Sunday of Week 25 of Ordinary Time (Year A) – Alternate Commentary

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Commentary on Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16

The gospel story first of all needs to be understood against the background of the early Christians. Those who have worked long hours in the vineyard, “who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat”, are the Jewish people. The late arrivals, those who have come at the 11th hour are the new Christians, many of them Gentiles of “pagan” origin.

Perhaps today’s gospel – addressed mainly to Jewish Christians – reflects some resentment on their part at the newcomers enjoying all the benefits with no tradition or life of observance behind them. One of the sad themes of Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus, himself an Israelite, first reached out to his own people, but they rejected him. He then turned to the Gentiles who accepted him, and showed very clearly that the Spirit of Jesus had come down upon them in abundance. Truly it could be said that:

…the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Unfair treatment
Nowadays, many people reading this parable have problems with what seems to be a quite unfair treatment of the labourers. Our reaction (perhaps under the influence of trade unionism and “fair play”) generally is that those who have done more, who have given more, should get more. Those who work 12 hours should get more than those who work for one hour. That is simple justice. Anything else is simply exploitation.

However, justice is the whole point of the parable and of Jesus’ teaching. If we have problems with the parable, it means that we are not yet on Jesus’ wavelength. It is put well in the First Reading from the prophet Isaiah. Let us listen to him:

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

A different viewpoint
What this means is that we have to look at this story from a very different point of view. We have to learn what God’s justice is like. Another name for God’s justice is mercy and compassion. In the eyes of the world it can sometimes seem very unjust. In the parable the point being made is not that the longer workers got less than what was their due but that the later workers got exactly the same treatment from their master.

Things are not being measured according to individual output but according to need. All, early or late, have exactly the same need for God’s mercy and God’s love and everyone gets all of it.

So, rather than criticising God for acting this way, we should be deeply grateful. Sometimes we, who have “borne the burden of the day” and tried over many years to live up to the demands of the Gospel, may regard it unfair that a person, who has led a terribly immoral pagan life, can have a last-minute conversion and die in God’s love.

Two reflections
There are two things that can be said about that. First, we ourselves should be grateful that our God is ready to accept us back at any stage once we express sorrow for our sins and wish to be reunited with him in love. God – as the life of Jesus clearly manifests again and again – is ready to accept the sinner back at any time, even at the 11th hour. God has a notoriously short memory as far as our past is concerned. This is something that we should be deeply grateful for.

Second, it is a strange way of looking at our Christian way of life to think that, by following it, we are losing out to people who live a life of sin and immorality. It is the person who lives a life based on the Gospel values of truth, love, generosity, sharing, and justice who experiences real happiness. The life of sin is often based on a futile search for happiness through pleasure and enjoyment.

Freedom in Christ
The high point of Christian freedom is expressed by Paul in today’s Second Reading from his letter to the Christian community at Philippi in northern Greece. Paul is in prison, and faces the possibility of being executed for his Christian faith. But he is ready:

It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way but that by my speaking with all boldness Christ will be exalted now as always in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me, yet I cannot say which I will choose. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.

This is an extraordinary example of what is known as Ignatian “indifference”, that is, the perfect acceptance of what God wants, the perfect acceptance of God’s ways, and the total merging of my vision with his. And this is done actively, not passively. Let us ask him that we may have the same level of freedom and generosity in our own lives. For there is the secret of our real happiness.

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Sunday of Week 23 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

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Commentary on Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

We are reminded today that to belong to the Church is to belong to a community of brothers and sisters in Christ. This means that being a Christian is not a private, purely personal affair, although that is the way some people seem to behave. When God asked Cain, “Where is your brother?”, Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The teaching of the Gospel is that indeed I am responsible for my brothers and sisters.

Not only that, our relationship with Jesus, with God, depends intimately on how we relate with other people – be they members of our own family or complete strangers:

By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:35)


Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me…just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. (Matthew 25:40,45)

Many of us are reluctant to involve ourselves in other people’s affairs. Sometimes that attitude is good and wholesome but sometimes it is not. Our government, for instance, now frequently asks us to report on instances of abuse of which we may be aware. Such behaviour against defenceless people is something about which we need to be really concerned, to the point of taking appropriate action to protect the victims. If such things happen within the family it can be even more difficult to take action. It is not easy to see a father or mother brought away by the police or investigated by a social worker, even though it may be in the best interests of all concerned.

Community relations
The Gospel passage of today deals with such situations within the Christian community. The whole of Matthew chapter 18 is a discourse on mutual relations within the Christian community and, especially, what to do when divisions arise, as must inevitably happen. We are communities of sinners trying to be saints and there are many pitfalls on the way. In today’s passage we see first of all a three-stage procedure for dealing with a community member who has done “something wrong”. Presumably, it is some form of external behaviour which is harmful to the quality of the community’s witnessing to the Gospel.

The whole thrust of the passage is that we should all work towards reconciliation rather than punishment. There will also be a desire to keep the issue at as low a profile as possible. Sadly, we read regularly in our newspapers what happens when people drag their mutual grievances against each other to the law courts. So, the first stage is for the people concerned to solve the issue among themselves. If it works out at that level, that is the ideal situation – you have “won back” your brother or sister. “Won back” here is a Jewish technical term for conversion. For it is not enough that he merely stop his offensive behaviour, there also needs to be a genuine change of attitude and a genuine reconciliation with the offending person.

If the offender refuses to listen to his “brother”, then others should be brought in as confirming witnesses. And, if he refuses to listen to these, then “tell it to the community” – in Greek, ekklesia. ‘Community’ is here understood as the local church community because, in the thinking of the Christian Testament, each self-contained community is a ‘church’ (for example, Revelation 1:4-3:22, where letters are written to seven ‘churches’ or local communities).

In the last resort, if the offender still refuses to listen or to change, then:

…let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.

That is to say, let him be put out from the community and be regarded as an outsider. Obviously, this is a drastic and final step and to be taken not in a spirit of revenge or vindictiveness but out of real concern for the well-being of the whole community. It requires very sensitive discernment because it is easy to ‘get rid of’ someone who may in fact be telling the community some wholesome truths it needs to hear.

Many genuinely prophetic people have had this experience. It is easy to be too concerned about the “respectable image” of the community or being seen as in conflict with the established authorities. The only well-being that can justify such ‘excommunication’ is behaviour that is totally at variance with the community’s mission to be the Body of Christ and to be the witness of the Gospel message.

How, someone may ask, can this be squared with Jesus’ openness to sinners, including corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes, or with the story of the Prodigal Son? But Jesus’ reception of these people was not unconditional. It depended on their change of heart and the abandonment of their sinful ways. Jesus sat down with sinners, not because he liked them more than good people, but because he hoped to lead them back. When he forgave the woman taken in adultery, he told her to “sin no more”. The Prodigal Son was received with open arms after he had decided he no longer wanted to live his life of debauchery and, by his own decision, came back to his father.

The common good and the individual good
So, it is in the interests of both the community and of the individual that, if a person persists in anti-Christian behaviour, the person should be separated from the community. We practice this partly by not allowing a person in serious sin to receive the Eucharist. There is a serious contradiction between a person acting contrary to the Gospel and wanting to share in the Body of Christ, which has been wounded by his/her behaviour.

The situation, obviously, can be changed by a change in the attitude and behaviour of the wrongdoer. Once the person repents and converts, they will be – indeed must be – received back with joy:

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

These words also indicate that the church has the power, given it by God, to make a judgement on who is fit to belong to the Body of Christ, i.e. the church community. It is a necessary power to preserve the integrity of the community as a witness to the Gospel. It is a power which must be exerted only with loving concern for the well-being of a wrongdoer. That said, it is also a dangerous power which could be abused.

Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.

Wherever Christians meet together in truth and love, whether it be for prayer, study, or decision-making, Jesus is present and Jesus speaks and acts. This is both a tremendous gift and also a great responsibility.

Centrality of love
And so it is that Paul in the Second Reading puts the emphasis on love. It contains all other Christian obligations:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

To keep the commandments without love – and it is possible – is to become not another Jesus, but a Pharisee. If I really care in compassion for my neighbour, then I know that I am keeping the commandments and that I also am loving God. I have to look carefully at the needs of my brothers and sisters. If I see them hurting themselves or someone else, that is my business.

So the First Reading says:

If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.

I am my brother’s and my sister’s keeper. But not absolutely, for:

…if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

I have a responsibility to save my brother in sin, but I am not ultimately responsible for his salvation. The last choice will always be with him. There is no need, after one has done one’s best, to feel guilt over the evil behaviour of another.

Only path to salvation
It is easy to think that being a Catholic means being concerned with the relationship between God and me, that my duty is to “save my soul”. But, in fact, the only way to “save my soul” is by becoming a truly loving and caring person as part of a loving and caring community of people united in Christ. And sometimes that caring may involve bringing the brother/sister face to face with the loving demands of the Gospel. We do not help each other by turning a blind eye to behaviour which is clearly unchristian.

As a community we have a responsibility for each other’s well-being. We do not further the witness of a loving community when we, in false “charity”, ignore social problems such as drug-taking, alcoholism, compulsive gambling, violence in the home, discrimination against people with physical or mental disabilities, racial exploitation and the like taking place in our parish community. It is not enough just to deal with these things in the privacy of “Confession” for, ultimately, reconciliation must be at the community level. And, as such, this is the responsibility of the community exercising its calling as the Body of Christ.

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Sunday of Week 21 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

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Commentary on Matthew 16:13-20

In today’s Gospel, we recall a high point in Jesus’ relationship with his disciples. It represents a quantum leap in their understanding of who he really is, and it took them quite a while to come to this point. Yet even here, as subsequent events in the rest of the Gospel clearly indicate, they still did not fully understand the implications of what they had just begun to realise. We will see a clear indication of this in next Sunday’s Gospel reading.

In a way, of course, today’s passage really is an expression of the faith of the early Church rather than just that of the disciples at the time of the event described. Mark, in particular, likes to emphasise the poor understanding of the disciples with regard to the identity and teaching of Jesus. The first person in his Gospel to recognise Jesus fully was a pagan soldier at the foot of the Cross (Mark 15:39). At that moment, Jesus’ disciples, his chosen followers, were nowhere to be seen.

Who do you say…
The passage today begins with Jesus asking his disciples who people think he is. Jesus calls himself “Son of Man” here, thus identifying himself with the Messianic figure in Daniel 7:13-14:

I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven…To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.

In reply the disciples give various answers:

  • the prophet John the Baptist, executed recently by Herod and, in the person of Jesus, thought by some to have come back to life (see Luke 9:7);
  • the prophet Elijah, who went to heaven in a fiery chariot and was expected to return soon to earth as a sign of the imminent coming of the Messiah;
  • the prophet Jeremiah, who through his own experience of rejection and suffering, announced the rejection and suffering of the Messiah (note that only Matthew among the Synoptics mentions Jeremiah).
  • What is clear is that while Jesus is seen by the people as a prophet, a spokesperson for God, he is no more than that.

    Then Jesus asks his disciples directly who they think he is. Peter, assuming his recognised leadership role in the group, replies:

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

    It is indeed a dramatic moment in their relationship with Jesus. For they have now acknowledged that their rabbi, their teacher and guide, is no less than the long-awaited Messiah, the anointed king of Israel (in the Greek, Messiah is translated as Christos, which means the ‘Anointed One’). It is a major breakthrough for them but, as the rest of the Gospel will show, they still have a long way to go in understanding fully just what ‘messiahship’ will mean for Jesus – and for them.

    A happy man
    Nevertheless, aware of their limited grasp of what they are saying, Jesus praises Peter:

    Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.

    Only faith could have led Peter to say what he did. He needed faith to recognise the Saviour-King in the dusty human figure standing before him, so different surely from the images that most Jews would have had of their long-expected, all-conquering and nation-liberating leader. Only with God’s enlightenment could they see God’s presence in this carpenter from Galilee, their friend and teacher. Peter must have glowed with pride and this will partly explain his bitter disappointment and shock in the passage immediately following (see next Sunday’s readings).

    Despite this moment of insight, Peter and the rest have a long way to go in fully knowing Jesus.  We might say at this point that we are in exactly the same position. Perhaps for a long time we have recognised in Jesus the Son of God and our Lord, but we too have a long way to go in completely understanding and in accepting the full implications of being his followers.

    Peter the Rock
    There now follows a passage which will be the foundation for the authority given to the disciples and to Peter in particular in the post-Resurrection community. In response to Peter’s declaration of faith, Jesus now says:

    And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…

    In the English translation, the play on words here is lost. In the Greek, ‘Peter’ is Petros (Petros) and ‘rock’ is petra while, in the Aramaic language which Jesus and his disciples normally spoke, both words would be represented by kepa. Hence, Peter is called Cephas in some New Testament letters (see for example, Gal 2:11).

    Peter is the rock, the foundation of the community which will carry the name and the authority of Jesus to the whole world.  On him, together with his Apostolic companions as the faithful communicators of Jesus’ life and message, will be built the Church, the ekklesia, the assembly of God’s people. Note that in the four Gospels, this word (ekklesia) appears only in Matthew – here, and twice in Matthew 18:17:

    If that person refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church, and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church…

    The term does not appear in Mark, Luke or John.

    A promise for the future
    Then there is the promise of endurance against all assaults of evil. A promise that has been remarkably kept through the centuries down to our own day. It is a testimony to the firmness of a foundation whose strength basically comes from Truth and Love. As long as these divinely originating qualities are in the Church, and any part of it, there is nothing to fear.

    Peter is then given a special stewardship and responsibility for the community:

    I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…

    We have spoken often in these weeks about the Kingdom. The Church is not itself the Kingdom but it does have the “keys”, in the sense of both authority and access, to the building of that Kingdom. Then he says:

    …and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

    There is a use of passive verbs in this verse (routinely used in Matthew) so that the name of God need not be explicitly mentioned to a Jewish audience very sensitive about the use of God’s name. God’s own authority passes through Jesus to the community he will leave behind. Whatever they decide corporately under the leadership of Peter and the Apostles will be acknowledged by God. They can do this because they will later be given the Spirit as Teacher and Protector and, through the same Spirit, Jesus will be with them forever. They will be the Body of Christ and when they speak as a body, Christ speaks.

    A special kind of leadership
    The leadership of Peter and his successors is not one of coercion and political power, but of example and service. As long as faith, hope, and love are strong in the community, it will survive and flourish. It is not just a matter of unquestioning obedience to the decrees of an institution, issued from some far-off headquarters.

    Today we see in the pope the successor of Peter. He shares the same charism or gift of leadership, a leadership of service. Traditionally the popes have called themselves Servus servorum Dei, the ‘servant of the servants of God’. The pope is not a dictator with absolute powers as he is sometimes depicted. He is limited by the faith of the whole Church. He is not the originator of that faith; he does not decide what we should believe. Rather, he communicates to the Church at large what it already believes.  He is the focal point of unity of that one faith, the unity in the Spirit. The pope is the servant of that one community united in one faith.

    Point of unity
    In a Church where there are now so many conflicting theologies and spiritualities, there has never been a greater need for a focal point, not of uniformity, but of Christian unity:

    There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:4-6)

    This is something which many of our Anglican and Lutheran brothers and sisters have become strongly aware of. It is something whose importance is so well realised by our Catholic brothers and sisters in parts of the world where they are as scattered and cut off from each other as they are.

    The pope is our point of reference, whom we must always take into account, as we search for new understandings of what it means to be a disciple of Christ in a constantly changing world.  He is the shepherd that keeps us in fellowship with Christians everywhere, but who must not stifle the creativity of the Spirit in living out the Gospel in such a huge variety of contexts. For we are simultaneously one Church and many churches.

    For us here in our own church, our concern will be to remain in close union with fellow-disciples everywhere while, at the same time, living a Christian life in a way that most effectively will bring the spirit of the Kingdom among us in these challenging times.

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    Sunday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time (Year A)

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    Commentary on Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28 Read Sunday of Week 20 of Ordinary Time (Year A) »

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    Friday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

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    Commentary on Matthew 13:54-58 Read Friday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – Gospel »

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    Wednesday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

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    Commentary on Matthew 13:44-46 Read Wednesday of Week 17 of Ordinary Time – Gospel »

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    Saints Martha, Mary and Lazarus – Gospel

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    Commentary on John 11:19-27 and Luke 10:38-42

    There is a choice of Gospel readings for today’s Memorial, each one featuring Martha and Mary and one focused around the death of Lazarus.

    The first is from Luke’s gospel and describes an occasion when Jesus went to visit the family’s house in Bethany. It was not far from Jerusalem and it seems that Jesus was a regular visitor there. On this occasion we are told that Mary was sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to him. Martha, on the other hand, was fussing about in the kitchen getting the meal ready. After a while, Martha complained (perhaps there was there a slight hint of jealousy and resentment here) that her sister was leaving all the work to her. “Tell her to help me.”

    Jesus replied:

    Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. There is need of only one thing…Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

    Jesus had said elsewhere that his followers should not be anxious or worried:

    Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.

    As Fr Anthony de Mello used to say: “Why worry? If you worry, you will die. If you don’t worry, you will die. So why worry?” Martha gives the impression that Mary is just sitting there doing nothing. But, in fact, she is listening to Jesus, listening to the Word of God.

    Many of us are very busy, run off our feet from dawn to dusk. But what are we busy about? What was Martha busy about? We need to stop and listen, as Mary did. Busy-ness is not a virtue. The important thing is to be active about the right things. And to know what is the right thing to do, we have to stop and listen.

    The alternative Gospel reading is from John. It is story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was the brother of Mary and Martha. Jesus had been told some days before that Lazarus was seriously ill but did not immediately respond. By the time Jesus reached Bethany, Lazarus was already dead for four days.

    When the sisters heard that Jesus had arrived, Martha, typically, rushed out to greet him while Mary stayed mourning in the house. As soon as she saw Jesus she told him that if Jesus had been there earlier, Lazarus would not have died. But she was confident that any prayer Jesus would make to his Father would be answered.

    Jesus said to her:

    “Your brother will rise.

    Replied Martha, expressing her faith in a future life:

    Yes, I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.

    In so speaking she draws from Jesus one of the great sayings of John’s gospel:

    I AM the Resurrection and the Life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?

    In other words, those who believe in Jesus as Lord and follow his Way immediately enter a life that will never end, although the body, of course, will pass away.

    This, in turn, draws a great profession of faith from Martha:

    Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

    It is a statement on a par with that of Peter at Caesarea Philippi earlier on.

    And that, of course, is what this whole chapter is about. Jesus, the Son of God, as the Source of Life. It is also a preparation for Jesus’ own death from which he will rise in glory and be reunited with his Father. The same future is promised to us.

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    Monday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

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    Commentary on Matthew 10:34 – 11:1 Read Monday of Week 15 of Ordinary Time – Gospel »

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    Wednesday of Week 13 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

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    Commentary on Matthew 8:28-34

    Matthew’s version of this strange story is quite different from and much shorter than Mark’s. It is usual for Matthew to pare down stories to just the essential details, while Mark tends to give a more dramatic presentation. In Matthew’s version, too, there are two possessed people instead of just one (similarly in his version of the Bartimaeus story told by Mark (see 10:46), Matthew (20:29) has two blind men.)

    In the previous story about the calming of the storm, we saw that Jesus and disciples were crossing the lake. They now come to their destination, a place known as the Gadarenes. It got its name from the town of Gadara on the south-east side of the lake.

    Here Jesus was met by two people possessed by demons who completely controlled them. Unlike many of the ordinary people, the demons in these two men have an insight into Jesus’ identity although they may not recognise it fully. “What do you want with us, Son of God?” Jesus usually refers to himself as Son of Man and never as Son of God. “Have you come here to torture us before the time?”

    There was a belief that demons would be free to roam the earth until the Judgment Day came. They did this by taking possession of people. This possession was often associated with disease, because disease was the consequence of sin and a sign of being in Satan’s power. That is why when Jesus expels a demon there is often a cure as well. By driving out these spirits, Jesus inaugurates the Messianic age which many of the people do not recognise, but which the demons do. Later Jesus will hand over this exorcising power together with the ability to effect cures to his disciples. We will see that in the discourse in chapter 10.

    The demons then begged Jesus to let them go into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus consented to this. As soon as they had entered the pigs, the whole herd rushed headlong over a cliff and into the water below. The swineherds rushed off to the nearest town to tell what had happened.

    The townspeople immediately came out in search of Jesus and, not surprisingly, begged him to go somewhere else. It might seem rather high-handed of Jesus to destroy a whole herd of pigs in this way. We have to remember, however, that in Jewish eyes these pigs were abominably unclean. There was not a better place to put demons, and it was they who really brought about the destruction of the animals. But understandably, the owners of the pigs found it difficult to see things in the same way.

    The purpose of the story, of course, is to focus on Jesus’ power to liberate people from evil influences which were destroying their lives. What these men were suffering could not be compared to the loss of the pigs’ lives and the pigs would have ended up in a cooking pot anyway!

    We, too, need to ask Jesus to liberate us from any evil influences or addictions which enslave us and prevent us from being the kind of persons he wants us to be.

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    Saturday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – Gospel

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    Commentary on Matthew 8:5-17 Read Saturday of Week 12 of Ordinary Time – Gospel »

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