Matthew 20:17-28 (NRSVCE)
Okay, as funny as I find that picture, there actually is something to be learned from today’s reading. The mother of the “sons of Zebedee” (that is, James and John) asks Jesus to place her sons on his right and on his left. The rest of the disciples get angry. Why do these two deserve such an honor, and we don’t? We were all chosen by Jesus! What makes them so special?!
But Jesus points out that all of them are misunderstanding what it means to be His disciples. They are still expecting Jesus to be the conquering king who will drive Rome and the wicked out of the Promised Land, establishing a New Israel! And once it’s conquered, Jesus will rule and place His loyal disciples in positions of power! This is not at all God’s plan for Jesus. In fact, their assumption is even more ridiculous when we can see that Jesus has just told them that he will be crucified. Jesus doesn’t come to lead an army in revolt against the Roman occupation, or even to wage a war of words and drive them out with some kind of “hearts and minds” campaign. He has come for a bigger purpose. He has come to “give his life a ransom for many,” to serve God and serve man in a way which man never could himself.
This life Jesus gives isn’t simply referring to the cross. Certainly that’s part of it, but it’s only a piece of the picture. This is articulated perhaps best by St. Anselm of Canterbury. He speaks of the debt we owe to God for our disobedience—for our sin. We owe everything to God, and ought to give him honor and praise for all things. But we failed to do that. We instead honored ourselves, as the disciples do here, seeking praise for ourselves when that praise is rightly given to God alone. We took what was not ours to take, and God’s infinite justice demands that debt be repaid. But how are we to repay that debt? God is infinite! How are we to give God the honor and praise he is due, when we are limited beings? The simple answer is: we can’t. 
But Jesus can, the Incarnate Son can. Not only through one grand gesture of obedience, namely, the cross, but everything Jesus did was for the glory of God alone. Where Adam failed, where we fail, Jesus succeeds. Every moment of His life was an act of service, both to God and to man, for the sake of man’s salvation. This isn’t some lofty moral point, this is the reality of the Gospel. If Jesus did everything in service, and we are to imitate Christ, then we ought to be doing all things in service as well. Jesus even uses the word “slave” which, despite the images which arise in our modern minds about the horrors of slavery, could not be closer to the truth! Jesus says “not my will but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
We talk about living lives of service all the time, but I don’t think we really take it to heart like we should. I know I struggle with it. Serving God in all things means serving our neighbors, and yet we see so many people in desperate need of service. Not only in remote places, but right here amongst us. Are these people not also made in the image of God? Are these people not deserving of our service? The answer from the Gospels is an emphatic “No!” These are the ones we ought to be focusing on, and yet are ignoring. Immediately before today’s reading, Jesus says “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” (Matthew 20:16) And yet, like the disciples, we spend too much time trying to make sure that we are first in all things.
God calls us to be servants, just like His Son. For just as salvation is given in service, so too salvation is received in service.
 For more on Anselm's thoughts on this, look at Cur Deus Homo, particularly Book I, Chapters 20-25
Matthew 23:1-12 (NRSVCE)
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
“Do as I say, not as I do” is one message you might take out of today’s reading. Jesus certainly does seem to say that with regard to the scribes and the Pharisees. But he goes into quite a bit of detail about what exactly they are doing, and why it is not to be done. He prefaces it with “do whatever they teach you and follow it” to make the point that the scribes and Pharisees are not false teachers, but they are sinners. Just like if you see your pastor committing a sin, whether it’s cutting in line during potluck (the gravest of all sins) or maybe sneaking a few dollars out of the offering plate, that doesn’t invalidate the pastoral office given to him by God. It means he’s a sinner.
The sins Jesus charges the scribes and Pharisees in this passage all seem to be summed up in a single word: vainglory. This might be a more technical term than you are used to. In moral philosophy and moral theology, it is often, particularly in the Thomistic tradition, placed among the Capital Vices. You may know them instead as the Cardinal Sins, or even the Seven Deadly Sins. They are those vices from which other vices spring. You might imagine it as a tree with thick shoots, and on each shoot are many branches. Pride is typically the trunk of the tree, as all sin ultimately stems from pride.
Vainglory can be the desire for glory which one has not earned, as Thomas says in ST II-II, Q. 1, A. 1. And we certainly see plenty of that here, as the Pharisees who do not practice what they preach deserve no praise for doing it, and yet that is what they seek. But vainglory can also be the desire for glory purely for oneself—that is, without any reference to God, or to our neighbor. And we see that here too, as the Pharisees “do all their deeds to be seen by others”, and not because they desire by their deeds to give honor to God or to serve their neighbors. So on multiple counts here, the scribes and the Pharisees are vainglorious.
Jesus gives instruction to his followers to combat this, as He knows that this is a temptation for all men. Everyone loves being praised, and I think all of us can think of times where we did something purely, or at least primarily, because we knew we would be praised for doing it. Jesus tells us that none of us are to be called “rabbi”, or teacher. None of us are to be rulers. We are servants. We serve each other, and we serve our teacher, Jesus Christ. We are to emulate the Only-Begotten Son in this, as remember it was the Son who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:7). It was the Son who shows us what true humility is: God become man. Respect the office of the scribes and the Pharisees, yes, but do not act like them. Do not be vainglorious. For the way of Christ is humility.
Luke 6:36-38 (NRSVCE)
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
We all know the Golden Rule. It comes from Jesus’s own lips! “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) What we have here in today’s reading from Luke isn't quite what we know as the Golden Rule, but what I might call the "Golden Rule in practice." That is, what the Golden Rules looks like and why the Golden Rule matters. Jesus lists off things that everyone wants, like forgiveness, the staying of judgment, and gifts, and says that if you do not do these things, they will not be done to you. He sums it up with essentially, “you will reap what you sow.”
Our immediate thought is “Well, that’s ridiculous. Some people are just judgmental. They’re going to judge me whether I judge them or not.” And while that may be true, if we have ever practiced compassion and mercy toward others we know that others are far more likely to be merciful toward us. I think back to before I came home to the Church. I showed no mercy to anyone. Everyone in my life was my opponent, and my opponents were there to be beaten. They showed me no forgiveness, no compassion, so why should I do the same to them? My relationships suffered. I was left alone, simply because I was haughty, belligerent, and an overall nightmare to be around.
It wasn’t until I started practicing mercy that I realized how disordered I had become. People were more open with me, more willing to have conversations or just to spend time with me. We were able to actually engage with one another about things we cared about, rather than shouting over each other. My friends and family had, in fact, been trying to do this all along. I was simply too blinded by pride to see it. All of the judgment, anger, and vitriol I was seeing in others turned out to mostly be myself—that is, not “of my own making”, but actually projecting my own attitude onto them. This is the problem. If one has no mercy for his fellowmen, one cannot hope to form meaningful relationships. Even if others love us, and show us mercy, our own state in life blinds us to it. It prevents us from forming relationships. And, as we read just the other day, forming relationships with one another is absolutely essential to living the Gospel! Christ didn’t give us a mishmash of individuals all going about their own business. Christ gave us the Church! God is quite literally that which unites us, one to another! Learning how to form meaningful relationships with one another should be our top priority, so that we can all join together on the pilgrim journey of faith!
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful”, for it is God’s mercy and love which gave us His only Son. It is God’s mercy and love which enables us to become members of the one Church, the Body of Christ, and it is as the Body of Christ that we are saved.
Mark 9:2-10 (NRSVCE)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!" Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
The Transfiguration is the culminating moment in the public ministry of Jesus. He has just told his disciples of his coming death and resurrection. Remember that Peter rebukes him for this. Jesus quickly responds “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mk. 8:33). Peter and the disciples did not believe that Jesus would die. They did not understand. It is in the Transfiguration that they are given a sign, a foretaste of what Christ in glory looks like, and confirmation from the Father that Jesus is, in fact, who He says He is.
A question comes up here, though. Why doesn’t Jesus maintain this glorified state? He allows Peter, James, and John to see him transfigured, alongside Elijah and Moses. When they still don’t seem to understand that Jesus is more than just another prophet, the voice of the Father booms down from the heavens, and Elijah and Moses disappear, leaving only Jesus. This foretaste of glory ends, and Jesus descends the mountain with them, asking them to keep quiet about it. Why?
Do you remember when Jesus healed the royal official’s son? (John 6:46-54) The official begs Jesus to heal his son, and Jesus responds “Unless you see signs and wonders you will not believe.” The official begs again, and Jesus says “Go; your son will live.” Jesus wants us to believe in Him without the need for miraculous signs, difficult as that may be. Even the disciples did not, though they certainly tried. And so Jesus gave a sign to the royal official, and to the disciples, so that they might believe. Jesus met them where they were, in order to bring them to faith. This is a theme repeated throughout the Gospels. We see it also with “Doubting Thomas” in John 20:19-31. Jesus will walk with us, no matter our state in life, as the shepherd who guides his flock.
That is why He descends the mountain. That is why the foretaste of glory ends. The disciples were not fully capable of grasping that glory. They did not understand, which is clear when their first thought is to build tabernacles for these three prophets they saw before them. Jesus descends the mountain and walks back with them into their ordinary lives. He gives them the miraculous sign they need, and then meets them where they are in order to lead them. He tells them to keep quiet until after the Resurrection because they still did not fully understand. “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean.”
Jesus is there to point the way to the Father. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6) He gives us miraculous signs, like the healing of the official’s son, the wounds on his body that Thomas required, and the Transfiguration that Peter, James, and John required. But He always descends the mountain, to continue with us in our walk of faith, to keep us on the narrow path. That is why the Father says “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” He is the way, and he will always be there to lead us.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Another selection from the Sermon on the Mount today, picking up just a little bit after where we left off yesterday. In this section, Jesus focuses intently on charity toward enemies. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”, just as God does, as God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good”. Namely, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is summarizing what we read yesterday regarding why it is so important to reconcile ourselves with one another, but expanding it as well to all our enemies. Be charitable toward all people, not simply your brothers and sisters. Even pagans love their own, but in order to be truly Christ-like we need to be more.
“Love your enemies” is one of those things that will always be immediately applicable. Think of the state of society at any point in history, and it seems that humanity is always in need of someone to remind us to love our enemies. During the Cold War, for example, communists were not human. I think anyone who lived through that time would tell you that. They were the image of evil, dehumanized to the point that hating them didn’t feel “wrong” in any sense of the word. Indeed, it felt patriotic and right. Before that, it was Jews, or Native Americans, or African Americans. Today is no different. We demonize anyone who is not like us, whether it’s racial, religious, gender-related, political differences, or anything else, we seem to care so much about being upstanding and righteous that we become self-righteous. Anyone who disagrees with us or is different from us is an enemy. Anyone who was upstanding and righteous like I am would agree with me, which means that those who do not must have something wrong with them. They are beneath me.
That’s an attitude which rears its ugly head in every era of human history. I am not sure if it is more prevalent now, but it certainly feels like it is. The advent of social media and highly-sophisticated search engines has placed a gigantic megaphone on the worst of all human qualities—the overpowering need to be right. We surround ourselves with like-minded people, sure, but people have always done that. But now, in the interest of keeping you as a customer, search and content algorithms on Google, Facebook, Tumblr, Reddit, all of your favorite online websites, are tailored to show you content that you will enjoy. It helps keep you coming to their site. But that means not only do we not interact with our enemies very often, which has always been the case, it means that we are probably not even living in the same reality as our enemies. I may be fed news stories by these algorithms from the mainstream media, while others are fed only content from extreme right-wing blog sites, because the algorithm sees that we are each more likely to click on those types of links. Not only are we different—that is, having different political opinions—but we quite literally have different realities.
The fact that this is the case today makes it all the more necessary to be reminded to love our enemies. It is so much easier to dehumanize our enemies when we live in increasingly tighter and more impenetrable “bubbles”. Jesus calls us to pop that bubble. Even the pagans love those inside their bubble. But Christ loves all, and it is our duty as Christians to conform ourselves to Christ.
Matthew 5:20-26 (NRSVCE)
For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
You may recognize today’s Gospel reading. It’s an excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus exhorts us to reconcile ourselves with one another, not simply with God. He even goes so far as to say that if you have come to offer something to God, but you remember a feud with your brother, “first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.” It seems odd to say that we should keep from approaching God until we are reconciled with each other, doesn’t it?
It doesn’t seem that odd when you consider what it means to walk in faith. As children of God, we are called to be Christ-like. We are called to conform ourselves to Jesus—to behave as He behaves, to love as He loves. When Christ was on the cross, after having been brutally beaten and tortured by his accusers, did he scream at them in anger? Did he lash out against them? No. He prayed for them. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34) Christ loved them, and calls us to do the same to our accusers.
But it’s also more than that. Jesus did not simply give us wise teachings, or moral precepts. He gave us the Church. “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:18) It is as members of His Church, as members of the Body of Christ, that we are saved. If you have read my blog for awhile, you may remember me talking about Romano Guardini’s description of the “supra-personal character” of the Church. The Church is more than simply the sum total of its members. The Church is not simply a label used to identify those who believe in Jesus. Rather, the Church is given to us, and we participate in it as members. Christ saves His Church, and promises that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it. It is the Body of Christ which is saved. And a body functions rightly only when all its members work together for the same end. So it is not just a matter of conforming ourselves, as individuals, to Christ. It is a matter of conforming our communities. We are meant to reconcile with one another precisely because it is through building communal bonds, through loving one another, that we act as one body. It is through this that we conform ourselves to Christ.
Look at the opening of this passage. Why does Jesus call out the scribes and Pharisees before talking about the importance of charity? Because the scribes and Pharisees were so focused on themselves and how they as individuals could please God, through fulfilling the Law, that they neglected to love their neighbors. They neglected to reconcile themselves to those around them. That is what Jesus means when he says that we need to be more righteous than they were. As members of the Body of Christ, we are called to more than any kind of individual holiness. We are called to participate in the one People of God, as members of the flock, so that the Shepherd can lead us to the Father.
Psalm 23:1-3a, 4, 5, 6
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.
R. The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want.
There are some beautiful things in today’s readings. The first reading from 1 Peter speaks about the how priests are called to lives of service. They are to lead by example. The Gospel reading is the oh-so famous passage from Matthew, where Peter correctly identifies Jesus as the “Son of the living God”, and Jesus proclaims “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Either one of those would have been great for a reflection. But there’s something that just caught my eye about today’s responsorial psalm.
Psalm 23 was the first Bible passage I ever memorized. I knew verses here and there, sure, like John 3:16, John 1:1, or Genesis 1:1. But this was the first full passage I took the time to really burn into my memory. It was framed on a wall in the church in the Assembly of God church back home (and was still there, last I remember, in all its flowery King James glory). When you stood in the line for potluck, you stood right next to that passage. Being a restless little kid, I couldn’t just stand there. I had to do something. So I read it in my head, over and over. Any time we had a potluck, I would practice—say a bit in my head, check the wall to see how close I was, then try again. Eventually, it stuck, and has to this day. But even though this passage has been bouncing around my head for nearly two decades, I never sat down and really heard it.
“The LORD is my shepherd”. Like a shepherd, Jesus leads us through the narrow gate to the Father. But it’s much more than what we may picture when we think of “shepherd”. The shepherd protects his sheep from predators. He also protects them from themselves, whether they follow each other blindly into a ravine or get themselves stuck in the mud. Sheep can be very self-destructive. But though I have never tended sheep, I can’t imagine they can possibly be more self-destructive than we are. Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) uses the image of the damned sprinting as fast as they can away from God. They have rejected God so completely, utterly detesting the very source of all being, that they do everything in their power to reach non-being—to reach death. Sheep will go astray and get themselves in precarious situations, sure, but man chooses this fate. Man sees God and screams at the top of his lungs “NO!” That is what the Good Shepherd has to deal with in us. The corruption of our souls.
Verse 3 is shortened in the responsorial psalm, but looking at the whole verse gets to my point.
“He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” We have been damaged by sin. We have turned our backs on God. But the Good Shepherd protects his sheep, in a way much more profound than a shepherd prodding his sheep with his rod to keep them from the mud. God restored our very souls, making us capable once again of following Him. And though we walk in the valley of the shadow of death, a shadow we have cast upon ourselves, the Shepherd is there to lead us through it. He leads us through the narrow gate, and to the house of the LORD.
If you’ve followed my blog you know that for a very long time, I fell away from the faith. I became angry, bitter, and confused. I detested Christianity, and everything it taught. It was my one goal in life to tear down the faith of my family and friends, because it was so infuriating! I was sprinting as fast as I could away from God.
But lucky for me, God is my shepherd. He restored my soul. He made me capable of loving Him again, something I thought impossible. And though I am still a sinner—still walking through this dark valley—I have no fear. The Good Shepherd is at my side, leading me to the house of the LORD.
Luke 11:29-32 (NRSVCE)
When the crowds were increasing, he began to say, “This generation is an evil generation; it asks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so the Son of Man will be to this generation. The queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon, and see, something greater than Solomon is here! The people of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater than Jonah is here!
There's two references here which might be confusing. The first is how he compares himself to Jonah. The first reading from today is actually from Jonah, and sets the stage for what Jesus is talking about here (Jon. 3:1-10). Jonah has just been spit out by that giant fish, and God calls him once again to go to Ninevah, like he was supposed to do the first time. Jonah goes, and begins preaching to the Ninevites, "Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!" for, as we remember from the beginning of Jonah, God was angry due to their wickedness. Jonah's preaching converts the entire city! A city that takes three days to walk across! Think of a street preacher converting all of New York City! Jonah was such a strong sign for the Ninevites, that they turned from their wickedness, and back toward God. And yet, as strong of a sign as Jonah was to an evil generation, Jesus proclaims Himself to be a greater sign.
That’s the first reference. The second is this “queen of the South” and Solomon. Jonah is a tale most of us remember, but this one tests our memory a bit. If you can’t remember, take a look at 1 Kings 10:1-13. That’s where we see the Queen of Sheba come to visit Solomon, from her kingdom (probably in present-day Yemen). This is, in fact, one of the more famous meetings of world rulers in history, having been recorded in both the Bible and the Quran. In the Biblical account, the Queen of Sheba comes because she has heard tell of Solomon’s wisdom. She doubted him, and wanted to test him for herself. She thought she could best him—that she was in fact the wiser ruler. However, after having all of her questions answered by Solomon, she praises his wisdom, admits her own ignorance, and gives many gifts to his household. The Queen of Sheba “came from the ends of the earth to listen to the wisdom of Solomon”, and yet Jesus tells us that he is far wiser than Solomon ever was.
Those are the references and points Jesus is making here. But what bearing does this have on Lent? Well, presumably by “this generation”, Jesus meant us, right? He is our sign, the one who proclaims that the Kingdom of God is at hand! Repent! Just as Jonah did. “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown!” is what Jonah preached. This sign to the Ninevites caused the king to declare a fast. Sackcloth, ashes, no food, not even any water. The whole nine yards. It was time to repent. Forty days for Ninevah to get its act together. And at the end of it, they were closer to God than they had ever been. Remind me, how long is Lent again?
Oh, that’s right. Forty days! And we don’t have Jonah as a sign to us, we have Jesus! Greater than Jonah, wiser than Solomon! If Jesus is the one telling you it’s time to get your act together, you better believe it is! We are the Ninevites, covering ourselves in sackcloth and ashes, crying out to God in repentance. Yet unlike the Ninevites, we know that God will forgive us, because He sent his Son. We know because of the cross.
What greater sign could there be?
Matthew 6:7-15 (NRSVCE)
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
“Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us to the time of trial,
but rescue us from the evil one.
For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
This passage has always intrigued me. You will often hear people take the first section as a prooftext that using written prayers, or reusing prayers at all, is not pleasing to God. It’s just heaping up “empty phrases as the Gentiles do”, after all. We look at that section and we may think that every prayer we give needs to be spontaneous! It needs to be personal! We need to use our own words, or else it’s not really a prayer! Or if you have no words of your own, don’t use any words, because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” How can you possibly establish a relationship with God if you use someone else’s words? The point is, don’t reuse prayers.
But immediately after saying that, Jesus gives us a prayer. The one prayer that we all know and love: the Our Father. Why is this prayer okay to reuse, but others aren’t? Is it just because Jesus said it? No, it’s that we misunderstood the point Jesus was making in the first place. It’s not that old prayers are somehow worse, or that new prayers are somehow better. It’s about your disposition in prayer. What are you searching for when you pray? The pagans Jesus is talking about knew how to string together the right words with just enough flourish and pomp to impress everyone with how pious they were, or perhaps to impress their gods. Perhaps they thought that if they could prove to the gods how pious they were, the gods would listen!
But the prayer that Jesus gives us is not impressive at all. It’s humble. It admits our faults, begs forgiveness, and promises that we will do better. More importantly, it acknowledges that our God is not a bogeyman, like the gods of the pagans. The pagans worked to impress their gods, so that the gods might do their bidding. Their gods were invoked with pomp, with ritual, and with magic, all for the sake of fulfilling the will of men. With the Our Father prayer, we acknowledge that it is about God’s will, not our own. We acknowledge that our will ought to be conformed to the will of the Father, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you”.
The real question Jesus is raising here is: Who is the object of your prayer? Is it yourselves? Then you are no better than the pagans. The object of your prayer ought to be God, for it is from Him that everything is received, and to Him everything is due. Whether you are reciting the Our Father, saying a prayer of your own, or even pulling from the vast trove of prayers left to us by the many Christians throughout the ages, it doesn't matter. What matters is your disposition. Are you orienting yourself toward God in your prayer, or toward yourself?
Matthew 25:31-46 (RSVCE)
“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
“Truly, I saw to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it not to me.” We are all familiar with the words of today’s Gospel reading, but more and more it seems like we don’t take it seriously. We live in a culture that celebrates individual achievement, success earned through one’s own hard work and ambition. This is the American ideal! Anyone can be rich and fruitful if only they work hard enough! These are the values which are instilled in us, and the words of Jesus challenge us to rethink them.
Do we, both as a society and as individuals, actually care about feeding the hungry? Do we actually care about clothing the naked, healing the sick, and welcoming strangers? I think we can all agree that the answer, sadly, is a resounding “No!” This isn’t even a matter of those who live in poverty-stricken countries. We have millions right here who are without food, without a home, and who have no family or community to lean on. What are we doing for them? Some of us maybe give a dollar at the grocery store checkout line, or maybe we drop our loose change into the Salvation Army buckets. Some of you maybe even donate your time and work with charitable organizations and causes. And that’s great! But could we do more?
This is something that truly bothers me. We live in the richest country the world has ever known, and yet we still aren’t able to provide for even our own people. The capacity is there. We have no shortage of money, no shortage of time. Almost all of us could stand to lose a few dollars to someone who really needs it. All of us could give some of our time to a local soup kitchen. And certainly all of us could welcome strangers with open arms into our homes and communities. But we don’t. Why? The answer to me seems simple. We don’t take the words of Christ seriously. We don’t take “love your neighbor” seriously.
I am no exception here, let me make that clear, and I think that’s why this bothers me so much. I could be giving far more time, money, and love to those in need. I could be living the Gospel as Christ commanded, and yet I don’t. I am selfish. We are all selfish, and maybe that’s not so much a “cultural problem” as it is a “human problem.” We get so caught up in our own lives, in our own wants and desires, that we forget about our neighbors. The words of Christ in today’s reading prompt serious internal reflection, both as individuals and as a society. When the Son of Man comes in glory, will He see us and say “Come, O blessed of my Father”? Or is it more likely that He will say “Depart from me, you cursed”?
The more I think about the way I live my own life, the more I worry it is the latter.