elements for the exercise of our personal freedom in this journey to our eternal Source. Returning in Christ to the Father, we become whole and distinct persons, possessing in common the union of all fragments as our own Body. What is possessed by all is possessed by none. “All mine are thine, and thine are mine” (John 17:10).

Familial ties belong to our fragmented, biological condition. Persons transcend and encompass all tribes, cultures, nations and tongues. Even the biological role of the Blessed Virgin Mary was  provisional and limited to her earthly sojourn. In communion with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Mary is an indescribably glorious person transcending the root of Jesse and the Davidic line. 

To the woman who said, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that you sucked!” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27) In no way was Jesus diminishing the role of Mary—the Theotokos was the exemplar of all those who “hear the word of God and keep it”—but her physical motherhood was put into perspective. Neither Jesus nor Mary are Jews in heaven, but persons transcending all cultures. From Our Lady of Guadalupe to Our Lady of Akita, Our Lady of Fatima to the Black Madonna, Mary is Mother to all nations and races.

Apparitions to humankind necessarily use forms and names in order to reach our limited mode of knowing. Communion in the Trinity transcends the dyad of motherhood and fatherhood, but we are like children being gathered into the bosom of the Father. 

Divine love (agape) gives parents, children, siblings and friends the freedom to follow Christ wherever he wants to lead them. Clinging to our loved ones and boxing them in to satisfy our own needs is against reality. A child born into the world is not ours, but the Father’s. By letting go, we flow with the grace of the Holy Spirit through Christ to the Father.

Spiritual motherhood and fatherhood are universal: we may offer a “cup of cold water” to Christ’s “little ones” anytime, anywhere, opening our hearts to the family without boundaries.


Signs of the Kingdom

Icon of Jesus and the Centurion

Matthew 8:5-17

Jesus’ fame as a healer spread far and wide in Palestine, attracting not only lepers but foreigners like the Roman centurion. Jews did not associate with either group; one was “unclean,” the other was “Gentile.” Both were sources of defilement. 

Jesus tore down walls of division by his compassion towards all people regardless of race, gender, physical and psychological condition, or social status. He must have felt an affinity for the centurion who showed such an unusual compassion for his servant, for under Roman law slaves were classified with tools and chattel. An infirm slave was considered disposable. As the noble centurion reached across social boundaries to help his fellow man, Jesus transcended racial boundaries and offered to go to his Gentile home—a transgression of Jewish law— and heal his servant.

The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”

The centurion’s declaration of faith astounded Jesus. The Roman did not know Christ as the Son of God, but ascribed divine power and authority to him, intuiting by his spirit that Jesus could heal at a distance.

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith. I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven, but the children of the Kingdom will be driven out into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” And Jesus said to the centurion, “You may go; as you have believed, let it be done for you.” And at that very hour his servant was healed.

The racially exclusive court of heaven suddenly widened to include Gentiles in Jesus’ vision of the eternal Kingdom. The presumed heirs may find themselves disinherited, Jesus warned. Heaven is not a national birthright, but the universal communion of the faithful. 

After the leper and the centurion, Jesus returned to Peter’s house where he was staying and healed a third person of marginalized status in Israel—a woman. Peter’s mother-in-law immediately began to serve him as soon as she was healed of her fever. 

Jesus’ love knew no bounds as he healed every disease and infirmity. God had truly come in the flesh to reveal the secret of heaven: “Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or else believe me for the sake of the works themselves” (John 14:11). 

As wonderful as miracles are, Jesus wanted above all to lead his people to faith in his Father: “Unless you people see signs and wonders you will not believe,” Jesus admonished (John 4:48). He stood immovably silent in the presence of the sensation-seeking Herod (Luke 23:98-9).

The healing of body, soul and spirit in this world is a sign of the world to come when all divisions in the Body of Christ will be healed and brought to union and communion in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—the miracle of miracles.


Jesus and the Leper

Jesus Heals the Leper, by Rembrandt (1655-60)

Matthew 8:1-4

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.” 

The leper represents all of us in need of divine mercy. In the eyes of Jesus there are no untouchables, pariahs, outcasts or rejects. Our unnamed brother must have been deeply moved by all that he heard concerning Jesus to have approached him with so much confidence and devotion. Rabbis routinely shunned lepers, even stoned them. This leper knew that Jesus was more than a rabbi.

His hope was fulfilled beyond all expectation. Jesus broke the law of keeping distance from lepers, stretched out his hand, touched him, and said, “I will do it. Be made clean.” His leprosy was cleansed immediately.

In his excitement, the leper failed to keep silent about the miracle (Mark 1:40-44; Luke 5:12-14), driving Jesus to withdraw into solitary prayer in the wilderness as crowds sought him. Jesus had wanted the leper to quietly obtain a priest’s approval of the miracle, cooperating with the authority structures in place, rather than drawing attention to himself as a wonder worker. 

Jesus’ life was full of surprises, twists and turns as he interacted with free persons. Who knows how the story might have unfolded had the leper obeyed Jesus and kept silent. We are still in the story post-Resurrection and Pentecost. How will our everyday thoughts, decisions and actions move history forward? Even the most hidden “Fiat!” heard by the Father alone can change the world.


Whoever Loves Me

Icon of the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 7:21-29

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”

Jesus’ sobering words cast presumption aside. We must come before the Father as a little child emptied of self-will and ready to obey, however difficult it may be. Jesus directs us to the Father rather than to himself, for the Father and the Son have one will. The Holy Spirit has been sent into our hearts to lead us to the Father through the Son. 

Hearts need to be watchful and silent to hear the Spirit’s still, small voice. Since the Spirit enlightens and guides our inner spirit, obedience is not violently coerced from without, but freely offered from within. We can trust the testimony of the saints, and pray for the gift of the Spirit for ourselves and for the Church. After Pentecost, Peter and the disciples transformed into persons full of grace and power. 

Jesus is not impressed with “mighty deeds” apart from a childlike trust in the Father and continuous metanoia (inner conversion). Outsiders see what we do; the Father sees what we are—the condition of our hearts, including our thoughts and intentions. Everything must be surrendered to him.

Jesus, an expert carpenter, advises us to build our house on solid rock. Rain and floods will come, winds will blow and buffet, but a house built on solid rock will not collapse. Every day is a new beginning to listen to his words and act on them. “Today, if you hear his voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalms 95:7-8; Hebrews 3:15). Many todays flow into eternity. 

“Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him and we will come to him” (John 14:23).