Lectionary Commentary

Thegreatestcommandment Red

"Master, which commandment in the Law is the greatest?"


A reading from the book of Exodus, 22:21-27

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 18:2-4. 47. 51. R/ v.2

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:5-10

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:34-40


A compassionate project

We might call God’s decision to create and to sustain creation a compassionate project. The poetic human imaginations that gave us the creation stories of the Book of Genesis set this project in train and has not run its course. It is still unfolding, still designed and overseen by God. The Lord God called on human hands and hearts to do the spadework.

Our first poets beautifully imagined our God providing the light in order to see the drawing board and getting down to details. Night and day, land and sea, vegetation and plants were created and the beasts of the earth moved from heavenly sketches to their appointed place on earth. What was needed to ensure that the project was carefully managed was given very careful consideration:

Then God said …

Genesis 1:26

Only when everything was readied, then a partnership of men and women was appointed to manage the care and development of God’s project:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Genesis 1:26

Our first poet lets God rest on the seventh day and he extended the resting to the appointed managers, satisfied that all that was done was very good.

Another poet imagined the whole project to be a garden of delights. Unfortunately, a wily serpent converted human responsibilities into irresponsibility with horrendous consequences. Violence, murder and death defaced what had been “very good”.

God tried again and again, with Abraham, with Moses, with Elijah and Amos, and with Isaiah, Jeremiah, and a host of wise voices. Finally, God sent his Son, saying,

They will respect my Son.

Matthew 21:37

Sadly, human authorities set their own scheme in train:

Let us kill him and take possession of his inheritance.

Matthew 21:38

But God was not to be outdone. The Son was rescued from death and the project of compassion was re-issued as an international enterprise. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit sought to enervate the whole of humanity and to call on every man and woman to ensure that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. Men and women from the four corners of the earth are called upon to undertake the business of transforming creation into the dreams of our God. The dream was of a Garden of Eden. The project of compassion is to realise that dream, a new garden that will stretch from here to eternity.

Yes, the foundation documents were still essential for success. To the challenges of old a New Testament clarifies the old and points to the expansion of the challenge. The old charter still stands. But its vision is broadened. My People is set to become All People. The Hebrew vocation is strengthened by an influx of new blood. Not a jot or tittle of the old is abolished; every speck of the old is fulfilled (Matthew 5:17-20).The utterly essential charter is retained. What Exodus loudly preached must be proclaimed to the whole humanity. What was said on Mount Sinai must be proclaimed from every mountain and every hill. It is on this mountain that the word “poor” enters for the first time into the vocabulary of God’s holy words.


A reading from the book of Exodus, 20:22;22:20-26

The Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the people of Israel,
‘You shall not wrong a sojourner or oppress him, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or fatherless child. If you do mistreat them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.’ ‘
If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him. If ever you take your neighbour's cloak in pledge, you shall return it to him before the sun goes down, for that is his only covering, and it is his cloak for his body; in what else shall he sleep? And if he cries to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.’

The word of the Lord.


A compassionate constitution

What was said to Moses and the People of God must be heard everywhere. The embrace of God’s compassionate concern must take in the stranger, the immigrant, every outsider. The widow and the fatherless child of every race must be cared for. Otherwise God’s wrath will confront all that is evil.

The embrace of God’s concern is warmest at the bottom. The poor must never become the usurer’s delight. Stripping the poor of their rags will not go unnoticed:

for I am compassionate.

There is a line in one of Israel’s songs:

the needy shall not always be forgotten,
and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.

Psalm 9:18


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 18:2-4. 47. 51.R/ v.2

A Psalm of David, the servant of the LORD, who addressed the words of this song to the LORD on the day when the LORD rescued him from the hand of all his enemies, and from the hand of Saul.

R/. I love you, O Lord, my strength.

I love you, O Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer,
my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
I call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised,
and I am saved from my enemies. R/.

The Lord lives, and blessed be my rock,
and exalted be the God of my salvation—
Great salvation he brings to his king,
and shows steadfast love to his anointed. R/.


The title introduction to this psalm is the longest superscription introducing psalms. The complete psalm is to be found word-for-word in Second Samuel 22:1-51.This is a lengthy prayer of King David thanking and praising God for delivering him from all his enemies, especially from his predecessor King Saul. The older version is the one in Second Samuel. It is possible, though not likely, that the psalm was written by David the King.

What is extraordinary about this victory hymn of thanksgiving is the attributes ascribed to the Lord.If we list God’s characteristics from the full hymn in Second Samuel the list of God’s saving capacities is indeed extensive. God is,

my rock

my fortress

my deliverer

my refuge

my saviour

my rescuer

my support

my delight


my lamp

my shield

my strong refuge

my security

my strength

steadfast love.

The prayer of the beleaguered king reaches to the highest heaven. The response from the God of many parts swoops down to every battlefield and every danger in order to deliver David even when it seemed that the jaws of She’ol were opening wide.

The psalm’s first word is a word of love. The last word is a word of praise and thanksgiving. What the psalm offers to those who would pray it today is a vision of God who is ever concerned to meet whatever dangers seek to destroy what the Lord has made. Even a lifetime of meditation cannot begin to exhaust the protective love lavishes by God to see that we come safely home.


A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:5-10

You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit, so that you became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia. For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything. For they themselves report concerning us the kind of reception we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

The Word of the Lord.

The LORD God, the God capable of defeating every enemy seeking human destruction, confronted the afflictions of David. “The church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” is rich in faith, hope, and love. The community lived as Paul desired they should; they followed every instruction that made them “imitators of the Lord”. Yet in receiving the word of God they encountered “much affliction”.

Paul’s converts had “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (I Thessalonians 1:9).These former pagans being admitted without any of the trappings of Jewish life may have given rise to some hostility from Jewish people. Much more likely, hostility came from authorities in the city who were opposed to any rejection of the gods of the city, especially to any who embraced a faith that denied the very existence of the city deities.

So while this young church was to be praised for their “work of faith, and labour of love, and steadfastness of hope”, there was a price to be paid. There was much affliction to be endured. Such was their steadfastness in their newfound faith that they became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia and indeed everywhere where their story was heard. Not only had they turned from idols to serve the living and true God but their steadfast faith in God had encouraged them,

to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

I Thessalonians 1:10

It is this waiting that is at the heart of Paul’s little letter to his beloved church of Thessalonian Christians. The great apostle had a deep conviction that the world was soon to come to its final destiny in God. We know that he was wrong in this (since it has not as yet happened).Nonetheless Paul understands that humanity will come to judgement. Christians live in the sure and certain hope of resurrection, no matter when that event comes, and the vision of Jesus will be realised. The fullness of the kingdom will come. Whatever it might mean, the Thessalonians can be certain that it is Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.


A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:34-40

The Pharisees, on hearing that he had silenced the Sadducees, gathered together. And one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind”. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it:” You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.

The Gospel of the Lord.

The first reading today from the Book of the Exodus provided us with some of the nuts and bolts of living the God-like life. It is in this book that the word “poor” first occurs in the Bible:

If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender [literally “a usurer”] to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.

Exodus 22:25

From this sentence throughout the book of Exodus, through Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, God’s demands are underlined again and again. The reason God spells out why the poor are so central to God’s concerns is very simple and very obvious (and in our time and in our world so utterly ignored):

… so that the poor may eat.

Exodus 23:11

The details in our first reading and all the details underlined in God’s covenant with the People of Israel when they emerge from the desert are many. But they all come from what is revealed in today’s Gospel. If God’s people are to live a God-like life, if the former mixum-gatherum of slaves are to live freedom, then there must be a fundamental re-ordering of human affairs. If slavery is the become freedom, there must be a radical re-ordering of human affairs. The foundation stone of all freedom, the rock on which humanity must build its sure foundations is this:

Hear, O Israel:
The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9

It is in loving that we are are God-like. It is in loving that we are most human. Not to have loved is to live in a dark emptiness. Loving must be done with all your heart, for love must be felt. Felt love penetrates to our very soul, to that inmost place where we live and move and have our being. For loving with all your soul is not a reckless extravagance; it is a wild and inner calm. To be sure, love must be with all your mind for in the calm and excitement of love there must a knowing that loving is what I have been born to be and to be possessed by.

It is that total joy that God insists must be done in our being as it is done in heaven. Indeed, in loving God we are enabled to love with that intensity that is beyond words. The first commandment makes all other loving possible. We do not need to be religious to know this. For we are created in love in order to love and be loved, whether we know that or not.

The second commandment is the mirror-image of the first:

… you shall love your neighbour as your self.

Leviticus 19:18

There is a danger here. It is to believe (as some do) that there is a special word for love when we speak of God’s love. There are many loves in the Bible; love of money, the love of power, love of self, even love of sin. What is underlined in the Bible is that God’s love is steadfast. It endures forever. We are blessed in knowing that this steadfast love is given to every human being. It is that love that teaches us how to love. Loving our neighbour means that being blessed by love we must become a love-blessing to everyone.

The Hebrew Bible does not go as far as Matthew in demanding love. Both however agree that love may be demanded. The love commands in the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy are not optional extras:

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbour, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:17-18

Love is not optional. But in the Hebrew Bible it is a matter of loving your own people and those who come among you as immigrants. Jesus is much more insistent that love must embrace everyone:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and
hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you …

Matthew 5:43-44

But why? Why must we bend our hearts into love of enemies and persecutors? Jesus has an answer:

… so that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 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, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:45-48

Jesus demands that our love must not meet human standards. Our love must be as perfect as God’s love. Of course, this is impossible. Our model however is the man on the cross: Father, forgive them …

Yes, that standard was not demanded of the people of old. It is a demand that comes into our world in the preaching of Jesus and it is a hard saying. But if we have ever loved we will know that loving is not always easy.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

Renderuntocaesar 1

..give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s." - Gospel of S. Matthew, 22: 21


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 45:1. 4-6

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 96:1. 3-5. 7-10.R/ v.7

A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:1-5

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:15-21


How odd of God to choose the Jews! That old chestnut is not meant to suggest that God would have done well to choose some other people. The saying is meant to stir up surprise and wonder. How odd of God to choose anyone, especially if God knows the outcome. We, of course, are wise after the event. So we ask why did God choose Peter when, even before it happened, Jesus knew he would deny ever knowing him? Jesus knew that those who came to Gethsemane at the foot of the Mount of Olives would desert him and flee into the night. So why call Peter, Andrew, James and John, the runaway apostles? Why them? Why Paul? Why Silvanus and Timothy? Why Thessalonians? Why us?

And above all, why Cyrus?


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 45:1. 4-6

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
that gates may not be closed.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
besides me there is no God;
I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
[I am the Lord, and there is no other.]

The word of the Lord

Above all, why Cyrus?

Cyrus II was the King of Persia (558-530 B.C.) who defeated his dominant neighbours, the Medes. The Book of Daniel witnesses to the imperial might of “the Medes and the Persians” (Daniel 5:28).[1] Their imperial might lasted for 200 years, ruling the whole of the Middle East.

Those Jews who were exiled by the might of Babylon seem to have hoped that the rise of the Persians might lead to a return to the land of their fathers. Thus Isaiah has God speak of Cyrus as “my shepherd”:

he is my shepherd,
and he will fulfil my purpose,
saying of Jerusalem, ‘
She shall be built’
and of the Temple,
‘Your foundation shall be laid’

Isaiah 44:28

But Isaiah places the Persian imperial ruler in the context of a higher power. The Lord, the Redeemer of Israel, the God who blots out the sins of his people, can use the kings of this world to serve divine purposes .Notice the context into which Cyrus is employed as God’s Messiah. First, there is God’s solemn covenant to care for the people that God elected to be his people in God’s world:

Remember these things, O Jacob,
and Israel,
for you are my servant;
I formed you; you are my servant;
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me.

Isaiah 44:21

But many of God’s people have been living in exile, an exile inflicted by Babylon’s cruel policies. From God’s point of view, according to Isaiah, exile was God’s punishment for Israel’s failure to care for the poor and the needy. However, the Lord is a Lord of mercy and forgiveness:

I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud
and your sins like mist;
return to me,
for I have redeemed you.

Isaiah 44:22

From an historical point of view what happened was that the Persian policy regarding conquered peoples was strictly a matter of economics. Far better to leave peasants in their own land to till the soil and create wealth. Then your civil servants can tax them mercilessly. The exiled people in Babylon would be worth more at home planting the seeds that would grow into Persian profits. In his prophetic imagination Isaiah looks upon the stark brutality of history from a God’s-eye point of view:

Thus says the Lord,
your Redeemer,
who formed you from the womb:
“I am the Lord,
who made all things,
who alone stretched out the heavens,
who spread out the earth by myself …
… who confirms the word of his servant
and fulfills the counsel of his messengers,
who says of Jerusalem,
‘She shall be inhabited,’
and of the cities of Judah,
‘They shall be built,
and I will raise up their ruins’ …
… who says of Cyrus,
‘He is my shepherd,
and he shall fulfill all my purpose’;
saying of Jerusalem,
‘She shall be built,’
and of the Temple,
‘Your foundation shall be laid. ’”

Isaiah 44:24-28

So Cyrus the conqueror is turned into God’s Good Shepherd. Not only that. For in today’s reading he becomes God’s messiah. Isaiah casts Cyrus II as one anointed by God to carry out God’s saving intentions. Israel is saved. Historically speaking, Cyrus sends the exiled people of Israel home in order to collect more taxes. God brings them home in order that the people of Israel may fulfil their vocation. To be returned from the exile of chastisement is to be again “my servant Jacob”, to be “Israel my chosen one” chosen to enlighten the nations:

I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
and from the west, that there is none besides me;
I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness,
I make well- being and create calamity,
I am the Lord, who does all these things.

Isaiah 44:5-7

The word “messiah” means one who is anointed with precious oils to signify dedication to a particular service. The Hebrew word māšíah occurs 30 times in the Hebrew Bible. No one is ever identified as “the messiah”. While prophets and priests are said to be anointed, the most frequent use is in the ritual anointing of kings.

The most significant anointing is done by a woman who came to the house of Simon the leper with an alabaster jar of very expensive oils and poured them over the head of Jesus. While some objected to the waste, Jesus insisted that “she has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:8, and see Matthew 26:12-13).Jesus became known throughout the New Testament as ὁ χριστὸς, ho christos, the Christ. That title became a personal name for Jesus indicating that he is the unique Messiah, indeed, as Peter said,

You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.

Matthew 16:16

The High Priest turned the words of Peter into an accusation. Jesus agreed, answering the High Priest with a determined affirmative:

You have said so.

Matthew 26:63-64

There is a direct line from the prophetic declaration of Isaiah to the declaration of Peter and the charge made by the High Priest. And, indeed, from there to the baptism of each person who is called Christ-ian, one anointed by God to proclaim the gospel of God to the world.


How odd of God...

A strange chapter in the Book of Jeremiah speaks glowingly of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. This tyrant, responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and God’s Temple, is called “my servant”, as God speaks to Jeremiah. Indeed Jeremiah is told not to listen to a host of would-be prophets who oppose his prophetical ministry. To his surprise, he is told from on high “to serve the king of Babylon and live” (Jeremiah 27:17).

How can the great prophet be instructed by God to regard and to teach that such a tyrant is “my servant” (Jeremiah 27:6)?Strangely, the argument is this: Nebuchadnezzar is the Babylonian ruler whose might has swept through the Middle East and, having destroyed the land of Judah, exiled many of its people from their homeland to Babylonia. But that exile, while a tragedy of the kind suffered by the Jewish people in our time and on our continent, served other purposes.

According to Jeremiah the exile served God’s intention to bring his people back to their vocation to be a light to the nations. The tragedy of the exile served as a chastisement, an affliction that, in God’s design, reminded his disobedient people that they had exiled themselves from obedience to the God who called them to serve the Lord’s purposes. Just as the Temple will be restored to its former glory, so will be the people be brought back home:

They shall be carried to Babylon and remain there until the day when I visit them, declares the Lord. Then I will bring them back and restore them to this place.

Jeremiah 27:22

It is difficult to understand a God who gifts men and women with freedom yet bends them to divine purposes. While the creature acts with freedom, human actions can be orchestrated by God in order that the will of the Lord God be done on earth as it is determined in the courts of heaven. The prophet Jeremiah provides an explanation to account for the fact that the finger of God can write, as it were, the script for human affairs:

It is I who by my great power and my outstretched arm have made the earth, with the people and the animals that are on the earth, and I give it to whomever it seems right to me.

Jeremiah 27:5

The glorious reading from the letter to the tiny house-church Paul founded in Thessalonica today offers us a phrase that requires a lifetime of meditation:

you have been chosen.

I Thessalonians 1:4


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 96:1. 3-5. 7-10.R/ v.7

R/.Ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!

Oh sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day. R/.

For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols,
but the Lord made the heavens. R/.

Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength!
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
bring an offering, and come into his courts! R/.

Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness;
tremble before him, all the earth!
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns!
he will judge the peoples with equity. R/.

Sing to the Lord a new song! Yes, indeed. But don’t copy almost all your lines from other people’s songs. Psalm 96 is a new song woven from many old songs.

Translations, however, can sometimes betray even the old songs. The translation of the second verse above is,

tell of his salvation from day to day.

A very strict word-for-word translation would reveal,

gospel from day to day his victory


proclaim every day the good news of his victory.

Thus the psalm not only fills our hearts with joyful praise. It reminds us of our duty to sing the song to the world, to proclaim the gospel of God, the Lord of all creation, to all the earth’s peoples.

There is a strong reminder that when we come to the Lord’s holy place, we must,

Worship the Lord in the splendour of holiness.

Our liturgy, in its words and actions, must be such as reflect the glory of our God. When we sing our Gloria, let it be known that we honour the God whose presence is among us. In listening to his word we must again and again know that all peoples are ruled by God’s righteousness. We must know and sing to the world that God can do no other. The very being of God is righteousness, justice, utter fidelity to the wellbeing of creation and its people. That is a new song; it is ever a new song. The very heart of God is the heart that shepherds the world. It is a heart of love that gladdens even the fields, entrances the trees of the forest, delights the sea, and even reaches to the heavens in joyful praise.


A reading from the first letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians, 1:1-5

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy,
To the church of the Thessalonian
in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
Grace to you and peace.

We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters, loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

The word of the Lord.

These are precious words. Readers and hearers of the opening greeting introducing St. Paul’s first letter to Christians in the city of Thessaloniki are blessed with a great blessing. The letter of Paul to Christians in Thessaloniki is the earliest of all the 27 pieces of writing that make up our New Testament. Paul founded a church there. From there he went to Corinth in southern Greece and from there wrote what we read today. This precious document was written in 50 or 51 A.D. Written just 20 years after the death of Jesus, it reveals how far the gospel of God was reaching into the world. It is a very profound document, yet intended for a very young church of Christians.

The city of Thessaloniki (Thessalonica) is a old city, today the second most important Greek city after Athens. Rome’s expansion eastwards established the importance of the city by building through it the great Roman road, the Via Egnatia, stretching from the Adriatic Sea to the Black Sea. Thus the ancient capital of Macedonia was transformed into a city of great military and commercial importance.

Like every city and large town in the Roman Empire, Thessalonica was home to an elite wealthy class, the power bloc ruling a population made up of powerless artisans and slaves cramped into tenement buildings. The pagan gods worshipped in the city were as much political entities as religious figures. Allegiance to the local gods provided unity of sorts. Jews were generally allowed to worship their own God but that was always at the discretion of the imperial powers and local administrators of that power.

The first people that Paul converted to belief in Christ Jesus and the God he served were pagans, not Jews. Notice this sentence from Paul:

… you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead,

I Thessalonians 1:9-10

Obviously, Jewish people did not worship idols.So in reading Paul’s letter we must be aware that he is writing to people who had come from paganism and who turned their backs on pagan gods that also happened to be the official gods of the elite wealthy power bloc in the city. For the most part, these people would have been illiterate depending on someone in this house-church who could read.This does not mean a wealthy person.The only reader in a household might be a slave.Reading and writing were professional qualifications. It is likely that a few from the wealthy classes turned to faith in the preaching of Paul and these people would have provided accommodation. Most people lived in one room tenements.Paul was well aware of the social conditions of his little churches, as we can see clearly from his letters.


Faith, hope and love

The letter comes to these brave new Christians from Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy. The little gathering of converts in the large city of Thessaloniki is “the church”. In the seven authentic letters that come to us from the hands of Paul and his co-workers, there is no reference to the Church, with a capital C, indicating the Church throughout the world, the Universal Church. The letter to Ephesian Christians (whoever wrote it) is earliest document to speak of the Church, meaning the Church scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The church for Paul and his companions was always the little communities growing up in the eastern Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Asia Minor and all the way to Rome. You must realise that the profound theology we meet in these letters was written for your parish, indeed, for Christians who had no buildings and who met together in someone’s front room.

The authority in the church of the Thessalonians is God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The little people who huddled together to hear the word and to break the Bread and sup from the Cup were in God and so in the Lord Jesus. They were transfigured into the embrace of God, people ordained by baptism, in order to be proclaimers of the gospel of God.

The first instinct of Paul and his co-workers (notice: we give thanks …) was to turn to God in thanksgiving for the wonder that has happened by God’s grace in Thessalonica. Notice what is written in the very first sentence of a report of Christian prayer that we know of in the whole world. Paul and his companions report that they are constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father,

your work of faith.
your labour of love,
and your steadfastness of hope
in our Lord Jesus Christ..

Faith, hope, and love! Already this tiny little church, yesterday’s pagans, are renowned for their faith, hope, and love. This is the first record of these three virtues together in the Bible. Paul will go on to sum up these three as whole meaning of Christian existence for the little churches in Corinth and for all Christians everywhere:,

… faith, hope, and love abide,
these three;
but the greatest of these is love.

I Corinthians 13:13

The love of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ is such that it cannot be directed solely to heaven. To be embraced by God’s love and to love God in return, must not only, as it were, go up. Such love must go out. Therefore Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy know and proclaim that these ex-pagans are brothers and sisters loved by God. It is being loved by God that creates a humanity brothers and sisters, the most binding but least acknowledged of human relationships both in the world and in the Church.


Chosen by God

Paul and his companions have travelled hundreds of miles from Antioch to Thessalonica, proclaiming the gospel of God in towns and cities. But these wonderful people did not come to God because of Paul’s preaching, powerful as that surely was. It was not mere words. The gospel came to them in the power of God in the Holy Spirit. The conviction of the truth of the gospel did not come from human eloquence. The gospel’s power came to the world the strength of God.


A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:15-21

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle [Jesus in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone's opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar's.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.

The Gospel of the Lord.

This is surely one of the better known of all the incidents in our Gospel. It is told in Mark 12:13-17, in Luke 20:19-26, and in our reading from Matthew today. In Mark and Matthew it is the Pharisees and some Herodians who raise the issue of paying taxes to Caesar.[2] Luke has the scribes and chief priests sending spies to set a trap for Jesus by tempting him to say something seditious and thus cause him to be handed over to “the authority and jurisdiction of the governor”.

From Matthew 22:15 to the end of the chapter Matthew has assembled four conflicts between Jesus and eminent authorities. The first is the conflict over paying taxes to Caesar orchestrated by the Pharisees and Herodians. The second is the dispute with the Sadducees about resurrection from the dead. The third is a debate with a Pharisee who happened to be a lawyer, an expert, therefore, in the code of Law instigated by Moses in his meetings with God on Mount Sinai. The fourth argumentative encounter is with the Pharisees, this time instigated by Jesus and concerning the identity of the Messiah and his future mission to “gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other”.

Remember that Matthew has gathered these disputes together and placed them in the context of the last days of the life of Jesus. These four disputes clarify some of the issues that cause the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to seek the death penalty for Jesus.

That is why Matthew is so careful in setting the scene for this devious encounter with Pharisees and Herodians. He is careful to bring together religious and political authorities in order to stitch Jesus up, to give their intention to have Jesus put to death a gloss of legality. There is a flattering recognition that Jesus is a teacher, indeed, one who truly teaches the way of God. Then the hypocritical Pharisees spring their dangerous question:

Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?

Aware of their malice and their hypocrisy, Jesus demands to see the special coinage with which the tax is paid.

Tax is never a popular civic duty. The tax in question in Matthew’s story is the Roman capitation or poll tax, the so-called “census” tax (κηνσος, kēnsos) that was imposed on Judea when it became a Roman province in 6 A.D. This was widely resisted and led to the creation of underground movements intent on throwing off Roman rule. This tax was a major cause of the Jewish revolt against Rome that broke out with such disastrous results in 66 A.D. This tax had to be paid with a Roman coin that usually bore an image of the emperor and an inscription advertising his divine nature. If Jesus approved of the tax, he would incense Jewish people. If he opposed it, he would incur the wrath of Rome. By asking to be shown the taxation coin Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of Pharisees. If they were carrying the coin around in their pockets, and especially in the Temple holy grounds, they were proclaiming their acquiescence in the rule of Rome. The reply of Jesus was subtle in that it exposed these two-faced Pharisees and avoided incriminating himself. And so we are left with a politically correct solution that also acknowledges the authority of God:

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,
and to God the things that are God’s.

Politicians and Religious Authorities, from that day to this, have been happy with the answer that Jesus gave, skilfully undoing the trap set for him and formulating a principle of Church/State relations that enables peaceful co-existence.


An alternative view

Who is this God worshipped by faithful Jewish people, in good times and bad? Who are these people for whom faith was always on life’s agenda so that even the sinners among them knew the God they did not believe in? Or, at least, who were those Jews whose self-interests chose to ignore the God revealed to Abraham and Moses and to the whole people who were gathered around Mount Sinai?

These are the words spoken in every generation in order to insist again and again the bond between the God of Israel and the People of Israel:

For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him.

Deuteronomy 4:32-35

Who did not sing the songs of faith that David sung:

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall commend your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.

This is the God, the Lord, whose name was sung from one generation to the next:

On the glorious splendour of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
They shall speak of the might of your awesome deeds,
and I will declare your greatness.
They shall pour forth the fame of your abundant goodness
and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.

Psalm 145: 1-7

The greatest of the prophets spoke a warning to those who walked in the ways of the faithless and who did not hear the voice of God speaking through the prophets from generation to generation,

For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
(he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
(he established it;
he did not create it empty,
he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord,
and there is no other.
I did not speak in secret,
in a land of darkness …

Isaiah 45:18-19

No matter how faithless a son or daughter of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was, no matter how distant their lives were from the truth of faith, these children of God knew who it was they had profaned.

So can we imagine a Jew or Jewess, in their heart of hearts, recognising Caesar Augustus to be a god, or that monster Tiberius, or that maniac Caligula? Or Claudius who expelled every Jew from Rome? Or Nero who murdered his mother and fiddled as Rome burned? Or Vespasian and his son Titus who, in the Jewish War (66 A.D. - 73 A.D.), crucified many thousands of Jews, demolished God’s Holy Temple, and destroyed the Holy City of Jerusalem, bringing thousands into slavery into Rome.

Is it possible that a Jew such as Jesus would recommend sharing God’s authority with the likes of these? [3]

I suggest that no Jew, Pharisee or Sadducee, experts in the Law of God, or poor folk such the widow-woman who put her two ha’pennies into the Temple treasury, would so far deny their faith as to recognise the divine authority of Rome.

When Jesus said,

Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s,

every Jew who had ears to hear knew that nothing belonged to Caesar. They would know, from their mothers’ knee, that everything belonged to God. Every word of their Holy Scriptures emphatically insist that God created the heavens and the earth and gave only stewardship of God’s good earth to humanity. God did not sign over ownership to men and women, and most certainly not to the Emperor of Rome or to any other upstart potentate who sought to invade the heavens and sit on God’s throne. With delicious irony and a heart and mind of faith, Jesus declared what he learned at his mother’s knee. The inhabitants of this earth must,

… render to God the things that are God’s …



Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.


[1] The fictional comic story of Esther is set in the Persian imperial court. Esther’s victory is celebrated (raucously) on the Feast of Purim.

[2] Herodians would seem to be those who supported the House of Herod as legitimate authorities (under Rome) over Palestine. God only knows what Pharisees were doing associating with that unholy lot. Herod the Great (the identified as king in Matthew’s Magi story (Matthew 2:1-12) murdered 10 members of his own family.

[3] Visitors to Rome can seethe Titus Arch, celebrating the man who destroyed Jerusalem (it is beside the Coliseum).It pictures Jewish captives in chains, soon to flood the slave markets in the city.

[4] This day might be a good day to re-read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si on humanity’s stewardship of our planet.

Noweddinggarment 1


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 25:6-10

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23.R/. v. 6

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:12-14.19-20

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 22:1-14


The readings for the last couple of weeks are troubling. Last Sunday, words from the prophet Isaiah were proclaimed from the lectern. We learned that the people of Israel were, in Isaiah’s imagination, God’s vineyard. It was on a fertile hill, planted with choice vines, guarded by a watchtower and equipped with a reliable wine vat. Unfortunately, God’s vineyard yielded only wild grapes. So God obliterated it, trampling down its strong walls, planting briers and thorns on that once fertile hill, and even forbidding the clouds to rain upon that once cherished vineyard.

Today Isaiah proclaims the good news that the Lord will prepare on this mountain a feast for all peoples, a feast of rich food and seriously matured wines.

What are we to make of the destruction that the Lord of hosts inflicted last week in destroying the people of Israel on account of their failure in faith? This week, in order to make a feast for all peoples, the Lord of hosts will first go on a rampage of destruction. The cities of ruthless nations, the invading colonisers, says Isaiah, will be reduced to trembling in fear of this Lord God of hosts. The noise of foreigner armies will be silenced and their songs of victory will be sung no more.


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 25:6-10

On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord;
we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

The word of the Lord.

Today’s first reading is a poem of great joy. It is a joy that is a blessing for all peoples. A feast is set before the whole of humanity, tears are wiped from every eye, and there is universal rejoicing that the saving voice of God is heard throughout the whole of creation. Except, of course, for those wretched Moabite people.

The problem with today’s reading from Isaiah is what comes before and what comes after the glorious announcement of the banquet of rich food and well-aged wine.

Chapter 25 of Isaiah opens with a song of thanks. Long ago the victory of God was promised, a promise couched in the past but really pointing to a future of great joy:

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken …

Isaiah 9:2-4

Promised blessings end with an assurance that enemies will be destroyed. The rod of the oppressor will be broken. The destruction of some enemy (the Assyrians?) is celebrated in lines before today’s reading. The city of enemies is reduced to nothingness, a ruin that will never be rebuilt. Indeed, in this new time, the ruined cities of defeated enemies will stand as eternal forlorn monuments of God’s power.

What God has done is to establish a new thing on the face of the earth:

For you [the Lord] have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade form the heat …

Isaiah 25:4

It is the poor and the needy, not the strong, who will be sheltered from the storm. The song of all peoples will be heard as they come to the mountain of the Lord of hosts and are planted there and nurtured there with the best of food and the choicest of wines. Every shadow of fear will be removed; even death will be swallowed up forever. God’s people will no longer be scorned throughout the earth. Rather God will wipe away tears from every eye. Then when that day comes, everyone will recognise that faith and hope have not been in vain, the waiting for our God to act has not been disappointed. God has saved us:

Let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Our reading ends in triumph for the hand of the Lord will be rest on this mountain. But that ending is not what is in our Bibles. Only half of the sentence is offered to us. The full sentence is this:

For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain,
and Moab shall be trampled down in his place,
as straw is trampled down in a dunghill.

Our Sunday readings beg us to go home and read a little. We need to put each reading into its context in order to determine precisely what is being said. We cannot expect the preacher to unfold the fullness of all that is read.

We must read all of chapter 25 and all of chapter 26 to grasp what is told to us in our short reading from Isaiah. Two points in the context of today’s reading are of great significance. The first is that the transformation of the whole world is accomplished by attending to the poorand the needy. The Lord shows us the way:

For you have been a stronghold to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress,
a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.

Why is attending to the needs of the poor the transforming factor that creates peace, such that tears are washed away from every eye? Delivering the needy from their distress brings about a transformation of those who give and those who receive. Of course redeeming people from poverty of every kind is a relief of suffering of every kind. But that transformation creates another transformation: the giver is transformed into the ways of God. To do as the Lord does in Isaiah’s song is to become what God intends us to be. Humanity is fashioned after God’s own heart. Or, as Jesus, God’s Son, told us in the parable of the final judgement,

Amen I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.

Matthew 25:40

The song of the ruthless is silenced. Enemies must be transformed into brothers and sisters. To hear God we must listen to the cries of the poor. To hear God’s song of justice and peace, everyone must become justice and peace for the poor and the weak. To be deaf to pain is to close one’s ears to the pain of God. To go out to the marginalised is to go the where God has gone before, waiting for the rich world to create an equality on earth as it is in heaven. Isaiah preached Measure for Measure before the Bard.

Transforming the poor imposes a new vocation on the poor. To be relieved is to be called to be a reliever. What is at stake is not merely equality. It is the creation of human solidarity: we are one, sisters and brothers standing before God, embraced by God’s love, and empowered by God’s mercy. God so loved the world …

Isaiah who gave the world a song he heard angels sing:

Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!

Isaiah 6:3

But what does Lord of hosts mean? What does that tell us about the God? The phrase has a military ring to it. God’s people were warned not to turn the sun, the moon or the stars of heaven into gods to be worshipped. The heavenly bodies were created for humanity’s benefit:

And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven.

Deuteronomy 4:19

Yet God’s people did turn to worship the heavenly bodies:

The houses of Jerusalem and the houses of the kings of Judah— all the houses on whose roofs offerings have been offered to all the host of heaven, and drink offerings have been poured out to other gods—shall be defiled …

Jeremiah 19:13

The rue hosts of heaven, God’s army, are the angels of God who serve around God’s throne and who worship God. These angels are metaphors of what human beings must realise on earth “as it is in heaven”). When the hosts of heaven sing their song, the expectation is that it is heard on earth and becomes an anthem of peace:

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace …

Luke 2:14

The point is that the Lord of Hosts is the Lord of Peace. What we must ponder is why is the last sentence of today’s reading cut in half and so omits,

… and Moab shall be trampled down in its place, as straw is trampled down as straw is trampled down in a dung pit?

Isaiah 25:10 (RSV translation)

There is an answer of sorts in Isaiah chapter 26. Read on.


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 5:1-7

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 80:9. 12-16. 19-20. R/. Is 5:7

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:6-9

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:33-43


Would it not be wonderful, and full of grace, if what we hear each Sunday was read to us with all passion with which prophets and scribes etched painstakingly on scrolls? Would it not be a gift, as it was of old, to hear in our hearts words of love, of faith and hope, words of warning and words of correction? Would we not be blessed to experience their passion for the God they served? Would it not be a wonder of love if God’s holy words were not merely read? Would it not be godly if they were proclaimed, heart to heart?

Suppose we did not merely listen but were moved by the word of the Lord? For five chapters Isaiah details the danger of a people who have made God a stranger in their land. He hears the cry of God, the God of love whose outreach is compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation? But there is a crisis in the court of heaven. There are no applicants willing to undertake the task of speaking God’s words to a lost people:

Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?

Isaiah 6:8

Suddenly God and the whole heavenly court hear a voice shouting from the pain of the world:

Here I am!
Send me!

When we have listened, when we have uttered our Thanks be to God, will God’s heaven be deafened with our ear-shattering shout:

Here we are!
Send us!

Of course people who proclaim God’s words from the lectern must realise that every word they utter is infused with the Spirit of God. Every word they read was passionately etched on expensive papyrus or sheepskin and even on copper plates. The faith of an Isaiah or an Ezekiel, a Paul or a John was steeped in passionate conviction. So persuasive were the words that began in the Book of Genesis and made their way to the Book of Revelation that they were proclaimed again and again and, in God’s good time, were heard in every land under the sun.

We must realise how cherished were God’s holy words by those who copied them again and again, who translated them into a library of languages? How many voices were and are raised around the world proclaiming an astonishing faith:

the word of the lord!

Do you know that even today if you were a scribe engaged by the local synagogue to write a copy of the Book of Genesis for use at the lectern, how carefully you must be? If, as you write the very last sentence of the fifty chapters, you made a mistake in one word, then you must scrap all that went before, order a new parchment, and begin again, going from right to left, with,

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ
in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth?[1]

If such reverence must be given to the words on the page, how much more reverence must be given when the words are solemnly proclaimed to God’s holy people? When reading in the synagogue the reader uses a yad, a kind of metal pointer, to trace each word lest the sacred text be touched by human hand, or a reading mistake be made.[2]

When the reader has proclaimed God’s words to your congregation is there a universal shout from the pews, shattering the very gates of heaven,

Here I am!
Send me!


A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 5:1-7

[A note:

I have set out the text of today’s reading from Isaiah to illustrate how the poem moves from God’s election of a people destined to become a light to the nations dissolving into failure. God calls on the inhabitants of Jerusalem to jury service to try the case. Then sentence is passed and the identity of the vineyard is revealed. The jury is made to realise that it is the vineyard of the Lord and therefore the verdict is against themselves. When the Lord looked to them for righteousness, there was none to be found.]

How might this reading become a challenging proclamation to all of us who sit in the pews? We will shout Thanks be to God! when we are told that what we have heard is The Word of the Lord.

But what exactly are we thanking the Lord for?]

The singer of today’s song is God, the Lord who created the people of Israel as “a garden of delight”. The song is a love song that turns into trial by jury. How might the voice(s) at the lectern proclaim the mood shifts in the song? The first stanza sings of the attentive care with which the vineyard that is God’s people. But it ends in bitterness.

Then this song of love turns into a lawsuit. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are appointed to jury-service. The Lord’s love has met love’s demands. Yet members of the jury can surely see the wild grapes. Then the Lord tells what he intends to do.

Only then is the identity of the vineyard revealed: it is the jury who is on trial. It is the House of Israel. The vineyard was tended lovingly in order to yield grapes of justice and righteousness. But the vineyard planted with such tenderness issues only in bloodshed and iniquity.

How might reading be transformed into proclamation? The drama of the Passion of Jesus, read on Good Friday, requires a variety of voices. The parish team of readers whose vocation demand they become proclaimers must decide how reading should be presented to engage hearts and minds to hear word of spoken to them:


The Lord sings:
Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:

First stanza:

A garden of Love:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

Second stanza:

Jury Service:
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?

Third Stanza:

The verdict:
And now I will tell you
what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
that they rain no rain upon it.

Concluding stanza:

The guilty party:
For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
but behold, an outcry!

The word of the Lord.

This is not an easy passage to present to a congregation. It is not easy to turn this reading into proclamation, to open hearts as well as ears. Perhaps identifying the movement of each stanza of the poem might help.

First, the composer (Isaiah) identifies the singer of the song as the lover of the vineyard:

Let me sing for my beloved …

This vineyard is the apple of the Lord’s eye. No matter what else we learn in the poem, we the song is a song for my beloved.

First stanza:

The vineyard beloved by the Lord is on a very fertile hill. Notice the care that attended its creation. The ground is prepared, cleared of stones. The vines planted are choice vines. A tower is built so the vineyard is stoutly protected. A winepress is conveniently installed in the protective tower. There is every expectation of rich grapes aplenty. But the harvest from the fertile hill is sour grapes.

Second stanza:

The song has turned to a lament and the singer invites the inhabitants of Jerusalem and the whole population of Judah to become a jury of judges. They must judge between the vineyard and the Lord who created it. What could have been done that was not done in order to ensure a glorious harvest? Surely the expectation of plenty was not misplaced? Yet the yield was wild grapes.

Third stanza:

The fate of the unproductive vineyard is spelled out in a stanza of hammer blows of I will, undone: the verdict is decisive:

I will remove the hedge. I will, on and on, until the vineyard is

It will be utterly obliterated. I will break down the wall, the first line of defence of any city, so that the inhabitants of Jerusalem will stand naked before enemies. Every edifice will be trampled down: I will make it a wasteland. There will be no repair, no new planting: It will not be pruned or hoed; briers and thorns will spring up. There will be no reviving rain: I will also command the clouds to rain no more.

Fourth stanza:

All is revealed. For the vineyard that has been created by the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel. The Lord looked for justice and the harvest was injustice and unrighteousness. The devastating outcome of the Lord’s good planting is expressed in a series of puns that is beyond English translation. The Lord expected a great harvest from such careful planting. God looked for mïspāț (justice) but instead what was yielded was mįśpāh (bloodshed).

If the message of the song is that humanity brings judgement upon itself, how is a congregation moved to hear the song so as to be led to examination of conscience?How may the reading be proclaimed so that repentance is done, a firm purpose of amendment made, and the world is transformed? Can Isaiah’s words become the Word of the Lord in our days?

The purpose of dissecting the poem of Isaiah in this way is to illustrate how important is the ministry of proclamation in our celebration of Mass. The server carries a candle from the altar to the lectern and back again to the altar at the conclusion of the Word of the Lord. In this way the presence of the Lord in the Word and the Presence in the bread and the cup is proclaimed. There are not two presences. There is one Presence, given to us in words and given to us in bread and wine. So it is that those women and men who proclaim the Word must be aware that they are instruments of consecration, ministers who speak the Word of the Lord in unity with the consecration of the bread and the wine. Word and Sacrament are one, a visitation of divine Presence to challenge those who hear to become proclaimers of God’s ways to the world.


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 80:9. 12-16. 19-20. R/. Is 5:7

R/. The vineyard of the Lord of hosts
is the house of Israel.

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
It sent out its branches to the sea
and its shoots to the River. R/.

Why then have you broken down its walls,
so that all who pass along the way pluck its fruit?
The boar from the forest ravages it,
and all that move in the field feed on it. R/.

Turn again, O God of hosts!
Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
the stock that your right hand planted. R/.

Then we shall not turn back from you;
give us life, and we will call upon your name!
Restore us, O Lord God of hosts!
Let your face shine, that we may be saved. R/.

The vineyard theme is at the heart of the first reading, the Responsorial Psalm, and the Gospel of today. It is an image rich in biblical traditions. Among the prophets images of vines and vineyards are found in Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, Joel, Haggai, Zechariah. Even Proverbs offers a sad image of a neglected vineyard:

I passed by the field of a sluggard,
by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
the ground was covered with nettles,
and its stone wall was broken down.

Proverbs 24:30

Vines and vineyards turn up eight times in that passionate love song, the Song of Songs. Consider these verses as you ponder today’s Gospel:

Solomon had a vineyard at Baal- hamon;
he let out the vineyard to keepers;
each one was to bring for its fruit a thousand pieces of silver.
My vineyard, my very own, is before me;
you, O Solomon, may have the thousand,
and the keepers of the fruit two hundred.

Song of Songs 8:11-12

The same images are found in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John. There is a single reference in I Corinthians 9:7 and in Revelation 14:18. It is no wonder that Jesus raised a cup of wine, blessed it, and bid those who walked with him to take and drink.

The biblical vocabulary of plantation is first found in Exodus 15:17 which relates that the people who have been brought out of slavery in Egypt are planted on God’s mountain:

You brought them in and planted them on your own mountain,
the place, O Lord, which you have made for your abode.

Exodus 15:17

The theme is vividly used in a text in Jeremiah:

Yet I planted you a choice vine,
wholly of pure seed.
How then have you turned degenerate
and become a wild vine?

Jeremiah 2:21

In the Hebrew Bible the image of the people planted as a vine in a well-tended vineyard is often positive and full of promise: God’s people will be what God wants them to be:

Your people shall all be righteous;
they shall possess the land forever,
the branch of my planting, the work of my hands,
that I might be glorified.

Isaiah 60:21

There are four profound sentences in the Gospel of John. Jesus is the vine and the Father is the vinedresser. Every branch that grows from Jesus the vine and does not bear fruit, the Father will take away (John 15:1-2).

In Psalm 80, as in the first reading from Isaiah, the planting and tending are exemplary. The vine that was brought out of Egypt, under the Lord’s leadership, drove out everyone from the sea to the River (the Euphrates? the Jordan? the Nile?). The question arises: Why did God allow God’s own beloved people to be conquered by internal tribal fighting and by the mighty armies of imperial powers?

The immediate impetus of the conquered is to beg the God of hosts (a military term) to deliver the vine and to protect it. If only God would shine his face upon the ravaged vineyard, then it will be saved. And, almost as an after thought, we will call upon your name. It almost seems that faith is a bargaining chip.

The psalm does not really reflect the whole prophetical meditation on God’s people as God’s vine, planted and tended with every care, yet abandoned because a people called to mirror God to the world has produced nothing but sour grapes. There is more to be said, as we shall wee in the parable of Jesus proclaimed to us this very day.

There is one issue that escapes comment when we listen to stories of the deliverance of the ancient people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and other imperial repressions. The deliverance is usually achieved by God unleashing divine might and utterly destroying peoples. It is not a matter of occasional slaughter. It is a matter of divine policy. The Book of Joshua records the all-conquering blitzkrieg that destroyed the residents of the land given by God to the slaves whom God delivered from Egypt. There was no mercy, only a policy of extermination:

So Joshua struck the whole land, the hill country and the Negev and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings. He left none remaining, but devoted to destruction all that breathed, just as the Lord God of Israel commanded.

Joshua 10:40

Not a word of peace was spoken. Joshua carried out the will of God to the last letter:

For it was the Lord's doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the Lord commanded Moses.

Joshua 11:20

In today’s Gospel the parable the Lord of the vineyard is determined to put those wretches to a miserable death (Matthew 21:41). Yet in this same Gospel in the solemn Sermon on the Mount Jesus demands that those who would follow him must,

love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.

Matthew 5:44

If we are instructed to love our enemies, ought not God be obliged to do the same? This is a question that will have to be faced at some point in these pages.


A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 4:6-9

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.

The word of the Lord.

[A note: There is much discussion about chapter 4 of Paul’s letter to Christians in Philippi. The chapter is fragmentary, a bit bitty. It opens with what looks like the beginnings of a final farewell:

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved.

Philippians 4:1[3]

When he says Finally, in 4:8, he still has about 15 pretty long sentences to go. We need to be aware of these problems and to understand that ancient writings were not produced with the aid of typewriters or computers. When a letter of Paul (or any letter) was copied to be sent to interested parties such as other communities founded by Paul, the copy was only as good as the copyist and we know that there were lots and lots of mistakes. However, we need not be too concerned about the problems in last chapter of Philippians, even if it is a bit hiccuppy.]

Paul’s chapter 3 very forcefully warns the little churches in Philippi of dangers from “the dogs” and “the evildoers” (who may have been Jews who were insisting that would-be Christians must adopt the full identity of Jewishness: see 3:3-6). Such people must not be permitted to cause anxiety. For living in prayer and thanksgiving is an assurance of the peace of God and the guardianship of Christ Jesus.

The paragraph beginning “Finally” tells his church people in Philippi to imitate him in all things—

What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things.

Paul is not boasting. He was well aware that whatever he had achieved as an apostle of the Lord Jesus was done through the grace of God and thus in the power of the Holy Spirit. There are sentences of autobiography in chapter 3 that warn those who would seek to imitate Paul of Tarsus to reflect on his pathway to faith in Christ:

Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Philippians 3:8-11


A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:33-43

[Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:]

Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son. ’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance. ’ And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus said to them, “Have you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
this was the Lord's doing,
and it is marvellous in our eyes?

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits.

The Gospel of the Lord.

This is an excellent example of a parable growing in the telling. This parable is to be found in Mark 12:1-11, written before Matthew, and in Luke 20:9-19, written after Matthew. Each has details not found in the other two. Each of the three editions has edited the original parable as told by Jesus in order to illustrate matters relevant to each evangelist and the community each sought to serve.

Matthew follows Mark’s account but as we come to the end of his version careful readers will notice a very considerable amount of material has been added. From Matthew 21:41 onwards, Matthew is more detailed than either Mark or Luke.

Again, readers and hearers must be aware of three levels: the parable Jesus told, the parable as it stands in each Gospel writer, and the parable proclaimed from the lectern to Christians living in the 21st century.


The Jesus parable

It is not easy to go into reverse and work our way back from Luke to Matthew, to Mark, to Jesus. In fact, we would have to include another version of the parable that occurs in an ancient text that did not make it into the New Testament, The Gospel of Thomas. What we can say is that the context in each telling of the story is the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem. Mark, Matthew and Luke each situate the parable in that last week of Jesus in Jerusalem. Luke relates that Jesus spoke the parable the people. That may be Luke broadening the relevance of the parable beyond the chief priests and elders of the people.

Since the last days of the life of Jesus were in effect a confrontation between Jesus and the religious authorities who put him to death, it is reasonable to believe that Jesus spoke the parable to his enemies. The three parables (the two sons, the wicked tenants, the wedding feast) fit well the challenge that Jesus through down to the authorities. The voice we hear is the prophetical voice of the prophet from Nazareth, speaking truth to power.


The Matthew parable

There can be little doubt that Matthew edited the parable of Jesus so that it spoke to the little congregations of the Church in Antioch. Clearly, as all four Gospels writers did, he adapted the Jesus parable so that it speaks to new times and new concerns. When Matthew wrote,

What do you think?
Hear this parable,

he intended that what Jesus spoke to chief priests and elders of the people was relevant to what was happening in the churches of Antioch. Matthew was concerned that, though the parable of Jesus spoke to the rejection of God’s son in Jerusalem, it is also addressed the rejection of the gospel of Jesus being proclaimed in that great city in Syria.

I am convinced that Matthew added the quotation from Psalm 118:22-23 to reinforce that all rejection of Jesus is an undoing of what God intends in sending his Son to the world. Our reading from Matthew omits the verses that Matthew added to the whole parable in order to make it clear to Antioch Christians that Jesus was speaking to them. Notice that Matthew, in his concluding commentary on the parable, speaks of the kingdom of God, not his usual kingdom of heaven, substituting a very Greek phrase as opposed to Mathew’s more usual Hebrew expression:

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.

Matthew 21:42

It is clear in Matthew’s version that the son in the parable is the Son of God. Notice how carefully Matthew emphasises that the son is cast out of the vineyard as Jesus is cast out of Jerusalem and then put to death. Notice that the man whom Matthew called the owner … of the vineyard (as in 21:33) has become,

the lord of the vineyard
ὁ κύριος τοῦ ἀμπελῶνος.

Notice κύριος, as in Kyrie, eleison, Lord, have mercy. To be sure, that can be translated “the owner of the vineyard” but Matthew’s Greek-speaking Christians will well know that Matthew intends that the word is referring to God, the Lord they prayed to every time they met to break word and bread.

Jesus did speak the parable of the wicked tenants in the last days of his life, confronting the authorities with the crime they were about to commit in the interests of their version of religious orthodoxy. Jesus confronted the chief priests and the elders of the people for resisting the ways of God in the interests of tradition. He challenged their right to assume that their vision of faith was forever in line with God’s imaginative care for humanity.

What is equally clear is that Matthew edits the parable so that it spoke to the conditions that prevailed in the life of Christian faith in the city of Antioch. We must realize that the Church in Antioch was the creative centre of Christian faith for the first four centuries of its existence and, indeed, beyond, to this very day. After all it was in Antioch that Matthew’s Gospel was written. Many scholars believe that Luke’s Gospel also the light of day in that city. Some scholars (but not me) believe that Mark’s Gospel originated in the great city. What is true is that Matthew had a copy of Mark on his desk and most of that Gospel is found word-for-word in Matthew’s Gospel. Without the witness of Syrian Christianity, the message of Jesus would hardly have got off the ground.


Matthew's readers and hearers today

Is this a very ecumenical parable, a parable that speaks to our Church in the twenty-first century? For one thing, it is a parable that emphasises that the very centre of Christian faith is the sending of God’s Son with God’s hope for the world: The will respect my son.

There is a degree of violence in the parable. The tenants kill the son. In what ways do we kill the Son? Matthew’s Gospel is a challenge to every generation of Christians: have you never read...? Matthew again and again directs us to meditate, to pray, to study, and to live the Scriptures. In chapter 12 in a few lines the challenge comes twice:

Have you not read …

Matthew 12:3

Have you not read …

Matthew 12:5

In the years before the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) the Bible had little influence on the faith of our fathers or on the faith of our mothers. If a Catholic household - God forbid! - possessed a Bible, it remained a dusty and closed book. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel Jesus directs us to the God’s holy words (as St. Francis called the Scriptures). Thank God, since the Second Vatican Council and the introduction of a new Lectionary, the call to live by God’s holy words is loud and clear. Matthew insists that we become people of the book. Otherwise, as Matthew warns us, we will be building our house of faith on a heap of sand (see Matthew 7:26-27).

The message for today is as it was told in the days of old. Jesus, God’s Son, was put to death and in that death we are invited to see the love of God for the whole of humanity. In my imagination I see Jesus on the cross, outside the city, looking out to the world, embracing, even in the agony of death, every man and woman born into the pain of this world:

Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

The same gospel is proclaimed in the plain words we find in the Gospel of John:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

John 3:16-17


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.


[1] Try copying by hand the Hebrew text without making a single mistake!

[2]The word yad in Hebrew means a hand.

[3] Of course,, chapters were not introduced into the Bible until the 12th century A.D.It would be more correct to say that in this part of his letter, he seems to be saying good-bye.


A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 18:25-28

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 25:4-9. R/. v. 6

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 2:1-11

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:28-32

The first reading today is taken from the prophet Ezekiel who was born in 622 B.C., a near contemporary of Jeremiah. Ezekiel, a married priest, spent much of his life exiled in Babylon with many people from his native Judea. He began his service as a prophet in 622 B.C. and that ministry ended in 571 B.C. The book given his name is probably a mixture of material coming from the prophet himself with contributions from disciples who carried Ezekiel’s teaching into generations after the prophet’s death. It is not easy to distinguish between the two.

The overriding issues that cast deep shadows on the whole book are the destruction of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple, in 597 B.C., Ezekiel lived in exile in Babylon and there his teaching matured. That disaster led to years of exile in Babylon of large numbers of his people. Ezekiel was deeply conscious of God’s Presence and, for him, the Temple was the place and sign of Divine Presence at the heart of the people. Alone among the prophets who mourned the exile—the most profound watershed in Jewish experience—Ezekiel insisted that God went into exile with his people. God did not and does not abandon his people; especially God does not abandon a people who have lost faith. The prophet worked to articulate why the exile was God’s work, not merely a footnote in the power struggles between Middle Eastern imperial powers. When chastised by God, God will lead them home. A sinful people is not deserted by a loving God. God is in the business of forgiveness and conversion, building up, not pulling down (please read Ezekiel 28:24-26 and chapter 34).

The chapter from which today’s reading is taken is significant because it appears to move responsibility for destruction and exile from the shoulders of all the people to individual sinners. It is not past generations that incited God’s anger. It is present unfaithfulness: there can be no passing of the buck. It is the sin of each individual that must bear responsibility for inciting the wrath of God. This is a matter of great significance, not only for the exiles in Babylon who were unable to sing Zion’s songs in a foreign land. It is a lesson for our time and place. What was and is being discarded is individual responsibility for living on earth God’s holiness. The vocation of faith was and is to,

… manifest my holiness … in the sight of the nations.

Ezekiel 28:25


Two ways

Consider two warnings that seem to be principles by which God relates to a people chosen to manifest God’s holiness to the nations:

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

Exodus 34:5-7

These are the terms the Lord God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Lord is merciful, gracious, and abounding in steadfast love, a forgiving God. But God will visit the iniquity of the fathers upon their children for three or four generations. Even if these children are faithful, the sins of the fathers will not go away and even grandchildren will suffer the wrath of God.

Communal guilt—my sin is everyone’s sin—did not fit well into the thinking of Ezekiel nor into the thinking of Jeremiah.. Jeremiah looked to a new day for the people of Israel:

… I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:
“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
and the children's teeth are set on edge.”

But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man (or woman) who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.

Jeremiah 31:28-30

In the chapter from which today’s reading comes, Ezekiel is in agreement with Jeremiah:

Yet you say, ‘Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father? ’ When the son has done what is just and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.

Ezekiel 18:19-20

The trouble is that private sin cannot forever remain private. To be sure, the righteous living of those who have gone before us lives on. Otherwise why do we honour the saints? But the sins of our ancestors are not “interréd with their bones”. If Synagogue or Church thinks that it is unstained by the sins of fathers and mothers, then look around you. Evil cannot be hid. Silence is not absolution. It is complicity. These words were written by Ezekiel or by those who shared his vision:

So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.

Ezekiel 33:7-9


A reading from the prophet Ezekiel, 18:25-28

[Yet] you say, “The way of the Lord is not just.” Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just? When a righteous person turns away from his righteousness and does injustice, he shall die for it; for the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, when a wicked person turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he shall save his life. Because he considered and turned away from all the transgressions that he had committed, he shall surely live; he shall not die.

The word of the Lord.

Ezekiel’s audience is in slavery on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates. The people have one consolation: we are here because of the sins of our fathers. They were the people who turned to evil ways, who disregarded the wisdom that God had given us through Moses. For their sins, we are where we are. The old proverb holds good:

The fathers have eaten sour grapes
and the children’s teeth are set on edge.

So there is some comfort in blaming other people. Yes, we are suffering. But we are not to blame. Other people have caused our present suffering. We endure punishment because of the sins of our ancestors.

But, of course, the sins of our fathers and mothers always stain posterity. Of course, we are opposed to slavery. But do we not continue to profit from the sins of our fathers?Have the sins of the past left the present unstained?


Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 25:4-9. R/. v. 6

R/. Remember your mercy, O Lord.

Make me to know your ways, O Lord;
teach me your paths.
Lead me in your truth and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation. R/.

Remember your mercy, Lord,
and your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Remember not the sins of my youth;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for the sake of your goodness, O Lord! R/.

Good and upright is the Lord.
therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way. R/.


There are nine alphabetical psalms in the Book of Psalms. The Book of Lamentations also has 22 verses, incorporating the 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Sometimes the discipline of having to follow the order of the alphabet can interfere with poetic inspiration. But Psalm 25 flows beautifully as a prayer that balances guilt and compassion, transgression and mercy, wicked sin and steadfast love.

It is important to note how the first line of the psalm is translated in English editions of the Bible.Many offer,

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.[1]

The Hebrew word translated “soul” is nefesh. This word does not mean “soul” as in the ancient Greek sense of “body and soul”. This is the sense we grew up with in such phrases as “saving our soul” or “the souls of the faithful departed”. These phrases suggest we are made up of two bits, a body and a soul. This is a very misleading, indeed, false understanding of what a human being is. Nefesh refers to the whole person, to all that I am as a human being.

The Revised English Bible rightly offers I lift up my heart, meaning I lift up my whole being. The New Testament, heavily influenced by Greek culture (into which it was born) and the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, use the ordinary Greek word for “soul” (ψυχή, psychē, soul). Thus our New Testament adopts a meaning that reflects Greek philosophy rather than the Hebrew understanding of the human person.

Psalm 25 reveals the nature of the Lord God. God is my,







guard of my life





That is why my response is my faith:

I lift up my heart to you

I trust in you

I hope in you

I remember your mercy

I remember your steadfast love

I know your faithfulness

I fear the Lord

I shelter in you.


A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 2:1-11

[Therefore] if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

Let the same mind be in you
as in Christ Jesus,
who was in the form of God from all eternity,
yet he did not seek to snatch
at being the same as God,
but stripped himself empty,
taking the form of a slave,
in every respect one of humankind.

And being found in human likeness,
he humbled himself,
being obedient even to death,
death on a cross.

On that account,
God raised him up,
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee must bend
in heaven, on earth,
and under the earth,
and every tongue confess
to the glory of God the Father.

The word of the Lord.[2]

[The Lectionary provides a shorter form of this reading confined to only the lines that St. Paul intended as an introduction to the hymn. The reader is advised that the hymn itself may be omitted.

Such an omission deprives congregations from hearing one of the most profound passages, not only in the writings of St. Paul but also in the whole of the New Testament. The hymn itself is read on Passion Sunday and on the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross on September 14. On those two occasions the introductory paragraph is omitted.

Reducing readings from our Bible in the interests of convenience is to be deplored. If our mothers and fathers in faith (about 90% of them unable to read or write) sat through a reading of the whole of Paul’s letter when Epaphroditus delivered it, then we should not be in the business of editing his words.]


In Christ Jesus

The phrase “in Christ” occurs over 80 times in the authentic letters of St. Paul. I Peter the phrase occurs three times (3:16; 5:10 and 5:14), the only other occurrences in the New Testament. All that has been achieved by the death and resurrection of Jesus enlivens all who are baptised into Christ Jesus. Taking a seminal paragraph (Romans 6:3-11) of Paul’s step by step, we can grasp this profound belief that we are “in Christ”.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?

Going down naked into the water, leaving our old selves in the clothes left behind, we enter the darkness of the death of Jesus. We are baptised into his death. But entering into that death is but a passageway:

We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.

God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, did not allow God’s glory to be stained by abandoning his Son. Christ was raised from the dead. That wonder of deliverance embracing Jesus is, by God’s good intent, the very embrace that extends to all who go down into the pool of death:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.

What God has done for his dead Son he has done for all who have been baptised. Sin is disempowered, done away with, and our enslavement to sin is at an end. But that is not all:

Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.

If we have not grasped the wonder of what God has done for his Son, Paul sums up his profound teaching is a sentence:

For the death he died he died to sin, once for all,
but the life he lives he lives to God.

What does this mean for all who share with Jesus the darkness of death? Again, a brief and utterly amazing sentence:

So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin
and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

We are, therefore, a future in the making. We are a work in progress and God is architect and the constructor of glory to come.

The binding of our being with what God has done and is doing through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is contained in “in Christ Jesus” that introduces the hymn. The hymn identifies who Jesus is and the divine purpose for which he took the being of a slave. The obedience that brought him to death on a cross brought him to exaltation. God reached into the darkness of that place and highly exalted him. And so it is with all.

[To side-track for a moment, one detail needs some explanation. The Greek word δούλος (doulos) means “slave” .From William Tyndale in 1534 through the King James Version to many recent translations of the Bible this word is rendered “servant”. Some American translations offer bondservant, probably to disguise a disgraceful history. To translate “servant” suggests a paid employee. When St. Mark tells the story of the call of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, he adds that they followed Jesus, leaving behind their father and “the hired servants”. Mark uses the regular word for a hired worker, a paid employee (Mark 1:20. See John 10:12 and 13)[3]. When the New Testament uses the word δούλος (doulos), it should be translated “slave”, unless the context clearly indicates otherwise.]

The one who has come amongst humanity as a slave serves with total obedience even to the point of death on a cross, the utmost humiliation that Roman power could inflict. Think Spartacus. But God did not leave his Son on a cross. The crucified Son was highly exalted and God bestowed on this slave the highest of all names: Kύριος, Kyrios, as in Kyrie, eleison, Lord, mercy [us]. This Jesus Christ who died is now Lord. So the glory of God is not left hanging on a cross. God’s glory is to be seen in the Son. God’s answer to crucifixion is transfiguration, glorification.

It is being in Christ, being in this Lord by God appointed, that “we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In Christ we walk the earth shining with the glory of God. When we are in Christ we are what we are created to be. Being in Christ, as God intended, we are safe in God’s love; we are where compassion, mercy, and forgiveness rescue us from our weaknesses. We are, of course, a work in progress. But we have a future, mapped out for humanity by God. Paul has, therefore, but one command:

Rejoice in the Lord always!
Again I say, Rejoice!

Philippians 4:4

To that command, he adds a postscript:

The peace of God,
which passes all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds
in Christ Jesus.


A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 21:28-32

What do you think? A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today. ’ And he answered, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, ‘I go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.

The Gospel of the Lord.

To understand a Gospel reading from our Lectionary it is essential that some preparatory work be done. The first necessity is to identify the context. What has gone before today’s reading? What comes after today’s reading? It’s like reading a novel. When we read chapter 2, we do so knowing what was in chapter 1. While reading chapter 2 we will be wondering how matters will pan out in chapter 3.

The context will throw up questions of where, of when, and, above of all, of who. Of course, the reader cannot remind the congregation of all these matters before reading the Gospel of the day. Since our Lectionary is, to use its own terminology, semi-continuous, listeners cannot follow the thread of the story. The only way this can be done is to have on-going biblical teaching in every parish. It will take centuries for Catholics to become familiar with the Bible. We are just beginning to recover from centuries of instruction that the Bible was a Protestant book. This teaching was not enshrined in official documents but it was delivered in every parish. I know. I was there.

Falling in love may be instantaneous or the penny may drop slowly like the gentle rain from heaven. But it becomes glorious in, as the song tells us, Getting to know you. We were told in our catechism that God made us to know, love, and serve. This is what happens when we are falling in love with the most beautiful woman/man in the world. So it is with the Bible. We begin with knowing. Soon our knowing turns to love. The more we know, the more we love. The more we love, the more certain we become that we are called to serve.

The questions that create the context of each episode we read are where, when, and who. Through these questions we will arrive at the why of it all.



From this point onwards at the heart of the story until it comes to a death is Jerusalem, the Holy City. On the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple across the Valley of Jehoshaphat, the Valley of Judgement, a procession forms and conducts the humble King as he approaches the city. Why does the King who is greeted on the Mount of Olives within a matter of days be found on another hill, hanging on a cross?Why is the King, who is proclaimed Son of the legendary King David, at the week’s end, to be found hanging between two robbers as the venerable chief priests mock the dying man who thought he was as King of the Jews?

The people forming the demonstration on the Mount of Olives announce to all who have ears: This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee.

Matthew 21:11

This prophet enters the Temple area alone, as if he were another Jeremiah (read Jeremiah 2). The Temple is the House of God, the very place where God is present in the tabernacle of the Holy of Holies. The first action of the prophet from Galilee is to overturn “the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons” (Matthew 21:12). Then the blind and the lame, gathered there hoping for alms, come to him. They are healed. The chief priests and the scribes are indignant. Yet even the children are crying out,

Hosanna to the Son of David.

The reply of Jesus is caustic in the extreme: children know more of the Bible than the priests and learned scribes. He quotes some words from the psalms:

Out of the mouths of babes and nursing infants you have prepared praise.

Partly from Psalm 8:2[4]

Then leaving them with his insult ringing in their ears, Jesus re-ascends the Mount of Olives and walks down the other side to Bethany.

Jerusalem is the where of it all. The city is the place where the Temple stands. The Temple is the home of God’s Presence. It is this Temple that, according to two witnesses (and therefore reliable) Jesus is determined to destroy and rebuild it in three days. (Matthew 26:61).



The stage has been set. Every Christian in the little churches of Jesus people in Antioch knows the story. They know that Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem for the first and last time. They know what will happen there. They know what part the crowds, the disciples, and above all, priests, and elders, and scribes, with the sanction of Pilate, will play in bringing about the death of Jesus. Even the Temple’s destruction will figure in the death about to be inflicted on the prophet from Nazareth of Galilee. Above all, they will know what feast is about to be celebrated.

Passover is approaching. Preparations for the great feast of deliverance, the most important in the Jewish calendar of feasts, are underway in every family. The city is overflowing with pilgrims from near and far. Passover celebrates the God who has set people free, a God who brought slaves to a new place, to a land flowing with milk and honey. Passover created a new people, forever God’s people. Every year it celebrates one sentence:

For I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God:You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.

Leviticus 11:45

As lambs are being selected for slaughter in the Temple area, as houses and swept clean of the slightest speck of dust, as herbs, nuts, and fruits are prepared, as unleavened bread is baked, and wine is readied, another story is being played out. A story of betrayal, of arrest, of trial, of condemnation, of mockery, and of death unfolds as the story of freedom is celebrated. But it is the priestswho are left as guardians of an empty tomb.



Matthew carefully assembles the cast who will participate in the final act of this drama. First there is the triumphant demonstration on the Mount of Olives, complete with cheering crowds. Keep your eye on the crowds, and note when “people” is substituted where we might expect “crowds”.

Though this event is often given the title The Triumphal Entry, no Gospel actually says that Jesus entered the city in a raucous procession. In St. John’s Gospel Jesus goes to Jerusalem three times and the clearing out of those selling oxen, sheep, and pigeons and the upsetting of the tables of money-changers take place in chapter 2, the first time Jesus “went up the Jerusalem” (John 2:13-15). St. Mark is clear:

And he entered Jerusalem and went into the Temple.

Mark 11:11

St Luke tells his readers and hearers that the procession took place “on the way down the Mount of Olives”. Then he records that “when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it” Only then did he enter the Temple “and begin to drive out those who sold” (see Luke 19:28-46).

Matthew ends his account of the demonstration on the mountain with a simple sentence:

And Jesus entered the Temple and drove out …

Matthew 21:12

What we are given to understand is that Jesus entered the city alone and went straight to the Temple to rid it of those who were, in his opinion, turning the House of Prayer into a den of thieves.

The point is that this last week of his life begins with Jesus. It is Jesus who enters the city to begin the story that will end on God’s holy mountain from where eleven of his disciples will be sent out to baptise the world. And they are sent out knowing that he will be with them in the enterprise entrusted to their hands (Matthew 28:16-20). As Ezekiel knew well, God’s people never travel alone.

Jesus is not only the champion of God’s House. Having cast out the profaners (as he sees it), he does what he always does: he heals the blind and the lame. Jesus comes to the heart of Jewish faith, the place where God’s Presence dwells, and he does what God intends: he heals.

When the children began to repeat what was shouted on the Mount of Olives,

Hosanna to the Son of David,

It is the chief priests and the scribes who are indignant and who protest. Keep a sharp eye on these protesters. We first met them as advisers to King Herod, the very man who sought the death of the child (Matthew 2:4). When Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, he reveals that he will,

… suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised…

Matthew 16:21

The chief priests and their associates are mentioned 18 times in Matthew’s Gospel. I have referred to two occurrences (Matthew 2:4 and 16:21). The remaining references, all 16 of them, are in the story of the last week of the life of Jesus. Do not miss these religious leaders as Matthew’s story makes its way way from the Temple precincts to the Place of the Skull. Their last words warn Pilate that ”this imposter” had said that,

After three days I will rise …

Matthew 27:63

They hurry off to set a guard on an empty tomb. That is the last we hear of them.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees are likewise drawn into the story (see 21:45; 22:23). Jesus has words of harsh criticism for Pharisees and their scribes (22:41 - 23:36). None of the authoritative voices in official Judaism are on the side of Jesus, except Joseph of Arimathea.

Judas, Pilate and his wife, Barabbas, soldiers, and Caiaphas play their parts.[5] But there are two groups that are of special importance. Watch out for Peter and the disciples. Watch out especially for the women. Let them be named:

Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Matthew 27:55-56

Especially look out for Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, to whom an angel of the Lord spoke and the very first human beings to be addressed by the Risen Lord and the first in the history of the world to worship him. These faithful women are first to be commissioned by Jesus to proclaim the gospel of his resurrection to “my brothers” (Matthew 27:10).



The very people who ought to listen and understand know less than tax collectors and prostitutes. This is the first of three Holy Week parables that highlight the failure of the guardians of the Temple and teachers of the people.[6] Their ears were ever deaf to God’s initiatives.

Jerusalem and all the people of Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:5). But these authorities did not believe him. Tax collectors and prostitutes were more attuned to God’s will than those appointed to be guardians of the faith of the people.

Today’s parable opens with an invitation: What do you think? But there is no thinking, no reflection, and the three parables did not deflect those who heard them from their hostile intentions.

Notice that Matthew uses the phrase “kingdom of God” rather than his more usual “kingdom of heaven”. But both point to the same reality. The great prayer that Jesus gave to disciples and crowds clarifies the meaning of the phrase:

Thy kingdom come


Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.


The parable of the two sons

When we read the Gospels we must realise we are visiting the past. We are reading or hearing a story told two thousand years ago in a world totally different from ours. There are three levels we have to cope with. First—and this is seldom easy—we must try to imagine the circumstances in which Jesus told the parable of the two sons. Where, and when, and to whom why did he tell the story? Then we have to consider where Matthew placed the story in his Gospel. What is Matthew teaching by putting this parable in the context we find in his pages? Of course, he may have placed it in the exact context in which Jesus first told it. But that is far from certain, especially when we gather together all the parables of Jesus Matthew places in the last week of Jesus’ life.

Count the incidents between Jesus entering the city alone and his arrest in a place called Gethsemane (not a garden in Matthew).[7] I could 27 different incidents of conflict and/or teaching before Jesus is arrested and all his disciples leave him and run away. So it is certain that Matthew (and Mark before him) crammed all his material into these few days in order to serve his purposes. The plan we find in Matthew is hardly an exact account of what actually happened.


The Jesus parable

Where, when, and why did Jesus tell the story of the two sons? I do not know. But here is a guess. In all the Gospels we read that Pharisees questioned practically every word that Jesus uttered.

Pharisees form one identifiable group among the many groups that made up the broad church of Jewish faith. As a group they emerged from the time of the Maccabee revolt against Greek colonialism (say from 166 B.C. to 159 B.C.). They were against any compromise or accommodation with the ways of pagan Greeks. The very name Pharisee means, “to separate” and Pharisees resolutely resisted pagan ways. They also separated themselves from the accommodating instincts of the high echelons of the priestly caste, that is, the Sadducees. Pharisees were devout people who followed closely the Law, the holy teachings of Moses. They were also great upholders of traditions that interpreted ancient teaching to the lives of people in a constantly changing world. I think that Jesus and the Pharisees constantly argued with each other because they were so alike. Both believed in the Torah. Both believed in interpretation to meet the signs of the times. It was the Pharisees that invented synagogues, community gatherings for prayer and teaching. However, Jesus proclaimed a more urgent and open gospel, a more radical understanding of God’s ways in the world. He believed that proclaiming the gospel of God to all peoples was a divine command. God did not wipe off the whole world as unclean. Think of St. Paul, a devote Pharisee, who came to believe that Jesus the Pharisee was the future, a future God intended to include all the nations.

Frequently in all four Gospels we have Jesus and Pharisees at odds with each other. A big issue was the outreach of God’s mercy. The issue was this: Can God deal with the sins of the world? Pharisees taught that there were many sinners beyond the pale of mercy. Jesus believed that no one was beyond God’s reach and that God was, as Francis Thompson expressed that matter, the hound of heaven, forever chasing up sinners and worrying them into safety. Pharisees believed in rigidity. Jesus believed that rigidity is best left to God.

It is into that constant argument about the nature of God’s mercy between Pharisees and Jesus that I would locate the original parable of the two sons. Indeed, I think that the two sons we meet in today’s reading were the first edition of what became in the imagination of Jesus the prodigal son and the son who preferred to stay in field and give the party a miss.


The Matthew parable

Matthew places the parable of the two sons right at the beginning of his ministry in Jerusalem. It is a ministry that lasts three days, from Monday through Wednesday. After that there is an anointing at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper (a beautiful touch that) when the woman comes with an alabaster flask of very expensive perfumed oil. It is her story that must be proclaimed in the whole world (Matthew 26:6-13).

The last days of the life of Jesus are told as a series of choices. Here are some of them:

The chief priests and the elders of the people plot to kill him.

Judas, one of the Twelve, agrees on 30 pieces of silver.

In Gethsemane Jesus chooses God’s will.

All the disciples choose to desert him and run away.

Caiaphas, the scribes and elders decide that Jesus deserves to die.

Peter decides to deny the one who christened him The Rock.

Judas hangs himself. Jesus decides to be silent when confronted by Pilate.

The chief priests and the elders incite the crowd to choose Barabbas .

Pilate decides to release Barabbas and delivers Jesus to be scourged and crucified.

The soldiers decide to dress him up as a king and pin their mockery over the head of the dying man. THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Jesus chooses a dying prayer: “My God, my God, why have you forsake men?

There are other choices. Search for them as you reflect on the last pages of our Gospels. But notice that Matthew fills his story of the last days of Jesus in Jerusalem with choices. The parable of the two sons is all about choice.

The communities of Jesus people in Antioch, for whom Matthew wrote his Gospel, were plagued with divisions. They were faced with choices that, as we now know, determined the future of Christianity. Must pagans become Jews before being baptised into the family of Jesus, no compromise allowed? Would doing a bit of Judaism be enough, say abstaining from certain foods? Would it not be sensible to abandon all features of Jewish identity?

The parable of the two sons Jesus, told in the dying days of Jesus, offers a story that presents consequences. To do or not to do, that is the question. These little gatherings of Jesus people held the future of Christianity in their hands. That is why the most important city in the early centuries of Christian faith we not Jerusalem; it was not Rome; it was Antioch.


Matthew's readers and hearers today

Matthew’s readers and hearers in our time and our place have been given a Gospel full of choices from beginning to end:

You have heard that it was said,
“You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy”.

But I say to you,

“Love your enemies
and pray for those who persecute you,
so that you may be sons and daughters of your Father
who is in heaven.”

Matthew 5:43-45

In our time and in our place choices have to be made. It is time to listen to a Gospel of Choices, to face dilemmas of our day. It cannot be left to a few. Matthew wrote for all the people. That is why his Gospel from very early days has been called The Catechism of the Church. It is time for all of us to go back to our catechism. Even the tax collectors and prostitutes, God bless them, went out to Jordan’s banks and believed in the prophet they met there. Yet, seeing this, the chief priests and the elders of the people did take stock and believe in the words of John the Baptist.

We may search the Scriptures to learn what Jesus preached in his day. We may search the Scriptures to learn what Mark, Matthew Luke, and John, made of the teaching of Jesus in their days. Our task is to learn what Jesus is saying to the churches in our time and place. Our policy must always be to follow the example of the tax collectors and prostitutes.


A postscript

Much of the above is concerned with the story of the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. During Lent our hearts and minds contemplate the dying days of Jesus. Why not leave such thoughts and prayers to Lent’s holy days?

Our Lectionary from here to the last Sunday of the year before we turn our thoughts to Christmas demands that comtemplate the last week of the life of Jesus. Into these Sundays of reflection on those last days, the Lectionary invites us to contemplate on our last days.

We are asked to meditate and to pray, to look with Jesus into the destiny of humanity even as we hear and read of the destiny of Jesus. As he makes his way from the Mount of Olives to the mountain of God, so Matthew asks all who listen to his words to understand the destiny that awaits all humanity.


Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.


[1] So the King James Version, the Douay Version,the Revised Standard Version, the New Revised Standard Version, theNew International Version, the Jerusalem Bible, the NewJerusalem Bible, the Revised New Jerusalem Bible, the New American Standard Bible. The Revised English Bible has To you, I lift up my heart.

[2] Most scholars are convinced that Paul has taken over the text of a hymn. However the precise verse form of the hymn is not obvious in Paul’s prose text.

I have translated his text and put it in a stanza form that I hope makes sense.

[3] The Jerusalem Bible and its two more recent editions have rightly insisted that that “slave” is the appropriate translation. Its note of explanation is to the point.

[4] The quotation from Psalm 8 is more like the text found in the Greek Septuagint than that in the Hebrew Bible.

[5] In the Coptic Church, our brothers and sisters in Egypt, Pilate and his wife Procula (or Procla) by the sixth century are honoured as saints, whose feastday is in July. One of the earliest and greatest of our ancient theologians, a man named Tertullian, was of the opinion that Pilate could rightly be regarded as a saint.

[6] Two other parables are read on the next two Sundays. My comments on today’s parable are relevant to all three. These form an unsuccessful catechesis of the authorities who will advocate crucifixion rather than implementation of the kingdom of God.

[7] In Mark, Matthew, and Luke there is an agony but no garden. In John’s Gospel there is a garden but no agony.