Gospel for the Thirteenth Sunday after Easter (2 July 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
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)
Today’s Gospel has a specific context. It 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 follow when we take Jesus seriously. Daniel Harrington writes: “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.)
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” – were expressing their disappointment in and perhaps rejection of family members who chose 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. Daniel Harrington writes: “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.) (“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.
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!”
The central figure in the text here is Jesus. Just as the central figure in the life of anyone who seeks to be a disciple, is Jesus. The Christ Life is first and last a Christ-centred life. We can get things tragically wrong when we forget this. Herein lies the greatest gift of our faith and perhaps its greatest danger.
The danger is that we think the Christ Life is primarily about us and what we must do. On that basis, what we call “the Christian life” or “the pursuit of holiness” can in fact become a more or less disguised ego-project. It’s unacknowledged and unspoken intent is control. Thus, the hidden purpose of our “virtue” or “holiness” is found in its capacity to allay our anxiety. Here is a little test to run on yourself: When you catch yourself being “Christ-like” – caring, kind, compassionate, forgiving, patient and so on – is your first reaction one of satisfaction or gratitude? If it is the former, you are probably dealing with an ego-project rather than the Christ Life. If it is the latter, you are probably dealing with the presence of Jesus Christ and the wonders of grace. You are also probably recognizing that your care, kindness, compassion etc have given you a front row seat on God at work in the world – you have felt the presence of grace! Gratitude – which comes from the Latin word for grace – is a natural and spontaneous human reaction to the presence of the good, the true, the one and the beautiful. As if by instinct we recognize in that moment the Presence of all that we seek – and we are grateful.
Would you consider that one of the biggest obstacles to your “holiness” might be your attempts to be “virtuous”? The Catholic theologian, Hans Küng writes: “What is it really that stands ... between God and man? Paradoxically, it is man's .... ingeniously devised moralism and his selective technique of piety. It is not--as people at that time thought--the tax swindlers who find it most difficult to repent, not being able to remember all those whom they have cheated or how much they would have to restore. No: it is the devout who find it most difficult, being so sure of themselves that they have no need of conversion. They became Jesus' worst enemies. Most of the sayings on judgment in the Gospels apply to these, not to the great sinners. Those who finally sealed his fate were not murderers, cheats, swindlers and adulterers, but the highly moral people. They thought that in this way they were doing a service to God.” (Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, Doubleday, 1974/1976, 211.)
It is Jesus’ work that we are about, his life and energy that move us, his Kingdom that we seek.