Lectionary commentary: twenty-fourth Sunday of Ordinary time, year A


READINGS

A reading from the book of Ecclesiasticus, 27:30 - 28:7

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 103:1-4.9-12. R/. v. 8

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 14:7-9

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 18:21-35


Thy kingdom come …

= thy will be done …

The phrase “kingdom of heaven” occurs frequently in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. In the three other Gospels we find “the kingdom of God”. The two phrases mean the same but Matthew’s Jewish tendency to avoid using the word “God”, accounts for his substitution of“heaven” for “God”. [1]

It may be a painful exercise but read through the selection below of “kingdom” references in Matthew’s Gospel and you will quickly learn that at the very heart of his Gospel is “the kingdom of heaven”:

3:2 John: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

4:17 From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.

4:23 And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people.

5:3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for their is the kingdom of heaven.

6:10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.

7:21 Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

8:11 I say to you, many will come from east and from west and recline at table with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven ...

10:7 And proclaim as you go, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand”.

12:28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

13:11 And he answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.

16:19 I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind upon earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

18:23 Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.

19:23 Jesus said to his disciples, “Amen I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich enter the kingdom of heaven”.

19:24 Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.

21:31 Amen I say to you, the tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you.”

24:14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all the nations and then the end will come.

25:34 Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world”.

27:28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him [καὶ they mocked him saying,

Hail! King of the Jews!

There are over fifty references to “kingdom” and “king” in Matthew’s Gospel. It is essential to grasp that the message of Jesus is not love, not love God and love your neighbour, not keep the commandments, and certainly not Christianity. The message of Jesus is,

The kingdom of heaven
The kingdom of God.

The good news is that most of the kingdom teaching of Jesus is given in parables and most of the parables have a structure that makes understanding them fairly easy. To begin with, Matthew provides us with a summary of the message of Jesus he learned from the Gospel of Mark and we may start there:

Now after John was handed over, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

Mark 1:14-15

Please notice the structure of the message.

STRUCTURE:

FACT-The Kingdom of God is at hand!
RESPONSE -Repent and believe!

It is easy to appreciate the force of this structure for everyone knows what happened on the Titanic:

FACT-The ship is sinking!
RESPONSE - Man the lifeboats!

With a bit of thinking most of the parables and other teaching techniques of Jesus can be reduced to Fact/Response structure.Jesus was a very accomplished teacher.

A few examples from Matthew’s Gospel:

The kingdom of heaven [God] is like a treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field.

Matthew 13:44
FACT-Here’s a hidden treasure!
RESPONSE - Buy the field!
The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one of great value, went and sold all that he possessed, and bought it.

Matthew 13:45
FACT-A Priceless Pearl!
RESPONSE-Buy it at any price!

Even longer parables, such as the one about ten young women who were waiting for the bridal party, some with oil in their lamps and some who, unfortunately, forgot to refill:

FACT-The bridegroom is coming!
RESPONSE -Light your lamps!

Experiment with today’s parable to see if you can reduce it to its essential message. If you succeed, you will have unraveled one vital element in the make-up of the kingdom of heaven.


Old and new

The prophets of old imagined a future when God would exercise royal stewardship over creation. The prophet Zechariah has a beautiful vision of the day the LORD God rules “over all the earth”:

On that day living waters shall flow out from Jerusalem, half of them to the eastern sea and half of them to the western sea. It shall continue in summer as in winter. And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day the Lord will be one and his name one.

Zechariah 14:8-9

The Day of the Lord will be a time when the afflicted will not be forgotten. It will be a time of reckoning for the wicked:

Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer;
call his wickedness to account till you find none.

Psalm 10:15

Then we can sing that our God reigns:

The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Psalm 10:15-18

The prophet Micah is a poet of rich insight and beauty:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

Micah 4:1-2

Is it any wonder that Jesus walked the hills, that he sat down on the mountain, in order to teach the world to sing?

The teaching of God’s ways will come out of the prayer offered in the Temple on Zion’s hill in Jerusalem. What a reversal there will be:

He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall decide for strong nations far away;
and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore;
but they shall sit every man under his vine
and under his fig tree,
and no one shall make them afraid,
for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken …

Micah 4:3-4

It is Micah who imagines the little hamlet of Bethlehem, too small to be on a map, yet to be at the dawn of a new day:

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel …
who shall stand and shepherd his flock
on the strength of the Lord …
… and they shall dwell secure,
for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace.

From Micah 5:2-5

The reign of God is finally brought to earth in the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. Truly our God reigns:

The Lord reigns,
let the earth rejoice …
righteousness and justice
are the foundation of his throne.

Psalm 97:1-2

Matthew, of course, turned it all into a prayer:

Thy kingdom come!
Thy will be done -
on earth,
as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:9-10


A reading from the book ofEcclesiasticus, 27:30 - 28:7

Anger and wrath, these also are abominations,
and the sinful man will hold them fast.
The one who seeks vengeance
will be paid vengeance from the Lord,
a he who keeps a record
will have his own sins recorded.
Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.
Does one person harbour anger against another
and yet seek for healing from the Lord?
Does he have no mercy toward someone like himself
and yet pray concerning his own sins?
If he himself, being flesh, maintains wrath,
who will make atonement for his sins?
Remember the end of your life and cease from enmity,
remember destruction and death
and be true to the commandments.
Remember the commandments
and do not be angry with your neighbour;
remember the covenant of the Most High and overlook error.

The word of the Lord.

The name Ecclesiasticus seems to be derived from the fact that the work was a particular favourite in the early centuries of Christian faith. Ekklesia is the Greek word for the community assembly or church. More properly named Sirach or The Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach, its author lived around 190 B.C. His grandson completed his translation from Hebrew into Greek, probably in the 38th year of the reign of King Euergetes (170-117 B.C.).

The Book of Ecclesiasticus is near in time to the days of Jesus and to the creation of the New Testament. Its teaching is often closely in tune with that we find in our Gospels and especially the familiar teaching in the pages of St. Matthew. Today’s reading is echoed in what Jesus has to say in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer demands forgiveness if one is expecting to receive God’s forgiveness:

Forgive us our debts
and we alsohave forgiven our debtors.

Notice the “For” at the comment Jesus makes on the prayer he has just given:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

The words of Sirach teach the same lesson:

Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done,
and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray.

Prayer is at the heart of today’s reading from Sirach as it is in much of Matthew. In order to come to the aid of all who are harassed and helpless, prayer must be made to the Lord of the harvest to send labourers into his harvest (see Matthew 9:35-38).

While there is much that is new in the teaching of Jesus, he draws heavily from the Jewish faith he learned at his mother’s knee and valued what he learned from the rich treasure-house of the wisdom of his people. His counsel to those who were to be sent to teach the nations valued what was old and what was new:

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 13:52


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 103:1-4.9-12. R/. v. 8

R/.The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.


Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits. R/.

It is he who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy. R/.

He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities. R/.

He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities. R/.


Psalm 103 is a blessing beyond all blessings. Two lines, lines that make up our response, contain all we know and all we need to know about the Lord our God:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

For the God we meet in this glorious song is our Lord and his identity is disclosed in glorious prayer. This Lord, our Lord, is

  • merciful
  • gracious
  • slow to anger
  • abounding in steadfast love.

The Lectionary abbreviates Psalm 103 and leaves out much good counsel. The psalm records that,

He has made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.(verse 6)

As long as God’s people adhere to the words of God given them in the teaching of Moses, then God’s forgiveness is granted even for grievous sins. The reason is that sin cannot be victorious over God’s steadfast love. Sin cannot conquer God’s compassion. Faced with God’s mercy, sin cannot have the last word. Meditate for a few moments of some words of the man on the cross:

Father,
forgive them,
for they do not know
what they are doing.

Luke 23:34


A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 14:7-9

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

The word of the Lord.

Again the Lectionary omits the first little word of St. Paul’s paragraph: “For”. “For none of us ...” is what Paul wrote. He is offering us a basic fact, established by what he regarded as the turning point of history:

For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

This is the turning-point of everything.Individual talents, individual ambitions, individual achievements, individual prosperity, whatever, do not now define who or what we are.The explanation of Paul’s assertion in the lines read to us today is provided elsewhere in his letters:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20

A second letter to the little Christian communities in Corinth confirms what Paul wrote to Roman Christians:

For the love of Christ controls us, because we have concluded this: that one has died for all, therefore all have died; and he died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised.

II Corinthians 5:14-15

Our living, even our dying, are not our own. We belong to another because we belong to Christ Jesus,

for in Christ Jesus
you are all sons and daughters of God, through faith.

Galatians 3:26

This is how it happened (and again notice that “for”):

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:27-28

The death of Jesus—and this is the wonder of it—has made him the Lord of the living and Lord of the dead. The living and the dead have been put into the outstretched arms of the man on the cross and living and dead are safe in that embrace.

A lifetime of mediation and prayer is necessary to realise that we belong to the Lord Jesus and in that belonging to realise that we belong to each other.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 18:21-35

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy- seven times.

“Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. ’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe. ’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. ’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you? ’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

The Gospel of the Lord.

Said Jesus,

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault …

But remember who is with you as you challenge your brother or sister:

For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am among them …

Not as yet realising that Jesus is ever present where even only two or three are gathered in his name,Peter asks his question, with exorbitant generosity and mercy. Won’t seven times be enough?No, Peter. It’s seventy times seven.

Therefore - another one of those “fors” and “therefores” that must be weighted. Here Jesus is saying “You say seven”;“I say seventy.” Then he tells the parable.

Try to reduce the parable to a fact and response summary. I suggest:

FACT-A merciless, ungrateful swine!
RESPONSE-Throw him in jail!

The recognition that Jesus is the silent listener to our conversation, the one who sees what we do, indeed, the one who looks into our hearts, changes everything. He is not with us to catch us out but to guard us as the people of God who serve our Heavenly Father.

Maybe the guy is in jail only as long as his hardness of heart keeps him there. After all, there’s a lot of forgiving going on in the parable. Have patience with me figures prominently as well. You can, of course, find the meaning of the parable in your prayer:

Forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.



[1] Matthew uses the term “kingdom of God” occasionally: Matthew 6:33; 12:28; 19:24; 21:31; 21:43.