THE TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 19, 2014


A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 45:1, 4-6

A reading from St. Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians 1:1-5

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 22:15-21

 

 

The hearers should be stunned when they listen to the opening passage of Isaiah’s prophecy in this Sunday’s first reading. Thus says the Lord to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp. The Hebrew word for anointed is the origin of the word Messiah that becomes, by way of the Greek, Christ. The Jews revered this powerful and significant concept. The fact that a Prophet of God would call any Gentile the anointed of God is astounding.

Who was Cyrus? He was the Persian king whose armies routed the Babylonians, those who had held the Israelites in captivity, enslaving them even as their ancestors had been enslaved in Egypt. It was the Babylonians that had destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. For the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel my chosen one, I have called you (Cyrus) by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. God knew Cyrus intimately and chose him, the Prophet said, and through him brought about the deliverance of Judah that would result in their being able to return to Jerusalem. Whether Cyrus ever knew of his favorable standing with Israel’s God is not important. The lesson is that God is in charge and can choose even a Gentile, even a non-believer, to accomplish God’s will.

To illustrate the point, think of the horror of the Holocaust. In large numbers, Jewish people among others were enslaved in the prison camps, having been taken from their homes and their way of life and shipped off in boxcars to be enslaved in the holding camps where torture and extermination reigned. Skies darkened with the smoke from the crematoria’s chimneys. Over six million were gassed and hundreds of thousands slowly starved to death. Whether or not Cyrus had a counterpart during that terrible time, the eyes of faith recognized God working through the allied forces as they brought about Judah’s deliverance, freed the survivors, and allowed them to return home.

Faith is a gift, the result of God’s grace achieving its purpose in people. We say we believe. That is not as a result of anything we have done. It is a result of grace and our allowing grace to reign in us. Paul said that in practically every salutation he wrote to the various churches even as he does in today’s greeting to the Thessalonians. God chose the Thessalonians – and the Galatians and the Romans and the Corinthians and the Philippians – through Paul’s preaching. In varying degrees the churches responded with the work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.

A crisis of faith occasioned this letter to the Thessalonians that rose from their understanding from Paul’s preaching that they would live to see the day of the Lord, the day of Christ’s return in glory. But some of their members were dying and that day had not been realized. Others were foregoing marriage and work, content to idle the days away as they awaited that day. Paul reminds them of their faith and urges them to live in hope. Hope has been defined as the confident assurance (the word confident means with faith) that nothing will separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus. To live in faith means the Thessalonians will remember that God loves them. The challenge is to live in that love day by day in their various labors all the while believing the Good News Paul announced. Hope in the Lord Jesus. He will not disappoint. Paul preached to them in earnest, inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will empower them to be faithful to the end – even if they do not live to see the day of the Lord’s return.

You believe with that same faith of the Thessalonians. In these difficult times the challenge is to live with the hope, that in spite of all the contrary signs that assail us. You are loved by God. God chose you. The Holy Spirit empowers you to believe that Jesus is Lord. Through your Baptism you have put on Christ and been endowed with the Priesthood of the Baptized. You believe that the church is the People of God. Pope Francis’s preaching regarding this angers many as he calls for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. He challenges the shepherds of the church and us to stand and serve in the midst of the sheep and to smell like them. He demonstrates by the feet he washes that gender and faith do not exclude those whose feet should be washed, those to be served.

Pope Francis reminds you that through your Baptism you have put on Christ and been endowed with the Priesthood of the Baptized. You are called to full, active, and conscious participation in the celebration of Eucharist. Your labors contribute to the building up of the Kingdom. You hasten the day of the Lord’s glorious return. Francis reiterates Paul’s message that it is about love, loving as Jesus loves. It is about serving, serving as Jesus serves. If you are willing to love and to serve the other, the poor and the disenfranchised, the shunned, the off scouring of society, you will see Jesus there and know where hope resides.

Former president Bill Clinton works with Bill and Melinda Gates and their foundation in a hands-on charitable work with AIDS patients in Africa. Their service seems genuine. Their hope is to find a cure and alleviate suffering. Whether they are people of faith is immaterial. The Believers being ministered to recognize God working through them and just they might come to see Christ in those little ones whose needs they serve.

One of the evening newscasts concludes most evenings with a segment titled: Making a difference. Almost invariably, the stories are of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to ease the sufferings of others – cancer patients, the hungry, the disabled, injured veterans. When you see the smiles radiate from the recipients of the loving service, you will recognize people responding the Holy Spirit, loving and serving the most needy among us.

Pardon this aside. As I write this, I think of the item in the morning news that says the wealthiest in the nation are giving less of their wealth to charities than the less wealthy and even the poor. What does that say to us?

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not? Whichever option Jesus selects will entrap him. Either he will be seen as opposing the Romans and so opening him to crucifixion as an enemy of the state; or he will be opposing the Jews and opening him to being stoned. Show me the coin. They must have wondered how he knew they would have the coin since it bore the image of Caesar and therefore was something they should not handle or have part in. Looking at the coin proffered in their hands and then into their eyes, he asked them: Whose image is this and whose inscription?

When they acknowledge that the image and inscription are Caesar’s, Jesus impales them on the horns of a dilemma. Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. The challengers, supposedly, are men of faith, followers of the Law. From that perspective what can possibly belong to Caesar and therefore be repaid when everything belongs to God?

It’s easy to say gotcha! But I don’t think that is the point that Jesus is making. Rather, the challenge is to be what they profess to be. Faith does not result in a life lived apart from the world. Jesus challenges us to look at the world through the eyes of faith and to endorse God’s omnipotence and love for all, even the untouchables. Jesus would be condemned for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes and other categories of sinners. That’s almost as bad as handling a coin with the image of Caesar on it.

If we hear the Gospel we cannot be indifferent. We will have to decide one way or the other, to love or not to love. To walk with Jesus on the way is to decide and to realize that the faith life is lived in a complex world peopled by those who believe and by those who do not. It is to live in a world of political regimes. And for the believer, the constant question centers about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Then they must act accordingly, and to act with love.

Here’s a question to consider. We transition from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Is it your experience that all are welcome to gather with you? Are all welcomed to the Table of the Word and the Table of the Bread and Wine? Are some turned away and told they are not worthy? Are some shunned? What would Jesus say about that? For that matter, what is Pope Francis saying about that?

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 12, 2014

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 25:6-10a

A reading from the Letter of Saint Paul to the Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 22:1-14

 

Imagine how the reading from the Prophet Isaiah would resonate in you were you hungry and unable to buy food that would satisfy that emptiness. Your mouth just might water as you imagined rich food and choice wines, juicy rich food and choice wines set before you for you to savor and enjoy. On the other hand, if you are accustomed to lavish banquets and your stomach is regularly filled to the point that you have to think about cutting back on the calories you consume, the prophecy is not likely to have much of an impact. The fact is, Isaiah preached to a desperate people that wondered if God had abandoned them and if their miseries would ever end. Isaiah revives hope in a nearly broken people.

Imagine how the reading would resonate in you were you feeling alienated, ostracized, or shunned by a community you once thought of as your own. Imagine your tears being wiped away along with those of all the others that weep. Isaiah proclaims a lavish banquet being prepared by God for all peoples. God will heal the divisions and welcome all people to the banquet – even you who have been alienated and shunned. On the other hand, if you are an elitist and judgmental, you might wonder about the attraction of a banquet prepared even for hoi polloi.

And if you are grieving the loss of a loved one or are in the throws of a life-threatening illness, imagine how hearing that God will destroy death forever would resonate. On the other hand, if you are young, healthy, powerful and rich and can’t imagine yourself ever being otherwise, the reading just might sound humdrum.

If you are in need, imagine the prophecy is addressed to you. Imagine and let it transform you.

The parable in Matthew’s Gospel continues the theme of God’s preparing a lavish banquet. The historical context dictates some of the content that might distract the hearer from the core theme. When Matthew wrote his Gospel, he saw the destruction of Jerusalem as consequence of Israel’s rejection of Jesus and their hostility toward the Christian community. Anti-Semitism can be fostered by such interpretations. What present day Assembly should hear in the proclamation this parable is two-fold. The invitation goes out many times even as some ignore or reject the request for their presence. In other words, God’s love is constant. Secondly, take not of those that do come and sit at the banquet – bad and good alike and the hall was filled with guests.

Bad and good? How comfortable are you with that idea? Sit with that a moment before you answer. What is your experience of the Assembly with which you gather for Eucharist each Sunday? How diverse is it? Is it where the elite meet? Are multi races represented? Are there gays and straights? If you flinch, you must ask yourself if you are comfortable with God’s invitation going out to all. Does the stranger wandering in for the first time immediately feel welcomed? Would you be comfortable sitting at that kind of banquet, or are there those you think should be excluded? If at this point you are feeling anxious, that might be grace. Remember, as we gather to listen to the proclamation, we gather to be transformed by it. We shouldn’t go out the same as we were entering in.

I’m afraid that in many areas that is not the image of church that the Catholic community emits. There is not shortage of stories of people being denied Eucharist. Catholic politicians whose stand seem to be in violation to church doctrine; gay couples that have entered into civil marriage; divorced and remarried couples, the list goes on. This is not to say that there are ethical and moral issues that need to be pondered. Sin remains a reality. But the assumption ought to be made that those presenting themselves for Eucharist are seeking transformation just as much as those others who deem themselves worthy. We should not forget that we are a community of sinners called to be saints.

The church must hear Pope Francis’s preaching and pay attention to the practices that are examples to be imitated. Francis has said that the preaching should be about love – love of God and love of neighbor, love that expresses itself in service. We should notice those whose feet the pope has washed. Multi faiths. Both sexes. The imprisoned. Some might see those Francis gathers with is reminiscent of those who sat at table with Jesus. With Pope Francis it is not about splendor and elitism, it is about a poor church serving the needs of the poor. It is about the shepherds being in the midst of and smelling like the sheep. Yes, there is a transcendent God. But God, through Jesus Christ, has chosen also to abide in human kind. And some say that Christ is most evident in the poor, the alienated, and the dispossessed just as he was identified with the lepers, the prostitutes and the tax collectors.

Here is a suggestion. Before going to Mass this weekend, sit with these readings. Read aloud Isaiah’s prophecy and Matthew’s parable. If aspects make you uncomfortable, that is okay. Pray with the readings. Pay attention to the discomfort and let the Spirit speak to you through the discomfort and hear the invitation to change. Imagine hearing the Word as one who is alienated, rejected, or shunned. That’s how conversion to which we all are called happens. Grace transforms.

Then we will be ready to celebrate Eucharist, to renew the Lord’s dying and rising in Bread and Wine. Then we will be ready to sit to the lavish banquet prepared for us and for all until the hall is filled.

Sincerely,

Didymus

 

THE TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 5, 2014

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 5:1-7

A reading from the Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians 4:6-9

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 21:33-43

 

The common theme shared by the reading from the Prophet Isaiah and the reading from Mathew’s Gospel is obvious. The Vinyard figures prominently in both. The link may be obvious, but we must take care regarding the conclusions we draw from that. As is our responsibility as we enter into the Liturgy of the Word, we are called to place ourselves in the readings, let them wash over us, and then see what we hear, that is, how we interpret them. And when we do that the judgment heard in each probably will soften immediately.

Isaiah’s song about his friend’s vineyard is one of disappointment. Notice the care that the friend had taken to ensure the best results come harvest time. The friend (God) built protective surrounding walls around the choicest vines he had planted in the richest soil. Guards watched to fend off those who would violate the vineyard. The winepress awaited the lush crop. The friend had done everything right. The result? Come harvest time, wild, sour grapes good for nothing is what the harvesters found. The heartbroken friend intends to abandon the vineyard, tear down the walls and let the boars graze there.

Had Isaiah seen the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the people, those chosen ones, and the choice vineyard? God lead them out of slavery and brought them to the Promised Land flowing with mild and honey. God entrusted the name to them. All they had to do was be G-O-D’s people and G-O-D would be their god. That meant living in relationship with God, observing the Law that would spell out a lifestyle that would make all other people marvel because no other people had a relationship with their gods as Israel had with Yahweh. Certainly Israel would have nothing to do with pagan ways. That, you would think, should be obvious.

Now Isaiah sees a compromised Israel that has resulted in a weakened people. In the telling of their story Israel has clear hindsight. They see that when they were faithful they were strong. Their infidelity weakened them, leaving them vulnerable a, able to be conquered and led off into slavery. The Babylonian Captivity would be God’s judgment on their faithlessness. They had become wild grapes.

At first reading of the prophecy it might be concluded that God abandoned Israel, gave up on this people once called Chosen. There are those would endorse that interpretation. But God is a faithful God. Even if the people wander away, God’s love remains. The Babylonian Captivity ended and Israel returned home to Jerusalem rejoicing. The Jews will always be the Chosen People of God. John Paul II’s prayer of apology and atonement for abuses inflicted by the Church on the Jewish people attest to that conviction. Benedict XVI continued the atonement in the ever-thawing relationship with the Jewish people. One of Pope Francis’s best friends with whom he keeps close contact is a rabbi.

There is a bit of a different slant to the Vineyard parable that Jesus tells in this week’s Gospel. This time, it isn’t the grapes that go bad. This time the tenants forget they are tenants. The landowner has entrusted the vineyard to them and expected that the yield would be turned over to him when harvest time came. With mounting hostility the tenants reject the successive servants who come to obtain the produce – one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. We see in the rich imagery, Israel’s history. The landowner’s servants are the prophets sent to speak God’s word to the people. What should have been the result of each prophecy? Change of heart. A welcoming word. Repentance. The fate of the prophets often times was to be beaten, stoned, and killed.

The landowner, as a last resort, and with confidence that the emissary will be received with reverence and respect, sends his son. But they beat him thrown him out of the vineyard and kill him. We see Jesus, beaten, crowned with thorns, led outside the walls of Jerusalem, and crucified. The parable becomes Jesus’ prediction of his impending suffering and death.

The Gospel writer composed this parable following the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD. People could look on that event and interpret it as God’s judgment. The relationship between Jewish Christians and their ancestors in faith had become increasingly strained. They were considered a heretical sect and were being thrown out of the synagogues. Some were being arrested and punished for following The New Way. Again, among the growing numbers of Christians, the interpretation could flourish that God had rejected the Jews and put those wretched men to a wretched death. There is no shortage of people who would endorse that interpretation.

Authentic Church teaching is that Israel and the Jewish people are God’s chosen people for all time and eternity. The Church did not supplant Israel to become the new chosen people. The Holocaust was not God’s judgment against the Jewish people. Ours is a favor by adoption. Jesus fulfilled Israel’s vocation of fidelity to God’s will. We share in that fulfillment through our Baptism. We are the adopted children of God through our identity with Jesus Christ. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, himself a Jew, a descendant of Abraham, condemned the idea of God’s rejection of the Jews. And so must we.

Then, what are we to take from this parable? Most obviously, it seems to me, we ought to be sure that we do not act like the tenants in Matthew’s parable, much less become the wild grapes in Isaiah’s prophetic message. There is no acceptable excuse for not being what we are called to be. There is no acceptable excuse for living other than as God’s children, holy and beloved. That is why we are a Eucharistic people who renew the Lord’s dying and rising, giving thanks to God for the favor that is ours in Christ.

Paul sums it up for us in his directive in the second reading:

Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Listen today to the prophet that is Pope Francis as he calls the Church to reform. His reformation? Live the Gospel. Be a poorer church that serves the poor. The shepherds should smell like the sheep and stand in their midst. Put aside the pomp and circumstance that makes of the bishops and elite group. We are all called to be servants and Christ serves. We are to recognize Christ in the poor. We are to remember that together with the poor and the outcasts, we are the Body of Christ. And all are welcome at Christ’s table.

Sincerely,

Didymus

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.