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How many times?

Sunday, Sept. 17, Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sirach 27:30—28:7; Romans 14:7-9; and Matthew 18:21-35

As a sequel to last Sunday’s Gospel reading, rules for fraternal correction within a Christian Community, Matthew adds a question proposed by Peter, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? Why this question at this point? The rules for fraternal correction ended with a devastating act of exclusion for someone who offended the community and refused to be corrected, “Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Must the offender remain forever outside the Christian Community, shunned, ignored? The question of Simon Peter fits the context and should be interpreted in that vein. There is forgiveness for the penitent — forgiveness to come from the whole Christian Community,  “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.”

Simon Peter wants to be generous with forgiveness. Therefore he proposes forgiveness “as many as seven times.” Seven is a good biblical number used often to symbolize completeness. But the mercy of God is not determined by what passes as human generosity. Jesus answers, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.” There is Old Testament history involved in Matthew’s catechetical handling of the number of times forgiveness must be offered. This back-ground is found in Genesis 4. Opposed to forgiveness is revenge, vengeance. As the Genesis story goes, Cain had slain his brother Abel. He receives due punishment from the Lord God. He was a farmer. Because he spilled his brother’s blood into the ground, the ground would no longer respond to his tilling and sowing. Cain worries and complains, “My punishment is greater than I can bear…. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer upon the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” The Lord God replied, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance (by God) will be taken on that person seven times.”

The story in Genesis 4 continues. One of the descendants of Cain was named Lamech. This man married two wives, Adah and Zillah. Taking note of his ancestor Cain, “Lamech said to his wives, ‘Here my voice, you wives of Lamech. Listen to what I am saying. I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech for sure will be avenged seventy-seven times.’”   This little ditty is called “The Song of the Sword. The meaning was this: revenge was unlimited, even though the Lord God had limited revenge to no more than sevenfold in Cain’s case. Lamech was a considerable redneck. Blood feuds tend to exterminate whole populations. The Torah, the Law of Moses, took a step forward with a law that said, “…you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” The law of limited revenge, Exodus 21:23.

Jesus, the new Moses and the ultimate revealer in Matthew’s Gospel, corrects the old Moses. In Matthew 5:38-39 we read these words attributed to Jesus, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil, but if one strikes you on the one cheek, turn to him the other also.” Can this even be done?  Such Jesus-sayings make genuine Christianity difficult, but with the grace of God, it should be doable. But here in the section of Matthew’s Gospel called Community Regulations, Jesus insists on unlimited forgiveness, not seven times but seventy-seven times. No revenge at all.  Lamech’s Song of the Sword is turned upside down, inside out.

And now, the rest of the story. There are other biblical passages on forgiveness. St. Paul to the Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if one of you is caught in an offense, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.” One who has just read the first five chapters of Galatians may be astounded by Paul’s statement of gentleness. On the other hand, Romans 12:19, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God. ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’ says the Lord.” (Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 32:35.) There is also Paul to the Colossians, 3:13, “…forbearing toward one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgiving each other. As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” For a point of view that differs from today’s Gospel of unlimited forgiveness, see the Letter to Titus 3:10.

To close out the sermon on Community Regulations, Matthew adds a long parable attributed to Jesus. A king decides to settle accounts with his servants. One owed him a huge amount of money on a loan, but had no way to pay his debt to the king. The servant begged for mercy. The king was moved with compassion and forgave the whole debt. But that forgiven official looked up a fellow-servant who owed him a small amount. He demanded payment, turned violent toward his debtor, and had him put in debtor’s prison until the small debt was settled. The king heard about his forgiven servant’s lack of compassion, reestablished the debt, and punished the unforgiving servant. A final warning applies the parable to every Christian, “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” The parable should end with a frequently used invitation, “Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!”

Fraternal Correction

Sunday, Sept. 10, Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; and Matthew 18:15-20

The context of today’s Gospel is the fourth of five great sermons Matthew constructed from traditions about Jesus, with his own command of the Old Testament and the needs of his Christian Community. That community was probably in the city of Antioch, Syria. As the Christian Communities (Churches) grew in numbers, rules became necessary to govern relationships between members. The subject for today’s catechetical instruction is fraternal correction.  Matthew writes fifty years after Jesus’ departure but rightfully attributes the rules of fraternal correction to Jesus himself. Therefore he writes, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.’” This is the first step in fraternal correction — Christian brother or sister privately bringing notice of an offense to Christian brother or sister. It should be pointed out that the words “against you” are in doubt as being an authentic part of the saying. If these words are omitted, the offense is not a personal offense, but an offense against the Christian Community to which the offender belongs. This approach fits better the immediately preceding context into which Matthew places the rules for fraternal correction. That context: a parable about a man who had one hundred sheep. One strays from the flock. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the hills and goes in search of the stray.  Thus it seems the duty of a member of the community, perhaps an elder, to attempt by private means to bring the stray back into the fold.

The second step in fraternal correction: “If he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” This second step relies on the rules for valid testimony against someone on trial for an alleged crime. The witnesses add weight to the attempt at correction.  We may assume that the witnesses are members or elders of the community. Therefore the whole process stays within a particular Christian Community.  In 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, St. Paul reprimands the Corinthians for going  to civic courts rather than settle disputes within their own community.

The third step in fraternal correction is the gravest. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.” The Greek word for Church is ekklesia, meaning an “assembly, a gathering of those called together.”  The whole assembly of that particular Christian Community will make the final decision about the offending member. We may assume that the offender is either present to defend himself or is being judged in absentia. In 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, St. Paul handles a case of a public offense against the Church at Corinth. Paul notes that he himself has already passed judgment on the offender. Then continues, “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”  Matthew adds to the third step: “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.  Here Matthew adopts a standard phrase used by Christians to exclude a member of the community.

A power or authority earlier given to Simon Peter seems to be extended to the assembled Christian Community under the form of a mild oath, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.” The context tells us this action of the assembled Christian Community gives the group the authority to include or exclude a member. In the case of exclusion, does Matthew intend it to be permanent? Unlikely, since he immediately attaches a question of Simon Peter, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” Jesus’ answer implies unlimited forgiveness.

A final statement: “Amen, I say to you, “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it will be granted by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The original context of this Jesus-saying would have applied to the power of prayer in common. Since Matthew places it in the context of community decisions, he seems to apply it to community decisions. Therefore even just a few Christians assembled for decision-making about inclusion or exclusion would have tremendous power. Whether such procedures ever worked in practice, they surely did not when Christian Communities grew beyond Matthew’s expectations. Better to stay with what was probably the original meaning of this saying, “Where Christians gather in prayer, Jesus gathers with them.” It is his presence that moves his heavenly Father to grant their petition.

Peter’s Fleeting Exaltation

Sunday, Sept. 3, Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jeremiah 20:7-9;  Romans 12:1-2, and Matthew 16:21-27.

By Father Donald Dilger

The gospel reading of this Sunday is the immediate sequel of last Sunday’s Gospel. In that episode Simon Peter publicly professed his faith in Jesus as “the Messiah (Christ), Son of the living God.” In reply, Jesus revealed that Simon’s profession of faith was the result of a direct revelation from the Father. Next Jesus solemnly gave to Simon son of John a new name or title, Petros, that is “Rock,” and created him the foundation of the Church, “On this Rock I will build my Church.” Then he bestowed on the Rock a quasi-divine power of authority over the Church, symbolized in the metaphor of keys to the kingdom of heaven, plus decision-making under the metaphor of binding and unbinding. This episode should be called “The exaltation of Simon the Rock.” How fleeting, as we shall see, was the glory of that exaltation in Matthew’s arrangement of the traditions he includes in his Gospel.

Immediately after Peter’s exaltation, Jesus launches into his first prophetic proclamation of his approaching suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. Simon Peter, so recently given the preeminent authority in Jesus’ future Community, over-estimates his authority. He pulls Jesus aside, rebukes him, and says, “No way, Lord. This will not happen to you.” Wrong move! The same Jesus who so recently exalted him, now turns on him with vehement condemnation, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me! You do not savor the business of God, but human stuff!” Quite a rebuke! The Rock of the Church turned into pea gravel, but only temporarily.  Peter’s rebuke of Jesus is treated as a temptation of Satan. Simon the Rock was still in “the seminary,” and had much to learn with even more embarrassing events yet to come. In the New Testament, Satan is a name of the archfiend, the tempter to evil, and is used in that sense thirty-four times. It was no complement to Simon Peter to be placed into the company of the archfiend.

“Behind me” is the proper place of a disciple of Jesus, a follower, not a guardian with power of attorney. “The business of God” is God’s plan through Jesus for the human race. That included suffering and a vicarious death, death for others. “Human stuff” refers to a common or popular belief, that when the Messiah came to his people, he would restore the kingdom of his ancestor David and drive out the oppressors, who in this case were the Romans. Their influence began under Pompey in 63 B.C. and was to continue for centuries. This “human stuff” keeps asserting itself repeatedly in the Gospels, whenever the disciples show their ambition for prestige and power over others.

To correct the false idea of a glorious restoration of the Kingdom of David by Jesus as conqueror and expeller of the Romans, Matthew returns to the themes of Jesus’ first prophetic oracle — his approaching suffering and death in Jerusalem. That prophetic oracle was the introduction to Simon Peter’s rebuke of Jesus and Jesus’ rebuke of Simon Peter. Matthew writes, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to follow behind me must deny himself, (not glorify himself as Simon Peter had done), take up his cross and follow me.” The cross which Simon Peter rejected when he rebuked Jesus was meant not only for Jesus but for Christians in general. Early Christians were aware that crucifixion was a real threat to them, a threat that continued for almost three centuries. This method of killing Christians has been resurrected from time to time in the history of persecution.

The sayings attributed to Jesus by Matthew continue, “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew knows about the persecution of Christians in Rome about twenty years before he composed his Gospel. He knows that some Christians accepted their fate, while some, to save their life, denied they were Christians. “What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his own life? Or what can one give in exchange for his own life?” The obvious answer: eternal life with God. This is why Matthew adds a final saying, “For the Son of Man (Jesus appearing in human form) will come with his angels in the glory of his Father. Then he will repay all according to their conduct.”

This is a double-pronged statement. It is a threat to those who denied their faith under the pressure of persecution, and a promise of eternal glory to those who persevered even under the threat of death.

Jesus Takes a Poll

Sunday, August 27, Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Isaiah 22:19-23; Romans 11:33-36; and Matthew 16:13-20.

By Father Donald Dilger

Two Sundays ago we encountered the first of three special traditions about Simon Peter, traditions found only in the Gospel of Matthew. That first tradition was Peter’s attempt to walk on water at the invitation of Jesus. On this Sunday we have the second of these traditions — Jesus bestows the keys of the kingdom of heaven on Simon Peter. Last Sunday we encountered Jesus in heathen territory — the city states of Tyre and Sidon on the Mediterranean seacoast in northern Palestine. Matthew included that episode to justify the Christian mission beyond Judaism and the borders of the Holy Land. In the context of this Sunday’s Gospel, the Matthean Jesus, (or Jesus from Matthew’s points of view), has made it clear that new leadership will be required rather than looking for religious leadership from “the scribes and the Pharisees,” the leadership of first century Judaism.

On whom and where shall that leadership be bestowed? Matthew places Jesus outside the borders of the Holy Land. The Christian movement is not to be restricted to the Holy Land and its people. The Christian movement must move out into the whole world, as Matthew writes at the end of his Gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Matthew begins the catechetical story of the divinely bestowed gift of leadership, “Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi….”  This was a city about twenty miles north of the Sea of Galilee and twenty miles east of the city of Tyre, which we encountered in last Sunday’s Gospel. Today this area is part of SW Syria. It may be noted that Luke does not place a commissioning of Simon Peter in Caesarea Philippi, but locates it on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee and at the Last Supper. Matthew follows Mark’s lead in placing this episode outside holy ground. Both are engaging in theological geography — the place is important as a symbol of the universality of the Christian proclamation. The same was true in last Sunday’s Gospel, which was located in Tyre and Sidon.

Jesus takes an opinion poll, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” Meaning: “Who do people say that I am”? The title “Son of Man” is a favorite self-designation of himself in our four Gospels. The title emphasizes his humanity. The disciples report what they heard about Jesus. Matthew builds up to the climactic moment of catechesis on the identity of Jesus, as Jesus says to the disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” The leader among them and the usual spokesperson answers, “You are the Messiah (the Christ), the Son of the Living God.”  How did Simon Peter know this? To conclude that Jesus was the Messiah presents no particular difficulty. Many thought this. Peter had seen Jesus’ miracles, heard him speak to the crowds, saw the crowds attracted to him, experienced his magnetic personality.

But “the Son of the living God”? Who could reach such a conclusion? No human being, and no pious Jew who professed their creed, “The Lord our God is ONE Lord!” Jesus answers the question, “Blessed are you, Simon son of John, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” What is meant by the adjective living God? In the context of the time, some Roman emperors claimed this title for themselves or were flattered by being called son of some heathen god.  The Old Testament opinion of heathen gods is found in Psalm 135:15-17, “They have mouths but cannot speak, eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, nor is their breath in their mouths.” Dead gods!

Simon’s acceptance and profession of this revelation is rewarded, “And I say to you, ‘You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven. Whatever you unbind on earth will be unbound in heaven.” The obvious meaning of these words is in the name (title) itself which Jesus bestowed on Simon son of John. The Greek word petros is the masculinized form of the Greek word  petra  meaning  rock. To understand the authority of Peter and his successors over the Church, let’s look at the Old Testament passage which serves as foundation for the “keys” symbol. Isaiah 22:15-25, words spoken of the “prime minister” of the palace in the  reign of kings descended from David, “I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David. He shall open and none will close. He will close and none will open…, and they will hang on him the whole weight of his father’s house….”

 

A Changed Ministry

The readings for Sunday, August 20, Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A, are Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; and Matthew 15:21-28.

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