Monday of the Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Christian conversion is a process by which we welcome the grace of God.  A grace that liberates us from sin and hopelessness, but challenges us to change our hearts and lives.  The first reading to the Thessalonians reminds us that the Gospel is not just a message with an important meaning, it is also the power of God to change us.  Listening to God’s Word comes first, but the desire and consent to be transformed by that Word unleashes the power that it contains.

In today’s Gospel Jesus corrects a practice that had come to be established among the Pharisees.  Similar to when we switch words so as not to give offense – we say darn instead of damn – there was the thought that if you swore by something in the sanctuary instead of the altar you would not give offense to God.  Rather than correct the scrupulousness or legalism, Jesus corrects the much deeper attitude.  Misunderstanding the relationship between the gift and the altar is akin to misunderstanding the importance of our hearts in our act of worship and sacrifice.  When we pray, we place our intentions upon the altar of our hearts.  When we fast, we make that offering to God upon the altar of our hearts.  Our hearts play a more important role in our offering than what is offered itself.  When Christ is offered in the Eucharistic sacrifice, it isn’t complete until we receive His Body and Blood and offer it to the Father on the altar of our hearts.


Thus, the obedient and responsive soul gives itself over to the virtuous life. This life is freedom itself, on the one hand, from the chains of this life, separating itself from the slavery of base and empty pursuits. On the other hand, this soul devotes itself to faith and the life of God alone, because it sees clearly that where there is faith, reverence and a blameless life, there is present the power of Christ, there is flight from all evil and from death which robs us of life. For shameful things do not have in themselves sufficient power to compete with the power of the Lord. It is their nature to develop from disobedience to his commands. This was experienced in ancient times by the first man, but now it is experienced by all of us when we imitate Adam’s disobedience through stubborn choice. However, those who approach the Spirit with honest intent, unfeigned faith and an undefiled conscience, are cleansed by the Spirit according to the one who says, “for our gospel was not delivered to you in word only, but in power also; and in the Holy Spirit and in much fullness, as you know.”1


So then, it is possible for one who suffers not to rejoice when he is suffering for his sins but nevertheless to experience pleasure when he is being beaten and suffers for Christ’s sake. For such is the joy of the Spirit. In return for the things which seem to be burdensome, the Spirit brings delight. They have afflicted you, he says, and persecuted you, but the Spirit did not forsake you even in those circumstances.2


Woe to you and to those hearing these things who plead the God of the law and yet do not understand that these words were spoken by God in a kindly way. So we understand why Jesus said, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees.” They believe that it is in fact a good thing to pronounce these curses against sinners. They consider the arrangement of the law’s curses to be a part of God’s design. The chiding father frequently urges his advice on his son for his improvement—advice that may seem to be a curse. He does not wish the curses to be actualized, however, but rather he desires to avert him from even more such curses.3


Imposters of holiness more easily entangle themselves around women. Women are less ready to stand up to such imposters in front of them. These manipulators know that they are softer and more guileless. … They loiter especially with widowed ladies for two reasons. First, because women with men are less easily deceived, having the mettle of men and being less ready to give anything from her purse. Widows are in a position in which they are more easily deceived. Second, they more easily involve themselves in things not subject to anyone else’s authority. So they are taken advantage of. Jesus here confronts the priests and warns Christian leaders against these temptations. They had best not remain with widowed women any more than with others. For even if the desire to remain with widows is not ill motivated, it still may carry the suspicion of being so. 4


The scribes and Pharisees have laid endless toil upon others. This should draw them toward being more empathic with others’ burdens. But the things that we acquire easily we care less about. So even their unfair advantages do not render them more gentle. Here he lays to the charge of the priests two things. First, that they have been unprofitable for the salvation of many. They have forgotten that they need much toil in order to win over even one. And second, that they were remiss in the preservation of those whom they had won. Not only were they careless but traitors. We see this from the wickedness of their lives, corruption and making others worse. When a disciple sees his teacher to be corrupt, he becomes even more so. He does not stop at his teacher’s corruption.5


But let us explore further the analogy of the temple, the gold and the altar. The altar is the place where a vow is sanctified. The altar in this passage is the heart of a man. What happens in the heart happens deeply within a person. Vows and gifts placed on the altar are clearly those placed upon the human heart. When you begin to pray, you place the vow of your prayer upon your heart, as if you had placed something upon the altar, so that you might offer your prayer to God.
Suppose you are ready to place an offering of psalms upon your heart, so as to offer to God an offering of psalms, accompanying yourself with a harp. Or suppose you are ready to give alms. You make an offering of alms upon your heart, just as if you had placed something on the altar, as you would offer your alms to God. Suppose you have proposed to fast in order to make an offering of your fasting upon your heart, as if you had placed something upon the altar.
In this way the heart of a man makes vows in a holy and venerable way. It is from the heart, that is, the altar, that the vow is offered to God. Therefore it is not possible for the offering of a man to be more honorable than his heart from which the offering is sent up.6

For indeed his heart is the altar that sanctifies his offering which is the heart of the world. The heart and the conscience of such a man “do not feel remorse but have trust in God,” because his own heart has been rightly formed. He does not rely on his gifts as such or the words of his prayers or of his psalms—although they may seem well composed and chosen from the Scriptures—but on the heart rightly formed. Whoever places his own witness on the altar, that is, his own conscience and the center of his heart, such a man swears by the altar, embracing everything which is contained in it. One who swears according to what we attest to by the temple, that is, “through the whole sense of Scriptures,” such a man seems to swear according to the word and the will of God which is contained in it. Such a man in this sense swears upon the temple (upon all the Scriptures) and upon the altar (upon the whole heart), that is, an understanding of the sense of the whole of the Scriptures and upon the whole heart.7

Mint and dill and cummin are only spices for food but are not themselves substantial food. What substantive food would mean in conversion would be that which is necessary for the justification of our souls—faith and love—unlike these legalisms, which are more like condiments and flavorings. It is as if a meal might be thought to consist more of condiments and flavorings than the food itself. The seriousness of judgment is neglected while great attention is given to minor matters. Spiritual exercises which in and of themselves are hardly justice are spoken of as justice and compassion and faith. It is lacking in justice to treat these small parts as the whole. When we do not offer to God the observance of all that is necessary for worship, we fail altogether.8


  1. ON THE CHRISTIAN MODE OF LIFE. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 61). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  2. HOMILIES ON 1 THESSALONIANS 1. Gorday, P. (Ed.). (2000). Colossians, 1–2 Thessalonians, 1–2 Timothy, Titus, Philemon (p. 61). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  3. COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 13. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 171). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  4. HOMILY 44. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 172). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  5. THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW, HOMILY 73.1. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 172). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  6. COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 18. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (pp. 173–174). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  7. COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 18. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 174). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  8. COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 19–20. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 175). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
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