31st Sunday A
Sunday 5th November 2023
The Gospel Paraphrased
There are many fine translations of the Gospels readily available. This paraphrase is not meant to replace them. Rather the intention here is to offer a more contemporary rendering so that you can imaginatively translate the Gospel in your own situation.
This Sunday's Gospel Paraphrased
Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples: ‘The religious and civil leaders assume the authority of Moses in guiding the community. Therefore you should listen to them and follow their teaching but do not follow their example for they do not practice what they preach. They build up heavy burdens on others and won’t stir even a finger to help.
‘Yet look at them – everything they do is to attract attention to themselves: wearing large religious ornaments, wide prayer tassels. They love the place of honour at dinners, the front row at prayer, grandiose greetings in the market place and people calling them “Teacher, teacher!”.
‘You are not to be called teacher for your only teacher is the Christ and you are all brothers and sisters to each other. No-one of earth is to be called your father as your true Father is in heaven. You are to call no-one Master as your true Master is the Christ. The greatest person among you is to be your servant. Anyone who exalts themselves will be humbled but those who humbles themselves will be exalted.’
The Psalms are the ancient prayers of the Jewish people, here paraphrased into contemporary language.
This Sunday's Psalm
God, my heart is not proud.
I am not after honours,
or to achieve things beyond me.
See my heart is peaceful and still.
Like a weaned child resting on its mother
my soul rests on you.
O Israel, wait on God,
now and forevermore.
Words cannot contain our desire for God but they help direct our minds and hearts towards God's love and express our needs.
This Sunday's Prayer
Loving Father, you have called each person to be your child. May we embrace that knowledge and realise that all our dignity and honour lies in your love. Led by your Spirit may we treat every person as Jesus would treat us. We ask this in his name, confident that you will hear us.
The Commentaries Summarised
As a Church we are in a web of wisdom that comes to us both from tradition and contemporary writers. This section offers a summary of some commentaries on the Gospel. Also below is a list of the books and articles that have been consulted in compiling this Sunday's "Pray As You Can" and which could be used for further reading.
This Sunday's Commentary
‘Jesus as Teacher’ has been one of the major themes of the Gospel of Matthew. Now in this Sunday’s Gospel, while the religious and community leaders are plotting his death, Jesus stands in the Temple and addresses the people and his disciples on the behaviour of those same leaders. While he does not deny their role of teaching he is scathing concerning the hypocrisy of their behaviour. Note that Jesus’ sermon is not directed to the group that he is criticising – they are so firmly entrenched in their views concerning him that what he said would have made no difference. Rather he directs his observations concerning them to the people and his followers as an example of what not to do.
Jesus attacks this group because they act as though they are better than others, making a show of their faith and demanding privileges for themselves. His disciples are not to act like that. Nor are they to treat others as though they were better than themselves. All share an equal dignity because we all have God as Father and the Christ as our Teacher. That is the source of a Christian’s dignity, the source of a Christian’s humility – about that alone can we exalt.
Christian conversion is promoted by conversation. This section is a response to and a development on the knowledge gained from the commentary section.
This Sunday's Exposition
Our Dignity as Children of God
In the Catholic funeral service, a pall is placed over the coffin as a sign that we are all equal before God. No matter how wealthy or how poor we have been in the eyes of the world, before God we are simply God’s children – therein lies all our dignity. Yet in our ordinary life, we can lose sight of that, not only seeking honour and prestige on illusory grounds, we can also debase ourselves before others.
While Jesus criticises those who exalt themselves, he also tells his disciples that they are not to humiliate themselves before others by calling people, ‘Teacher’, ‘Master’, ‘Father’ or ‘Rabbi’. Well we know that these monikers of hierarchy have continued to be used and we will still continue to use them in some form. They are a structural feature of any organisation or society. So we have to ask just what is Jesus doing. This radical teaching is a means by which Jesus tries to startle us into recognising a truth that is important, very important. The issue is that we are not to hand over to another our dignity nor responsibility for our actions. In being a follower or a member of a group there is a tendency to draw our dignity from relationship to an ‘important’ person or to the group. Consequent on this is the temptation to relinquish responsibility for decision making in our lives.
So much of society is coercive, in covert and overt ways, in undermining our sense of our dignity and our personal responsibility. We need to take active steps to affirm our true dignity. One way to do this is by prayer first thing in the morning when we place ourselves before God and pray for the wisdom, love and courage to live according to our God-given dignity.
“The Glory of God is a person fully alive.” St Ignatius of Antioch.
Reflection is an essential element of our growth in Christ. As we reflect over what we have learnt and ponder it in our hearts, we come to recognise the presence of God in our lives.
This Sunday's Reflection
Walking a Tight Rope
When Jesus stood in the Temple, giving a critique of the way religious leadership was operating, he did not deny the Pharisees and scribes their teaching role but he was critical, very critical of their actions. His criticism can be summarised as: they put themselves up by putting other people down. They used the Law of God to humiliate others. All of us at some time in our lives have to exercise power and authority, whether it be as parents or in our work, in volunteer or social groups. No matter how small the group, there is always the temptation to enjoy having that bit of power over others…or even a lot of power over others. And most of us are pretty alert to that distortion in the exercise of authority. We do not like to be humiliated and we don’t want to humiliate others.
But another distortion can occur when a leader does not take up the real challenge of authority. Overwhelmed by a sense of insecurity a leader can procrastinate, dither, lurch from one position to another, seek the majority opinion rather than taking responsibility for difficult decisions. The group, the organisation, the family become frustrated with the lack of sense of direction and the vitality of the people dissipates.
The challenge is to walk the tight rope of leadership in a way that is both caring and effective. The way a tight rope walker keeps his or her balance is to focus on a goal distant from their feet. For a Christian leader that is to focus on our dignity as children of God, our common dignity. Then with the example of Jesus constantly before us, we can lead and obey by the wisdom of the Spirit.
Looking at art works or movies is a great way to open ourselves to the meaning of the Gospels. Seeing can bypass our preconceived notions, giving us new vistas of enlightenment. With painting or sculpture one needs to sit quietly and absorb the dynamics of the piece. The drama of movies more easily engages us and offers a way to conversation about the Gospel with other members of your family.
This Sunday's Visual Meditation
There are few paintings on this sermon of Jesus.
– This woodcut by Alexandre Bida shows scribes studying the Scriptures.
– This watercolour by James Tissot shows Jesus teaching in the Temple with the scribes and Pharisees bored and ignoring him.
The purpose of mulling meditations is to offer a few ideas that one can mull about while doing other occupations. There are many things we do in our day that do not require our full attention - some things which are largely done on automatic pilot - like driving a car or peeling the potatoes. While we give these our attention, part of our mind is still at work mulling on other things and unless it is given something positive to feed on, we easily feed on negative thoughts. Personally I find mulling time the most likely time for God to get through to me. Because I am not so conscious of myself, God gets through the cracks and opens my heart to look at life differently.
Two practical times for mulling can be when exercising and when driving. Some small preparations for integrating such prayer into these exercises can be helpful.
As you do your preparatory stretches, pray the line of the Psalm "I praise you God for I am wonderfully made!"
Similarly when doing your concluding stretches use the prayer of St Clare "Praised be you, my God, for creating me!"
Have some music that you find helps you turn you mind and heart to God and play that for the first 10 minutes or so of your trip.
This Sunday's Mulling Meditation
In so many situations of life, we give and receive advice, we give and receive orders, we influence each other. During this week notice how this happens and mull on the dynamics of each situation.
Then consciously remind yourself that every person in every situation is a child of God – both yourself and others and try to allow that belief to influence your behaviour.
In the Letter of James, we are told that the Scriptures are like a mirror in which we can see ourselves. In this type of meditation we take a piece of Scripture, hold it before us and consider what echoes within our heart. These echoes help us to see who we are before God and how we are loved. What usually echoes in us are situations that we are dealing with in our lives. When something strikes us, we do not actively try to solve the situation or work it through. Rather we sit holding it in God's love. The point of such a meditation is to make space within the situation for God's love to be. In 'sitting with' such a situation, painful or sad, we come to recognise the love of God that is at work on our lives. The suggestions for Mirror reflections can also be used for Exercise reflections but wouldn't be advised for Driving Prayer as often some degree of emotion or distraction might rise in such prayer.
This Sunday's Mirror Meditation
Rest in the love of your God.
When you are at rest, consider how power, influence and authority work in your life – both as you hold and use these and as other people use them towards you.
In situations where you ‘have power’ over others, reflect on how you feel when using power. Then affirm that every person involved has the dignity of being a child a God. Can that affect how you use your power?
In situations where you are ‘under the power’ of another, reflect how you feel. Then affirm that every person has the dignity of being a child of God. Can that affect how you respond and act in those situations?
Rest in the love of your God.