"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (28 June 2020)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward (Matthew 10:37-42 – NRSV).

Introductory notes

General

Today’s Gospel has specific literary and historical contexts.

The text is part of the “Apostolic Discourse” in which the challenges of the disciples’ mission are emphasized. It follows immediately upon the following text: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” (Matthew 10:34-36 – NRSV).

This is not a statement about what Jesus is offering. It is rather a statement about the consequences that may in fact follow when a person – including you and me – takes Jesus seriously. The text is written for a community of believers who find themselves in a socially turbulent and even brutal environment. Therefore “the disciples should expect to meet division within families (10:34–36), for in this way Mic 7:6 is fulfilled. They must not value their family ties (10:37) or even their own lives (10:39) above their following Jesus; their discipleship will surely involve suffering (10:38)” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Liturgical Press, 2007, 152).

Specific

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: This probably reflects the hard reality of the community for which Matthew writes, where parents – “fathers and mothers” – are expressing their disappointment in and perhaps rejection of family members who choose to accept that Jesus is the Anointed One. The followers of Jesus are being reminded of their priorities. Throughout history this scenario has been repeated many times, where individuals have had to choose between family and friends, their success and even their survival on the one hand, and their faith on the other.

Matthew, like Luke, gets his material from Q. That said, Matthew differs significantly from Luke (14:26) in that he omits the verb miseō – “hate”. Matthew’s “whoever loves father or mother more than me etc”, avoids the harshness of Luke’s “whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother etc.”

Leon Morris writes: “(Jesus) assumes that there will be love between parents and children, but claims for himself a higher place in his disciples’ affection than that which they accord to their nearest and dearest on earth, and that in a society that held it a dreadful thing to put anyone higher than one’s parents. Loves is a significant word; it points to the warmest affection. Jesus does not bid his followers love their parents or their children (nor, on the other hand, does he forbid warm affection in the family). He simply assumes that family members will love one another. But he is concerned that they must not value their attachment to the members of their families so highly that he is pushed into the background. This has important implications for an understanding of the person of Jesus. No mere man has the right to claim a love higher than that for parents or children; it is only because he is who he is that Jesus can look for such love. The words imply that he is more than a merely human teacher and leader. Of the one who lacks this love for him he says that he is not worthy of me (GNB, “is not fit to be my disciple”). We must not forget that Jesus knew what it was to experience misunderstanding in the family, for his own thought him mad (Mark 3:21). Jesus is not asking from his followers something he did not know for himself” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, W.B. Eerdmans, 1992, 267-268).

take up the cross: Whatever form it might take, there will be some serious consequences in discipleship: “Crucifixion was well known to Jews of Jesus’ time, and there is no decisive reason why the earthly Jesus could not have uttered such a saying. Here there is no reference to the cross of Jesus (cf. Matt 16:24). The saying warns of suffering and even painful death as part of the disciple’s lot. Of course, the saying takes on deeper meaning in the light of Jesus’ death and resurrection” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 151).

those who find .... lose and those who lose .... find: The deeper you penetrate the mystery of human existence, the more you find yourself dealing with paradox. Merely rational explanations will not do. Even a superficial understanding of the human reality might suggest the truth of this paradox: the self-centred, grasping individual is seen as “less” than the altruistic and magnanimous person. At the end, people are generally more admired for what they can do without than what they possess.

For Matthew though, the paradox finds its meaning in our identification with Jesus Christ: “for my sake”. This is not an ego-project but a work of grace through God’s Anointed. It calls for surrender therefore rather than mastery.

life: The Greek word used here is psyche. It may be translated as “life” or “soul”. In this instance, since the context is clearly Jewish or Semitic, “life” seems to be the best translation. And combined with the previous reference to the cross, where the possibility of martyrdom seems to be envisaged, “the saying probably has a broader application to self-denial and wholehearted acceptance of the demands of being a disciple” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 151). (Alternatively: “In 10:28 a Greek anthropology demands that psychē be rendered as ‘soul’” (Ibid).)

Whoever welcomes you welcomes me: This is a remarkable statement. It goes to the heart of the Christian life in general and the life of the disciple in particular. We are reminded of St Paul’s statement in his Letter to the Christians in Galatia: “I live now, not I but Christ lives in me” (2:19). It also echoes John’s use of the Greek verb meno (“remain”, “abide” etc), especially in the metaphor of the vine – see 15:1-17. Jesus identifies himself with the disciple, thus inviting the disciple to identify him/herself with him. See also Matthew’s Last Judgement scene – 25:31-46.

Discipleship implies an intimacy that is simply – and profoundly – a manifestation of the fulfilment of the promise, “I am with you!” And so there is an invitation: “Wake up! Be aware! Let this truth emerge in the depths of your being! Let it be your life! Let it shape everything you are and do, everything you think and imagine about yourself and your engagement with the world!”

Reflection

The circumstances of a particular moment in history can shape human perceptions and behaviours in a way that seems incomprehensible – maybe inexcusable – to another generation. For example, will we be able to adequately explain to later generations what it has been like to be part of the Coronavirus moment? Every text has a context. If we are to understand any text – whether it is a written text or the metaphorical text of someone’s life story – we must understand the context.

The Roman occupying forces had been in and around Palestine from the middle of the 1st century BCE. In 6BCE – about the time of Jesus’ birth – the Roman province of Judea was established. Individuals and small groups of Jews from time to time expressed their resentment at the Roman occupation. They were summarily dealt with – often by crucifixion. In 66CE there was a serious rebellion in Jerusalem staged by a group called Zealots. In retaliation, the Romans crushed the rebellion and destroyed the temple in the year 70CE. This provoked the dispersion of the Jewish society that had gathered around that temple.

During this time there was also conflict within the Jewish society itself. There was a small group of Jews who believed that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. These followers of The Way as they were known – were not welcome: “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (Acts 9;1-2). So, if you were Jewish and Christian, you had every reason to fear for your safety. It was in this context that Matthew’s Gospel was committed to writing.

Today’s Gospel – Matthew 10:37-42 – reflects that context. Chapter 10 of Matthew’s Gospel begins with the mission of “the twelve”. There is a roll call that would have been charged with memories for Matthew’s audience. Among “the twelve” is someone called Simon the Zealot. Was he one of those who later rebelled against the Romans? And of course, Judas Iscariot is named. Matthew’s Gospel is the only one to say he committed suicide.

Matthew describes how “the twelve” are given strict instructions and warned that they will be persecuted: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; .... they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me .... ” (10:16-18). In this kind of context, the mind must focus on what matters. There is a sense of urgency. Priorities must be set. Every decision is fraught with serious consequences – especially the decision to follow The Way. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it”. The stakes are high. Always. What do you think?