Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
There is a motif of welcome and hospitality in today’s readings and it is easy to see how this implies a form of relationship between host and guest. This comes out quite strongly in the Hebrew of the ancient Middle East where hospitality was a highly respected virtue. Words for welcome contain the notion of blessing, and the essence of blessing is passing on goodness to another.
We could say, in other words, that when we bless, we communicate good vibes, good wishes and something of ourselves.
Traditional Hebrew has expressions of welcome like barukh haba (a blessing on your coming), barukh leshalom (a blessing of peace). The Eastern hug or touch of welcome is a gesture of passing on well-being to a guest or visitor and this involves a meeting of spirits.
2 Kings 4:8-11. 14-16
The books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings belong to the collection known in Jewish tradition as the Former Prophets. This is because they contain prophetic narratives featuring Joshua, Samuel, Elijah, and Elisha. The collection of the Latter Prophets contains the books of the writing prophets, like Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos and so on. These were prophets who lived in the period after the Former Prophets, roughly from the 900s to the 300s.
The Shunamite woman in today’s reading is a person of some wealth living in the Galilean town of Shunem, about 17kms south of Nazareth. She goes the extra mile in not only welcoming Elisha and his servant Gehazi, but arranging to have a room built for them where they could stay whenever they were in the district. She is no doubt conscious of the traditional idea that rich blessings come from extending hospitality to a holy man. We will see this mentioned in the gospel reading. In typical Eastern fashion Elisha felt the need to make a return for the hospitality provided by the Shunamite couple and so he accepted Gehazi’s suggestion and promised the woman that she would hold a son in her arms in twelve months’ time.
Psalm 88/89:2-3. 16-19
This psalm is a meditative chant that was sung by the people assembled for worship. The poet expresses a firm trust in the Lord’s goodness and compassion, and assures blessing on the people who acclaim the Lord as their king and protector. It gives poetic expression to setting priorities according to firm positive values. This idea will also be taken up in the gospel reading.
Romans 6:3-4. 8-11
Speaking of baptism here, Paul has in mind the full immersion rite that was practised in the early Christian centuries. This adds impact to his metaphor of going with Jesus into the tomb and joining him in death to a former life of ignorance of Christ. When the newly baptised Christians emerge from the baptismal water they are entering into a new life, which, in those days, was symbolically represented by their being clothed in a new white robe of innocence. They are then welcomed into the community, which is the body of Christ.
The baptised become the property of Christ
Paul uses the language of being baptised ‘into Christ Jesus’ or into the name of Christ Jesus. This is something like the ancient Roman idea of men being recruited into the army. Once they took the oath and became soldiers, they also became the property of the emperor. They would march under his banner pledging allegiance to their commander. In a similar way, the baptised become the property of Christ and commit to living according to the standards and values of their Lord.
This new life means death to all that is not in harmony with the Spirit of Christ.
The committed Christian can no longer live according to the values of a world that puts ‘me’ and profit above compassion for our fellow humans beings, concern for the creatures with whom we share the planet and care for the natural environment in whose embrace we exist.
As Paul puts it, the committed Christian is dead to self-indulgence, coldness of heart and all forms of bigotry, injustice and wickedness. On the contrary, the committed Christian is fully alive to God in the vibrant community of Christ Jesus.
Today’s gospel reading forms the last part of a discourse of Jesus that contains instructions and warnings to the Twelve as they are being sent out on mission. The opening statement is typical of those Semitic exaggerations that go over the top in order to make a point of emphasis. The Lectionary translation has, ‘Anyone who prefers father or mother to me...’ The original Greek reads, ‘Anyone who loves (philōn) father or mother more than me...’ This is a question of spiritual priorities.
Love and respect for parents was a prime value in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. The Jewish historian Josephus (37-100 AD) wrote, ‘...parents should be honoured immediately after God himself.’
Jesus is conscious that families may be broken up or disturbed, but it highlights the priorities that the baptised Christian will establish. The situation faced by Matthew and his Jewish-Christian community in the last two decades of the 1st century involves members of traditional Jewish families seeking to follow Jesus as Christians. The choice they have to make is between the challenges of their new faith and the deeply embedded claims of their families who would regard them as traitors to the traditional Judaism in which they were raised since childhood. Jesus is saying there is no room for compromise here.
When Jesus says those who do not put him first in their scale of values are not worthy of him, he is saying they are not able to be among his disciples. So, what we are reading here are radical expectations for dedicated discipleship and allegiance to Christ. The half-hearted need not apply.
Anyone who welcomes an agent of Jesus Christ is welcoming Christ himself. This has the ring of Middle Eastern legal and social convention where an appointed agent carries the full authority of the one who sent him. An ambassador, for example, might state his terms or message and would customarily add, ‘In this, my king and I are one.’ Jesus used a similar statement in his Good Shepherd discourse when he said, ‘The Father and I are one.’ (John 10:30 and again in John 17:11 and 22).
Jesus then turns to highlight ‘the little ones’ who are the insignificant ones in society, and declares that the most trivial gift to the most unimportant disciples of his will not go unrewarded. Here again is that reversal of values that Jesus so often underlines as the ideal way to go. Those who are insignificant in human estimation may well be important and dearly loved in God’s eyes.
Today’s gospel speaks to a change that recognises the radical nature of Christ’s call
One easily overlooked statement of Jesus needs our attention, ‘Anyone who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will have a prophet’s reward;’ How do we recognise the prophets of today?
Among the standard criteria are these: the prophets will disturb our comfort and our conventions; they will stand for justice and goodness and practise what they preach; they will be roundly criticised and condemned by those who have power, authority and entitlement to protect; they will be opposed by the self-righteous who, blind to the flaws in their reasoning, defend the status quo in the name of tradition.
I recently read an article in the Majellan written by Francis Sullivan, who emerged as an authentic prophet during and after the hearings of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. The title of his article was ‘Bleaching the Gospel’ in which he pointed out how the radical nature of a dedicated following of Jesus has been softened; how the teachings of Jesus have been rationalised and domesticated to fit a narrow and short-sighted church outlook.
Here is a prophet calling for an authentic and committed return to the spirit of Jesus – very much in line with that other prophet, Pope Francis, who is battling against a wall of senior church officials whose comfort zones are being threatened. Today’s gospel speaks to a change, a metanoia, that recognises and responds to the radical call of Christ for us and a number of the powerbrokers of the institutional church to ‘come back to me with all your heart’.
The sad reality is the institutional church has a track record of persecuting its poets, mystics and prophets, mainly because these charismatic figures don’t lie down when told. They become grit in the cogs and put at risk the smooth running of the autocratic machine. Strangely enough, this is exactly what Jesus did, and he, too, was arrested and executed. We desperately need to really listen to our prophets.
It is only the very stupidest who cannot change. Confucius
If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading. Lao-Tzu
A man had dinner waiting when his wife came home one evening. ‘I’ve cooked my two specialties,’ he said, sitting her down, ‘Lasagne and pecan pie, just for you.’
She picked at the dish in front of her, ‘Which one is this?’