Lectionary commentary: twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary time


READINGS

A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 18:25-28

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 25:4-9. R/. v. 6

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 2:1-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:28-32


The first reading today is taken from the prophet Ezekiel who was born in 622 B.C., a near contemporary of Jeremiah. Ezekiel, a married priest, spent much of his life exiled in Babylon with many people from his native Judea. He began his service as a prophet in 622 B.C. and that ministry ended in 571 B.C. The book given his name is probably a mixture of material coming from the prophet himself with contributions from disciples who carried Ezekiel’s teaching into generations after the prophet’s death. It is not easy to distinguish between the two.

The overriding issues that cast deep shadows on the whole book are the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple, in 597 B.C., Ezekiel lived in exile in Babylon and there his teaching matured. That disaster led to years of exile in Babylon of large numbers of his people. Ezekiel was deeply conscious of God’s Presence and, for him, the Temple was the place and sign of Divine Presence at the heart of the people. Alone among the prophets who mourned the exile—the most profound watershed in Jewish experience—Ezekiel insisted that God went into exile with his people. God did not and does not abandon his people; especially God does not abandon a people who have lost faith. The prophet worked to articulate why the exile was God’s work, not merely a footnote in the power struggles between Middle Eastern imperial powers. When chastised by God, God will lead them home. A sinful people is not deserted by a loving God. God is in the business of forgiveness and conversion, building up, not pulling down (please read Ezekiel 28:24-26 and chapter 34).

The chapter from which today’s reading is taken is significant because it appears to move responsibility for destruction and exile from the shoulders of all the people to individual sinners. It is not past generations that incited God’s anger. It is present unfaithfulness: there can be no passing of the buck. It is the sin of each individual that must bear responsibility for inciting the wrath of God. This is a matter of great significance, not only for the exiles in Babylon who were unable to sing Zion’s songs in a foreign land. It is a lesson for our time and place. What was and is being discarded is individual responsibility for living on earth God’s holiness. The vocation of faith was and is to,

… manifest my holiness … in the sight of the nations.

Ezekiel 28:25


Two ways

Consider two warnings that seem to be principles by which God relates to a people chosen to manifest God’s holiness to the nations:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

Exodus 34:5-7

These are the terms the Lord God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Lord is merciful, gracious, and abounding in steadfast love, a forgiving God. But God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon their children for three or four generations. Even if these children are faithful, the sins of the fathers will not go away and even grandchildren will suffer the wrath of God.

Communal guilt—my sin is everyone’s sin—did not fit well into the thinking of Ezekiel nor into the thinking of Jeremiah.. Jeremiah looked to a new day for the people of Israel:

… I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge.”

But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man (or woman) who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

Jeremiah 31:28-30

In the chapter from which today’s reading comes, Ezekiel is in agreement with Jeremiah:

Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father? ’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Ezekiel 18:19-20

The trouble is that private sin cannot forever remain private. To be sure, the righteous living of those who have gone before us lives on. Otherwise why do we honour the saints? But the sins of our ancestors are not “interréd with their bones”. If Synagogue or Church thinks that it is unstained by the sins of fathers and mothers, then look around you. Evil cannot be hid. Silence is not absolution. It is complicity. These words were written by Ezekiel or by those who shared his vision:

So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.

Ezekiel 33:7-9


A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 18:25-28

[Yet] you say, “The way of the Lord is not just.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

The word of the Lord.

Ezekiel’s audience is in slavery on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. The people have one consolation: we are here because of the sins of our fathers. They were the people who turned to evil ways, who disregarded the wisdom that God had given us through Moses. For their sins, we are where we are. The old proverb holds good:

The fathers have eaten sour grapes
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

So there is some comfort in blaming other people. Yes, we are suffering. But we are not to blame. Other people have caused our present suffering. We endure punishment because of the sins of our ancestors.

But, of course, the sins of our fathers and mothers always stain posterity. Of course, we are opposed to slavery. But do we not continue to profit from the sins of our fathers?Have the sins of the past left the present unstained?



Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 25:4-9. R/. v. 6

R/. Remember your mercy, O Lord.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation. R/.

Remember your mercy, Lord,
and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! R/.

Good and upright is the Lord.
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way. R/.


There are nine alphabetical psalms in the Book of Psalms. The Book of Lamentations also has 22 verses, incorporating the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Sometimes the discipline of having to follow the order of the alphabet can interfere with poetic inspiration. But Psalm 25 flows beautifully as a prayer that balances guilt and compassion, transgression and mercy, wicked sin and steadfast love.

It is important to note how the first line of the psalm is translated in English editions of the Bible.Many offer,

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.[1]

The Hebrew word translated “soul” is nefesh. This word does not mean “soul” as in the ancient Greek sense of “body and soul”. This is the sense we grew up with in such phrases as “saving our soul” or “the souls of the faithful departed”. These phrases suggest we are made up of two bits, a body and a soul. This is a very misleading, indeed, false understanding of what a human being is. Nefesh refers to the whole person, to all that I am as a human being.

The Revised English Bible rightly offers I lift up my heart, meaning I lift up my whole being. The New Testament, heavily influenced by Greek culture (into which it was born) and the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, use the ordinary Greek word for “soul” (ψυχή, psychē, soul). Thus our New Testament adopts a meaning that reflects Greek philosophy rather than the Hebrew understanding of the human person.

Psalm 25 reveals the nature of the Lord God. God is my,

  • teacher,
  • instructor
  • guide
  • rescuer
  • leader
  • counsellor
  • guard of my life
  • preserver
  • redeemer.
  • guardian
  • saviour.

That is why my response is my faith:

  • I lift up my heart to you
  • I trust in you
  • I hope in you
  • I remember your mercy
  • I remember your steadfast love
  • I know your faithfulness
  • I fear the Lord
  • I shelter in you.


A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 2:1-11

[Therefore] if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you

as in Christ Jesus,
who was in the form of God from all eternity,
yet he did not seek to snatch
at being the same as God,
but stripped himself empty,
taking the form of a slave,
in every respect one of humankind.

And being found in human likeness,

he humbled himself,
being obedient even to death,
death on a cross.

On that account,

God raised him up,
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee must bend
in heaven, on earth,
and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
that
JESUS CHRIST IS LORD,
to the glory of God the Father.

The word of the Lord.[2]

[The Lectionary provides a shorter form of this reading confined to only the lines that St. Paul intended as an introduction to the hymn. The reader is advised that the hymn itself may be omitted.

Such an omission deprives congregations from hearing one of the most profound passages, not only in the writings of St. Paul but also in the whole of the New Testament. The hymn itself is read on Passion Sunday and on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14. On those two occasions the introductory paragraph is omitted.

Reducing readings from our Bible in the interests of convenience is to be deplored. If our mothers and fathers in faith (about 90% of them unable to read or write) sat through a reading of the whole of Paul’s letter when Epaphroditus delivered it, then we should not be in the business of editing his words.]


In Christ Jesus

The phrase “in Christ” occurs over 80 times in the authentic letters of St. Paul. I Peter the phrase occurs three times (3:16; 5:10 and 5:14), the only other occurrences in the New Testament. All that has been achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus enlivens all who are baptised into Christ Jesus. Taking a seminal paragraph (Romans 6:3-11) of Paul’s step by step, we can grasp this profound belief that we are “in Christ”.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Going down naked into the water, leaving our old selves in the clothes left behind, we enter the darkness of the death of Jesus. We are baptised into his death. But entering into that death is but a passageway:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, did not allow God’s glory to be stained by abandoning his Son. Christ was raised from the dead. That wonder of deliverance embracing Jesus is, by God’s good intent, the very embrace that extends to all who go down into the pool of death:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

What God has done for his dead Son he has done for all who have been baptised. Sin is disempowered, done away with, and our enslavement to sin is at an end. But that is not all:

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

If we have not grasped the wonder of what God has done for his Son, Paul sums up his profound teaching is a sentence:

For the death he died he died to sin, once for all,
but the life he lives he lives to God.

What does this mean for all who share with Jesus the darkness of death? Again, a brief and utterly amazing sentence:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin
and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We are, therefore, a future in the making. We are a work in progress and God is architect and the constructor of glory to come.

The binding of our being with what God has done and is doing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is contained in “in Christ Jesus” that introduces the hymn. The hymn identifies who Jesus is and the divine purpose for which he took the being of a slave. The obedience that brought him to death on a cross brought him to exaltation. God reached into the darkness of that place and highly exalted him. And so it is with all.

[To side-track for a moment, one detail needs some explanation. The Greek word δούλος (doulos) means “slave” .From William Tyndale in 1534 through the King James Version to many recent translations of the Bible this word is rendered “servant”. Some American translations offer bondservant, probably to disguise a disgraceful history. To translate “servant” suggests a paid employee. When St. Mark tells the story of the call of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, he adds that they followed Jesus, leaving behind their father and “the hired servants”. Mark uses the regular word for a hired worker, a paid employee (Mark 1:20. See John 10:12 and 13)[3]. When the New Testament uses the word δούλος (doulos), it should be translated “slave”, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise.]

The one who has come amongst humanity as a slave serves with total obedience even to the point of death on a cross, the utmost humiliation that Roman power could inflict. Think Spartacus. But God did not leave his Son on a cross. The crucified Son was highly exalted and God bestowed on this slave the highest of all names: Kύριος, Kyrios, as in Kyrie, eleison, Lord, mercy [us]. This Jesus Christ who died is now Lord. So the glory of God is not left hanging on a cross. God’s glory is to be seen in the Son. God’s answer to crucifixion is transfiguration, glorification.

It is being in Christ, being in this Lord by God appointed, that “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Christ we walk the earth shining with the glory of God. When we are in Christ we are what we are created to be. Being in Christ, as God intended, we are safe in God’s love; we are where compassion, mercy, and forgiveness rescue us from our weaknesses. We are, of course, a work in progress. But we have a future, mapped out for humanity by God. Paul has, therefore, but one command:

Rejoice in the Lord always!
Again I say, Rejoice!

Philippians 4:4

To that command, he adds a postscript:

The peace of God,
which passes all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds
in Christ Jesus.



A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:28-32

What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today. ’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

The Gospel of the Lord.

To understand a Gospel reading from our Lectionary it is essential that some preparatory work be done. The first necessity is to identify the context. What has gone before today’s reading? What comes after today’s reading? It’s like reading a novel. When we read chapter 2, we do so knowing what was in chapter 1. While reading chapter 2 we will be wondering how matters will pan out in chapter 3.

The context will throw up questions of where, of when, and, above of all, of who. Of course, the reader cannot remind the congregation of all these matters before reading the Gospel of the day. Since our Lectionary is, to use its own terminology, semi-continuous, listeners cannot follow the thread of the story. The only way this can be done is to have on-going biblical teaching in every parish. It will take centuries for Catholics to become familiar with the Bible. We are just beginning to recover from centuries of instruction that the Bible was a Protestant book. This teaching was not enshrined in official documents but it was delivered in every parish. I know. I was there.

Falling in love may be instantaneous or the penny may drop slowly like the gentle rain from heaven. But it becomes glorious in, as the song tells us, Getting to know you. We were told in our catechism that God made us to know, love, and serve. This is what happens when we are falling in love with the most beautiful woman/man in the world. So it is with the Bible. We begin with knowing. Soon our knowing turns to love. The more we know, the more we love. The more we love, the more certain we become that we are called to serve.

The questions that create the context of each episode we read are where, when, and who. Through these questions we will arrive at the why of it all.


Where

From this point onwards at the heart of the story until it comes to a death is Jerusalem, the Holy City. On the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple across the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the Valley of Judgement, a procession forms and conducts the humble King as he approaches the city. Why does the King who is greeted on the Mount of Olives within a matter of days be found on another hill, hanging on a cross?Why is the King, who is proclaimed Son of the legendary King David, at the week’s end, to be found hanging between two robbers as the venerable chief priests mock the dying man who thought he was as King of the Jews?

The people forming the demonstration on the Mount of Olives announce to all who have ears: This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.

Matthew 21:11

This prophet enters the Temple area alone, as if he were another Jeremiah (read Jeremiah 2). The Temple is the House of God, the very place where God is present in the tabernacle of the Holy of Holies. The first action of the prophet from Galilee is to overturn “the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Matthew 21:12). Then the blind and the lame, gathered there hoping for alms, come to him. They are healed. The chief priests and the scribes are indignant. Yet even the children are crying out,

Hosanna to the Son of David.

The reply of Jesus is caustic in the extreme: children know more of the Bible than the priests and learned scribes. He quotes some words from the psalms:

Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have prepared praise.

Partly from Psalm 8:2[4]

Then leaving them with his insult ringing in their ears, Jesus re-ascends the Mount of Olives and walks down the other side to Bethany.

Jerusalem is the where of it all. The city is the place where the Temple stands. The Temple is the home of God’s Presence. It is this Temple that, according to two witnesses (and therefore reliable) Jesus is determined to destroy and rebuild it in three days. (Matthew 26:61).


When

The stage has been set. Every Christian in the little churches of Jesus people in Antioch knows the story. They know that Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem for the first and last time. They know what will happen there. They know what part the crowds, the disciples, and above all, priests, and elders, and scribes, with the sanction of Pilate, will play in bringing about the death of Jesus. Even the Temple’s destruction will figure in the death about to be inflicted on the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee. Above all, they will know what feast is about to be celebrated.

Passover is approaching. Preparations for the great feast of deliverance, the most important in the Jewish calendar of feasts, are underway in every family. The city is overflowing with pilgrims from near and far. Passover celebrates the God who has set people free, a God who brought slaves to a new place, to a land flowing with milk and honey. Passover created a new people, forever God’s people. Every year it celebrates one sentence:

For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God:You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

Leviticus 11:45

As lambs are being selected for slaughter in the Temple area, as houses and swept clean of the slightest speck of dust, as herbs, nuts, and fruits are prepared, as unleavened bread is baked, and wine is readied, another story is being played out. A story of betrayal, of arrest, of trial, of condemnation, of mockery, and of death unfolds as the story of freedom is celebrated. But it is the priestswho are left as guardians of an empty tomb.


Who

Matthew carefully assembles the cast who will participate in the final act of this drama. First there is the triumphant demonstration on the Mount of Olives, complete with cheering crowds. Keep your eye on the crowds, and note when “people” is substituted where we might expect “crowds”.

Though this event is often given the title The Triumphal Entry, no Gospel actually says that Jesus entered the city in a raucous procession. In St. John’s Gospel Jesus goes to Jerusalem three times and the clearing out of those selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons and the upsetting of the tables of money-changers take place in chapter 2, the first time Jesus “went up the Jerusalem” (John 2:13-15). St. Mark is clear:

And he entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple.

Mark 11:11

St Luke tells his readers and hearers that the procession took place “on the way down the Mount of Olives”. Then he records that “when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it” Only then did he enter the Temple “and begin to drive out those who sold” (see Luke 19:28-46).

Matthew ends his account of the demonstration on the mountain with a simple sentence:

And Jesus entered the Temple and drove out …

Matthew 21:12

What we are given to understand is that Jesus entered the city alone and went straight to the Temple to rid it of those who were, in his opinion, turning the House of Prayer into a den of thieves.

The point is that this last week of his life begins with Jesus. It is Jesus who enters the city to begin the story that will end on God’s holy mountain from where eleven of his disciples will be sent out to baptise the world. And they are sent out knowing that he will be with them in the enterprise entrusted to their hands (Matthew 28:16-20). As Ezekiel knew well, God’s people never travel alone.

Jesus is not only the champion of God’s House. Having cast out the profaners (as he sees it), he does what he always does: he heals the blind and the lame. Jesus comes to the heart of Jewish faith, the place where God’s Presence dwells, and he does what God intends: he heals.

When the children began to repeat what was shouted on the Mount of Olives,

Hosanna to the Son of David,

It is the chief priests and the scribes who are indignant and who protest. Keep a sharp eye on these protesters. We first met them as advisers to King Herod, the very man who sought the death of the child (Matthew 2:4). When Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, he reveals that he will,

… suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised

Matthew 16:21

The chief priests and their associates are mentioned 18 times in Matthew’s Gospel. I have referred to two occurrences (Matthew 2:4 and 16:21). The remaining references, all 16 of them, are in the story of the last week of the life of Jesus. Do not miss these religious leaders as Matthew’s story makes its way way from the Temple precincts to the Place of the Skull. Their last words warn Pilate that ”this imposter” had said that,

After three days I will rise …

Matthew 27:63

They hurry off to set a guard on an empty tomb. That is the last we hear of them.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees are likewise drawn into the story (see 21:45; 22:23). Jesus has words of harsh criticism for Pharisees and their scribes (22:41 - 23:36). None of the authoritative voices in official Judaism are on the side of Jesus, except Joseph of Arimathea.

Judas, Pilate and his wife, Barabbas, soldiers, and Caiaphas play their parts.[5] But there are two groups that are of special importance. Watch out for Peter and the disciples. Watch out especially for the women. Let them be named:

Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Matthew 27:55-56

Especially look out for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, to whom an angel of the Lord spoke and the very first human beings to be addressed by the Risen Lord and the first in the history of the world to worship him. These faithful women are first to be commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the gospel of his resurrection to “my brothers” (Matthew 27:10).


Parables

The very people who ought to listen and understand know less than tax collectors and prostitutes. This is the first of three Holy Week parables that highlight the failure of the guardians of the Temple and teachers of the people.[6] Their ears were ever deaf to God’s initiatives.

Jerusalem and all the people of Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:5). But these authorities did not believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes were more attuned to God’s will than those appointed to be guardians of the faith of the people.

Today’s parable opens with an invitation: What do you think? But there is no thinking, no reflection, and the three parables did not deflect those who heard them from their hostile intentions.

Notice that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of God” rather than his more usual “kingdom of heaven”. But both point to the same reality. The great prayer that Jesus gave to disciples and crowds clarifies the meaning of the phrase:

Thy kingdom come

means

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


The parable of the two sons

When we read the Gospels we must realise we are visiting the past. We are reading or hearing a story told two thousand years ago in a world totally different from ours. There are three levels we have to cope with. First—and this is seldom easy—we must try to imagine the circumstances in which Jesus told the parable of the two sons. Where, and when, and to whom why did he tell the story? Then we have to consider where Matthew placed the story in his Gospel. What is Matthew teaching by putting this parable in the context we find in his pages? Of course, he may have placed it in the exact context in which Jesus first told it. But that is far from certain, especially when we gather together all the parables of Jesus Matthew places in the last week of Jesus’ life.

Count the incidents between Jesus entering the city alone and his arrest in a place called Gethsemane (not a garden in Matthew).[7] I could 27 different incidents of conflict and/or teaching before Jesus is arrested and all his disciples leave him and run away. So it is certain that Matthew (and Mark before him) crammed all his material into these few days in order to serve his purposes. The plan we find in Matthew is hardly an exact account of what actually happened.


The Jesus parable

Where, when, and why did Jesus tell the story of the two sons? I do not know. But here is a guess. In all the Gospels we read that Pharisees questioned practically every word that Jesus uttered.

Pharisees form one identifiable group among the many groups that made up the broad church of Jewish faith. As a group they emerged from the time of the Maccabee revolt against Greek colonialism (say from 166 B.C. to 159 B.C.). They were against any compromise or accommodation with the ways of pagan Greeks. The very name Pharisee means, “to separate” and Pharisees resolutely resisted pagan ways. They also separated themselves from the accommodating instincts of the high echelons of the priestly caste, that is, the Sadducees. Pharisees were devout people who followed closely the Law, the holy teachings of Moses. They were also great upholders of traditions that interpreted ancient teaching to the lives of people in a constantly changing world. I think that Jesus and the Pharisees constantly argued with each other because they were so alike. Both believed in the Torah. Both believed in interpretation to meet the signs of the times. It was the Pharisees that invented synagogues, community gatherings for prayer and teaching. However, Jesus proclaimed a more urgent and open gospel, a more radical understanding of God’s ways in the world. He believed that proclaiming the gospel of God to all peoples was a divine command. God did not wipe off the whole world as unclean. Think of St. Paul, a devote Pharisee, who came to believe that Jesus the Pharisee was the future, a future God intended to include all the nations.

Frequently in all four Gospels we have Jesus and Pharisees at odds with each other. A big issue was the outreach of God’s mercy. The issue was this: Can God deal with the sins of the world? Pharisees taught that there were many sinners beyond the pale of mercy. Jesus believed that no one was beyond God’s reach and that God was, as Francis Thompson expressed that matter, the hound of heaven, forever chasing up sinners and worrying them into safety. Pharisees believed in rigidity. Jesus believed that rigidity is best left to God.

It is into that constant argument about the nature of God’s mercy between Pharisees and Jesus that I would locate the original parable of the two sons. Indeed, I think that the two sons we meet in today’s reading were the first edition of what became in the imagination of Jesus the prodigal son and the son who preferred to stay in field and give the party a miss.


The Matthew parable

Matthew places the parable of the two sons right at the beginning of his ministry in Jerusalem. It is a ministry that lasts three days, from Monday through Wednesday. After that there is an anointing at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper (a beautiful touch that) when the woman comes with an alabaster flask of very expensive perfumed oil. It is her story that must be proclaimed in the whole world (Matthew 26:6-13).

The last days of the life of Jesus are told as a series of choices. Here are some of them:

  1. The chief priests and the elders of the people plot to kill him.
  2. Judas, one of the Twelve, agrees on 30 pieces of silver.
  3. In Gethsemane Jesus chooses God’s will.
  4. All the disciples choose to desert him and run away.
  5. Caiaphas, the scribes and elders decide that Jesus deserves to die.
  6. Peter decides to deny the one who christened him The Rock.
  7. Judas hangs himself. Jesus decides to be silent when confronted by Pilate.
  8. The chief priests and the elders incite the crowd to choose Barabbas .
  9. Pilate decides to release Barabbas and delivers Jesus to be scourged and crucified.
  10. The soldiers decide to dress him up as a king and pin their mockery over the head of the dying man. THE KING OF THE JEWS.
  11. Jesus chooses a dying prayer: “My God, my God, why have you forsake men?

There are other choices. Search for them as you reflect on the last pages of our Gospels. But notice that Matthew fills his story of the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem with choices. The parable of the two sons is all about choice.

The communities of Jesus people in Antioch, for whom Matthew wrote his Gospel, were plagued with divisions. They were faced with choices that, as we now know, determined the future of Christianity. Must pagans become Jews before being baptised into the family of Jesus, no compromise allowed? Would doing a bit of Judaism be enough, say abstaining from certain foods? Would it not be sensible to abandon all features of Jewish identity?

The parable of the two sons Jesus, told in the dying days of Jesus, offers a story that presents consequences. To do or not to do, that is the question. These little gatherings of Jesus people held the future of Christianity in their hands. That is why the most important city in the early centuries of Christian faith we not Jerusalem; it was not Rome; it was Antioch.


Matthew's readers and hearers today

Matthew’s readers and hearers in our time and our place have been given a Gospel full of choices from beginning to end:

You have heard that it was said,
“You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”.

But I say to you,

“Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father
who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:43-45

In our time and in our place choices have to be made. It is time to listen to a Gospel of Choices, to face dilemmas of our day. It cannot be left to a few. Matthew wrote for all the people. That is why his Gospel from very early days has been called The Catechism of the Church. It is time for all of us to go back to our catechism. Even the tax collectors and prostitutes, God bless them, went out to Jordan’s banks and believed in the prophet they met there. Yet, seeing this, the chief priests and the elders of the people did take stock and believe in the words of John the Baptist.

We may search the Scriptures to learn what Jesus preached in his day. We may search the Scriptures to learn what Mark, Matthew Luke, and John, made of the teaching of Jesus in their days. Our task is to learn what Jesus is saying to the churches in our time and place. Our policy must always be to follow the example of the tax collectors and prostitutes.


A postscript

Much of the above is concerned with the story of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent our hearts and minds contemplate the dying days of Jesus. Why not leave such thoughts and prayers to Lent’s holy days?

Our Lectionary from here to the last Sunday of the year before we turn our thoughts to Christmas demands that comtemplate the last week of the life of Jesus. Into these Sundays of reflection on those last days, the Lectionary invites us to contemplate on our last days.

We are asked to meditate and to pray, to look with Jesus into the destiny of humanity even as we hear and read of the destiny of Jesus. As he makes his way from the Mount of Olives to the mountain of God, so Matthew asks all who listen to his words to understand the destiny that awaits all humanity.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.



[1] So the King James Version, the Douay Version,the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, theNew International Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the NewJerusalem Bible, the Revised New Jerusalem Bible, the New American Standard Bible. The Revised English Bible has To you, I lift up my heart.

[2] Most scholars are convinced that Paul has taken over the text of a hymn. However the precise verse form of the hymn is not obvious in Paul’s prose text.

I have translated his text and put it in a stanza form that I hope makes sense.

[3] The Jerusalem Bible and its two more recent editions have rightly insisted that that “slave” is the appropriate translation. Its note of explanation is to the point.

[4] The quotation from Psalm 8 is more like the text found in the Greek Septuagint than that in the Hebrew Bible.

[5] In the Coptic Church, our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Pilate and his wife Procula (or Procla) by the sixth century are honoured as saints, whose feastday is in July. One of the earliest and greatest of our ancient theologians, a man named Tertullian, was of the opinion that Pilate could rightly be regarded as a saint.

[6] Two other parables are read on the next two Sundays. My comments on today’s parable are relevant to all three. These form an unsuccessful catechesis of the authorities who will advocate crucifixion rather than implementation of the kingdom of God.

[7] In Mark, Matthew, and Luke there is an agony but no garden. In John’s Gospel there is a garden but no agony.