The format for the readings for Sunday Mass in Ordinary Time – that is when the priest is in green vestments – is arranged very carefully. The Gospel for the year is either Matthew, Mark, or Luke, and is read straight through week by week. The first reading is from the Old Testament and is chosen to highlight something about the Gospel. The second reading, usually from St Paul, is not connected to the other readings and is also read consecutively over a three-year cycle. It is often neglected, but as we will be reading the 1st letter of Paul to the Corinthians, a true Christian masterpiece, from now until Lent I thought it a good idea to say a few things about it.
Now although it is not chosen to reflect any particular passage of St. Matthew’s gospel which we will be reading these weeks as well, they do share some interesting similarities not only in theology but in the social makeup of their communities.
Both were written to congregations which were composed of born Jews and born Gentiles, but who all considered themselves Christians. Antioch, where Matthew was very likely written, was a very large and cosmopolitan city; Corinth was the wild west. It is situated in the narrowest part of Greece, its waist and a natural transport spot. Travelling by sea was very dangerous and it made financial sense to pull into Corinth, unload the cargo, bring it across the isthmus to another port, put it on anther ship and sail away. This attracted a very rugged group of people, both Jew and Greek and provided a laboratory on how the Christian message can be misheard.
Paul’s message was that the Christian was free of the burden of the Law. The Jew, particularly one who did not have a robust religious formation, might simply have thought that this meant he or she could eat a ham sandwich. A Gentile however, totally innocent of any understanding of Jewish Law, might believe that he could marry his sister. Indeed, at least one married his father’s wife. (1 Cor. 5:1-5) One reason why Paul can seem so dense and difficult is that he has to give both Jews and Greeks a crash course in Judaism.
Matthew learned his lesson from Paul. The letter was written most likely around 56 AD. Matthew was written most likely between 80 and 90 AD. He did not send a letter but told a story. Indeed, he was the first writer to begin at the birth of Jesus and continue to the Resurrection. In order to understand the story, however, it was and is necessary to know the scriptures Jesus would have read, what we have come to call the Old Testament. For them and for us the better we understand the Old Testament, the more valuable and indeed enjoyable the Gospel itself will be. There are simply mistakes we will not make about Jesus if we know the background.
Every week I prepare an interpretation of the Old Testament reading in our parish email, not to provide interesting information, but to give a window on what early Christians would have known. If we know what they knew, we can better love what or rather who they loved.
Another area where Paul’s people were confused was “Spiritual Gifts”. There were those in the community who were given gifts from speaking in tongues to physical healing. These are wonderful but must always be seen as a gift to the community, not to the individual.
Paul writes: But one and the same Spirit produces all of these, distributing them individually to each person as he wishes (1 Cor. 12:11)
He then tells us that: “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12)
We enter this body through Baptism and are held together by the Spirit. Because of that we are all equal, but we are not all the same.
“Now the body is not a single part, but many. If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body, it does not for this reason belong any less to the body.” (1 Cor. 12:14-15)
Diversity is not to be denied but celebrated: The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.” (1 Cor. 12:21)
We each have a role to play and none can be excluded. In a verse that is too little quoted, Paul writes: “Indeed, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary”, (1 Cor. 12:22)
When I look at whatever success I have had in a ministry of 40 years, I think much of it has come from being numerically dyslexic. Even before becoming a pastor I knew that I would need to develop a team far more than most priests. By luck and grace these skills which might not have been important in the 70’s and before were very important in the 90’s and beyond. Yet I must always admit, if only to myself, that it was because of weakness, not insight. I simply knew I needed the help and skills of others that were vastly different from my own.
The Apostles were a rather motley group that included a tax collector, fishermen and several people with Greek names. This reflected the community that Matthew led a generation later and they would have seen that from the very earliest days of the Church, people needed to work together to accomplish anything. (Matthew 10:1-4) Matthew’s community is like modern parishes and the best working teams are composed of people with different skills: not ones with the most talented people but having the same talents.
My prayer for St. Charles is that individual members find someone with strengths that matched his or her weaknesses and work together. In order to show the presence of God we need to lead with our weaknesses.
Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. In our parish email and now on our website you will find a selection from his sermon “St. Paul’s letter to the Americans”. Paul and Dr. King will both remind us that without love we are at best annoying. And Dr. King draws out the consequences: “Without love benevolence becomes egotism, and martyrdom becomes spiritual pride”.
St. Matthew as we will see (Chapter 18) will be even blunter. For there to be a church, there must be forgiveness. Forgiveness is church love: No forgiveness, no Church.
As we move from Paul to Matthew in preparation each week in preparation for Lent, let us ask ourselves if the rubber has hit the road in our community. Who have I forgiven, who has forgiven me, and most painfully from whom do I need to ask forgiveness? Only then will we have proved that we read the scriptures from which Jesus preached and formed the body for which Jesus died.