Gospel of Matthew

An Unexpected Journey- How September 21st, 2017 Became the New Start to my Spiritual Path

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Over the past few weeks, life has been throwing stress-filled curveballs at me. Reeling from anxiety, anger, and frustration, I recently went to the spiritual medicine box—Confession—to gain sacramental graces to help me grow in patience and perspective. I experienced a true transformation in my life this week in the days following my reconciliation with God, the Church, and my fellow man. September 21st, 2017 became a new launching point for my spiritual journey. Excited for this re-start on my path toward Christian holiness, I will provide a few reasons why this date holds a special place in my heart.

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1. Anniversary of the Publication of The Hobbit: Eighty years ago, on September 21st, 1937, The Hobbit—an essential item on any fantasy fan’s bookshelf—was published. Eight decades later the tale of J.R.R. Tolkien still instills wonder in its readers.

Regrettably, I did not explore Middle Earth until my mid-20s. Over the past five years, I have read The Hobbit twice and The Lord of the Rings trilogy once.

A true literary treasure is measured through its ability to stand the test of time. Nearly a century later, I would say that Tolkien’s work passes with flying colors. Characters within the story seem to speak directly to me. For instance, the dwarf Thorin tells Bilbo, “There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” How easy is it for us to lose memory of the importance things in life? I forget fairly quickly. Tolkien reminds me to look for the hidden joys in my life. Perhaps, an unexpected journey is in store for me starting September 21st, 2017.

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2. Happy Holiness Day: Along with the anniversary of The Hobbit, September 21st is the feast day of my patron saint—St. Matthew, Apostle and Evangelist. Before his “coming to God moment”, Matthew worked for the Roman equivalent of the IRS. Hatred of paying government taxes is an innate principle built into humanity. Palestine 30 A.D. was no different. What courage and faith it must have taken Matthew to leave his luxurious, high paying government job? Tax collectors were considered traitors to the Jewish people. They basically did the Roman government’s dirty work of extolling individuals for money. I always imaged how Matthew would fit in with Jesus’ motley crew of Apostles. Was he accepted right away? Did trust issues exist?

While such questions are purely speculative, but I find pondering the transition of Matthew from a hated tax collector to an evangelist helpful in my relationship with my patron saint. I too struggle to fit in at times, yet I am gifted with the ability to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ just like St. Matthew! September 21st is the beginning of my re-commitment to evangelize through my writing, family life, and volunteering at my parish. I hope to exhibit the same steadfast faith as Matthew did when Jesus said, “Follow me” (Luke 5:27).

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3. September of Sacraments: Together with my patron saint and favorite fantasy jubilees occurring on the same day, the month of September started as a transitional month for my family and I. My wife began a new job, our children started to get in the school routine, and changes galore occurred at work. Through the grace of God and ability in our hectic scheduling, and mostly due to my serious need for divine assistance I went to confession twice this month. During my first confession, the priests gave me this amazing penance—pray the Prayer of Humility. Humility is the virtue that stands in opposition to the vice of pride. Pride is what made the Devil fall from his celestial pedestal as God’s favored angel. Pride leads me to be an inferior version of myself. Let us briefly ask God for the gift of true and beautiful humility:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me. From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved… From the desire of being extolled … From the desire of being honored … From the desire of being praised … From the desire of being preferred to others… From the desire of being consulted … From the desire of being approved … From the fear of being humiliated … From the fear of being despised… From the fear of suffering rebukes … From the fear of being calumniated … From the fear of being forgotten … From the fear of being ridiculed … From the fear of being wronged … From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I … That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease … That others may be chosen and I set aside … That others may be praised and I unnoticed … That others may be preferred to me in everything… That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should…

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Unexpected journeys are difficult, but the joy attained through its travel is immeasurable. Jesus tells his disciples [and us], “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25). God asks us each day is: will you follow me? Starting on September 21st, 2017, I said yes! I renewed my commitment to follow His lead. Will I continue on this path? I certainly hope so, only time will truly tell. I will close with the following exchange between the hobbit and wizard before the great journey:

Gandalf: I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it’s very difficult to find anyone.

Bilbo: I should think so—in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can’t think what anybody sees in them …

Gandalf: You’ll have a tale or two to tell when you come back

Bilbo: You can promise that I’ll come back?”

Gandalf: No. And if you do, you will not be the same

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Who Do You Say that I am?

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Who are you? This is normally the first question we either ask a person or obtain an answer upon meeting someone for the first time. The Gospel reading for the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time is Matthew 16:13-20—AKA the institution of the papacy. Jesus asks his apostles the following question, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). Having performed many miracles and healings, along with teaching with great teaching authority from God, Jesus elicited a decisive reply from his apostles. Rumors were circulating about the identity of Jesus: Herod claimed he was really John the Baptist [see Matthew 14:1-2] others viewed him as a profound teacher [see Matthew 8:18]. Confusion existed over the uniqueness and purpose of Jesus’ mission during his time on earth.

Peter outlines the various rumors already circulating about in ancient Palestine: Jesus is a reincarnation of old prophets or even John the Baptist [who was beheaded back in Matthew 14!]. Instead of chastising the fisherman, Jesus continues to question: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). I have heard this gospel reading dozens of times now. The problem I struggle with as I grow older is that discovering newness to a biblical passage occurs less and less as the years pass. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, I was able to find a new perspective on Matthew 16:13-20. Let me explain three ways I viewed this passage in a newer light.

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1. Questioning is good: Skeptics gets a bad rap from supporters of religion. The word skeptic is defined as a person inclined to question or doubt all accepted opinions. According to this definition, I most certainly am considered a skeptic at least when it comes to the first half of the definition. I question nearly everything. I ask probably at least a hundred questions a day- both at work and home. Sometimes I feel that people get irritated when I ask so many questions. Whether this belief is founded or not depends on the tone and manner upon which I query. People who genuinely are curious about truth and honestly strive to gain knowledge about the world should not feel guilty about questioning. “There are no such things are a dumb question,” I remember many of my elementary and high school teachers telling me and fellow students.

In other words, a moderate amount of skepticism is good and healthy. Without skepticism we venture to the other side of the spectrum of belief—naivety! Matthew 16:13:20 presents Jesus as a questioner. Twice he asks Peter about who he thinks Jesus really is. Peter’s claim is that Jesus is the Christ—the anointed One from God.

Now, this claim was not simple religious gullibility. Peter and the Apostles spent a lot of time with Jesus traveling from city to city hearing his teaching. Along with listening to his message, the disciples witnessed several miracles first hand. I realized that the evangelist does not have Jesus prod the disciples about his identity until almost midway through the gospel. Why is that? Should not Jesus’ identity be discussed sooner? Reflecting on this chapter in Matthew, I read the chapters leading up and I concluded that perhaps Jesus wanted to give his followers sufficient time for receiving evidence [i.e. witnessing his works, listening to his teaching] before he confronted them with such a loaded question.

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2. Truth beyond Perspectives: An anonymous quote I discovered the other day states, “Never believe everything you hear. Because there are always three sides of a story. Yours, theirs and the truth.” Perspective is the ability to look at an event through the lens of another and understand that individual’s point of view. This does not necessarily mean that you have to agree with that perspective, but many situations involve several sides. Belief of Jesus is no different. Discussion about the most famous person in history continues today. People claim to know who he is, others suspend judgment, and still others outright reject the existence of Jesus.

Catholics believe that Jesus institutes the papacy in Matthew 16:17-19. Jesus gifts the early Church with a steadfast promise of clarity—in the office of the pope. “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood* has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father,” Jesus states in Matthew 16:17. Peter and his successors are not honored by the Catholic Church because they were awesome people—remember Peter actually denied knowing Jesus three times before the Crucifixion! God made an interesting selection for the first leader of the Church after Jesus’ Ascension.

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Catholics respect the authority of the pope because the Holy Spirit guided Peter [and his successors] and endowed him [and his successors] the gift of discernment and clarity on matters of faith and morals. The Holy Spirit helps the pope present such issues with clarity in confusing times. True, certain matters and events have varying perspectives. But the office of the papacy is guided by the Holy Spirit to allow the leader of the Church to being incapable of officially teaching erroneous things regarding faith and morality.

Light is composed of all visible colors in the electromagnetic spectrum. A prism is a tool to demonstrate this truth through refracting light into various wavelengths. In an analogous manner, the pope acts as a sort of theological prism upon which the unity of office is reflected in the diversity of individuals who hold that office. Over time, truth passed on to Peter from Christ is clarified and more clearly defined by future popes. Seen apart, each pope may seem to be teaching differently. However, when viewed through the prism of history and the office of the papacy, Catholic teaching is concentrated into a singular light of truth.

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3. Who is Jesus to Me?: “Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me,” Jesus urges his Apostles in Matthew 25:45. How often do I forget that humanity on the periphery— the impoverished, the infirmed, individuals filled with despair, etc—are people I am called to love and serve. As an American, I have grown accustomed to decent living conditions. I have a house, family, money to pay the bills, and adequate food. Of course, as a Catholic, I see Jesus most fully present in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and I do make time throughout the month to pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Where I struggle and have an opportunity to improve in my spiritual life is to be more conscience to pray for people on the fringe of society. I need to see Jesus the beggar dwelling inside each of them.

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Who are you? This question should be asked daily in our communication with God. He will reveal Himself but we need to be open to an unexpected answer. Faith and tradition tells us that Jesus is the Christ—the anointed Son of God and Savior of the World. Jesus is also the beggar, the impoverished one, the Suffering Servant—to borrower the evangelist Mark’s favorite title of Jesus. Let us embrace the fullness of Jesus both in his glory and his humility. In doing so, we grow in holiness and learn more about our true identity as well!

Am I Salt or Sugar of the Earth?

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According to Matthew 7:15, Jesus cautions us by saying, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.” Frankly, I did not realize that adage originated from the Gospels. Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. Thinking about this phrase I have come to realize that Jesus is speaking not only to humanity in general, but directly to me! I need to be consistent in my love toward God and my fellow man in order to avoid turning into that same false prophet I am called to be on the look-out for.

Jesus spoke with such clarity and used tangible examples. I am not going to “reinvent the wheel” regarding today’s topic. During his Sermon on the Mount discourse in Matthew 5, the Good Teacher charged his followers to be the salt of the earth. Above there are two pictures: one is salt the other is sugar. At face value both appear to be indistinguishable—similar to a wolf donning lamb’s fleece is camouflaged from its prey. Salt and sugar play a significant part in our life. Both add flavor to otherwise dull food. Excessive amounts of sodium and sugar lead to health problems. What I want to focus on is the dichotomous relationship between salt and sugar? Am I the salt or sugar of the Earth? Let’s see!

1. To preserve or not to preserve…that is the question: Aside from flavoring bland dishes or enhancing taste in already good meals, the main purpose of salt is to preserve food against deterioration. Salt draws out excess water from foods and dehydrates it. This process allows for increased storage times—especially in cases where food is in abundance and needs to be saved for later periods. Jesus used the example of salt because of its universal application and practical usage in daily living. He calls Christians to act as theological relish and preservative to society. Sometimes a little salt goes a long way in improving the taste of food. We need not feel defeated if it feels like we are moving against a seeming endless tide of negativity from the world. Holiness is what all Christians are called to—look at the saints and the witness they provided a world in despair.

2. Deny Yourself and Follow Him: In high school, I took chemistry and became fascinated with the various atomic structures of elements, molecules, and compounds. I found a certain beauty in their ordering and design. Below are picture of the atomic structure of NaCL [sodium chloride- table salt] and C₆H₁₂O₆ [glucose- a common sugar].

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From a microscopic vantage point, a clear distinction may be made between these two common household items. Both are composed of entirely different elements [hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen in Glucose] and [sodium and chloride in salt]. Along with the having different building materials, sugar and salt are fashioned with different types of bonds—covalent and ionic respectively. Covalent bonds are stronger because the shared electron is what keeps the elements held together whereas in an ionic bond one element loses an electron to another causing one element to become positively charged and the other to become negatively charged such as in the case of NaCl or table salt.

In other words, the elements in table salt lose an electron to effect the ionic charge of the sodium or chloride molecule. Initially, losing may be viewing negativity [no pun intended!]. One may think that due to the stronger nature of the covalent bond in sugar that it should be preferred to salt. The New Testament does shed some light on the reality of loss and rejection. Luke 9:23-25 turns this notion on its head when Jesus says, “Then he said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily* and follow me. 24For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?'”

Christ’s words elicit a sense of paradox, yet allure within my mind. Interesting, I gain life when I serving other’s needs above my selfish desires. In my weakness I am stronger! Through a theological ionic bond, Christians act as holy seasoning to embolden our world.

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3. Instant Gratification Leads to Decay: Dentists frighten me. Not in The Exorcist or The Shining sort of way. Still, I get apprehensive, anxious, and move toward hypochondriac-like behaviors when the subject of dentists come up. Perhaps, it stemmed from my penchant as a little kid for losing my teeth quickly and easily. Or maybe my periodontal panic happened due to my need for braces– not once, but twice in my elementary school years! Regardless of where this toothy torment began, I recognize that when I limit my sugar intake life is much easier during my semi-annual check-ups.

Excessive sugar proves damaging to both our physical and mental well-being. Unhealthy attraction to sugar is simply a euphemism for the sin of gluttony. Our society suffers from the belief that instant gratification is better than self-denial or self-control. I am as guilty of this vice as anyone. I have made it a point to limit my sugar consumption and practice fasting– to help me both spiritually and physically. I think Jesus choose not to use sugar as an example to relate to Christians because he understood the appeal and temptation this food item poses for humanity.

While sugar and salt look similiar in outward appearance the two are vastly different. How do we distinguish between the two? First, we learn to trust the authority of the manufacturers, distributors, and sellers of these products. We trust that the packaging is correct. When a box at the grocery store says “SUGAR” it really is sugar and not salt. A second way to learn is more difficult– through the school of experience. Maybe sugar is housed in a clear container in your home. If you forgot to label it only tasting the substance will you determine if it truly is sugar and not salt.

The same may be said about temptations and goods sent our way. Oftentimes, Satan dresses up sin as “sugar” to enhance its allure. This makes is easier to fell prey to his trap. Our adversary disguised sin under the costume of a juicy fruit– see Genesis 3 for the story of the Fall. May we continue to rely on the tradition of the Catholic Church, Sacred Scriptures, and testament of the saints for guidance in our journey toward holiness. Let us be the salt of the Earth and preserve society! There is more to you than meets the eye.

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4 Reasons Why I Relate to Matthew 6:25-34 More than Any Other Bible Passage

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Throughout the Bible the phrase “Do not be afraid” is invoked over 300 times. In fact, the first mention of fear in the Bible is in reference to Adam and Eve hiding for fear of disobeying God for eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Fear, worry, and anxiety are feelings that are at the center of the human condition. The reality of sin—otherwise known as the separation from God—is the number one cause for humanity to fear and worry. As a broken and fallen man, I struggle with worry constantly both in large and trivial matters. Changes at my workplace leads to anxiety on my part and past suffering such as the loss of my unborn child are a couple of the various things I worry about. Even this morning, I got anxious about what topic I should write about today.

Oddly almost immediately after my worrisome thoughts are lacking a subject to write about, my eyes noticed a bible verse I have posted on my cubicle wall. Matthew 6:25-34. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit granted me the gift of knowledge and understanding and shed light on my situation. I thought, “Matt why don’t you write about the subject of worry and God’s answer?!” Here I provide four reasons why Matthew 6:25-34 is the most relatable bible passage for me personally.

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  1. My personal anxiety: For most of my life I have struggled with anxiety and stress. It got so bad in high school that I went to see a counselor for a couple of years. I got it under control better in college but a couple years ago anxiety struck again—after losing my job, suffering a miscarriage, and stresses of adjustment to a new house and city—and attacked me. I have since been on the road to recovery in large part to the sacrament of marriage [my wife’s patience is awesome!] and a discipleship group at church has helped as well. A few weeks ago, I printed off Matthew 6:25-34 and posted on my cubicle wall to remind me that God is in charge. Jesus remind me, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat [or drink], or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? 27Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:25-27).”

 

  1. My Children: When I lost my job I seriously begin to doubt the providence of God and I worried about the very thing Jesus tells us not to worry about above—feeding my children. God provided me with a job that is less stressful that my previous job and allows for excellent flexible options for me to take time off in case my children get sick. Why was I anxious about food and paying the bills? Failure to trust and fear caused by sin. Once again the sacramental graces God poured out to me through my marriage helped me out!

 

  1. Timeless Message: Several passages in the bible sound anachronistic—out of place and outdated. Not so for Matthew 6:24-35. Jesus’ words relayed by the evangelist contain a message that will never age! Finding adequate shelter, food, and clothing will always be relevant for the human race despite the leaps and bounds we have made technologically. That is the genius of the Gospel to stay relevant across centuries and centuries!

 

  1. Birds of a Feather: Living in the Midwest of the United States of America, I see tons of birds in my yard and throughout the city. Robins, crows, and sparrows. Some bible versions translate birds as sparrows. Whether this is the most literal translation is debatable; however, I associate with this passage even more when the word “sparrows” are used. Jesus says, “Look at the birds [sparrows] in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? 27Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span? (Matthew 6:26-27).” I notice animals around my neighbor on a daily basis and they eat on a daily basis. God loves humans immensely more. Do not worry!

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Each spring a sparrow tries to build its nest in our garage. Jesus’ words always come to mind in those I notice twigs and straw hanging from the rafters left by my aviary associate. “Look at the birds [sparrows] in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they?” Yes…He does provide.