Gospel Reflection For Sunday 22nd October 2023 29th Sunday Ordinary Time – by Fr Brian Maher OMI
Gospel Reflection for Sunday October 22nd 2023 | 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the things I particularly like about the Gospels is their ‘realness’. The stories, memories and events of Jesus’ life are told to us in a sincere and authentic way. Nowhere is there an attempt to sugar-coat reality or present us with a beautifully sculpted, perfect-in-every-way man. Whether we meet him sitting at the well, hot and tired, or trying to escape the crowds in order to grieve the death of his friend, John the Baptist, there is no doubt that he is flesh and blood and truly human in every way.
It saddens me sometimes that so much classical art presents us with a clean, fresh-faced, nicely dressed, super-hero, often resplendent with a golden halo. I fully appreciate that the artists are trying to capture the hidden reality of Jesus’ divinity but, I fear, in doing so they risk losing both humanity and divinity, leaving us unawed by his divine nature and confused by his human nature. I prefer the approach of St. Teresa of Avila, who said, “It is important that while we are living and are human we have human support. Christ is a very good friend because we behold him as man and see him with weaknesses and trials, and he is company for us.” I truly believe that more than anything else Jesus wants to be ‘company for us’ and we can only see him in this light when we fully enter into his humanity with him.
“Christ is a very good friend because we behold him as man and see him with weaknesses and trials, and he is company for us.” – St Teresa of Avila
And this is what I love about the Gospels. In them Jesus weeps and laughs, he is tired and energetic, he has doubts and certainties, he is sad and happy, he experiences moments of anger but overall he is calm and gentle. In a word, he is exactly like us. No matter who we are or where we come from, all of us live in the same world as Jesus lived in, and we experience the same emotions and feelings as he did. It is, after all, why he came among us – to show us how much we are loved by God, and to model for us how we can respond to that love.
Today’s Gospel is a case in point. On the surface nothing very dramatic happens in this encounter with the Pharisees and their henchmen. There is no miracle or profound new teaching like we have in the Sermon on the Mount; there is not even a parable to entertain us! This Gospel is in fact a very ordinary, mundane clash that Jesus had with those who were out to ‘get him’. The account, for example, of the ‘woman taken in adultery’ is dramatic and tense. In it there is danger and excitement. Those witnessing it saw the woman thrown at Jesus’ feet and heard the pharisees condemn her. They beheld her humiliation and they watched as Jesus restored her dignity and forgave her. Today’s Gospel has none of this. Jesus was asked a fairly ordinary question about paying taxes to Rome. He used a small coin to win his argument – an action only those very close to him would even have noticed. Yet Matthew, when writing his Gospel, decided to include it. What is it, therefore, that Matthew wants us to notice? And, as we believe the Bible is the revealed Word of God we must ask ourselves what is it that God wants us to learn from this Gospel?
Like the incident itself, perhaps it is simpler than we think. I remember once my father complaining that as he got older, working in a business situation, there were always “youngsters just out of University snapping at your heels, well versed in computers and looking for promotion.” What I remember most about my father in that incident was not so much what he said, but the tiredness in his voice as he said it. He was not really talking about ‘youngsters just out of University’, rather he was expressing the on-going stresses, strains and tensions we all experience in life.
It is so tempting to imagine Jesus living in some beautiful, stress-free environment, wandering from village to village, free as a bird, preaching, teaching, healing, and enjoying popularity and adulation. In truth, it was quite the opposite. Israel was a dangerous place to live. Rebellion was in the air as the Jews more and more longed to shake off Roman occupation.
There was only one King and he was Tiberius Caesar. There was only one God to worship and that God was Tiberius Caesar. To openly preach a ‘Kingdom of God’ which did not have Caesar as King and God was treason and punishable by death. (In the end, as we know, this was the charge brought against Jesus and the reason for his crucifixion.)
Jesus was well aware of what he was doing and the dangers he faced from both Roman and Jewish authorities who felt his words and his popularity could lead to insurrection and a brutal and cruel response from Rome. (In fact this happened in 70 AD when the Romans ransacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.)
The strain and tension under which Jesus lived must have been intense. He must have constantly been on edge, wondering where the next attack would come from. Like my poor father who was aware of the youngsters snapping at his heals, Jesus was aware of the Pharisees and others snapping at his heals. However, in Jesus’ case those out to get him were not ‘youngsters, just out of University’ but extremely powerful people, who could and in the end did, destroy him.
Have you ever wondered why Jesus avoided large towns and cities in his ministry, preferring smaller town and villages? The reason had to be that in large towns and cities he would have attracted a lot more attention to himself, more easily coming under the scrutiny of Rome, as well as making it easier for the Pharisees to plot against him. Instead, he stayed close to the hills and countryside of Galilee and Judea to which he could, and often did, escape to rest and recover his energy.
Despite all of these stresses and strains and despite the negativity and disapproval he lived with, Jesus remained positive, hopeful and gently aware that all would be well. It would be way too easy to say that this was because he was God and he therefore knew everything. Saying that would make his entire life a kind of act or pretence and would contradict everything he stood for.
No, he could remain positive, hopeful and calm because he knew, deep within himself, that the Kingdom he preached – the Kingdom of God – was real and already with us.
He knew, deep within himself, that despite the turmoil and dangers threatening him, God was present in the world and would never desert it.
The life, joy and confidence of Jesus’ message came from a deep and growing sense that not only was God’s Kingdom present in our world, but that it was present in himself. The Temple where God lived with his people was not made of bricks and wood but made of flesh and blood.
The Gospel, the Good News for our world, is Jesus himself, who showed us what the Kingdom of God was like and who showed us also that once we enter into this Kingdom nothing can ever separate us again from the love of God.
All of us live with stresses and strains. All of us experience negativity and disapproval, and sometimes even betrayal in our lives. Illness, death and grief endanger and threaten us at all times. Our common experience of Covid-19 has taught us this in a very stark way.
Our planet itself groans under the pain of climate change, and despite floods, droughts, fires and storms our leaders seem to remain blind to the warnings they bring us.
Recent and older wars, terror, destruction and death sadden and almost overwhelm us.
All around us there is negativity, pessimism and hopelessness. All of us can so easily join it and preach it in our words and actions. Today’s Gospel reminds us that Christians must not let this happen.
I think Matthew includes this tiny memory of a tussle between Jesus and the Pharisees to allow us to see the constant strain and tension he lived with. Danger was everywhere, even the most mundane question was a trap seeking to ensnare him.
Our Gospel today is not about paying taxes, or coins or Pharisees trying to trap Jesus. It is about how we remain positive, calm, gentle and optimistic in the face of all that life throws at us.
And since the Gospel we read is “The Word of the Lord”, we might in today’s simple story hear God saying to us, “Do not be afraid, do not fear the wars and threats of war that surround you. Be strong and confident; be calm and gentle. I am within you just as I was within Jesus. Follow his example. Let him lead you and all will be well.”
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Gospel Sunday October 22nd 2023||Matthew 22:15-21|
Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
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