Lectionary commentary: twenty-first Sunday of Ordinary time



A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 22:19-23

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 138: 1-3. 6. 8. R/. v. 8

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 11:33-36

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 16:13-28

According to its General Introduction our Lectionary readings are not continuous readings. Each reading, including those from the Psalms, is a carefully selected and often edited extract. Two principles govern the readings for Sundays and the major feast days such as Ascension and Corpus Christi. They are called “the principle of harmony” and “the principle of semi-continuous reading”.

The principle governing the reading taken from the Hebrew Bible is that of harmony. This means that the first reading is chosen because its contents bears a more or less explicit relationship to the reading from the Gospel and sometimes to both the second reading and the Gospel reading.

The principle of semi-continuous reading means that we never make our way through a whole Gospel. We never start at the beginning of a Gospel and read a passage Sunday after Sunday until we reach the end.

These principles serve the intention of the Lectionary to celebrate the meaning and purpose of our Lord Jesus in order to lead those who read and hear the readings to understand the truth of God’s purpose in sending Jesus into our world. Selections from the Hebrew Bible and from the New Testament are chosen in order to nourish the central fact of Christian faith: the Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us (John 1:14).[1]

This is an objective that comes from the heart of Christian faith. But it has shortcomings that need to be addressed in other teaching experiences besides the Sunday readings and the homily. These readings are designed to lead everyone present to the liturgy of the Eucharist. To be sure, the selection of readings leads us into the meaning of Jesus, the centre of our faith and hope. But we do not thereby learn the particular purposes for which a Gospel was written. Nor are we enabled to grasp what a particular Gospel is about in its entirety. Our current readings from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew are carefully selected to achieve the Lectionary’s purpose.But by presenting selected passages, we are not exposed to the whole of Matthew’s Gospel. What does his Gospel as a whole mean? What issues were Matthew’s concerns?What plan governs the whole of his story?What is revealed as Matthew moves from one event to the next?Matthew, as do the other Gospel writers, selects episodes and teachings from the life and ministry of Jesus. What is Matthew’s principle of selection?Why does his version of a story fit into and support his overall teaching? Why does he start where he does?Why does he end where he does? How do all the bits in between add up to a coherent purpose? Simply, dear reader, what’s it all about?

If his concerns speak to Christian communities in a particular place, at a particular time, long ago and far away, how can they speak to our time and to our place?

This is a question that we must put to the whole of the Bible. It is necessary to ask What does this mean?It is utterly essential to ask What does this mean to us?And of course it is beyond question that in my prayer, in my meditation, in my reflection, in my study, as I turn the pages, to ask what does it mean to me?

How does A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew become for us, become for me, The Gospel of the Lord?

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 22:19-23

Thus says the Lord God of hosts,
“Come, go to this steward, to Shebna,
who is over the household, and say to him:

I will thrust you from your office,
and you will be pulled down from your station.
In that day I will call my servant
Eliakim the son of Hilkiah,
and I will clothe him with your robe,
and will bind your sash on him,
and will commit your authority to his hand.
And he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem
and to the house of Judah.
And I will place on his shoulder
the key of the house of David.
He shall open, and none shall shut;
and he shall shut, and none shall open.
And I will fasten him like a peg in a secure place,
and he will become a throne of honour
to his father's house.”

The word of the Lord.

This is a reading that confirms that the intentions of the General Introduction to the Lectionary are not always, if ever, in line with the meaning of passage in the book of the Bible from which it is taken. The Lectionary’s intention in the selection from the Book of Isaiah is to create a comparison between God’s choice of Eliakim to be king over the House of Judah and the royal successor to King David and the choice made by Jesus that Simon Peter be the rock on which shall be built the church of Jesus (my church).

Of course, the passage in Isaiah has nothing to do with Jesus, with Simon Peter, nor with the community Jesus is founding. The passage in Isaiah is very difficult to understand. Scholars disagree as to whether the lines from Isaiah are an extravagant outburst of a poetic imagination or a down-to-earth piece of matter-of-fact prose. Certainly the passage is unique in the long Book of Isaiah. It is the only time an individual not of the royal family is judged to be inadequate. Obviously someone among the many hands that composed the Book over three or more centuries had it in for Shebna, a mere administrator (a royal steward?) in the royal household. He seems to have done nothing more than cut out a stone burial place for himself.Yet the poor man is, to update the Bible’s metaphor a little, turned into a football and kicked around the place. God seems to have approved of the disgrace visited upon the unlucky flunkey. There is no job for him in the new administration.

Yet in Isaiah 36:3 a man named Shebna is said to be the secretary of Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, who is in the fourteenth year of his reign. The Shebna incident is excellent evidence that there are some things in the Bible that we cannot fathom.

However, the passage as used in our Lectionary may be intended to suggest that the call of Simon Peter to be a rock foundation of the Jesus church (Church or church?) mirrors the appointment of Eliakim. He is appointed to bear the power of the key of the house of David, the only one empowered to admit or to refuse admittance. Into his custody is placed the contents of the house, every small vessel, from the cups to all the flagons. Eliakim is to be a father to his people, a man worthy to sit on David’s throne, a true and just successor to the mighty monarch.. As far as I can ascertain, the passage has not been chosen to be read in any of the lectionaries of other Christian churches.

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 138: 1-3. 6. 8. R/. v. 8

R/.Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple. R/.

I will give thanks to your name
for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
On the day I called, you answered me;
my strength of soul you increased. R/.

For though the Lord is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.
Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands. R/.

Psalm 138 announces its purpose, as it often the case, in its first line.It is a thanksgiving prayer, a prayer from the heart.It is a prayer of genuflection, bowing toward the House of God, the dwelling on earth of the God of God’s people.It is a psalm that begins where all prayer, all wonder, all faith must begin.it begins at the beginning: I thank you … .

Above and beyond all other gifts what our Lord God must be thanked for is, in a creative and sustaining Hebrew word, hesed, steadfast love.

God’s love is the only love that is steadfast, that endures forever, that cannot be undone by neglect, by malice, by ignorance nor indeed, by any sin that flesh is heir to. That single Hebrew word hesed, prayed 26 times in Psalm 136, identifies the very being of God. Its precise meaning, everywhere in the Hebrew Bible, identifies a love beyond all other loves. It is the only love that lasts forever, no beginning and no end. It is not withdrawn or diminished by the evil ways of human beings. It is not increased by goodness; virtue has no special claim on hesed. All are loved by that steadfast love that endures forever. What we must realise is that God IS love.

To underline the eternity of love that hesed is, the poet adds amet, a word meaning truth, firmness, stable, reliable. Throughout the Hebrew Bible hesed and amet are bound together, a sure way of insisting on the truth that God’s love is steadfast, beyond quibble or question:

The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love [hesed] and fidelity [amet] …

Exodus 34:6

God will send out his steadfast love and his faithfulness

Psalm 57:3

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.

Psalm 85:10

Praise Lord, all nations!
Extol him, all peoples!
For great is his steadfast love toward us,
and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever.

Psalm 117

Truly, God’s love is steadfast.

This is a truth that cannot and must not be hid.All the kings of the earth must be told it. The simple, utterly profound truth, ends today’s amazing prayer:

Lord, your steadfast love is forever;
do not let slip the work of your hands.[2]

The Hebrew verb translated “forsake” in the English Standard Version above and “discard” in the Jerusalem Bible means to relax the grip of the hand so that whatever is being held slips to the ground. Since we are God’s handiwork (the work of your hands), the prayer is that God does not, in a moment of distraction or even in frustrated anger, relax his grip and unthinkingly allow us to slip through his fingers.

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 11:33-36

Oh, the depth of the riches
and wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable are his judgements
and how inscrutable his ways!
For who has known the mind of the Lord,
or who has been his counsellor?
Or who has given a gift to him
that he might be repaid?
For from him and through him and to him
are all things.
To him be glory forever.

The word of the Lord.

From one song to another. Psalm 138 is a thanksgiving prayer to a God who keeps everyone safe in the heel of his hand. St. Paul, after long and intricate explanation, has reached a conclusion. Jew and Gentile will be grafted on to the tree of salvation and be cultivated so that,

… all Israel will be saved …

Romans 11:26

Gentiles, pagan peoples of the world, are already, says Paul, shown mercy (Romans 11:31). God’s love is open to all who grasp it in the firm grip of faith. But that love is not denied to the people of Israel for they are the original olive tree on to which the rest of humanity is grafted. While Paul does not appear to be well versed in the cultivation of olives, the point is clear. God’s intention is that all should be saved.

Then he offers a conclusion to his long argumentation that is utterly amazing. He leaves the grafting metaphor behind and in one line he explains why all people are saved. All people are saved because all people, in God’s eyes, have sinned. But all people will not slip through God’s fingers. Indeed, no one will slip through God’s fingers. The tight fist of God will not be loosened by human sin.

Paul ‘s simple sentence recalls ancient words of wisdom:

For it is always in your power to show great strength,
and who can withstand the might of your arm?
Because the whole world before you
is like a speck that tips the scales,
and like a drop of morning dew that falls upon the ground.

Wisdom 11:21-22

So it is no big deal as far a God is concerned to attend to the welfare of the little speck that is humanity:

But you are merciful to all, for you can do all things
and you overlook people’s sins,
that they may repent.
For you love all things that exist
and loathe none of the things that you have made,
for you would not have made anything if you hated it.

Wisdom 11:23-24

The Book of Genesis reminds us that God saw all and all was very good (Genesis 1:31). How could God create and then come to hate and revile the work of his hands?For God cannot create anything that is destined to be hated:

… how could anything have endured
if you had not willed it?

No! Humanity is safe in God’s hands:

You spare all things,
for they are yours,
O Lord who loves the living,
for your immortal spirit is in all things.

(all quotations above from Wisdom 11:21 - 12:1)

As we heard last week, Paul ends his understanding of Jew and Gentile before God with this one sentence:

For God has consigned all to disobedience,
that he may have mercy on all.

Foreseeing that all people are sinners, God went ahead with the project knowing that love would conquer all. God never loses his grip. The divine hand is gently but tightly clenched. That is why Paul can only stand back from what he has written and sing a glorious song. No one can comprehend such love. No one can grasp the depth of God’s determination to put the world to rights. Putting together snatches of sentences and phrases that leap into the head and heart of one steeped in the Bible of his people, Paul sings his song.

There is no point in analysing and dissecting its every word. Just pray it. Just sing it. Above all, give thanks.

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 16:13-28

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar- Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Fly away, Peter...

The Gospel reading offered to us today is known to many Catholics, even by the vast majority who have never read the Gospel of Matthew or, indeed, of anything else in the Bible. But almost everyone, reader or non-reader, knows that the words of Jesus spoken to Peter meant one thing. Peter, with St. Paul, the founder of the church in Rome, was appointed Pope. However, what everyone knows is not necessarily the truth.Peter and Paul did not found the church of or in Rome. Peter was not “the first Pope”. Both however did die in that city.

We know little of nothing of anyone governing the church in Rome and exercising authority over churches elsewhere in the world until almost three centuries after the death of Peter. We do not know when Peter came to Rome. There is good evidence that he did journey to Rome. There is good evidence that he was killed there during the persecution instigated by Emperor Nero in 64 A.D. after fire consumed most of the city in July 64 A.D.

For certain, we know that he was not in Rome before 58 A.D. Paul wrote his letter to Roman house-churches in 58 A.D. In chapter 16 of that letter he sends greetings to 25 named individuals in the city. He sends no word of greeting to his friend Peter and it is beyond belief that, if Peter were in Rome, Paul would not have mentioned him. Notice how close Peter and Paul were according to Luke in his book the Acts of the Apostles. Paul’s anger over the matter of Jewish eating rules and regulations that we find in Paul’s letter to Galatians Christians was serious but not terminal. We know from his Roman letter that Paul was intending to return to Jerusalem with the proceeds of a collection he had taken up in various churches to relieve the poverty afflicting Christians there. He was anxious that Jews opposed to Jesus people may not hinder his mission and that his service be acceptable to “the saints”, his Christian brothers and sisters there (Romans 15:30-32).

Come back, Peter

The Christian message came to Rome from Jerusalem. All the major cities around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond had large Jewish colonies. From Rome to Babylon, every city had a substantial minority of Jews. Rome was probably the first European city to have a Jewish colony. Many came as slaves, the victims of Roman wars in the east. Some of these captives were freed from slavery but few became Roman citizens. Nonetheless, “freedmen”, ex-slaves, were permitted to trade and to prosper.[3]

These Jews, like many another immigrant community, kept contact with the mother country. Jews in Rome cherished the faith of their fathers and mothers and they kept in constant touch with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. It was this grapevine that, in God’s good time, brought the message of Jesus to the Jewish communities in Rome. What we need to ask is this: what kind of Christianity came from Jerusalem to Rome?

From the earliest days there were tensions in the Christian groups that the Holy Spirit created in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus. First, there were tensions between the vast majority of Jews who did not accept Jesus or his followers before or after his death. The killing of Stephen and the frequent arrests of Jesus people, as reported by Luke in his Acts of the Apostles, witness to frequent hostilities. But even within the Jesus communities there were important divisions, especially when reports reached Jerusalem that non-Jews were beginning to be admitted to the family of Jesus. People like Paul were keen to welcome pagans who had been attracted to the moral standards of devout Jews into the Jesus community. But on what terms?

After much heart-searching, it was agreed that Gentiles could be admitted to the ranks of Jesus people if they observed certain food regulations, abstaining from the meat of animals not killed in the traditional manner (so not kosher), and from sexual immortality. Gentile men were not obliged to be circumcised.

A number of things began to happen, especially in the Christian communities in Antioch, the most important centre in the first four or five centuries of the Christian story. First, there were always some Christian Jews that insisted on the Law of Moses, the Torah handed from God to the people of Israel. These insisted on circumcision of Gentile converts and on the full kosher demands. Then there were Jewish Christians that dispensed Gentiles from circumcision but insisted on the Jewish kosher food traditions and observance of the moral demands of the Torah of Moses. This was the position of James, the brother of Jesus, who presided over the community of Christians in Jerusalem and whose clarity of thought and practical skills were well recognised and valued. Peter followed James in his understanding of what was to be demanded of pagans wishing to join the family of Jesus. Clearly, the Jerusalem position was adhered to by Peter when he travelled to Antioch.

A third party of Jewish Christians did not demand that their male converts be circumcised nor that Jewish food laws be observed in total, nor that the Law of Moses was a sine qua non for faith in Jesus. St. Paul adopted this liberal position as apostle to the Gentiles. He championed this view in an angry letter to Galatian Christians, attacking Peter for his more conservative opinions and practice (see also Philippians 3:2-11). Paul further clarified his position in his long letter to Roman Christians, offering a thoughtful exposition of his views in a more placatory voice.

There was a fourth group of Jewish Christians that, as it were, believed in throwing out the baby with the bath water. They did not demand circumcision. They ignored all kosher prescriptions regarding food, and they openly declared that the whole of the Mosaic Law had no longer any authority or relevance in the new way to God opened by Jesus of Nazareth. These radical Christians were probably Jews who lived in diaspora cities, who spoke Greek, and had adopted much of the Greek cultural ways prevalent in most cities of the Roman Empire.[4] They had no devotion to the Jerusalem Temple and to the story that had created the Jewish faith Jesus learned at his mother’s knee.

Thus in the first years marking the growth of Christianity from its birth in Judaism to its flowering in the wider world far from Galilee and Judea we can observe four trends. Of these we can say with a great degree of certainty that Paul adopted the third understanding. James, the brother of the Lord and the leader of Christians in Jerusalem and Peter along with Barnabas, advocated the second position.

Two important historical facts emerge from these four distinctive theologies, each claiming to be true to the mind and heart of Jesus. The first is that the understanding of James and Peter, what may be called the Jerusalem theology, was that of the first Roman Christians. That community may have been founded by Jews who visited Jerusalem on pilgrimage. While there they heard the story of Jesus and began to believe in the Messiah from Galilee. As Jews of the diaspora, they belonged to exiles who had a deep affection for Jerusalem and a deep adherence to the faith of their fathers. It was the faith of James and Peter (and John) that they discovered in Jerusalem and brought back to Rome. Gradually their faith nurtured others when they returned home and it was these devote Jews who founded the very first Christian synagogues in that city. From the beginning they suffered from attacks from their fellow Jews and by persecution from the city authorities. But they were made of stern stuff and Peter would have been at home with them when he came to Rome after 58 A.D.Paul on the other hand, had a lot of explaining to do. His explanation was his letter,

To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.

Romans 1:7

Matthew: the new broom

Antioch Christians were the most influential Jesus people for at least the first four centuries after the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Arguably, Antioch was the most important city in all of the Church’s history. For one thing, the most influential Gospel of the four we inherited from the first hundred years of Christian faith is that of Matthew. Quite quickly it became known as The Catechism of the Church. To a very considerable extent we are Matthew Christians.

Matthew wrote his Gospel because the four theologies outlined above were alive and more or less well in Antioch and they were tearing the churches there apart. At around 90 A.D. he wrote his Gospel to mediate between these conflicting understandings of what faith in Jesus demanded. What he did was compromise and the Church has been living with Matthew’s compromise to this day.

Look again at the genealogy of Jesus. Four of the women mentioned were not Jews. While politicians, priests, and scholars are plotting the death of the child, the pagan camels come laden down with gifts of gold frankincense, and myrrh. Pagans bring presents and pagans are the first to worship. Pagans are guided safely home. The first visitors to the house where Jesus dwelt were magi from the east who deserve not to be put at the back of the crib. Of their faith we have all received.

In the middle of his Gospel Matthew takes Mark’s story of a Greek Syrophoenician woman and converts her into a Canaanite - one of oldest and most hated of pagan enemies. While Jesus makes the claim that he is sent by God only to the lost sheep of Israel, three times she calls on the Lord Jesus to have mercy, to save, to help her. That is not faith Jesus can resist and her daughter is delivered out of the devil’s hands.

Gentiles, even Gentile women, are welcome, no strings attached. Faith is of the essence. That is the first requirement.

The second requirement is to eat from the table of Israel’s riches. Jesus has not come “to abolish the Law and the prophets but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). Not everything demanded by scribes and Pharisees is written in stone. There are adjustments to be made.

You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not murder, and whoever murders will ne liable to [God’s] judgement”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother…

Matthew 5:21-22

That But I say to you … means old must be adjusted. The old must be weighted in the scales and tempered against a new understanding of God that has been given the world in this Christ Jesus, son of David, son of Abraham. Even if you are as Jewish as Jewish can be, there is yet another standard, another more demanding requirement to those who seek to live in the household of Jesus:

You therefore must be perfect
as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

The bar has been raised for Jew and for Gentile. The kingdom of heaven, God’s earthly rule, insists that on earth things be done as heaven demands. At the end of chapter 13, the chapter of parables that describes the values that define the new people, there is a word for those who are to be trained to teach in the community of the future:

Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old”.

Matthew 31:51-52

Matthew: the organiser

Having set out the vision and values of the community to come in chapter 13, from chapter 13:53 to chapter 17:27, Jesus outlines his new people. To be sure, there will be conflict. There will be opposition. There will even be rejection in his hometown. These are ever present torments. But the vision of the future is gradually unfolded. The person of Jesus, who he is and what he intends, are gradually brought to light. Jesus(“who will be with you always”),

  • feeds the people,
  • walks on the water,
  • who heals the sick,
  • old enemies welcomed;
  • the lame,
  • the blind
  • the crippled,
  • the mute,
  • are healed.
  • God is glorified.

These activities are done by the one who called Simon, not from fishing, but to man a different boat. Peter was good with boats but poor at walking on water. But with experience he comes to recognise the one who saw his potential:

You are the Christ the Son of the living God.

Matthew 16:16

In the community of the future Jesus will be there, even to the end of the age. He will be doing all that was done in Galilee as he made his way to Jerusalem. Peter is appointed always and everywhere to point to who it is that heals and feeds, that welcomes and embraces, and that reveals the very heart of God. His is the finger that points to where this Lord is to be found and where the work of God’s Messiah is to be recognised. He is to point to the demonic forces that seek to disfigure the face of God. It is Peter who identifies signs of the kingdom and who warns of lurking demons. It is Peter who must loose heaven’s graces into a weary world. It is Peter who must bind in bands of safety the people of the entire world for such are the people who belong to God.

Of course Matthew’s Jesus did not send Peter into the world on his own. The Peter who tried to see Jesus on his own denied his Lord three times. Peter was sent to the nations with all the others who believed. And all of them, then and now, journey together with Immanuel, the true guide, in their midst.

Yesterday, today, and tomorrow

What Matthew has done is re-design the shape of the Jesus community. He had a divided community in Antioch. There were, to use our terminology, radicals and ultra traditionalists; there were liberals and conservatives, the middle ground as it were. What Matthew sought to do by writing his Gospel was to listen to each of the contending parties and to present a vision that would not satisfy the radicals. Nor would it be pleasing to those who went around with their heads in the sand. What he did was to bind the conservatism of Peter with the liberalism of Paul.

Of course, Matthew was not writing to heal the divisions renting the peace of the churches in the 21st century. What has ancient Antioch or ancient Rome got to do with us?

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

[1] These observations are taken from the General Introduction to the Lectionary: Part Two, Chapter IV.

[2] My translation.

[3] Often old slaves were granted “freeman” status because they werea burden on their owners.It was cheaper to keep strong and healthy slaves and dump them when they became “uneconomic”.

[4] Rome high society were heavily influenced by Greek culture.Rome produced soldiers and empire builders.Nobody accused them of indigenous culture to match that produced by the Greeks.It became the international style of the rich and famous.