Lectionary commentary: twenty-third Sunday of Ordinary time


A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 33:7-9

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95:1-2. 6-9.R/. v. 8

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 13:8-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 18:15-20

Two weeks ago we heard from the prophet Isaiah. One week ago we heard from the prophet Jeremiah. Today we hear from the prophet Ezekiel. These are the three most important prophets in the Hebrew Bible. According to Jewish tradition, these three books belong to the part of the Bible named Nevi’im (Prophets). These prophetical books are,

  • Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings
  • Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel
  • Twelve Minor (= shorter) prophets from Hosea to Malachi.

Every one of them supplies a first reading in our Sunday Lectionary. It is true to say that the ancient prophets of Israel are always with us, informing our faith, strengthening our hope, and deepening our love of the God who gave their wisdom to the world.

The Christian tradition has its own way of doing things and, in listing the prophetical books it regards Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings as historical books. This is somewhat misleading for there is little in these books to engage the scrupulous historian rather than the inquisitive theologian. The work of prophets is manifestly to the fore in these books.

Joshua is presented as the prophet who succeeded the prophet Moses. In Judges 4:4 we are introduced to that great woman Deborah, named as “a prophet-woman”[1] and a , the one who apejudge in Israel.[2] She is one of six women in the Hebrew Bible named as prophets.[3] Samuel is named as a prophet in the book dedicated to his extraordinary ministry among God’s people. The Books of the Kings not only have Elijah (the greatest prophet after Moses, the one who appears with Moses at the Transfiguration of Jesus), the prophet Elisha, and Micaiah (I Kings 22:13-28). One sentence records that there were about 400 prophets in the service of King Ahab, a nasty piece of work, married to an even nastier wife named Jezebel. These prophetical books teem with prophets, good and bad, who are called upon to guide the actions of kings and sometimes of queens. The Nevi’im, Prophets, is an apt title for these books.


The prophets of ancient Israel whose work has been preserved

in our Bibles, Hebrew and Christian, areservants of the Holy Spirit. The Book of Isaiah provides what amounts to a definition of the true prophet:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
to gospel the poor,
to bind up those whose hearts are wounded,
to proclaim liberty to captives,
and the opening of prison.

Isaiah 61:1

That is to say, prophets imagine the future, a future that beings to earth the vision of God. Every prophet proclaims that the future belongs to God’s justice and God’s peace.

Prophets are deeply concerned with the past. They look to the ancient words of God when God delivered Israel to freedom and led them to Mount Sinai to make them his own. They look to Moses who heard the words of covenant on the mountain, words that bound the people of Israel forever to God. The prophets were guardians of the Torah, the teaching that defined how life with God is to be lived.

Yet every true prophet looked at how the people lived God’s words in their time and place. Most often they saw neglect of what had been taught on Mount Sinai. The earliest prophet whose words are recorded in the Hebrew Bible saw into the hearts of evil people:

… those who oppress the poor,
who crush the needy …
who trample on the poor,
who exact taxes,
who afflict the righteous who take bribes…

(phrases from Amos, chapters 3 to 5)

God’s prescription for humanity’s wellbeing was simply stated:

… let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

Amos 5:24

But instead,

… you have turned righteousness into poison
and the fruit of righteousness into wormwood.

Amos 6:12

That is why the concern of the prophets is to imagine a new future. The prophet’s imagination paints a God’s-eye view of the world, if only the world would look to the Lord God. The homily preached by every prophet, from Moses to Jesus, is both a warning and a prescription for peace:

Listen, Israel!

To listen to God, to listen to the prophets, is to move from the past, to the present, then to an imagined future. When our God reigns, what will come to pass?Only when the Day of the Lord dawns, will there be a bright new day. The phrase “Day of the Lord” is used throughout the prophets to denote the future when God will assert heavenly rule over the ways of humanity. It will be a day of judgment:

In that day the Lord will take away the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves; the headdresses, the armlets, the sashes, the perfume boxes, and the amulets; the signet rings and nose rings; the festal robes, the mantles, the cloaks, and the veils.

Isaiah 3:18-23

The trappings of the idle rich who batten on the poor will get their comeuppance:

Instead of perfume there will be rottenness;
and instead of a belt, a rope;
and instead of well-set hair, baldness;
and instead of a rich robe, a skirt of sackcloth;
and branding instead of beauty.
Your men shall fall by the sword
and your mighty men in battle.
And her gates shall lament and mourn;
empty, she shall sit on the ground.

Isaiah 3:24-26

If we look to the past, then, in a word, this was God’s expectation:

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting.

Isaiah 5:7

But what became of that beautiful planting is not what God intended:

… he looked for justice,
but, behold, bloodshed,
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry!

Isaiah 5:7

In the prophetic vision of the future the downfall of the rich and powerful is not the end of things. There will be a transformation, a new future, imagined in the simplest of poetry:

He who is bowed down shall speedily be released;
he shall not die and go down to the pit,
neither shall his bread be lacking …

Isaiah 51:14

Thus says your Lord,
the Lord, your God
who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more”.

Isaiah 51:22

There is a wondrous vision of God as the most adoring husband, who for a brief moment wandered, but is now returned to the wife of his youth:

For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name; and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer, the God of the whole earth he is called. For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. “ For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. Isaiah 54:5-8

What we see in the dreams of the prophets is a vision of what might be if God’s justice and God’s peace ruled the world:

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Isaiah 55:12-13

A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 33:7-9

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.

The word of the Lord.

Watchmen and watching

Psalm 130, as every Jewish and every Christian sinner knows, is a penitential prayer. The prayer is made from the darkest of places but with great expectations:

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
O Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleas for mercy!

Psalm 130:1-2

The only hope is that the Lord God is listening. But it is a sure and certain hope. For with God fear is always dread that one might somehow miss that God is always a forgiving God:

If you, Lord, should mark iniquities,
O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness,
that you may be feared.

Psalm 130:3.

In the Bible’s perspective fear is always a contrite mixture of awe, reverence, and trepidation. Waiting for the Lord is living in patient hope, a hope untainted by anxiety for it is founded on sure and certain faith. The watchmen waits for morning knowing that morning always comes:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

Psalm 130:5-6

O Israel, hope in the Lord,
for with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is plentiful redemption,
and he will redeem Israel
from all his iniquities.

Psalm 130:7

Psalm 130 might very well be a commentary on the word we hear from Ezekiel this blesséd day. Whether the wicked listen to the voice of experience cannot be regarded as certain. But the instinct to proclaim the word of forgiveness mirrors love received and love understood.

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 95:1-2. 6-9.R/. v. 8

R/.Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.

Come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise. R/.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;
let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!
For he is our God,
and we are the people of his pasture,
and the sheep of his hand. R/.

Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,
as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work. R/.

Today we sing a prayer that must be sung together. It is an “all together now”, a “come-all-ye” prayer, a noisy community shout of praise of the One who is the rock of our salvation.

The psalm is almost a creed. It celebrates the greatness of God above all other gods, into whose presence humanity may come with joyful thanksgiving in its song.

This rock of our salvation is our creator and the shepherd of the people he has brought into life. Unlike our complaining ancestors, we must listen to the voice of our Lord God and not harden our hearts.

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans, 13:8-10

Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.

The word of the Lord.

On the ninth day of Christmas, our song celebrates Nine Ladies Dancing. We all know that the nine ladies represent the nine fruits of the Holy Spirit:

  • love, joy, peace,
  • patience, kindness, goodness,
  • faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

These are the nine gifts of the Holy Spirit as listed by St. Paul himself in his letter to Galatian Christians (Galatians 5:22). But why should it be nine the dancing ladies who celebrate the nine gifts of God’s Holy Spirit?Believe it or not, all these Greek nouns are feminine gender. Think about it.

In Chapter 13 of Paul’s Letter to Roman Christians the apostle identifies and celebrates those characteristics that must be preeminent among all who would serve. The great commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai are expanded in a paragraph in the Book of Leviticus and in conclusion summed up in a phrase:

You shall love your neighbour as yourself.

Leviticus 19:18

Paul does the same. If you wish to grasp all that he means in his few sentences on love in today’s reading, then you can do no better than to read another famous chapter 13 and meditate on one glorious opening sentence:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal …

I Corinthians 13:1

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 18:15-20

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

The Gospel of the Lord.

Our Lectionary has jumped from Matthew’s chapter 16 to the middle of chapter 18. While what has been skipped here is to be found elsewhere in the Lectionary, we miss the continuity and cohesion evident in Matthew’s presentation. However, in today’s quotation from Matthew, an element essential to authentic Christian living is made clear: how to cope with sin in the heart of the community of Jesus. It is a Gospel very mush for our times.

First, it is necessary to realise that “your brother”, the sinner in Matthew’s example, is not sexually exclusive. The Greek here is ὁ ἀδελφός σου (ho adelphos sou, your brother). But the Greek word is frequently used to mean “brother and sister”. So Mathew is not intending to suggest that women in our church communities are free from sin. Matthew is concerned with sin in the church, whoever the sinner might be. Matthew underlines that sin in the community needs to be confronted.

[A note. The Jerusalem Bible translation that is used in our current Lectionary reads:

If you brother does something wrong …

What Matthew wrote is,

If your brother sins against you …[4]

The New Revised Standard Version offers “If another member of the church sins against you … “. But “member” does not imply the bond that baptism creates, an essential factor in the story.

It is clear that Matthew means “sins against you”, even if we omit “against you”, as some Bibles do (I would not recommend that). Matthew’s emphasis in using the word “brother” and the verb “to sin” is to insist on the horror of one who is baptized into the Lord Jesus and filled with the Holy Spirit committing an act that is against God and destructive unity in Christ. Even a sin against a single brother or sister has community ramifications.]

The people of God must not be riven by sin. There is no such thing as private sin, just as there is no such thing as private prayer. Sin of whatever kind is always destructive of the bond of faith that makes us brothers and sisters in Christ. Reflect on how the very secret sin of child abuse (and the cover up of that sin) has destroyed the faith of many in Christian communities.

How can the damage be undone?The first step to reconciliation is that the offended one must go and remonstrate (not “tell”) with the offender quietly. If that does not bring about repentance and reconciliation, then the support of two or three other Christians should be engaged to convince the offender of the gravity of sin against a brother or sister Christian. If that quiet appeal is to no avail, then the matter must be put before the whole community. The sinner to be regarded as a pagan and a tax collector.[5]

The community must be aware of its authority and of its obli -gation. Whatever decisions made to safeguard, to sustain, and to promote the community will be in accord with God’sconcern. For God is our Father, the parent of us all.

What Matthew is doing here is underlining the responsibility of each individual, of each two or three, and of all, for the health of the church, local and universal. This is a daunting responsibility. It is a grave burden. To confront sin within, to name it publicly if necessary, is to ensure that our church/Church is the Church of God. Sin untended, sin concealed, destroys us all.

Two questions

Careful readers and hearers of today’s Gospel will be struck by two questions (at least). The first is that we have heard some words of Jesus before:

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose onearth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 16:19

These are words spoken to Peter when he had recognised Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God”. On Peter the rock Jesus is determined to build my church. That Rock will have the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

A few things are clear. First, Peter’s appointment is founded on his faith. His confession of faith is the rock foundation:

You are the Messiah the Son of the living God.

Giving Simon the nickname Peter is significant. There was no such name in Hebrew, in Aramaic, or in Greek. Notice how one identification is followed by another:

You are the Messiah.
You are the Rock.

The statement in relation to Simon Peter is unique in the New Testament. When the statement is employed to support a universal governance of the whole Church by the bishop of Rome, Catholics and other Christians in the Reformation tradition have profound disagreement. Catholic theologians seek to nuance the words found only in Matthew and not in Mark, where Matthew found the account of the Caesarea incident in the first place (Mark 8:27-30).

Briefly, the declaration by Peter that Jesus is the Son of the living God is far from an exclusive and unique act of faith. There is the word of Paul in his letter to Roman Christians (written about 58 A.D., probably 40 years before Matthew wrote his Gospel). Paul declares that the gospel of God which he preached concerns,

[God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of Holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord …

Romans 1:3-4

Even earlier, perhaps about 54 or 55 A.D., in his letter to Galatians, Paul claims that he received “the revelation of Jesus Christ” from God who was “pleased to reveal to me his Son” (read Galatians 1:11-17).

Probably la year or so later than the Galatian letter Paul wrote to his the little community of Christians in Philippi that he founded inthe house of a marvelous woman Lydia. In the letter Paul quotes an amazing hymn celebrating the origin and mission of Christ Jesus, ending in a perfect God’s purposes in sending the Son:

… so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth, and under the earth,
and every tongue confess to the glory of God the Father.

Philippians 2:10-11

There is an abundance of evidence that a full understanding of the person of Jesus and his mission from the Father were not dependent on Peter. However, in the last of the Gospels to be written, John’s Gospel has a final chapter (a late addition to the text that ends at the end of chapter 20) and account of Peter absolved of his treachery and appointed the one to “feed my sheep”. Peter was remembered as an apostle to whom Jesus had committed a special rôle in the care of the infant Jesus movement as it made its way from Jerusalem to Rome. St Luke’s Acts of the Apostles, in its first 15 chapters, shows Peter engaged in revealing the true identity of Jesus and his mission. Peter made his way to Rome (as seems quite certain) and spent the last few years before his death in 64 or 65 A.D. and so tradition has closely associated him with the development of Christian communities in that city. However, to see his pastoral care of churches in Rome as a universal responsibility for the whole Church is to go far beyond the evidence the New Testament can supply.

The second question concerns the words addressed by Jesus to “the church”, the community gathered to judge one who has sinned and refused to has not listened to the counsel of his brothers and sisters. The words are remarkable in their similarity to the words spoken to Peter. To the church of brothers and sisters Jesus says,

whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose onearth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 18:18

These words of Jesus affirm the judgments of the “church” in a matter of great concern. How is sin to be challenged into repentance?How is the disruption between brothers and sisters to be recognised, chastised, and mended?And if no mending is possible, what must be done?When is binding the only recourse?When is loosing to be carried so that no injury be done to peace?

There are two bows in the quiver of the reconciling community. The first is prayer. Our Father in heaven is the first court of appeal. Wisdom and resolve are there for the asking.

They are there for the asking because prayer does not ascend to the Father without the strength of the Son. At the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, even before the child was born, he was named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). The identity of the child is revealed: he in Immanuel, God-with-Us. In the challenge to oppose the presence of sin in the community of the church, local or universal, though only two or three are fighting the good fight, “I shall be there with them”.

In case, hearers and readers of Matthew’s Gospel need reminding that they do not set out to baptise the nations into peace , the very last words are as they were in the beginning and in the centre:

Behold! I am with you always, to the end of the age!

A note of caution. Hearers and readers of the New Testament must not look to its pages for a complete vision of the Church’s teaching or a description of its immutable structures. Both of these developed over time. It took more than three hundred for the primacy of Rome to be an accepted development of teaching whose foundations lay in the words of our Gospels.

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

[1]As Robert Alter, a translator and interpreter of Book of Judges explains, the Hebrew text does not use the Hebrew word “nevi’ah’ that means “a prophetess” but a combination of two words that insist that the woman Deborah is a true prophet.

[2] Judges ruled over God’s people before kings came on the scene. They were charismatic individuals who led fighting men to battle against enemies, and guided the life of the people with wisdom. The greatest of these was Deborah who, in times of peace, sat under a palm tree that was named after her and “the people of Israel came up to her for judgment” (Judges 4:5). She was a noted singer. But she is introduced first of all as a prophet.

[3]Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron is named a prophet in Exodus 15:20. Huldah is not only a seamstress; she is a prophet (II Kings 22:14). Isaiah’s wife seems to be a prophet (Isaiah 8:3). Noadiah‘s credentials as a true prophet are, to say the least, suspect (Nehemiah 6:14).

[4] Some ancient manuscripts omit “against you”. The RSV includes “your brother”.

[5] Some people think that Matthew the tax collector mentioned in Matthew 9:9-13, was the author of this Gospel. But that is well-nigh impossible.