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The Passion, a Fish, and a Coin
A Reflection on Ezekiel 1:2-5, 24-28c and Matthew 17:22-27
Many read Matthew 17:22-27 and just think, hmmm. At first, you really don’t know what to think about it. Perhaps, the message of the Gospel is that it can pay to go fishing? But, I don’t think so. It is certainly not as exciting as the first reading with its dramatic description of God appearing to Ezekiel. We hear in that reading of a dramatic vision of the glory of God,
Like the bow which appears in the clouds on a rainy day was the splendor that surrounded him. Such was the vision of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. (Ezekiel 1:28 NABRE)
In the Gospel, that same God, our Lord, Jesus, stood in a dusty little corner of Galilee and told His disciples of His passion. He told them now for the second time,
"The Son of Man is to be handed over to men, and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day." (Matthew 17:22–23 NABRE)
That God, who showed such glory to Ezekiel, could allow this is unfathomable. The first time Jesus tells the disciples of His passion and death, Peter refutes the death of His friend and the one who he has come to believe is the Messiah, the Son of the living God (Matthew 16:6). When Peter does this, Jesus rebukes him in the strongest language possible, and tells him to get out of His way. Jesus,
“… turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” (Matthew 16:23 NABRE)
Today in the Gospel, there is no more denial. It is replaced by an overwhelming grief. Imagine that you are one of the disciples. How would you have felt? You have seen this man work miracles, feeding the five thousand. You have seen this man act with incredible mercy in the healing of the sick so numerous that Jesus had to go out into the wilderness to have time just to pray. You have seen Him preach with great passion and love for all, so much so that He had to climb into a boat or go up upon a high mountain so that the crowds could hear Him. Yet, the religious leaders of Israel, who have witnessed the same miracles, who have seen the same healings, and who have heard the irrefutable teaching of love, still relentlessly attack him.
The disciples were probably angry, frustrated, and just weary of all the animosity. Now they are overwhelmed with grief with yet another prediction of the Lord’s passion and death. The death of one that they love. Though they may have sensed that it would come to this, it is still unimaginable. It is as St Jerome translated this verse in the Latin Vulgate, Et contristati sunt vehementer: “And they were vehemently saddened.” True consideration of the Lord’s passion will dilate all the dimensions and capabilities of our heart for sorrow. More than once in praying the stations of the cross, I have seen even the most stoic of individuals break down in tears when they fully absorb what we did to our Lord because of our sin.
The disciples, in their grief, probably missed Jesus’ last words, “and he will be raised on the third day” (Matthew 17:23 NABRE) It isn’t that they weren’t very smart. Unlike you and I, who know the end of the story, they had no context within which to place these words. So, they were overwhelmed with grief.
We do, however, know the end of the story. Jesus is risen and we know that through our Baptism, the continuing strengthening of all the Sacraments, a life lived in love of God and neighbor, and through God’s infinite divine mercy that death has no hold on any of us. St Paul laughs at death as he writes,
Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:55–57)
The truths proclaimed in the Gospel today must be one that constantly resounds in the deepest part of our soul, death has no meaning, suffering is passing, for Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, through His passion and death, has redeemed us. We cannot be a people overcome with grief. Because through that passion and death we are not people of this world, but citizens of heaven. We are a people that live in profound, deep, and almost overwhelming joy. Pope Francis writes in his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel),
“The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice.” … “that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. (EG 5,6)
The Gospel today, ends with the same sort of joy. Jesus is challenged once again, this time by the IRS of the Temple, as to whether He would pay the yearly temple tax required of all males over the age of twenty-two. Many, at the time, could not afford to pay the tax and the Sadducees used it as a bludgeon against the poor. The Temple authorities, if Jesus and his disciples could not pay the tax given their humble background, would have stood clearly condemned. Again, these are the same people who have witnessed the miracles, healings, and teachings yet, closed their eyes to God right in front of them. Jesus tells Peter that they are not foreigners but subjects, better translated from the Greek as “sons,” who are not subject to the tax. The King would not tax His sons but those who stand outside of the family. Jesus is God, the object of the worship of the temple! Yet, to not give offense, He produces the required tax for both He and Peter found in the mouth of a fish!
Jesus is reminding us that for the faithful, He will provide what we need. We are not to give offense when it comes to doing what is right as a part of the communities in which we live. We must live in this world of taxes, laws, crazy politics, and both good and corrupt leaders. But we do not have to dwell there in our hearts. We are to be good citizens on earth only because we are first good citizens of heaven. We do not give offense so that others may see the immense assurance of salvation and life everlasting which should cause a joy that permeates every fiber of our being. St Peter writes of this in addressing the early Church,
Although you have not seen him you love him; even though you do not see him now yet believe in him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of [your] faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:8–9 NABRE)
The disciples did not know the end when they heard the second prediction of Jesus’ passion, but we do. Grief does not overwhelm us. In fact, grief has no home in the believer’s heart. It has no power over us. Why?
Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. (Memorial Acclamation)
This is our source of joy! Jesus is Lord!
Francis. Evangelii Gaudium. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2013. Print. Apostolic Exhortation.
New American Bible. Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011. Print.
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