By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a; Psalm 89:2-3, 16-17, 18-19; Romans 6:3-4, 8-11; Matthew 10:38-42
The Old Testament contains two books called the First Book of Kings and the Second Book of Kings. Towards the end of 1 Kings, chapters 17-22, we are introduced to the Prophet Elijah. The time is mid ninth century B.C., 869-849 B.C. As we read into the beginning of 2 Kings, we are introduced to Elisha, 849-842 B.C. He was Elijah’s chosen successor as prophet in the northern kingdom, the Kingdom of Israel. The activities of both these miracle-working prophets gave rise to a cycle of stories, the Elijah Cycle and the Elisha Cycle. The two prophets did much wandering in pursuit of their ministry. They were heavily involved in the politics and religion of the northern kingdom. In today’s first reading Elisha arrives in the city of Shunem. Apparently Elisha was known as a man of God. His holy life and activities attracted attention, much like many centuries later Jesus’ fame attracted a group of wealthy women who supported his ministry. A wealthy woman of Shunem invited him to dinner. This became her custom whenever Elisha was in the area. She consulted her husband, “Since he visits us often, let’s build a little room on the roof, furnish it with bed, table, chair and lamp. There he can lodge when he visits.
Elisha wanted to show his gratitude for food and lodging. Great prophets usually had disciples who also acted as servants to do the prophet’s bidding. The servant’s name was Gehazi, an Old Testament name which has not found its way into modern revival. Elisha orders Gehazi to schedule a meeting with his benefactress. Would she like for the prophet to put in a good word for her with the King of Israel or the general of the king’s army? Gehazi offers a suggestion, “She has no son.” Every Israelite woman wanted children. The meeting takes place in the doorway of Elisha’s rooftop room. Without any discussion, the prophet announces that when he returns for his next visit, this good woman will be embracing her baby boy. There is a sequel to the story but that’s for another time. The selection of this story as first reading to accompany today’s gospel reading is found in a saying of Jesus in the gospel, “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”
The Responsorial Psalm 89 is a hymn of praise, though difficult to see how it might respond to the first reading. The Psalmist hopes that his hymn will be used for generations to proclaim God’s faithfulness. God’s people are said to walk (in the dark) by the light coming from God’s face. When they hear of the Lord, they party all day. The people’s strength comes from the Lord. “By your favor our horn is exalted,” is a parallel to “the people’s strength comes from the Lord,” The horns of an animal are symbols of power, strength, “so may our horn (strength) be exalted.”
Paul’s Letter to the Romans, early 60s of the first Christian century, provides the second reading. Paul was speaking about God’s graciousness, so that whatever the sin or sins, God’s grace (mercy, kindness, forgiveness) was even greater. He asks, “Would it not be better to remain in sin so that God’s grace can do even more?” The answer, “No!” Because we who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into his death. That is obviously a difficult answer, so Paul explains that we were buried with him through baptism into death. The reference seems to be to the early (and now revived) practice of submersion (dunking) in baptism. That is seen as a form of death or dying with Jesus. As Christ was raised back to life, so the newly baptized is resurrected from the water into life with and in Christ. Since Jesus died only once to conquer sin and death, and rose to life, so we the baptized must imitate him in being dead to sin forever.
The gospel reading is a collection of Jesus-sayings that seem intended, in Matthew’s time, as guidance for converts to Christianity from pagan families. 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 . . . ,” and that “a man’s enemies will be of his own household.” This leads easily to the first saying in today’s gospel, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Matthew knows that family divisions over religion are a cross. Therefore, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Does this make Jesus anti-family? No! Matthew is using sayings attributed to Jesus to deal with the problem of religious divisions in families. These divisions are not the result of Jesus’ predictions, but express the actual unintended situation. The same Jesus, in very different circumstances ripped into lawyers who found loopholes for their clients to “legally” ignore the support they owed to their aging parents, as he defended the fourth of the Ten Commandments, “Honor thy father and thy mother!” Next Matthew assures those separated from family through conversion that those who lose their life for his sake, (their former status with family), they will gain their life. Those who receive the new Christians into the Christian community, receive Christ himself.
Matthew began this chapter with instructions for Christian missionaries. He comes back to that subject. Some missionaries in early Christianity were also called “prophets.” Therefore, “Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.” The same is said of “the righteous” in the Christian community. A probable meaning for “righteous” here would be those who have suffered persecution, perhaps economic disaster for becoming a Christian. Those who honor them will receive the same reward as the righteous ones. Finally a saying that seems out of place, and may well have originated in a setting in Jesus’ life that concerned Jesus and the children, “Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to drink to one of these little ones, because the little one is a disciple . . . , will surely not lose his reward.” Or this saying is just as well applied to coming to the aid of the most insignificant members of the community.