By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
First Reading: 2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Response: Psalm 89:2-3, 16-17, 18-19; Second Reading: Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; Gospel: Matthew 10:37-42
There are two 9th century B.C. prophets who are easily confused in the minds or pronunciations of readers and hearers. They are Elijah and Elisha. For those with older Bibles, their names are sometimes spelled as Elias and Eliseus. In 1 Kings 17:1, we are introduced to Elijah. The time of his ministry: 869-849 B.C. We bid him goodbye in 2 Kings 2. Elisha was Elijah’s chosen successor as prophet. The time of his ministry: 849-842. We first encounter Elisha in 1 Kings 19:16. We take leave of him at his death in 2 Kings 13:20. Both were active in the northern kingdom, the kingdom of Israel. Their activities gave rise to cycles of stories, the Elijah Cycle and the Elisha Cycle. Both were involved in the politics and religion of the kingdom. In today’s first reading, Elisha arrives in the city of Shunem. There, he was known as a man of God. His holy life and activities attracted disciples just as Jesus attracted and disciple - not only a group of men, but also a group of wealthy women who supported his ministry. A woman of influence invited Elisha to dinner. Our reading tells us that he would stop at her house whenever he was in the vicinity.
She disclosed to her husband an even better idea than just dinner. “Since he visits us often, let’s build a little room on the roof, (a flat roof, of course), furnish it with bed, table, chair, and lamp, so he can rest there when he visits.” So one day Elisha arrived and lay down to rest. He was so appreciative of his shelter that he said to his servant Gehazi, “Call the lady.” He pointed out how kind she had been to him, and asked if he could do her a favor of some kind to repay her. She was non-committal. He asked Gehazi for advice. Gehazi told him that the woman had no son. Every Israelite woman wanted children. Again he said, “Call her.” She comes up on the roof to the door of Elisha’s mancave. Without any further discussion he said to her, “Next year at this time you will hold a baby son in your arms.” And so it was! In a sequel to the story, Gehazi gets in big trouble; but that’s not our concern today. This reading seems to have been selected for no other reason than this saying of Jesus in today’s gospel reading: “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”
The greater part of the very long Psalm 89 (51 verses) is taken up with a defense of the dynasty of kings descended from King David. However, it ends with an accusatory confrontation with God, who seems to have abandoned the king, the psalmist or both. Our selections from the psalm carefully avoid the nationalistic praises of the dynasty and the confrontation with God. We have only praise-verses from the earlier part of the psalm. One phrase needs an explanation. “By your favor our horn is exalted.” True, humans don’t have horns, but animal horns were considered symbols of strength. A worthy compliment to a friend would have been, “May your horn be exalted.”
In the context of our second reading, St. Paul has been writing that God’s graciousness (i.e. mercy, kindness, forgiveness) through Jesus Christ is even greater than any number of sins committed. So, would it be better to keep on sinning so that God’s grace can be seen as all the greater? Paul says “No!” because, through our baptism, we have been baptized into Jesus’ death. In fact, he says, we were buried with him through baptism. This seems to be a reference to the ancient practice of immersion (dunking) at baptism as a symbol of death, then rising up out of the water as a symbol of rising from death to a new life. Since Jesus died only once to conquer sin and death, and rose to new life, so we, the baptized, must imitate him in being dead to sin forever.
The Missionary Instructions we heard in last Sunday’s gospel continue on this Sunday. Matthew may have assembled these sayings as guides for missionaries to warn prospective converts of the problems they can face with their families and society when becoming Christians. The first saying: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me. Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Matthew had previously attributed to Jesus a saying that he had not come to bring peace but to divide — son against father, daughter against mother, etc. (See Matt 10:34-36). Such sayings do not mean that Jesus is anti-family. On another occasion, he rips into clever lawyers who find religiously based loopholes to keep offspring from helping their needy parents (See Matt 15:1-6). In the mind of Jesus, these sayings about division in families were signs of the end times. We see this in contemporary literature outside the Bible (See Book of Enoch 100:1-2). In Matthew’s mind, they express persecutions within families of members who had become Christians. Therefore, Matthew adds, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” and “whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Christian missionaries are ambassadors of Jesus, just as Jesus is ambassador of the Father. Some Christian missionaries were known as prophets. Therefore, “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” We saw, in the first reading, how the prophet’s reward was the birth of a child to the prophet’s benefactress, though it is unlikely that either Jesus or Matthew had that particular reward in mind for other childless couples. In the next saying — receiving a righteous one and the consequent reward for those who do — the righteous one is probably, again, a Christian missionary. The final saying of this gospel reading: “Whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink, because the little one is a disciple, that one will surely not lose his reward.” Who are the little ones? A Christian of some kind is intended because of Matthew’s use of the term disciple for the little one. Since this saying is attached to the previous sayings about a Christian missionary being a prophet or a righteous one, it seems legitimate to interpret the little ones also as Christian missionaries. However, if we consider Matthew’s use of the term little ones in Matthew 18:6, 10, 14, this designation can refer not only to children but, in view of verse 14, to any Christian.