Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-13; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12
On the feast of Epiphany, it is too easy to focus on the wise men mentioned in today’s gospel. Where did they come from, how many were there, what star could they have followed, and on and on? The feast is not about historical details, however. There are enough historical anomalies here to make this a waste of time; furthermore, Matthew would have us focus on the theological truths behind the Magi story. And since Matthew is the only evangelist to speak of this, we need to ask what he wanted us to appreciate in his account.
From the beginning the Eastern church placed more emphasis on this story than on any description of the nativity. The reason this is so special in our liturgy is because, in the ancient Church, before Christmas came to be commemorated, Epiphany was the main feast that was celebrated. Matthew himself gives the nativity only one sentence (although he indicates earlier an annunciation story from Joseph’s perspective). Far more important for him is telling us who this child is; his manifestation, his epiphany. The Magi, we are told, found Jesus not in a stable, but in a house, and he could have been as much as two-years old. Thus, we have a series of contrasts. The Magi, foreigners, had a deeper appreciation into the significance of Jesus than did his own people, from Herod on down, as he and “all Jerusalem” were troubled at the news of Jesus’ birth. The Magi also typify our search for meaning in our lives, our longing and seeking for a savior, the desired of the nations. The magi sought the “king of the Jews,” but they came to give homage not to an earthly king, but to offer worship that is proffered only to God.
The lengthy journey the Magi had to undertake is typical of any worthwhile pursuit. This is especially true of a spiritual quest, a journey that always involves a transformation, a change. This is true for all of us, especially those who were baptized in infancy. Finding and worshiping God is a lifelong quest, and we become true worshipers of God only through a gradual lifelong process. A major fault is not to grow, to have a faith that has matured little since childhood. Only if we set out deliberately to grow in our ability to find God in our lives will our varied experiences help to purify our hearts, making them humbler and thus more open to God. Like the Magi, we must allow ourselves not to be discouraged by setbacks, but to learn from the journey of life, and let any failings become opportunities to progress towards finding the Christ.
To find God at the end of our journey, Isaiah says that we must raise our eyes and look about, and not only look but truly see what is before us. Herod and the learned citizens of Jerusalem could not really see. They could not see beyond what satisfied their own selfish desires. They made no effort to search any further. The Magi, however, represent the desire to go further, to seek for deeper meaning in their lives. This enabled them to see what others could not. Theirs was a way of seeing that transcends what is immediately apparent and makes it possible for someone to worship the Lord who is hidden in everyday situations, in the poor, and those on the fringes. In a sense this is a precursor to Saint Paul, who says we should “look not to what is seen, but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18).
Isaiah 42:1-4, 6-7 (40:1-5, 9-11); Psalm 29:1-4, 9-10 (or 104:1b-4, 24-25, 27-30);
Acts 10:34-38 (or Titus 2:11-14; 3:4-7); Luke 3:15-16, 21-22
Luke’s account of the baptism of Jesus did not even merit a full sentence in his Gospel. He speaks of it in a relative clause: “When all the people had been baptized, and Jesus also had been baptized…”. John the Baptist had already been put in prison by Herod (a sentence left out in our reading). The general explanation given for this is to separate the time of Jesus from the time of John, as well as to minimize John’s importance in relation to Jesus. Luke divides salvation history into three eras. John belonged to the time of the promises, the time of Israel. Jesus, on the other hand, inaugurated the time of fulfillment. It was a new period in salvation history. Luke will write of the third period in Acts, which is the period of the Church.
Luke is not interested primarily in the baptism itself. This lack of focus on this allows him to note four other important points: the prayer of Jesus, the heavens being opened, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the voice from heaven. Luke begins by telling us that all these things happened when Jesus “was praying.” Luke stresses the fact that Jesus is a man of prayer throughout his Gospel. He will note it again before Jesus’ choice of the Twelve (6:12), before Peter’s confession of faith (9:18), at the transfiguration (9:28), when he teaches the disciples themselves to pray (11:1), at the Last Supper (22:32), on the Mount of Olives (22:41), and on the cross (23:46). He felt the same need and sought the same strength that we do throughout our lives. Jesus always sought a deeper companionship with his Father; only God could know and meet the deepest reaches of his soul. In many cases when he prayed, he was not asking for anything in particular, or trying to bend God’s will to his own. It was always “thy will be done.”
Jesus’ relationship with God the Father is too vast and wonderful for us to fathom. But because of this close union with God as well as the human life that was his, Jesus is able to reveal to us the divine possibilities in human life. His human journey was like ours, and he is always holding out his hand for us to join him on the path of life. Note that when Jesus taught his disciples the Our Father in Luke, he did so as one who prays, not as a teacher, as we have in Matthew.
Luke’s mention that “heaven was opened” recalls the prayer of Isaiah (64:1-4) that God would “rend the heavens and come down” as he did in the time of the Exodus. This new exodus would be the beginning of a new era of salvation marking God’s entry to fulfill the various prophecies in the Old Testament. Third, the descent of the Holy Spirit as Jesus was praying would mark his entire ministry (cf. Luke 4:1, 14, 18; and many references in Acts). The Spirit will be God’s gift to the Church, enabling its ministry of witness and service. No one has given a satisfactory explanation of why the Spirit should be associated with a dove. To state, however, that the dove was in bodily form is probably to insist that this was an actual reality, and not simply something in Jesus’ mind or feeling alone.
The fourth aspect of Luke’s baptismal story is the voice from heaven, declaring, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Note that the voice here is addressed to Jesus, as we find in Mark, and was not for the crowd, as we find in Matthew. This was a private revelation, meant to confirm Jesus in the vocation that was his. This voice, affirming Jesus’ relation to God is important in the general structure of Luke’s Gospel. Here it precedes his public ministry. We will hear that voice again at the transfiguration (9:34-36), where it is meant also for the disciples. The voice after the baptism was to empower Jesus for his ministry as the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert for his 40-day retreat to wrestle with the meaning of everything that had happened.
Though our baptisms differ from that of Jesus, this feast should remind us of our own identity and mission. Baptism tells us who we are and whose we are. Jesus’ baptism reminds us to experience the presence of God within us, to acknowledge our own dignity as God’s children and to appreciate the divine presence in others by loving them and serving them in all humility. We should strive to live so that God may say to each one of us what God said to Jesus: “You are My beloved son/daughter with whom I am well pleased.”
Isaiah 62:1-5; Psalm 96:1-3, 7-10; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11; John 2:1-11
The account of the wedding feast at Cana is the first of the seven major “signs” in John’s Gospel. In this incident, symbolism is everything. Cana, the first sign, where water is turned into wine, pairs with the seventh sign, where wine is turned into the blood of Christ; the middle sign is the miraculous feeding of the multitude after which Jesus proclaims that he is the bread of life. All have eucharistic overtones. In many ways, however, the main character here seems to be Mary. She was the one invited to the wedding; Jesus and his disciples are like appendages to her presence there. Mary is a symbol of the power of her intercessory prayer with her Son. At the same time, when Jesus responds to her observation that there is a lack of wine by telling her that his hour has not yet come, we are reminded that God’s demands on Jesus always have priority.
Mary’s telling the servants to “Do what he tells you,” is more than general instructions to the waiters. It is also seen by John as advice for all of us who claim to be disciples. When we accept that Jesus came from God, not to obey him seems very foolhardy. Following Jesus and obeying him is far more than slavish obedience. Doing whatever Jesus commands is for John the essence of discipleship (cf. 15:14, 16). It is a life-transforming practice. The only way we will win the world for Christ is by convincing people that we have something infinitely valuable that they lack.
Significantly, this miracle/sign was known to very few: the waiters, Mary, and the disciples. Neither the groom nor the guests, nor even the head waiter had any idea of its origin. We are told that “the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from;” we know, of course, and it is hard to believe that soon all of Capernaum would have heard about it as well. It also becomes a clue to readers of the gospel that Jesus will soon proclaim himself to be a source of living water to the Samaritan woman (4:11). The question of where the wine came from also applies to Jesus himself. In John’s Gospel, Jesus does not come from Nazareth or any other physical location. He comes from above, from God, as does the gift of water he gives us that will well up to eternal life (4:14). John ends the Cana story with a threefold climax. It was the first sign wrought by Jesus; it was a manifestation of his glory; and it awakened or confirmed his disciples’ faith in him. The 150 gallons or so of wine that Jesus provided is but a foretaste of the superabundance of God’s blessings, especially in the Eucharist.
The “hour” that Jesus referred to when Mary told him about the wine situation would lead inexorably to the hour of his exaltation on the cross. Then the wine of the kingdom of God would be made available to all. It’s anticipation runs through John’s entire Gospel until the final proclamation, “it is finished/accomplished.” For this reason, the gift of wine rather than living water was especially important for the early readers of this gospel. It helped them grasp the superiority of the Son of God as mediator of the new covenant in contrast to Moses as the mediator of the old covenant. They appreciated their possession of the life of the kingdom of God, and this helped them to persist in their allegiance to the Christ in face of those who championed the old order and its mediator. Of this gift every celebration of the Eucharist is a standing reminder.
Many of the early Fathers of the Church saw Mary as the new Eve, a companion of Paul’s depiction of Christ as the new Adam (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23, 45-49). Just as Eve was the companion of Adam in the fall, so Mary is linked with Jesus in the work of redemption. At the cross, the disciple whom Jesus loved seems to stand for all believers in relation to “the woman” and she to them, the Church as a family of believers. The early Church found this meaningful.
Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19:8-10, 15; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30 (12:12-14, 27); Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
Our readings from Luke during Ordinary Time start with Jesus’ return to his hometown. Luke situates this event right after the temptations in the desert following Jesus’ baptism. The reference to his having been anointed for mission surely refers to his baptism. Luke knows that Jesus had left Nazareth and set up shop in Capernaum and was already acquiring a reputation for himself around the lake country. But he situated the Nazareth incident at the beginning of Jesus’ public life because he wanted this to be the prism through which we understand the entire ministry of Jesus. Luke considered the Isaiah passage important enough to quote it at length. Jesus there reads that he has been set apart to bring glad tidings to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to free the oppressed.
Jesus began his commentary on this passage by saying, “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Two things need to be said about this statement. First, is the seemingly simple word “today.” Jesus announces that the reign of God is about to begin, and God’s purpose of salvation finally realized. The promises made by the prophets for messianic times were here at last. This is not some vague “someday” or “soon.” It is now.
Synagogue services then did not have the formality we associate with worship today. An invitation to read and preach could be extended to any competent member of the assembly or to a visitor. Since Jesus was asked to read, he was considered fluent enough in Hebrew besides his native Aramaic. His familiarity with the Scriptures is shown by the fact that he was easily able to find the passage he was looking for, unrolling the scroll to the 61st chapter — long before the Bible was divided into chapter and verse. Luke tells us three important things here: that Jesus regularly participated in synagogue services each Sabbath; that he found the inspiration for his ministry from Isaiah; and that he issued a challenge to those in the synagogue to be inspired by that same passage.
Second, we must ask ourselves what Jesus was really claiming here. Was he claiming to be a type of lone ranger, about to do all these wonderful things by himself? Was he inviting those in the synagogue to sit back and watch as he went about his ministry? Or was he saying, in effect, “if this passage inspires you as much as it does me, together we can make it happen!” Jesus was doing the same thing in Nazareth that he had already done in Capernaum: looking for help, gathering disciples, trying to fill others with his ideals and a willingness to join him in the fulfillment of God’s promises.
There are a number of angles one can take in preaching about this passage. One is the importance of Sunday worship. Jesus regularly went to synagogue on the Sabbath. There is much to be learned here, especially in our day when fewer people are celebrating the Eucharist, claiming that they can worship God at home, in the woods, or seashore, since God is everywhere. Jesus surely found God in the beauty of nature or under the silence of the stars. But he realized the importance of praying with his compatriots. The synagogue meant fellowship, a place where one can be inspired by the convictions of another. The Church is also where we gather with all those for whom Jesus suffered and died to share in the purpose of his life and ministry.
This also makes clear that our relationship with God is more than simply praying in the privacy of our homes, assuring ourselves that we love God and are pleasing to God because we observe the commandments. Nothing is said in this passage about the commandments. It is all about reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged. It is about actively reaching out to all God’s children in their need. There are so many applications for that today, such as our treatment of immigrants whether it be those on our southern border or Afghan refugees that are so much in need of help these days. To remember Jesus, as we do at each Mass, is to find it impossible to be selfish or pitiless. Rather to remember Jesus is to strive to be more generous, understanding, compassionate, and kind.
Finally, this gospel should remind us that Jesus is always looking for disciples, people who will be his hands and feet in our world, who will be eager to continue the ministry that was his. We are not expected to be simply at his feet with our hands out to receive. Receive we will, but only so that we have something to give, sharing with others the blessings that are ours.
Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 (or 13:4-13); Luke 4:21-30
Today’s gospel passage continues the one we read last week. In fact, the connection is made clear by repeating the final verse of last week’s gospel. The passage presents us with a conundrum, however. It begins by telling us that the audience marveled at the gracious words that Jesus spoke, but ends with their trying to kill him. That is a terribly swift reversal. What accounts for it?
Verse 23 holds the key. The proverb that Jesus quotes (“Physician, cure yourself,”) was undoubtedly being spoken by those in the synagogue. For they concluded with, “Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.” For one thing, they were upset that he had left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum, a cosmopolitan town on the via maris to Damascus. It was prosperous enough to have a fishing port and even a customs post. It also offered easy access to all the villages around the lake. They wanted him back home, where his fame would benefit them. They would be able to set up souvenir shops and increase the prosperity of their little town.
Jesus justifies his having taken God’s blessings beyond Nazareth to “outsiders” by reminding them of two well-known Old Testament stories. Both the prophets Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-14) and Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-17) offered God’s blessings to outsiders, to non-Jews. In Elisha’s case, it was even for the army commander of an enemy of Israel. Jesus could have cited Jonah as well. This humorous story shows a similar unwillingness on the part of Jonah to preach conversion to the Ninevites because he was afraid God would show them mercy. In fact, Jonah became quite angry with God for not wiping out the city. “I knew you were a gracious God, slow to anger, rich in clemency, loathe to punish” (Jonah 4:2). What a dramatic embodiment of the capacity that exists in all of us to be offended by God’s grace to those of whom we disapprove.
Those in the synagogue became angry with Jesus for the same reason: because he reminded them of their own history. They claimed to be faithful to their tradition, and here they were being faced with an aspect of it they did not like. Jesus did not address them with philosophical or theological reasoning, but from facts within their own religious tradition. They had no response to this except anger and hostility. We see this same attitude reflected in the reading from Jeremiah which ends with a hint of the opposition he would face from his own people for speaking the truth to them: “They will fight against you but not prevail over you.” The reading from 1 Corinthians is an ironic reminder that the good people in the synagogue lacked love for others for, as Paul reminds us, “[love] rejoices with the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” There is a perverse tendency in all of us to be offended by God’s grace to those we dislike. Witness the reaction of many to the parable of the late workers in the vineyard found in Matthew (20:15).
Luke situates this incident at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry because it foreshadows the opposition that Jesus will face throughout his ministry. Not only his trial and conviction, but the fate of many of his disciples as well (a story Luke will begin to tell in Acts). In this case, we are told that Jesus passed through their midst and escaped the death they wanted to impose on him. Note that Jesus does not go elsewhere because he was rejected in Nazareth; rather, he was persecuted because he went elsewhere.
It is easy to point the finger at those we see acting judgmentally this way today. The same propensity exists in all of us, however. How do we treat the divorced and remarried, the LGBT community, the politically inexpedient or unorthodox members of our Church? Do we encourage our members who minister to the poor, the immigrants, the marginalized? Some 43% of the present US Congress are Catholics; do we write them all off as living in sin because of the party’s platform on abortion?
Isaiah 6:1-2a, 3-8; Psalm 138:1-5, 7-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Luke’s account of the call of the first disciples differs significantly from the accounts in Mark and Matthew. In these latter two gospels, Jesus appears suddenly along the shore, invites the first four disciples to follow him, and they drop everything and follow. Perhaps this is to highlight the magnetism Jesus obviously had. But it hardly seems like a normal way to attract disciples. Luke’s account is far more psychologically normal. They had heard Jesus preach. Furthermore, Jesus had already worked numerous miracles there, including the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law, to say nothing about the miraculous catch of fish. He was becoming increasingly popular. Thus, when Jesus calls them, he has already shown not only that he had extraordinary powers, but that these came from God. Following such a commanding figure seems a rather more normal response to his invitation.
We can presume that the partner in Simon Peter’s boat was his brother Andrew. He is not mentioned by name, however, as are James and John, Zebedee’s sons. These three mentioned disciples will be the closest to Jesus during his ministry. They were the ones he asked to be with him on Mount Tabor. They accompanied Jesus in the house of Jairus when his daughter had died. We see them also with Jesus during his agony in the garden. Jesus seemed to have increased confidence in them, and they became his most trusted followers.
After the miraculous catch of fish, Peter fell on his knees, begging Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.” Two explanations are given for this act of humility. One is that Peter was so overwhelmed by a sudden sense of the divine power and goodness that his own self seemed small and unworthy. We can well understand this feeling. Linked with this is that in the presence of such goodness, Peter could sense the reality of his own real sinfulness. Realizing this sense of sinfulness came from Peter seeing himself as he really was, faults and all, not simply an admission many make in a prayer of general confession. We do this at every Mass three times, in the penitential act, when the priest washes his hands, and just before communion. Do we really mean what we say?
Perhaps for us this is linked with a sense of our unworthiness to reflect Jesus to our family, friends, or parishioners. Contemplating the gospels and being strengthened at the table of the Lord will permit Jesus to reveal to us who we can become, allowing Jesus to transform us to better reflect his own human and divine self. These are the sentiments that animated the four disciples when Jesus asked them to follow him. They had already come to admire Jesus, who had lived among them for some time already. Perhaps they secretly hoped for a closer association with him. When he invited them to follow him, they knew without need of further prodding that this is what they deeply wanted to do.
In our own day, with vocations down but the Church ever in need of added workers in the vineyard, we need to contemplate how to better attract people to follow Jesus more closely. Does it mean something as simple as calling married men and women to the service of the Church? That surely needs discernment. What it certainly requires is the ability to recognize Jesus as more than a good man but, in Peter’s words, as Lord. Because, when God calls us, God is not simply offering us another job. Neither are one’s skills the issue; the issue is one’s very life.
Jeremiah 17:5-8; Psalm 1:1-4, 6; 1 Corinthians 15:12, 16-20; Luke 6:17, 20-26
Luke’s version of the Beatitudes differs from the more familiar one that we find in Matthew’s Gospel. We call that one the “Sermon on the Mount.” Luke’s version is situated on the plain and has a different structure. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount introduces an extended three-chapter teaching section on the righteousness that should characterize disciples (a righteousness that is “greater than that of the Pharisees”). For Luke, the mountain is a place where Jesus goes to pray; it is there that he chooses the Twelve. The plain is where he teaches and ministers to the crowds that come to him. Luke’s version is not so much an exhortation as to how the disciples should act as it is an observation on the way things are in God’s kingdom, or reign.
Unlike Matthew, Luke’s beatitudes are addressed primarily to Jesus’ disciples (v. 20). They consist especially in a series of blessings and woes arranged symmetrically: poor-rich, hungry-full, weeping-laughing, rejected-accepted. Coming from Jesus, they are to be heard as God’s word to us with the assurance that they are not empty words. Jesus has the power to make them true and indicative of the way life is in the reign of God. Luke gives us four beatitudes, addressed in the second person to the disciples. Matthew has nine, addressed to the crowd that followed Jesus, and these emphasize more the spiritual and moral qualities that characterize those who will enter the kingdom of heaven. For example, Luke is addressing the poor and despised in this world in the literal sense. Matthew speaks of the “poor in spirit.” There is no such spiritualizing in Luke. He is surely dealing with those who are without food, or shelter, or hope of anything better tomorrow. Luke speaks of those who “hunger now” whereas Matthew says, “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” It would seem that Luke’s version is closer to what Jesus himself preached. We can point to the fact that Jesus actually associated with the poor and disadvantaged. He reached out to those who were marginalized in society. His being accused of eating with sinners (15:2) is but another indication of his concern for the despised masses.
No gospel writer is more concerned than Luke with the mercy and compassion of Jesus. So, we should not be surprised to hear the emphasis given God’s favor to the poor, the hungry, those who weep, and those who are despised. Early in the gospel (1:46-55) we were assured that the reign of God would be characterized by a reversal of fortune for the rich and poor, the powerful and the powerless, the full and the empty. Note that these are all anchored in the present as well as in the future. This is clear especially in the first beatitude, which ends with “the kingdom of God is yours.” And, as Jesus stated in the Nazareth synagogue, “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). The prophecy of Isaiah concerning the poor, imprisoned, and the oppressed is no longer a vague hope, but an agenda for the followers of Jesus.
If we read in the gospels that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, it is obvious that riches are often considered to be a hindrance to being part of the reign of God. Luke also notes Jesus’ remarks about the poor widow who gave everything she had to the Temple treasury (21:1-4). This is another example of the poor ones in this gospel whose detachment from material wealth and dependence on God lead to blessedness. For Luke, this poor widow is also a fore-type of Jesus, who gave everything, giving himself completely for our salvation. As Paul tells us, “You know the gracious act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that for your sake he became poor although he was rich, so that by his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
We might note that our gospel reading today suggests that the fundamental injustices of the economic order today are an affront to God, and that God’s righteousness is on the side of their correction. The social mission of the Church and its members is not something optional, but in line with everything we read in the gospels. Luke brings this out more clearly than most, but there is something fundamentally wrong with a social order where half of the world’s net wealth belongs to the top 1% of the population. The top 10% have 85% of this, while the bottom 90% hold the remaining 15% of the world’s total wealth. The top 30% of adults actually hold 97% of the total wealth of the world.
1 Samuel 26:2, 7-9, 12-13, 22-23; Psalm 103:1-4, 8, 10, 12-13; 1 Corinthians 15:45-49; Luke 6:27-38
Love of enemies is the dominant theme in this section of Luke’s Gospel, and it follows directly from the beatitudes, read last Sunday. Luke uses this love as the opening sentence prefacing a series of instructions seemingly taken from a number of directives Jesus gave throughout his preaching. It serves as a general principle that followers of Jesus do not retaliate or follow the behavior patterns of those who abuse them. Thus, hating, cursing, abusing, or striking others, and stealing, are all forbidden for disciples. Forgiveness here is a strictly Christian virtue. The reading from 1 Samuel, today where David refuses to take revenge on Saul is a rare exception in the Old Testament, where “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” was the general principle. Joseph refusing to take revenge on his brothers for having sold him into slavery is about the only other example of forgiveness that comes to mind.
The key to forgiving and loving enemies is not to regard oneself as a victim, but rather a striving to imitate the behavior of God who does not reciprocate the sinful behavior that is too often ours. God continues to be kind and forgiving to us despite our sinfulness. “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful,” Jesus tells us. Luke summarizes this section with the golden rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Thus, Jesus’ ethic here is not based on any calculation that it will turn enemies into friends or overcome evil with good. It is an imitation of God’s own gracious mercy.
It might be good to note here that loving enemies does not imply that we must force ourselves to find those who injure us to be in any way congenial. It doesn’t mean that we should like them, especially if they continue to injure us. If we use as a measure here the injunction that we should love our neighbor as ourselves and ask what it means to love ourselves, it means that we want what is best for ourselves. This is not to focus on our material well-being but rather on the real values in life that God wishes for all God’s children. Loving our neighbor means regarding our neighbor as worthy of the best in life that God can help us make available to him or her. This means, of course, resisting the impulse to resent the other, and to stifle our anger and pride. It helps to look to the example of Jesus, especially his prayer on the cross that God forgive the very ones who put him there.
Forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian ethic. We pray for it every day when we recite the Our Father. There we ask God that we be forgiven the way we have forgiven others. It is doubtful that many realize what they are praying for. Asking God to treat us the way we treat others is a dangerous prayer when we are judgmental in regard to them.
Loving enemies was surely a startling demand. It is almost impossible for us to realize how sharply it cut across the ethic of Jesus’s day. Enemies then were usually hated, and that hatred was not thought contrary to true religion. The parable of the good Samaritan must have seemed subversive at that time. Jesus was equivalently saying that the neighbor means all humankind, even those who may hate us or mistreat us in any way. Jesus tells us that we should bless those who curse us and pray for those who mistreat us. Matthew’s Gospel (5:44), also tells us that we are to pray for our enemies as well as those who persecute us. It is obviously something that Jesus inculcated a number of times in his preaching. It was appreciated in the early Church, as can be seen in the example of Stephen praying for those stoning him (7:60).
Today’s gospel reading is surely one of the more difficult teachings of Jesus. Many think that it is humanly impossible. Paul reminds us, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, however, that if anyone be in Christ, [s]he is a new creation. Jesus gives us a divine reinforcement at the core of our being. The celebration of our Mass is a striking reminder of the ability of Jesus to give his life for each of us. Our hearing his word and sharing his body and blood in communion strengthens us so that we can live as Jesus wishes and enables us all to live.
Sirach 27:4-7; Psalm 92:2-3, 13-16; 1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45
Our readings today are a small collection of Jesus’ teachings found in various places in Matthew. That they are difficult to categorize can be seen by the fact that the compilers of the Lectionary had difficulty finding a first reading to go with the gospel. They finally chose the final sentence of the gospel, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” to go with the Old Testament proverb, “Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested.”
This gospel passage follows directly from last Sunday’s gospel, where we were told to stop judging and condemning others. So, it might be logical to continue the teaching of that scripture reading. Today’s reading begins by speaking of the blindness that is often ours. It then continues with the impediments we have that prevent us from seeing things properly. Today, Jesus would probably use the image of eyeglasses needed to correct defective vision. Here, of course, it is moral vision and ensuring that the judgments we pass on others are correct. Luke’s point here is not that flaws of character disqualify one from leadership, but rather blindness to those flaws and an unwillingness to be self-critical and honest with oneself impedes good leadership. One with a log in his eye trying to improve the condition of someone with a speck in his eye indicates someone without the ability to criticize him or herself. Unfortunately, this problem can be found even in sincere people without faulty motives.
Jesus’ most unsparing condemnation was launched not against sins of the flesh, but against sins of the hard mind and arrogant spirit. He especially opposed Pharisees who would tithe on mint and anise but had little concern for the more important things in life. He was able to skewer their pretense of spiritual wisdom with devastating satire, as we see in the splinter and log statement in today’s gospel. Do we not find the same true in our own day? Movie stars or sports heroes can pontificate on politics and other issues about which they have no competence, but people assume them to be wise because of their prominence. Today, when we look at the social or political situation, it is easy to criticize others for their ignorance. We assume that they don’t know because they do not really want to know. That judgment may be true enough; however, we should always be careful not to be making the same mistake ourselves.
The final three verses seem to point to the fact that what a person is will ultimately be revealed by their speech or actions. In other words, there is ultimately no concealment for a person’s real character. Keep in mind that for the Jews the heart symbolized the mind rather than (as it does for us) the seat of feeling and emotion (which it obviously is not either). In our passage it means to bring out helpful thought and counsel that is possible only when one can cleanse one’s mind from its spots of ignorance and error. Unless a person has a deep-rooted honesty, he or she will be unable to produce good fruit. If one is to speak words of wisdom to others, there must be something substantial in one’s own thinking. This cannot be left to chance but must be cultivated by study and reflection. Otherwise, all one can expect is to find bad fruit there.