When the fathers of the epochal Vatican Council, 1962-65 went to work on the liturgy, or church prayer, they arranged it that we would be exposed to more of the Scriptures. They put aside the annual cycle of Mass readings and replaced it with a three-year cycle, based on a year for each of the Gospels, with John being divided up to fill gaps in the other three, especially Mark, the shortest one. But even with that, so much of the Bible stays unvisited by most Catholics. Protestants think we are afraid of it.
Here is a surprising passage from Matthew (17, 24-27) you will not find in the current weekend readings:
“When they came to Capernaum, the collectors of the temple tax approached Peter and said, ‘Doesn’t your teacher pay the temple tax?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. When he came into the house, before he had time to speak, Jesus asked him, ‘What is your opinion, Simon? From whom do the kings of the earth take tolls or census tax? From their subjects or from foreigners?’ When he said, ‘From foreigners,’ Jesus said to him, ‘Then the subjects are exempt. But that we may not offend them, go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.’”
The tax here is not the one Jesus was quizzed about when Pharisees were trying to trap him into counseling listeners about rendering to Caesar. It was the temple tax. Since this Gospel was written down in its final form by about 85, scholars say that Jesus’ authority was being used by the robust early church to declare independence from Judaism. We Christians were excommunicated from Judaism in 70, so any loyalty of a Christian Jew to the temple was understandable, but there was no tax bill for it. Yet your initial impression from this passage was probably how Jesus used his divine power to pay his and Peter’s tax. Wouldn’t you like that to happen to you some April?
Or how about this passage from Mark (7, 25-30)?
“Soon a woman whose daughter had an unclean spirit heard about him. She came and fell at his feet. The woman was a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by birth, and she begged him to drive the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.’ She replied and said to him, ‘Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying this, you may go. The demon has gone out of your daughter.’ When the woman went home, she found the child lying in bed and the demon gone.”
Dogs? Is this our Jesus? Once again the early church in its remarkable self-confidence uses the authority of Jesus decades after his death and resurrection to deal with what scholars call the most difficult crisis the church has faced in 20 centuries, much worse than any of today’s controversies: should we admit non-Jews (gentiles) to the church? It almost ended the community before it started. Conservative Christians said Jesus preached only to fellow Jews, observing the Torah injunctions to avoid gentiles. But liberal Saint Paul, a Pharisee and therefore a super-observant Jew, argued that the salvation won by the Lord’s death and miraculous resurrection could not be restricted just to fellow Jews. He said it was meant for everyone For this reason, Jews today will tell you they have far more problem with Paul than with Jesus.
Paul took the covenant God had initiated with Moses some 12 centuries before and daringly defied the prohibition about mingling with the enemy. He said faith in Jesus is what identifies a follower of him, not circumcision or family membership in the Jewish people. We gentile Christians take it for granted that we are welcome, for doesn’t “Catholic” mean everybody? But it was not always so. We were the dogs, so the early church, composed mostly of Jewish converts, presents Jesus rejecting our exclusion now that there is a new standard for discipleship.
Vatican II expanded Sunday readings a little, but how much better it would be to pick up the Gospels and read them through in full. Tolle et lege. Take and read.