Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A
The first reading from Isaiah gives an account of a sacking and reappointment. The prophet speaks to Shebna, the chief steward of King Hezekiah, on God’s behalf and gives him his marching orders. Shebna had tried to persuade Hezekiah to revolt against Assyria and seek help from Egypt, and all of this was directly against the prophet’s policy of non-involvement in international affairs. Isaiah clearly had considerable clout in the royal court to get Shebna sacked and replaced by Eliakim. The latter gets the keys to the kingdom, which means he has the chief steward’s power to grant or deny admittance to the royal presence. Unfortunately, Isaiah backed the wrong player because Eliakim turned out to be a loser because he was given to nepotism and used his position to hand out favours to members of his family.
Genuine serving leadership really works
This episode is a classic example of the denunciation of a self-seeking official. It brings to mind the statement made some years back by former Prime Ministers Howard and Hawke who said, in interview, that too often today’s politicians give in to protecting their jobs rather than devote their professional energy to working for the national interest. Of course, this does not only apply to politicians, as self-interest in any walk of life can be the ruin of a project or an enterprise of human endeavour. Genuine serving leadership really works. Jesus was conscious of this when he stressed that service is the best way to, a) make a positive contribution to the lives of others and b) grow in wholeness and maturity.
‘So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’ (John 13:14)
The responsorial psalm is a thanksgiving song. The writer gives thanks for deliverance in the first three verses and then follows this with a song that proclaims YHWH as universal God. He concludes by expressing confidence that God would come to his aid in times of trouble. The poet has no doubt about God’s abiding love and throws himself on the compassion of God, confident that no one will ever be abandoned by the divine Presence.
What about those Jews who never accept Jesus as their Messiah?
This passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans is one of the most lyrical the apostle ever wrote. These verses could well be described as a rhetorical hymn in praise of the ineffable wisdom and goodness of God. Paul is in simple admiration of the boundless wonder of God and can’t help waxing eloquent on the subject. What has prompted this poetic reflection is Paul’s realisation that God has a plan for the salvation of all people, Jews as well as non-Jews. In the verses just before this passage Paul was declaring that God’s promises are never revoked. Paul’s dilemma, of course, is that if the promises of election and salvation had been made to Israel and yet most Israelites had not accepted Jesus as their Messiah then where does Israel stand?
Paul is convinced that God will somehow bring the good-living members of the Israelite people into the kingdom, but he is mindful of the words of Isaiah 55:8: For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
He believes the profound wisdom of God will work out a way to save all people of good will who live upright lives, even those who never get to hear of Jesus Christ. Paul marvels at God’s boundless goodness.
It was characteristic of the Greek religious thought of Paul’s day to extol the attributes of wealth, wisdom and knowledge. The apostle assures us that God has these characteristics in infinite abundance. He also observes, in typically Jewish fashion, that God’s judgments and ways are unique and inscrutable. This is mentioned many times in the Hebrew Scriptures, e.g. (Ps 36:6) Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O LORD.
Implied in Paul’s praise of the immeasurable nature of God is a sense of complete trust that God is directing human history and will see to it that things turn out well for just and upright people.
You are the Christ the Son of the living God
The gospel reading is a well-known passage that marks a turning point in the mission of Jesus. Matthew has borrowed this passage from Mark and in the gospel of Mark Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah is the halfway point. It is after this confession that the disciples begin to realise who Jesus is and appreciate the nature of his mission. In this short episode Peter speaks for his fellow apostles and his reply indicates that the disciples of Jesus were beginning to reach some realisation of who he was. The answer to Jesus’ question indicates that the disciples put Jesus in the same category as the prophets, like Elijah and Jeremiah. They did not regard their master as a small-time preacher or healer. Rather he was the charismatic individual whom they were prepared to follow and to whom they had decided to commit themselves as disciples.
Matthew has used the earlier story from Mark and added the words of Jesus that are addressed to Peter. It is quite likely that Matthew’s community was having a few authority problems and Matthew introduces a statement about authority to set the record straight. Peter has a leading position in Matthew’s gospel and in this passage Matthew shows how Jesus himself appointed Peter as an authentic authority figure.
Jesus does not call us to devotional piety but challenges us to practise genuine respect
This story raises the issue of how we might answer the question that Jesus put. Who is Christ for us? Expressions like Messiah, Saviour and Son of God can roll easily off the tongue but there is the danger that the terms may not exercise their full impact on the way we direct our lives. Jesus can only mean something to us if we actually come to know him, and to reach this knowledge of the Lord we need to meet him personally in the Gospels. For instance, in the passage just before today’s extract Jesus warned his friends against fakes. Here we get a glimpse of Jesus who is straight up in all his relationships showing people the respect they deserve but also seeing through the fakes and steering clear of sham. Beware of false prophets, he said, who come in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are fakes. He went on to say that people can be known by their lives. He used the comparison of the fruit tree; a good tree bears good fruit while a bad tree bears bad fruit, you will know them by their fruit. If we are to be part of Jesus’ company we need to study being honest and fair dinkum in our relationships.
This is not a call to devotional piety but a challenge to practise the kind of authentic respect and sincerity in our dealings with others that amounts to a mature kind of holiness.
Looking closely at the way Jesus related to people we notice a person with a broad-minded attitude toward others. He spoke to ordinary people with a great understanding of their struggle to simply survive in an economic climate where poverty was the lot of average town and village folk. He was noted for his compassion toward the sick, the physically and mentally disabled and the disadvantaged. One way of assessing a person’s general attitude is to see how they deal with opposition and personal criticism. Jesus showed remarkable tolerance toward those who opposed him, but when push came to shove, he named some of the Pharisees as hypocrites for their double standards. He was not an egalitarian (which was a foreign concept in 1st century Middle Eastern culture), but he treated everyone equally. He lived amongst ordinary battlers encouraging them and offering them an authentic way to a quality life. One can’t help feeling he would not fit very comfortably in a procession of Cardinals or presiding over a liturgy in thousand-dollar vestments holding up a $500 chalice. Thank goodness for a pope who is trying to direct the Catholic church back to the simplicity of Jesus Christ!
A primary school teacher asked the class which was their favourite story in the Bible and a little boy raised his hand and said, ‘Miss, the story about the man who loafs and fishes.’ We could all ask ourselves the question about our favourite parts of Scripture and probably do better than a certain world leader. Have we read enough of the Scriptures to have a favourite story or passage? Picking up the adage ‘to know him is to love him’ we would have to argue that we can only truly know the life and mission of Jesus after reading the gospels or at least one of the gospels thoroughly. A genuine appreciation of the person and work of Jesus can only come with a knowledge of his commitment to his heavenly Father, how he related to those he met, what he actually taught and the high standard he expected of his followers. A keen understanding of all these can come with a careful reading of the gospels.
It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed. Theodore Roosevelt
A teacher walks over to the desk of a student during an exam and says to him, ‘I hope I didn’t just see you look over at your neighbour’s answers.’
The boy replies, ‘Yeah, I hope you didn’t see it either.’