Jesus has harsh words for the scribes and Pharisees in yesterday’s Gospel and today’s Gospel, Matthew 23:13-26. He spares no words in calling them hypocrites. I cringe as I remind myself that whenever Jesus speaks in the Gospels, He is not only speaking to the people of His day but He is also speaking directly to me – and to you!
Matthew concludes today’s passage with Jesus’ words, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may be clean.”
The message is very clear. Before we begin criticizing everyone and everything around us, especially family, friends, neighbors and the people we don’t like, we need to take a good look inside ourselves – a good self evaluation or examination of conscience. We all have a lot of hard work to do with putting our own lives in order. Jesus is saying that before we can remake the world in our own image and likeness, we have to remake ourselves in His image and likeness – that is we have to reform our lives in the light of His teaching.
Do you remember one of the 1960s great song hits: MY WAY sung by Frank Sinatra. I love the melody and part of me loves the words. Who of us does not crave to do it MY WAY? We all want to do it MY WAY. And yet there is a great fallacy in this song and in these words. MY WAY may not be GOD’S WAY.
In today’s Gospel, Luke 13:22-30, someone asks Jesus: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Jesus responded: “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”
The narrow gate is GOD’S WAY not MY WAY. The journey of the spiritual life entails a growing realization that the narrow gate that brings us to eternal life with Jesus is not MY WAY but GOD’S WAY. As we move on in life we come to realize that what matters most in life is not what we want but what God wants for us. This requires much prayer and a daily attempt to live out Jesus’ teachings. This is increasingly difficult as we live in a world and in a country that is seeking to eliminate God from the public sector and confine God to a church building.
Our goal is to find and enter through the narrow gate. Each day we are called to purify our ego (and that can only be done with the grace of God) from MY WAY to GOD’S WAY.
Jesus’ enemies were forever trying to trap Him. In today’s Gospel, Matthew 22:34-40, a scholar of the law approaches Jesus and asks Him, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He says to the scholar, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment.” This was the expected answer, but Jesus does not stop there. He clarifies and tightens up the law and adds a new dimension to it. Jesus says, “The second is like it; You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Further on Jesus will scandalize His enemies by reinterpreting who is my neighbor to include every single person in this world.
Love is the greatest commandment. We are commanded to love our God wholly and entirely without any reservations. Jesus makes it very clear that we cannot love God unless we also love our neighbor. This love of neighbor has nothing to do with romantic or sentimental love. This love is rooted in a choice to pray for our neighbor and to do whatever we can to further our neighbor’s good. There are no exceptions – difficult as that may be to our natural feelings. And we really cannot love God and neighbor if we do not love ourselves. That does not mean that we pamper or indulge ourselves but that we attend to our legitimate physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
It’s not fair! It’s just not fair! That’s my emotional response to today’s Gospel, Matthew 20:1-16.
Jesus tells His disciples a parable in which He says, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard.” He agrees with them for the usual daily wage. He proceeds to go out at various times and engages more workers. With only one hour of the work day left, he goes out and hires a few more. He has his manager pay them starting with the last hired going back to those hired at the beginning of the day. Those hired last receive a full day’s wages as does everyone else. Those hired at the beginning grumble that they worked all day and should get more. The landowner says to them: “My friends, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?”
Now I have to put my emotional response aside and focus in on the message. And the message is very clear: Jesus’ love and mercy are all inclusive. We may be blessed and at an early stage of our lives, we may embrace Jesus as Our Lord and Savior and live a long life of witness to Him. Some of us may embrace Jesus at other times of our lives such as mid life after we have searched for Him. Some of us may embrace Jesus only after a long life of looking for Him in all the wrong places. And some of us may embrace Jesus only in that final hour of life. The important thing is that we have embraced Him. Jesus loves us and embraces us no matter what time in our lives we come to Him. He loves us no less whether we are in the spring time of life or at the end of the winter of our lives. His love is ours!
Jesus has a lot to say about riches as being an impediment to entering the Kingdom of God. It is important to note that riches doesn’t simply mean money or power and influence. Riches can be anything that we are obsessed with, anything that controls us and prevents us from giving ourselves completely to Jesus. Riches can be wealth and power but it can also be lust, greed, pride, gluttony, anger, accumulated resentments, holding grudges, refusing to enter into a forgiveness process – the list goes on and on. We are all “rich” in the sense that we all have baggage that we cling to.
In today’s Gospel, Matthew 19:23-30, Jesus says to His disciples (and remember whenever Jesus speaks to His disciples, He is also speaking to you and me),
“Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.”
The disciples had difficulty with this, and I did also for a long time. And then I read a commentary that I found helpful. The “eye of a needle” was a very small gate that led into the city of Jerusalem. In order for camels to make it through the gate, they had to lower themselves to their knees and crawl through. The gate was so narrow that they had to rid themselves of any excess baggage to do so. The gate had been deliberately built that way so as to examine and control the flow of goods into the city. Jesus was saying to the disciples and to us that we have to give up the “riches” that control us and put a radical trust and faith in God if we want to enter His Kingdom. The camel had to lower itself to its knees to get through. We, too, have to lower ourselves to our knees in a spirit of humility, trust and surrender. We need to acknowledge Jesus as Our Lord and Savior and rely completely on Him.