A great deal has happened since last week’s gospel reading. Jesus is now in Jerusalem. He has entered the city (Matt. 21:1-11) and has taken possession of the temple driving out those who corrupt his Father’s house (Matt. 21:12-17). The crisis point of Jesus’ ministry has arrived and he will enter into conflict with the established religious authorities. The point of this text is that it is not the ‘conventionally’ religious’ – those who mouth all the right words and go through the rituals – who will enter the kingdom. Instead, it is the ones, who, by their actions, carry out God’s will and become the sons and daughters of God. John the Baptist, like Jesus himself, not only preached righteousness, he lived it. Jesus describes him as ‘a pattern of true righteousness’ (Matt. 21:32), and it was the broken people, the tax collectors, and prostitutes, who accepted what he had to bring. They believe in him repented and experienced a change of heart and life.
This gospel offers yet another challenge to human ideas about what is just and reveals the generosity of God. The Master makes a point of having those who came last paid first. One must imagine the queue, with the newly arrived workers at the head and those tired from a full day’s labour watching as the late-comers are paid in full. In many ways, the audience is drawn into sharing their disappointment and indignation. If those employed early had been at the head of the queue, they would have gone off happy with their contracted wage. The problem arises only when they see the latecomers reaping the same reward. This alludes to a problem that has arisen in Matthew’s community. Those Jewish Christians who have risked all and believed from the beginning are now seeing the newcomers to faith being offered the same reward. Jesus’ answer is simple: the kingdom is God’s. God can do as he likes, and what God chooses is to welcome all and offer reward to all who come to belief, no matter at what stage.
Jesus’ teaching about the need to settle the conflict, the basis of last week’s gospel, was a surprising summons for Christians to fly in the face of accepted standards of judgement and condemnation. Here the teaching becomes even more outrageous! There is no end to the forgiveness offered. For the average person, represented by Peter, forgiving another person seven times would show a very substantial commitment to mercy. Seven is used in the Bible to signify perfection, so Peter is not being mean in his suggestion. This is a very reasonable degree of tolerance. Yet Jesus, in his parable of the servant who is forgiven a debt equivalent to millions but cannot forgive his fellow a lesser sum, turns our human understanding of what constitutes a fair thing on its head. God’s forgiveness is prodigious, but it is dependent on our willingness to forgive each other in the same way. The inability or unwillingness of the servant to match the master’s forgiveness provides a powerful contrast. The master forgives in compassion, but the servant resorts to violence. If one has truly experienced the loving forgiveness of God, it must be shared with others.
The gospel readings for this week and next week come from a section of Matthew that deals with ways the community might regulate its behaviour. Clearly there were some in the group who were behaving in ways that brought the community into disrepute and were contrary to the teaching of Jesus. The question was how the community should confront such issues of human sinfulness and help each other in the spirit of love that Jesus professed. Matthew recalls the words of Jesus to suggest a way forward in this dilemma. This text comes immediately after the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd expends all possible effort to find the lost one and bring it back to the fold. For Matthew, the main point of that parable is the joy that the master expresses when the lost one returns. That point is emphasised in this text when Matthew again suggests that all possible effort must be made to correct those in the community who err before taking the final step of exclusion from the group. Even then, all is not lost, and Matthew reminds his community that they should pray together and that their prayers will be heard.
This gospel contains the first of three predictions of his passion and death that Jesus makes along his journey to Jerusalem. Matthew tells the story of that journey across the next four chapters of his gospel. Peter is highly disturbed by the predictions of Jesus’ suffering, but is soundly rebuked. The contrast between this text and the gospel of the previous week is stark! In the immediately prior episode, Peter is praised and rewarded for his sublime affirmation of faith, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ In this text, Peter’s lack of understanding, both of what that means and of Jesus’ mission, causes him to be ridiculed as an obstacle to the divine mission. While we may have some sympathy for Peter in wanting to spare Jesus the pain and suffering he predicts, what is at issue is Peter’s failure to see that the cross is part of the plan and that discipleship will also involve the cross. Taking up the cross, however, will result in great reward and ultimate vindication when the time of judgment comes.
At this point in the gospel, Jesus and his chosen ones have travelled and lived together for some time. He invites them to explore what they understand of his identity. Even in his question, there is an explicit hint of his identity: ‘Who do people say the Son of Man is?’ The people offer a variety of opinions: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. But it is Peter who adds to the title ‘Son of Man’ by recognising Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This same Peter, whose faith faltered when he was buffeted by the wind and waves (see the gospel for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time), has now shown that he is open to God and recognises Jesus for who he is. But this is not the end of Peter’s story. There are ups and downs in his response, as there are in our own. As long as we remain open to the gift of faith, we are offered forgiveness when we fail to treasure what God has given to us.
In this gospel, we find another example of the common device used by Matthew to denote the movement of Christianity from a Jewish to a Gentile setting. Jesus has left the Jewish region around the Sea of Galilee and travelled north-west to the Gentile territory of what was ancient Phoenicia in Syria. Jesus’ fame has obviously spread even here, but the focus of the passage is not the cure but the dialogue.
A little-noticed phrase in this week’s Gospel adds significantly to the way we understand this story. Jesus told the disciples to cross to the other side of the lake. In doing this, they were heading away from the Jewish region and into Gentile territory. The boat is a symbol of the church, and as such, we can detect in this text a reflection of the situation of Matthew’s community, who have been forced out of the synagogue and away from traditional Judaism. More and more, it is Gentiles who are coming to belief in Jesus.
The death of the Baptist has left Jesus saddened, and he withdraws to be alone with the disciples. But even his personal sorrow is overwhelmed by compassion for the people who had followed him, and he cures their sick. The crowd stays with him, even into the evening. When the disciples ask Jesus to send them away to eat, Jesus’ response is a challenge to the disciples: feed them yourselves.
Jesus continues to convey his teaching about the kingdom using the imagery of everyday life. Pearls were highly valued in the Near East and were regarded as a symbol of wisdom—hence the saying ‘pearls of wisdom’. In the first two of these parables, the protagonists commit everything they own to acquiring what is beyond price. According to Jesus, gaining a place in the kingdom is worth the sacrifice of everything we value most.