It may be a very short Gospel this Sunday but it contains three distinct sections that appear to be quite unrelated. If we find ourselves a bit puzzled as to why these three disparate segments of Christ’s teaching were put together then we first ought to spend a little time considering just how the Gospels were composed.
We have to understand that the Gospels were written some years after the events that they describe. If you look up Wikipedia you will see that many scholars reckon that Matthew’s Gospel was not written earlier than 80 AD which would make it almost fifty years after the death of Christ. The earliest they think is Mark which is dated about 68 AD.
However, none of the Gospels or the Acts of the Apostles (which is essentially the second part of Luke’s Gospel) mentions the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD and since this was something prophesied by Jesus you would think that the fulfilment of his prophecy might have been mentioned. So some of the more traditional theologians argue for an earlier date and tend to think that this proves that all the Gospels must have been written before 70 AD.
Whenever they were written we realise that it likely to have been at least twenty or possibly thirty or more years after the death of Christ. The Gospel writers must, however, have used as their source material many of the stories told about Jesus either in written form or orally given by the original witnesses.
We surmise that these separate stories of particular incidents in the life of Christ were certainly circulating within the Christian community in those early years. Most of these accounts would have been factually based but some might have been a bit more fanciful and it was the Evangelist’s job to sort out the true from the false and to put this vast amount of material together in a coherent and credible way.
That’s why we end up with sections of the Gospel such as the one given today which have three separate pieces of Christ’s teaching put together as if they were spoken on the same day at the same time. But just looking at the text we can see that they are completely unrelated to each other are so were unlikely to have been originally one unit.
This should not undermine our faith in the integrity of the Gospels but rather give us an insight into how they were actually composed. We can regard the Evangelists as being under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as they went about the process of editing the various stories and accounts of the life of Jesus that were handed down to them.
It is the judgement of the early Christian community that those Gospels produced by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are the most authentic and that those put together by other authors are not to be relied upon.
It is time to take a look at the text. The first few sentences provide a way of settling problems within the Christian community. Basically they provide a template of how to deal with the situation if a member of the Church is found to be doing something contrary to the Gospel.
This is a problem which must have come up fairly frequently among the members of the early Church and here the words of Jesus provide a procedure to use in such a situation. What he tells us to do is fairly obvious and follows what we might call the rules of natural justice. Nevertheless, the fact that these words are spoken by Jesus gives the members of the Church reassurance on how to proceed.
In verse eighteen we are given the text about binding and loosing. It is curious because we note that Jesus already spoke those words in chapter sixteen when he told Peter that he would give him the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Perhaps they are repeated because earlier they were addressed only to Peter while here they seem to be addressed to the whole group of disciples. We know that these words are the origin of the Sacrament of Reconciliation and so it is important that they are repeated and said to all the disciples. It is crucial that there should be no ambiguity and that this ministry of reconciliation is not restricted to Peter but involves all of the disciples.
The last couple of sentences are also quite interesting. They speak about where two or three gathered in the name of Jesus having their prayers granted. It reminds us of the earlier phrase in chapter seven: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.’
Jesus certainly encourages us to ask the Father for the things we need and promises that what we ask for will be granted. You might think that this is very rash of him, promising unequivocally that our requests will be granted. And you might also wonder if Jesus’ promise can be relied upon because perhaps you remember some things that you asked for that were not granted.
This is a tricky issue. Some people might say that you ought only to ask for proper things; that would rule out praying for a pay rise or praying for something that might be immoral or to other people’s disadvantage. But Jesus makes no such qualification. However, we do know that prayer changes us. We know that we might start by praying for one particular thing but end up asking for another.
A priest once told me that when he was a teenager he prayed very hard for a motorcycle but never got one. Years later, after he was ordained, he was sent as a missionary to Africa. When he got there the Bishop said that he had no money to provide him with a Land Rover but instead was able to give him a motorcycle. Fifteen years after the event his prayers were answered but certainly not in the way he expected!
I think that we ought to look at intercessory prayer in the same way as that priest learned to do. We ought to see the whole picture and not think in the short term. We might, for example, pray very hard for healing for a particular person, not realising that because of that illness a whole family had started to pull together and were acting as a family unit for the first time. The healing came not to the individual but to them all as a family.
Not only that, but the sick person might have found great meaning and purpose in their life as a result of the suffering they had to undergo. Even if it brought about their early death their illness may have been the very thing that brought them to experience salvation. And what deeper healing could there be than that.
These things are a great mystery. But Christ is clear, ask and it will be given to you. And the text today stresses that praying with others is more powerful than praying alone. We would do well to remember this.
Jesus concludes by reminding us that whenever we gather in his name he is with us. What greater consolation could we have that this? What greater comfort could we have than knowing that he is here with us right now?
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket