Year A – 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Ten Commandments

[Ex.22:20-26; 1Thess.1:5c-10; Mt.22:34-40]

Some time ago, a person of Protestant persuasion challenged me, asking: ‘What right does the Catholic Church have to change the Ten Commandments?’

At the time, I had no idea what he was talking about, but he was adamant that the Church had changed the Ten Commandments to suit itself. Since then, I’ve looked into this story, and now I’d like to share it with you.

The Ten Commandments are recorded in two books of the Bible (Ex.20:1-17; Deut.5:4-21). In both places the words are almost identical, but there’s no numbering system at all. This is puzzling, because the Bible mentions ‘Ten’ commandments three times (in Ex.34:28; Deut.4:13; and 10:4). But it doesn’t say how the words should be divided up to make 10 commandments. 

If you read these two texts carefully, you’ll notice that there are actually more than ten commands (or imperative statements) in them. In Exodus (20:1-17), for example, there are 14 commands. Most of them begin with ‘You shall …’

Centuries ago, various scholars tried to solve this problem by devising ways to identify the 10 commandments. So, today there are three main approaches:

  • One is called the Talmudic division, and it’s used by most Jews;
  • St Augustine devised another approach in the 5th Century, and it’s mainly used by Catholics and Lutherans. (This tradition began long before anyone numbered the verses in the Bible); and
  • A third method, called the Philonic division, was devised by the Church Father, Origen. The Protestants copied this from the Eastern Orthodox. 

What’s the difference? Well, comparing the Augustinian and Philonic methods, the main difference is in the grouping of the first and last commandments. St Augustine combined the commands about worshipping God at the beginning of the list, and he separated the commands about moral wrongs at the end. The Philonic method does exactly the opposite.

For example, St Augustine identified the last two commandments as:

9.   Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife; and

10. Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s goods.

But the Philonic method combines them:

10.  Thou shall not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife … nor anything that is thy neighbour’s.

However you slice and dice the commandments, though, the words haven’t changed. They’re just numbered differently. And while the Catholic Church does mainly use St Augustine’s method, it doesn’t prefer one method over another. It considers them all acceptable.

So, what is the point of this story? I think this story does two things. Firstly, it demonstrates that so much division in our world comes from misunderstanding. Our world would be so much happier if we all took the time to get to know each other better.

Secondly, this story reminds us that many people tend to focus on the letter of the law, rather than its spirit or essence. Their approach is rather legalistic.

The Pharisees were like that. They identified 613 laws in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and spent all their time worrying about complying with the details, rather than trying to understand their meaning and purpose.

In today’s Gospel, the Pharisees ask Jesus which is the greatest commandment of the Law. Jesus side-steps the 613 laws in the Torah and goes straight to the heart of what they’re all about. He replies that the greatest and first commandment is to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’ (Deut.6:5).

Then he says that the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Lev.19:18).

Loving God and loving our neighbour are two sides of the same coin. Together they represent the very essence of our faith. This is what it means to be Christian. But you must do both; it’s not enough to love God and ignore your suffering neighbour. And it’s not enough to love your neighbour while turning your back on God.

This is what Jesus is telling us. He basically says that we don’t have to be too concerned about the 613 laws in the Torah. We don’t even have to worry about the detail of the original Ten Commandments. For if we truly love God and our neighbour, with all our hearts, souls and minds, then we’ll naturally avoid breaking any of the Ten Commandments, regardless of the way they are numbered.

That’s why Jesus says, ‘On these two commandments hang the whole law and the prophets also’.

This is the very heart of our Christian faith. 

How well do you love God and your neighbour?

Year A – 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Giving to Caesar, Giving to God

[Isa.45:1,4-6; 1Thess.1:1-5b; Mt.22:15-21]

In Matthew’s Gospel today Jesus utters the famous line ‘give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God’. What does that mean?

To answer that, let’s go back into history. 2,000 years ago, many people in Israel were great haters. The Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, hated the Roman invaders. They also hated the Jewish Herodians who supported the Roman ruler Herod Antipas.

In return, the Herodians hated the Pharisees, because they thought they were too nationalistic. And both the Pharisees and Herodians hated Jesus because (like many people today) they considered him a threat to their comfortable lifestyles. 

In today’s Gospel, however, both groups put their politics aside and join together to challenge Jesus: they ask Him a question about the Roman census tax.  In those days, the Roman Empire expected every man, woman and slave aged between 12 and 65 to pay an annual tax of one denarius – the equivalent of one day’s pay.


The Pharisees hated the tax for religious reasons, while the Herodians supported it for political reasons. But now that doesn’t matter, for they all want to destroy Jesus. So, they ask him, ‘Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’

They’re trying to trap Jesus. They expect that whatever answer He gives will be the wrong one. If He supports the tax He’ll anger the Jews, and if He opposes the tax He’ll upset the Romans. They quietly rub their hands with glee.

But Jesus knows what’s going on. He tells them that they’re hypocrites, and then asks them to show Him the coin they use to pay the census tax. One of them gives him a coin, a denarius. In those days, that coin had the image of the Emperor Tiberius on it.

Now, they are embarrassed. That’s because the first commandment says ‘you shall not have any graven images’, and here they are standing in the Temple, the holiest place in all of Judaism, with a coin bearing a graven image. 

And it gets worse for them. The coin also has an inscription on it which says, ‘Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of the divine Augustus.’ 

And on the other side of the coin it says ‘Pontifex Maximus’, or supreme priest. Basically, this coin is saying that Caesar is a god. For Jews, this is both blasphemy and idolatry.

Jesus asks them, ‘whose image is this and whose inscription?’ They sheepishly reply, ‘Caesar’s’, and then Jesus says to them, ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s.’

By focussing on the image stamped on the coin, Jesus is reminding them (and us) that we’re all created in the image of God. Genesis 1:27 tells us that in the beginning, ‘God created humankind in his image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them.’

Jesus is subtly making the point that while Caesar’s image is stamped on the coin, God’s image is actually stamped on us – on our hearts and on our lives. 

By telling us to ‘give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ He is instructing us to be good, responsible citizens in this world. We need to pay our dues. And by telling us to ‘give to God what is God’s,’ Jesus is reminding us that we all belong to Him. 

We’re not only citizens of our country; we’re also citizens of God’s Kingdom, and we have responsibilities in both places.  We should not neglect one over the other.

So, how do we give to God what is God’s?

The answer is in next Sunday’s Gospel. That’s when we’ll hear a Pharisee ask Jesus, ‘Master, which is the greatest commandment of the law?’ Jesus replies that we must love God with all our hearts, with all our minds, and with all our souls. Then He say we must love our neighbour as ourselves – and so we should, for if God’s image is inscribed on us, then it must also be inscribed on everyone else around us, too.

That’s how we give to God what is God’s. God created us; He loves us and we all belong to Him. In return, God wants us to love and honour Him. He wants us to recognise all the many blessings He has given us – our families, our friends and our lives.

At the end of our first reading today, God says, ‘…apart from me, all is nothing’ (Is.45:6). 

So, are you giving to God what belongs to God?

Year A – 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Excuses, Excuses

(Isa.25:6-10a; Phil.4:12-14; Mt.22:1-14)

Years ago, I worked with a man who was very often late for work. He had so many excuses that they became a running joke among the staff.

Why do people make excuses? It’s because they worry about what others might think of them, and they don’t like feeling embarrassed.

People have been making excuses ever since the dawn of time. In Genesis, when God asks Adam and Eve about the forbidden fruit, Adam blames both God and Eve by saying, ‘The woman you gave me for my companion, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.’ And Eve blames the serpent: ‘the serpent deceived me, and I ate’ (Gen.3:12-13).

Neither wants to take responsibility for their actions.

Moses, too, comes up with several excuses when God asks him to lead his people. He says he’s not good enough and he doesn’t know what to say. He also says he doesn’t have the authority and he’s not a good speaker (Ex.3:11; 4:13). Eventually, however, he comes around to doing what he is asked.

When we make excuses, we might feel happy for a while because we’ve dodged some discomfort. But we also risk feeling anxious or depressed later on, when we realise that we’ve neglected something important.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us his Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Heaven is like a wedding banquet, Jesus says, and he tells the story of the king who sends out invitations to his son’s wedding.

None of the guests is interested, however. They all make excuses. One person is too caught up in his work and can’t get away. Another is too busy shopping, and a third person is too involved with his family. He has just got married and simply can’t come (cf. Lk.14:15-24).

The king is annoyed, but doesn’t cancel the celebration. Instead, he extends the invitation to many other people, and lots of them attend.

In this story, the king is God Himself, and the wedding banquet represents the kingdom of God. Those He invites first are the religious leaders of Israel who hear the Gospel but refuse to accept it. The servant messengers are the prophets of old, and the second-round invitees are everyone else, including the tax collectors and sinners – and of course, you and me.

The king is offering his guests a feast of eternal happiness and joy, but none of those first invited can be bothered to attend. They all have other priorities.

The point Jesus is making here is that the doors of heaven are open wide, and He has come to invite Israel to join Him there. Sadly, these wayward guests are too busy with their worldly affairs to appreciate the value of His offer.

It’s only the tax collectors, the sinners, the poor, the blind and the lame, who are wise enough to understand what it means.

It’s no different today. God has not withdrawn His invitation to this fabulous event. It’s still current, and the doors of heaven are still wide open. As God says in Jeremiah 29:11, ‘I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’

But how do we respond? Are we making excuses? Are we avoiding the obvious? Sooner or later, we will have to take responsibility for our choices.

Let’s close with some verses from an old song by the Kingsmen quartet:

Excuses, excuses, you’ll hear them every day.
And the Devil he’ll supply them, if the church you stay away.
When people come to know the Lord, the Devil always loses
So to keep them folks away from church, he offers them excuses.

In the summer it’s too hot. And in the winter, it’s too cold.
In the spring time when the weather’s right, you find someplace else to go.
Well, it’s up to the mountains or down to the beach or to visit some old friend.
Or, to just stay home and kinda relax and hope some kin will drop in.

Excuses, excuses, you’ll hear them every day.
And the Devil he’ll supply them if the church you stay away.
When people come to know the Lord, the Devil always loses
So to keep them folks away from church, he offers them excuses.

Well, a headache Sunday morning and a backache Sunday night.
But by worktime Monday morning, you’re feeling quite all right.
While one of the children has a cold, ‘Pneumonia, do you suppose?’
Why the whole family had to stay home, just to blow that poor kid’s nose.

Excuses, excuses, you’ll hear them every day.
And the Devil he’ll supply them if the church you stay away.
When people come to know the Lord, the Devil always loses
So to keep them folks away from church, he offers them excuses.

So to keep them folks away from church, he offers them excuses. [i]



Year A – 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Parable of the Wicked Tenants

(Isa.5:1-7; Phil.4:6-9; Mt.21:33-43)

As Christians we know that everything comes from God.  We come from God, and all we have comes from God. Indeed, all of Creation comes from Him. Yet it seems clear that God is progressively being squeezed out of our society and even out of our lives.

For example, few people today speak of God’s Creation, even though He gave us responsibility for it. Now, it’s simply called ‘the environment’ and God is rarely, if ever, ever mentioned.

As well, our English language is full of biblical references, but few know this. Consider, for example, ‘Labour of love’ (1Thess.1:3); ‘Letter of the law’ (2Cor.3:6); ‘Apple of my eye’ (Deut.2:10); ‘Signs of the times’ (Mt.16:3); ‘At my wit’s end’ (Ps.107:27); ‘Bite the dust’ (Ps.72:9); and ‘Drop in the bucket’ (Is.40:15).

And did you notice the words ‘Sour Grapes’ in our first reading today? We all use these phrases, but who remembers where they come from?

For most people, too, Sundays are no longer for God. They’re for sports, shopping and seeing friends. And most are unaware that the Church started the schools, hospitals and welfare services we all now take for granted. And even when these services are still labelled ‘Christian,’ too many people don’t understand what that means.  Indeed, too many parents want the benefits of a Christian education for their children without any reference at all to Jesus.


Recently I read about some research which found that forgiveness is good for your health. Jesus made this point 2,000 years ago (and even forgave those who crucified Him), but He wasn’t mentioned in that article.

Step by step, God is being deleted from our lives, and too many of us seem happy to go along with that.

This isn’t new, however.

Our first reading today is Isaiah’s Song of the Vineyard. It’s the story of a beautiful vineyard that its owner carefully develops and hands on to tenants to manage. But instead of producing a bountiful harvest, all they grow is sour grapes.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus continues this theme in his Parable of the Wicked Tenants. A landowner gives his beautiful vineyard to tenants to look after while he’s away. He expects them to look after it, but when harvest time comes and he sends his servants to collect his share of the produce, the tenants simply abuse or kill them.

The landowner then sends his son, expecting that he might at least receive some respect, but the tenants kill him, too. They have no sense of responsibility or gratitude.


In this parable, the vineyard represents the world the world we live in. The tenants are the people of the world, including you and me. The landowner is God, who has created this wonderful vineyard and given it to us to look after for Him.

The servants are the prophets God sends to remind us of our responsibilities. And the son is Jesus, who as we know was killed by wicked tenants in Jerusalem.

So what can we take from all this?

Well, these stories should encourage us, for it’s not just today that God has become unfashionable. The world has been trying to banish God ever since the time of Adam and Eve. But the truth is that we all need Him.

Just about everyone has a deep longing for peace, joy, love, kindness and trust. But we know that we cannot achieve any of these things on our own.


Indeed, St Paul in Galatians 5:22 tells us that these are the fruits of the Holy Spirit. They are the very fruits that God wants us to grow in our own vineyards.

And how might we grow them? By inviting the vine of Christ to take root in our lives.

Jesus is first ‘planted’ in us at our baptism, and thereafter we need to cultivate his presence all through our lives, nurturing and encouraging it to grow and produce an abundant harvest of fruits for all to enjoy. 

In John 15:5, Jesus says, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.’

Last Wednesday, the Church celebrated the feast of St Francis of Assisi. St Francis clearly saw God’s creation as his vineyard, and he seriously nurtured the vine of Christ inside himself. He did this so effectively that 800 years later he’s still producing abundant fruit today.

Now, this is our challenge.

What fruits are you producing in your life?