Archive for September, 2008|Monthly archive page


Ezekiel 18:25-28
Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 21:28-32

If Jesus walked the land today, who would be his friends? What types would they be? From what class? Certainly some of them would be the ordinary decent and hard-working types similar to those he invited to leave their nets, follow him and become fishers of people. They weren’t extraordinary in many cases but they had good hearts and were fascinated by the tales he spun. But there would be others with whom he would be seen, with whom he would dine and break bread. These associations would inspire scandal among the elite and those who have no need for forgiveness. The challenge as we listen to the readings for this Sunday is to determine where we would number ourselves. On which side would we be?

To be moved by Ezekiel’s prophecy in the first reading and the questions Jesus poses in the gospel one has to have a sense of being a sinner, or at least a compassion for those who are sinners. The judgmental will be left cold just as were the chief priests and elders confronting Jesus about his authority and who were scandalized because prostitutes, tax collectors, and sinners were known to have dined with him.

The first reading and the gospel hold up the possibility of conversion to us. Conversion can go in either direction, as Ezekiel points out. Someone can grow weary of virtue and take up the ways of the sinner. The sinner can see the light, as they say, and begin to follow virtue’s path. And there are consequences for both – favor with God for the virtuous one and death for the one who embraces evil. The Hebrew Scriptures are very clear about the link between sin, suffering and death and between virtue and life and prosperity.

In the gospel, it is the supposedly righteous, the chief priests and the elders, those who have no felt need for repentance, much less for mercy and who are judgmental about those they deem to be sinners, who want to trap Jesus and to find faults with which to charge him. They do not understand his mission and are scandalized not only by the company he keeps but his seeming disregard for prescripts of the Law. He and some of his disciples had been seen eating without first washing their hands. To them Jesus said: A man had two sons. Each is asked by his father to work in the vineyard. One refuses but later regrets his refusal and goes into the vineyard to work. The second pleases his father with an affirmative response but in turn does not do the work. Which of the two did his father’s will? The hook is baited and dangling and they bite. Their answer? The one who at first said No but later did the work.

Things are seldom what they seem. Skimmed milk masquerades as cream. Gilbert and Sullivan are the source of that observation and it is apt here. Jesus is looking for the genuine article evidenced by the graced invitation to change one’s life and live the law of love. Paul, the Apostle, in the reading from the Letter to the Philippians is one of those who, having encountered Christ and heard him changed his life. If there is any encouragement in Christ (for me writing to you from prison) any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. In order for that to happen each person must do what Paul did in imitation of Jesus. People must empty themselves as Jesus did taking the form of a slave…becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Conversion is that kind of emptying. The annals of the saints are filled with stories of conversions. Certainly Augustine stands in the forefront of those who could say: Late have I loved you. Ignatius, Francis, Teresa of Avila, and countless others all had moments of encounter with Jesus and their lives were never the same again. They, like the tax collectors and prostitutes Jesus had in mind had said no to the father’s directive to work in the vineyard but later said yes. It would be easy to judge them in their original mien and consign them to perdition as the chief priests and elders were wont to do. But Jesus uses them as judgment against their accusers, themselves the ones who had said yes but then refused to do the work. I think of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, saints, I believe, of the last century. Each knew what it meant to be a sinner with sins quite unacceptable to most, who came to profess their faith, die in the waters of baptism and rise to lives of compassion and service of the poor. There are some who judge them to be unworthy of ever being considered for sainthood.

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them, they said about Jesus. This became the charge that justified his crucifixion. Would that today that same charge could be leveled against the church, the Body of Christ. This is not to say come and stay in your sin, much less to deny the reality of sin. Rather, it is to say come and find your way out of the darkness of sin into the light that is the imitation of Christ. We, who are sinners and know what it means to be forgiven, gather around the table of the Word. There we are nourished and challenged to deeper conversion in a process that ends only with the end of this life. We gather around the Table of the Eucharist to give thanks to God in the renewing of Jesus’ dying and rising, that continuing of his pouring out of himself in love for all who would recognize their own emptiness and take and eat and take and drink. There is transformation in the celebration of the Mystery that is Eucharist. Bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood. The people gathered are transformed into Christ’s presence, too. The church is the Body of Christ, to quote Vatican Council II.

Who are the chief priests and elders among us today? I don’t know that that question is as important as my examination of my own conscience to ensure that those attitudes are not mine. Those who would be judgmental have the Lord to answer to. If they are numbered among the baptized, they were sent into the vineyard to be ambassadors of love and forgiveness, to build up God’s kingdom symbolized by the vineyard. None was called to reign but all were called to serve, not to lord it over but to abase themselves in imitation of Christ who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself. And so ought we that Christ might become all and all in us.




Isaiah 55:6-9
Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Matthew 20:1-16a

God, in the Hebrew Scriptures is often characterized as an angry, vengeful God. Granted, there are some passages that might support that characterization. God does punish the Israelites for their infidelities. God certainly rains down havoc on the pursuing Egyptians. Until Moses intervenes, God wants to be rid of the troublesome people who have been lead from slavery into the desert freedom. But that is only part of the picture.

Isaiah reveals the other side of God who is generous and forgiving. Seek the Lord while he may be found. Call him while he is near. Isaiah proclaims the message to the wicked and the scoundrel, in other words, to those most might judge to be outside the pale of God’s mercy. By no means, Isaiah says. God does not think or judge the way people do. God is about forgiveness and mercy. A God who wants to be the people’s God and wants to be in relationship with the people. I will be your God and you will be my people, God says. All the scoundrel and the wicked have to do is change their ways and turn back to God. And Isaiah says that the people shouldn’t try to understand how and why God acts the way God does. People don’t ordinarily think in this way. But God does. And we might say, it’s all about grace, an outpouring of God’s love.

The operative word in Isaiah’s passage is seek. The scoundrel and the wicked still have time to seek God. Isaiah urges them to act without delay because time can run out, after all. Today’s gospel puts a bit of a different slant on the issue. Jesus tells us a familiar parable about a landowner hiring field-workers at various times of the day from early morning to late afternoon, promising the first hired the usual daily wage. He promises to pay those hired later the uncertain and indefinite what is just. This promise is extended to those hired at 5 o’clock for the last hour of the workday.

You remember how the parable goes. Those hired last are paid first and are given a full day’s wage. So are those who were hired at the various other hours during the workday. Each is paid a full day’s wage. Those hired first watch all this and conclude that when their time comes they will be paid even more than the wage to which they had agreed. Who can blame them? After all, it had been a long day of labor in the intense heat of the summer day. They are outraged when they are paid the wage to which they had agreed.

This parable ought not be used as a model for fair practice in the marketplace. That is not what it is about. The key words are in the landowner’s redress to the resentful laborers: I am generous.

Did you ever ask yourself how you would have felt had you been one of those first hired? What assumptions would you have made as you watched those others hired late in the day being paid the full day’s wage? Would you have concluded the same, as did those daylong workers in the parable? Of course, it’s only human after all.

Isaiah said in the first reading: Seek the Lord while he may be found. That is not what happens in the gospel parable. The landowner who is a representation of God is the seeker. The people are idling in the marketplace. They are not seeking work but resenting that no one has hired us. God calls even in the last hour of the day.

There is a marvelous moment near the end of the Evelyn Waugh masterpiece Brideshead Revisited. Lord Marchmain lies on his deathbed surrounded by family and friends including the parish priest who is urging repentance for the Marchmain’s less than virtuous past. It has been years since he received the sacraments. His motives for having been baptized are vague. There has been little evidence of faith. Charles Ryder stands in the group and scoffs at the attitudes of his Catholic friends. The priest whispers God’s love in Marchmain’s hearing. And it happens that just as despair is setting into the witnesses’ hearts, a faltering hand makes the sign of the cross, Marchmain’s final profession of faith.

What do you think of deathbed conversions? What will be their reward as they stand before God’s judgment seat? Surely it will be different for them than for those of us who were baptized in infancy and were faithful through all our lives. That would only be just, wouldn’t it? Perhaps. And who am I to say that there won’t be a difference? But don’t miss an important point in the parable. The Landowner seeks the laborers all through the day and invites them to go into the vineyard to be paid whatever is just. And they are paid the full day’s wage, the same as those who labored through the long day.

Surely God’s ways are not the ways of humankind. A terrible mistake is made when God is imagined as a tyrannical avenger. You have heard, as have I those who are quick to interpret everything from natural disasters to physical illness to be God’s judgment upon sinners. Those who voice such messages would stand among those who asked Jesus about the man born blind. Whose sin was it, this man’s or his parents’ that he was born blind? And the answer remains: neither.

All the parables Jesus told shock if we hear them correctly. They are meant to make the hearers wonder if they could possibly be hearing correctly. And all of them speak of the wonder of God’s love lavish in its outpouring for us. That’s what grace is, unmerited and freely given. What matters is the response. Even those hired late in the day had to accept the invitation and go into the vineyard. Jesus is the model. His is the perpetual yes to the Father’s will finally accepting even death, death on the cross.

The Apostle Paul images what our response should be in all things, in good times and in harsh times, in health and in sickness, in life and in death: For to me life is Christ, and death is gain. He is writing from prison. The beheader’s blade is imminent. I am being poured out like a libation and my death is at hand, he said elsewhere. Notice that in his suffering Paul keeps the promised wage in mind. I long to depart this life and be with Christ. Paul is ever the apostle. He was hired to the position late in the day unlike the other Apostles who walked with the Lord and bore the day’s heat. Jesus in glory called Saul on the road to Damascus. From that time on he lived to tell others about Christ and to form them in Christ’s likeness. He saw death as far better, a release from and an end to his suffers. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.

What do we take from these readings? Joy that we have been called. Gratitude for the gift of faith to which we responded no matter at what stage in our life we perceived that grace. Hope for the promised wage that will be ours if we are faithful, a wage that begins even now. For us to live is Christ and to die is gain. Imagine our rejoicing with all those similarly rewarded, even those who said yes to God from their deathbeds.




Numbers 21:4b-9
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17

Grace transforms the horrible. Instruments of death become sources of life and hope. This weekend we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The first reading and the gospel hold up before us examples of that transformation.

In the first reading, the Israelites are having a bad day. Feeling sorry for themselves and grumbling about the rigors of their desert journey, they seem to be saying that they would prefer having been left in their slavery in Egypt to the life they are living in this burden of freedom. They cry out against God and against Moses. In answer to their whining God sends saraph serpents. Whatever species they were, these snakes’ bites sent fiery poison into the one bitten. Death soon followed. The horror awakened the people to their sin and reminded them of God’s love and Moses’ steadfast care for them. We witness repentance on a grand scale, a repentance that God hears and God’s anger relents in the grace of forgiveness. Grace is, after all, the unwarranted outpouring of God’s love.

Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live. The image of the source of their misery becomes a sign for their deliverance. Of course faith must motivate the looking. How long did it take for the image to cease being revolting and terror inducing? Probably as long as it took for the first bite victim to experience healing. But those bitten were to remember that God is the healer. The image was to remind them of that and not be an end in itself. Alas that is not what happened. In time the people worshipped the image as a god with healing powers. Incense burned before it in reverence with an awe that was due to God alone. Alas.

In the gospel, Jesus harkens back to the fact that Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert. In so doing, he invites Nicodemus to remember the results of that lifting. Those who looked at it were restored to health. And so it will be when the Son of man is lifted up. Did Nicodemus understand what being lifted up meant? Probably not at the moment. Because lifted up could have multiple meanings. Lifted up in glory, as one would be who is seated on a royal throne. Lifted up, as one would be on a pedestal. Lifted up, as one would be on a cross?

We’re used to the image and removed from the horror. If Nicodemus looked on while Jesus writhed on the cross, did he have a moment of awakening, recognizing the agony to be what Jesus had meant in that conversation? Probably not. That would not happen until faith, until the crucifixion stopped being a moment of defeat with death the final victor, until the cross became a symbol of life and hope. That is not an easy translation to make and could not be made before the Resurrection.

Crucifixion, in Jesus’ day, was a common means of execution. The Romans brought it to Israel. Wherever Rome ruled, crucifixion followed. In Italy, the Apian Way could be lined with those condemned to the slow, agonizing death of the crucified. The gibbets from which the condemned hung remained in place after the bodies were removed as a threat to those who might think of disrupting the established order. Who would think of kissing the cross, much less wearing a miniature around his neck? Something had to highlight its folly first. That something was grace, love poured out that destroyed death’s power forever.

Nicodemus came to Jesus in the night to seek light. He thirsted for God and the life that God could give. Read in John’s Gospel the wonderful conversations had between Jesus and Nicodemus and see how many contradictions Jesus put to Nicodemus to digest. Struggling through them helped Nicodemus to find faith. In the end, Nicodemus brought a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare Jesus’ body for burial and prepared the way for the beginning.

Jesus had told Nicodemus that when Jesus was lifted up a la the saraph serpent those who believed would have eternal life. Were those words rolling around In Nicodemus’ head as he took part in the burial? At best he could have wondered how that was possible now. He would have to come to recognize the grace, the outpouring of love that far exceeded what anyone could have hoped for or imagined. God so loved the world….

How did Nicodemus, how do we come to that faith? It is instinctive in human kind to imagine God condemning. The Israelites saw the avenging God through the punishment of the saraphs. Israel came to see poverty and physical ills as punishments for sin. Whose sin was it, this man’s or that of his parents that he should be born blind? Jesus said it is not about punishment. It is not about condemnation. It is about love and God’s desire to save the world through his Son sent into the world. Jesus accepted the full implications of his humanity and suffered death on the cross. Trusting the love of his Father, he leapt forth into death’s darkness and the Father lifted him up to eternal life. If we believe in that transition and embrace it in Jesus, that life will be ours as well.

Lift high the Cross, the hymn commands. Notice the centrality of the cross in everything we do. The cross is carried before us as we enter into worship. The cross stands by the Table where the Word is proclaimed and by the Table where we celebrate Eucharist. The cross stands by the font during baptism and rests on the table where the Sacrament of the Sick is celebrated. The dying embraces the cross. The cross rests on the casket of the dead. In every instance, we are challenged to believe.

It is Christ’s dying on the cross and not being conquered by death that gives the cross new meaning. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Our faith walk is always in the light of the resurrection. In order to enter into the light and life those who believe must carry the cross as Christ invited us to do and imitate Christ in pouring out our lives in loving service. Take up your cross every day, Jesus said.

A final word: when I was a child, I felt sorry for people who gathered in Protestant churches with their stark cross on the wall. How blessed we were to have the crucifix before us. Don’t misunderstand me. The crucifix is a holy and revered icon. But as long as it is a crucifix we look on and see Christ’s cross. On the other hand, when we look on the cross without the corpus that cross can be our own. I believe that we are to recognize our cross as it translates into the burdens and challenges of our lives, to recognize it in the poor whose needs we are challenged to meet, to recognize it in the infirmities of our lives and in our dying. That is the cross we are to embrace and lift up. Then, remember the resurrection and know that death will have no final say. God so loves…