Matthew and the Dawn (Mt 4:12-22)

After hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus left Nazareth and went to Capernaum in Galilee. This was not a bad choice; it was by the sea. But Jesus went because it was the plan. Not vacation, not even an escape. Prophecy placed him there. And Jesus knew that John’s ministry was nearly over and his must commence. He was to begin in “heathen Galilee” with “a people living in darkness.” Not unlike our reformers who begin with an inner city ghetto or some outpost of sin. Why shouldn’t the Dawn begin in darkness? Prophecy has Galilee sounding so bad that death hangs over it like a threatening cloud, but no longer, for “Light has arisen.” And so Jesus begins by taking up John’s theme: “Reform your lives. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Here is the other reason why prophecy places Jesus in Galilee: the future apostles are there. We can suppose many things then about Galilee. Either it wasn’t totally a bad place or Jesus had been preaching awhile and had won these men over from not so stellar lives by his call to reform. Perhaps as Matthew encapsulates the scene, these men were immediately taken by the presence and invitation of Jesus. Or, we could speculate that they had occasion to hear him preach and had taken time to observe this new man in town. When he happened by their boats with his invitation, they literally ‘jumped ship’ and followed him. Both sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew, James and John – were in the process of casting nets so Jesus’ words, “I will make you fishers of men,” hit the right chord.

Perhaps we know nothing practical or realistic about the art of fishing, but the concept makes sense. Every Christian wants to be part of the great fishing fleet of the Church. It is a great thrill to bring someone to Jesus. It may be a family member, a friend, a total stranger, someone who comes because of us, but without our being aware of doing anything. That someone may be a person we taught, greeted, served, prayed for, or simply loved.

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Matthew and Temptation (Mt 4:1-11)

This passage is mysterious, and yet somehow familiar to each of us on a personal level. Why would the Spirit lead Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil?  We know the devil is always hovering around any major event, but Matthew makes this sound like a set-up of the newly baptized Jesus. It was obviously a time of preparation for the story of his ministry – he was fasting for forty days and forty nights – no fortifying meals in the evening or on weekends, not even small meals, nothing that could be called sustenance. Watching until he was very hungry, the devil made a proposal: “Turn rocks to bread. You can easily do this if you are Son of God.” So is the divine strategy? Give Jesus an opportunity to have a debate, if you will, with Satan. Which party has the better argument? Jesus won round one by declaring that we don’t live only on material bread, but on God’s word.

The devil then jumped from a natural rock to a hewn rock placed in the Temple façade. “Throw yourself from this exalted place! Angels will surely bear you up to keep even your feet from injury on this earthly stone!” To this Jesus quotes Scripture which is greater than the Temple to say: “You are not to put God to the test.” Still confident, the devil takes Jesus to the grandest of rocks, a mountaintop from which could be seen kingdoms of the world. With a sweeping gesture the devil announced: “I will give all of this to you if you will just do me homage.” Here Jesus pronounces the tempter’s name – Satan, the condemned one, the only homage due the devil. In fact, Jesus invokes the devil’s due homage when he says: “Away with you!” This was the devil’s reward for his original rebellion when St. Michael drove him from heaven: “Away with you!” And Jesus reminds him again of what he was told in the beginning when he sought his own greatness: “You shall do homage only to God. Him alone shall you adore!”

This is the rule book for temptation: rely only on Scripture for the sustaining food; look to nothing above God whose will is never found in the showy or the self-fulfilling; never give the devil the time of day (or night). Tell him in no polite phrases where to go. The adoration of time, attention, and consideration belong to God alone. And when we feel too weak to face the challenge of temptation, there is always the mantle of Mary.

Matthew and the Beloved (Mt. 3:13-17)

When Jesus approaches John for baptism, John is horrified. “You are the Master; I’m the servant,” he protests. But Jesus says, “Give in on this one so that God’s plan can go forward.” After John baptized him, Jesus came up from the water and God spoke, making a very clear statement about the divine plan: “This is my beloved Son. My favor is on him. This is the Kingdom. It begins from this moment.”

Here is something that doesn’t  always register: how obvious and direct God was about the kingdom. We think God spoke only in parables and prophecies, but he also spoke directly and definitively in pointing out the Messiah who himself is the coming Kingdom. Perhaps it wasn’t as clear to people at that time, but to us it is just missing the neon lights.

One of the things this incident says to me is that we have had this encounter, too. At our baptism God also said those same words: “This is my beloved. My favor is on him/her. This is the Kingdom. It begins from this moment.” At that moment we each became a son or daughter of God upon whom his favor/grace has come. The Kingdom, namely Jesus the Messiah, is present here in us. The Church/Kingdom is present in us. It begins from this very moment. Yes, the Kingdom has come.

Are your neon lights turned on?

Matthew and the Baptizer (Mt 3:1-12)

What an interesting man John the Baptizer must have been! No wonder people came out to see him. He had one basic message: “Get your act together. God’s kingdom is about to come.” We imagine him a bit wild looking. His clothing was out of the ordinary (animal hides) and his food as well (grasshoppers and wild honey). Yum!  People not only came to hear him, but they confessed their sins to him and received the baptism he gave. He demanded true repentance, as seen in his rejection of the leaders who came only to check things out. He was severe with them: “Brood of vipers! Give some evidence of your sincerity. Don’t simply count on being children of Abraham. God will give other children to Abraham. Things are about to change dramatically. I’m only a herald, a sign of the One who comes. In fact, I’m unworthy to even serve Him. His baptism will be in the Holy Spirit and in fire. He will clear the threshing floor of this life, gathering the good and throwing the chaff into unending fire.”

Well then…!

This is a message for the ages! Even today John continues preparing the way because we keep losing it, both as a people and individually. The reign is actually here, but each of us needs reminding that our own threshing will be over at death. It’s time to start heading for the good pile. The image of gathered wheat and burning chaff is very compelling.

John was born for his mission. He was the one who rejoiced in his mother’s womb at the approach of the unborn Messiah in Mary’s womb. Sometimes it seems so hard to identify our life’s mission, never mind following it from birth, and with such gusto throughout life. And yet, we who received Baptism as babies do have our mission early on: we were reborn as followers of Jesus Christ. That may appear a little wild to some folks; our clothing is Christ himself and our food is definitely Unique!

John lived a Lenten existence for his thirty-some years. May his message and example inspire us this Lent to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord we follow.

Matthew and Broken Hearts

It is Valentine’s Day evening. We are still celebrating the day of the heart. Tonight some hearts are rejoicing, some hearts are hurting. I hope yours is bursting with love, joy, and fulfillment. I am asking a prayer and some comfort for anyone whose heart is broken, especially if the suffering is related to this Gospel reflection.

Within the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is an insert from the Prophet Jeremiah (31:15). It reads:

A voice was heard in Rama,

    wailing and great mourning;

Rachel weeping for her children,

and she would not be comforted,

because they were no more.

How different the case of these Holy Innocents from those of our day! These children were desired by their parents; they were torn away by an insane and jealous king. The holy innocents today are unwanted, unwelcome by their parents and their society. Even though they are conceived, for the most part, out of pleasure, they are seen as an unwanted burden. Sometimes they even end up as a cause of shame. Every kind of reason is given in favor of the conceivers, but none are considered in favor of the conceived. We know who was saved by the loss of the male children of Bethlehem; we don’t know who is lost by the wanton destruction of our male (and female) children today.

I realize that not every decision to carry to term the life you created is an easy decision. However, it should not be made as lightly as the decision to have the pleasure which caused the conception.

And, of course, there are forced conceptions, and then the decision in favor of the child can be unbelievably difficult. However, the decision for or against is so very final. One would think it enough to pause quietly over those last few words of Jeremiah: She would not be comforted, because they were no more. How incredibly sad to have such an irreversible choice hanging over one’s conscience. How incredibly sad to imagine what could have been.

May God’s loving, understanding heart be the safe haven of those whose hearts are so wounded.

Matthew and Attentiveness (Mt 2:13-15)

God is watching over all. He may not always intervene in danger as we see here in Matthew’s Gospel, but God is watching nonetheless. Because of the importance of this Child and his parents (for his sake), and all of them for God’s eternal plan, an angel is again sent to direct events. Fortunately, Joseph, the just, the upright man, was attuned to God’s messengers and he acted immediately. The very night of his dream, Joseph took Mary and the Child into Egypt. This wasn’t an easy feat, not an easy trip, especially since it happened “in flight” – rapidly, stealthily. The Gospel doesn’t say how Joseph learned of Herod’s death, or how long after their escape into Egypt it happened, but to fulfill a prophecy and to continue the saving plan: God called his son from Egypt.

Your calls and messages are given even to me, and I imagine also to all your children. I recall several times when I was taken aback by the suddenness and reality of your words. I did act upon them, although you know not always promptly or positively. Then there are your messages that are less-startling and are reflected on afterward. But, tell me, dear Lord, might my occasional “hemming and hawing” not be a sign of my familiarity with you? Also a sign of your trust in me? Is this what prayer looks like? Sharpen my awareness of you and strengthen me to be more attentive, as was Joseph.

Matthew and Wisdom (Mt 2:1-12)

One of my earlier posts was about the Magi, but I’m giving them a repeat performance. Why? Because they offer such a necessary example for us who are seekers today.

Matthew’s Gospel describes men of faith who are in search of truth. They are star-gazers, men learned in the study of the physical heavens. They were obviously familiar with Jewish prophecy for they knew where the Messiah-King was to be expected. It seems that their inquiry with King Herod took him by surprise (probably not a very religious man) and he had to call in his own scholars (also not too religious, it would seem). The Gospel reads as if they had the appropriate scripture at hand (in the library perhaps), but aren’t aware of the star (inattentive). Herod tries to play nice, promising to go adore the new king as soon as his visitors returned with a location. He didn’t offer to accompany them or to send anyone with them, but must have put a tail on them because, even though they didn’t report back to him, his soldiers were sent to kill all young boys in Bethlehem. Actually, the prophecy pinpointed Bethlehem, but I don’t doubt that Herod had spies.

As for the Wise Men, the star brought them straight to the “house” where Jesus was to be found. Interestingly, we now hear of the child and a house, so probably some time had passed since the night in the stable. These truly wise seekers prostrated themselves before the child and did him homage. Imagine his parents astonishment that such persons are aware of Jesus’ existence and have sought him out. They offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh – prophetic gifts we are told. Then because of a dream (whose we don’t know), they quietly return home.

I ask myself how aware I am of the signs of my time – this present time we all live in? Where is Christ to be found in all of it? Am I a Herod, reigning in my own little kingdom oblivious to the greater plan? Am I wrapped up in my own version of truth, considering my opinions, wants, and desires to be the definition of that truth? Am I instead a true seeker?  Am I one of those wise persons, ever alert and attuned to earth and heaven, ready and willing to put myself out in order to pursue the meaning and purpose of what is revealed? When I come into the presence of God’s plan, what gift am I prepared to offer?