Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cycle A
by Fr. Claude Perera
Messiah Will Come to Reign in Zion in a Humble Manner.
The Need to Live according to the Spirit, and not according to the Flesh.
Jesus Thanks the Father, for Revealing Himself to the Humble.
Do you remember that on Palm Sunday the gospel (Mt 21:1-11; cf. also Jn 12:15) read before the blessing palms quoted from today’s first reading? The background for this first reading from the Second Part of the Book of Prophet Zechariah (Chapters 9-17) is the situation of the returnees of the Babylonian exile (597-587 B.C.E), during which Babylonians led by King Nebuchadnezzar reduced Jerusalem to ruins and took the elite population into exile in Babylon. Fifty-eight years later, in 538 B.C.E., King Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and issued an edict letting the Jews return to Palestine and rebuild their burned temple and the city walls. Led by the Jewish leader Zerubbabel many Jews returned. Having rebuilt the temple, they rededicated it in 516 B.C.E.
Zechariah’s life situation was the Kingdom of Judah to which the exiles returned and were settling down there. Ezra was the religious leader and reformer of the returned exiles, helped by Nehemiah the political reformer reconstituted the Jewish community based on the Torah or the Law (Ezra 2:2; 3:2, 8; 4:3; 5:2). Although the physical structures were rebuilt, people’s spiritual restoration was far from being what they ought to have been. Zechariah Chapters 9-14 which seem to have been added later are concerned with the problem of unfulfilled expectations, assuring the people of a better future hope. This hope rested on the person of the Messiah-King who was to come. He would be a righteous king (as opposed to the long line of unrighteous kings who violated the covenant), and this new king will bring them salvation which immediately signified the cessation of hostilities, effecting peace locally as well as in the whole region, internationally. He will eliminate horses and war chariots because there will not be wars anymore. Finally, an era of peace without wars will usher in. That is why he invited people to rejoice at His coming. Horse or still better a steed was a symbol of military victory, conquest, violence, and destruction. A foal was an inexperienced baby horse/donkey under one year. A donkey was the common man’s mode of transport and was considered part of his possessions which he dearly cared for (Ex 20:17). It was not a status symbol or a symbol of honour, but a symbol of simplicity and humility. The Messiah King did not choose a steed and a chariot, but a donkey or rather, her foal which was still an inexperienced baby. Could a foal ever carry a king? But it did. That was the working of God which contradicted human wisdom. That is why the psalmist invites the congregation to praise him.
When Jesus used a donkey for his journey to Jerusalem it was a sign of his humility and simplicity. Today’s gospel follows on the same lines where Jesus thanks the Father for hiding the revelations about His Kingdom from the wise and the learned, but for having revealed them to mere infants. For the esteemed wise and learned in the NT times Greek words sophoi and sunetoi were used. Matthew’s use of this word pair has almost always a negative tone. It refers to the wise in the Greek sense – a kind of intellectuals who were only bookish and lacked credibility. Theirs was a static knowledge that imprisoned people in categories. It was not a knowledge that could mellow down and was too legalistic unable to come down to realistic human situations. They were too bent on parading their superior worldly intelligence than helping people. St Paul call such wisdom folly. When Matthew spoke of the wisemen who visited Jesus at His birth, he used the Greek word magoi from which we have the English word Magi.
The gospel was announced to the poor and lowly. They alone could respond to the gospel. The wise and the learned were the unbelieving pharisees, scribes and priests, in contrast with the faithful disciples, tax collectors, and sinners with whom Jesus keeps company. The learned wo/men not only missed the bus, joined the opposite camp, and led Him to death. The language of radicality which Jesus spoke could never be grasped by them. They wanted to imprison Jesus in their own categories. This gospel passage reflects the tensions that existed between Jesus and the Pharisees as well as the differences between the Pharisees and the Matthean Christians for whom Matthew wrote. Pharisaic Judaism took the upper hand after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. Here the tension between the two alternative models of holiness is expressed. The slavish observance of the Mosaic law as taught by the Pharisees was difficult and burdensome. In contrast, Jesus’ way of holiness is presented as uncomplicated and as offering comfort and rest to the overburdened people. Jesus came not to burden people with a legalism, but to make all human beings free as the children of God. Christianity should not be a set of rigorous rules in terms of dos and don’ts. It is the loving invitation of the merciful Father to respond to His loving plan of salvation.
To do that, we do not need superior intelligence. We only need to believe in the gospel message. For that what we need is only a child-like faith. Jesus says that he revealed the truths of His Kingdom to mere infants. Yes, unless we become like infants, laying aside our superior intelligence, and believe in the simple, yet challenging message of the gospel we cannot be saved. The attitude of an infant is trustful dependence on its parents. Can we approach the Heavenly Father with such a spirit of simplicity and dependence trusting in him rather than in our prudence, human reasoning and wisdom? The secret of salvation lies in that alone.