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THE 27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 02, 2011

Isaiah 5:1-7

Philippians 4:6-9

Matthew 21:33-43

The link between the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah and the reading from Matthew’s Gospel is obvious.  The dominant image in both is The Vineyard.  As obvious as is the connection, we must be careful about the conclusions we draw from the joined readings.  It is important that we place ourselves in the readings, hear them addressed to us, and then see how we interpret them.  I’ll bet the judgment implied in each softens immediately.

Isaiah’s song about his friend’s vineyard sings of disappointment.  All the precautions had been taken.  The Friend (God) built the protective surrounding wall around the choicest vines he had planted in the richest soil.  Guards were assigned to fend off marauders.  The winepress awaited the lush crop that should have resulted.  The Friend had done everything right.  The result?  The yield was wild grapes, sour, good for nothing.  The heartbroken Friend intends to abandon the vineyard, tear down the walls surrounding it and let the wild boars graze there.

Perhaps the prophet saw the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the enslavement of the people, those chosen ones God had led out of slavery.  To them God gave the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey.  God’s name was entrusted to them.  All they had to do was to live as God’s people and let God 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.  No other people had a relationship with their gods as Israel had with Yahweh.  Certainly Israel would have nothing to do with pagan ways.  Wouldn’t you think that should have been obvious?

Alas.  Now Israel is compromised and the result is a weakened people.  In the telling of the story, Isaiah had the clear advantage of hindsight.  He knew their history and that when Israel was most faithful in keeping God’s ways they were strongest.  Their infidelity weakened them, leaving them vulnerable, able to be conquered, enslaved and led off into captivity.  They had become wild grapes, not the choice crop God had expected.

It would be easy to conclude from the prophecy that God had abandoned Israel and given up on this people once called Chosen.  There are those anti-Semites and Arians who would endorse that interpretation and have used it to justify depriving the Jews of their human rights and dignity at various times in the Christian era.  They forget that God is a faithful god.  Even if the people wandered after strange gods and took up pagan behaviors, God’s love endured.  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 on Jewish people by the Church attested to that conviction.  Benedict XVI continues the atonement in ever thawing relationships with the Jewish people.  Some critics have said that of late Benedict has faltered in this regard, however.  The restoration of the Tridentine Good Friday Liturgy with its prayers offensive to the Jewish people is a case in point.

Now we consider the parable of the Vineyard 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 to whom the vineyard has been entrusted.  The Landowner (God) expects that the tenants will turn over the luscious grapes to him at harvest time.  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.  And again 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 of the 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, throw him out of the vineyard and kill him.  We see Jesus, scourged, crowned with thorns, and led outside the walls of Jerusalem to be crucified.  The parable becomes Jesus’ prediction of his impending suffering and death.

Perhaps 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 upon the Jews.  The relationship between Jewish Christians and their ancestors in faith had become increasingly strained.  The Christians 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.  Once again, there is no shortage of people who would endorse that interpretation.

It is authentic Church teaching 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.  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 seem 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.  We must banish anything of anti-Semitism from us.  Alas, that should go without saying.

There is no acceptable excuse for not being what we are called to be.  All we have to do is be open to the Word and let the Spirit empower us to hear it and take it to heart.  There is no acceptable excuse for not living the Priesthood of the Baptized.  There is no acceptable excuse for living other than as God’s children, holy and beloved.  All we have to do is journey from the Liturgy of the Word to the Liturgy of the Eucharist and let the Spirit transform us into Eucharistic people, that is, people who constantly give thanks to God through Christ Jesus, our Lord, for the favor that is our in Christ.  All we have to do is live what we celebrate and be Bread broken and Cup poured out.

Paul sums it up for us in his directive in the second reading.  Forgive me if I tax your patience by quoting it here in its entirety.

Brothers and sister:

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.

 

Finally, brothers and sisters,

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable,

Whatever is just, whatever is pure,

Whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,

If there is any excellence

And if there is anything worthy of praise,

Think about these things.

Keep on doing what you have learned and received

And heard and seen in me.

Then the God of peace will be with you.

Sincerely,

Didymus

A FAITH RECLAIMED

“You don’t remember me, do you?”  He sat across from me and stared intently through his round, wire-framed glasses.  In his early 20s, he seemed tense and ill at ease.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “I don’t.  Have we met before?”

He leaned forward in his chair and spoke crisply.  Neat and unaffected in his attire, his earnestness was obvious.  “I was there in the hospital room when you prayed for my grandma.”  He mentioned his grandparent’s name and I remembered the occasion even as I had to acknowledge that I did not recall having seen him before.

“That’s all right.  There were lots of us and I stayed in the back of the room.  But I saw and heard everything you did and said.”

The call had come late in the day.  The woman was agitated, the caller had said, and the family wanted “the Last Rites” for her.  So I came to be among the family gathered around the grandmother’s bed.  The woman I knew, but none of the others in attendance was familiar.

She picked at the bedclothes as she lay propped up in the bed.  Restraints made it impossible for her to pull at the IV that conducted medicines into the veins in her arm.  She was restless, her head turning from side to side, and she mumbled indistinctly, pausing occasionally to stare at something no one else in the room could see.  Occasionally she nodded and smiled.

“She’s been like this for a while now,” one of her sons said to me.  “They think it won’t be long.  That’s why we called you.”

I told them I was happy to be with them, but what was about to happen, I told them, I hoped would involve everyone in the room.  We would be praying together with their mother and grandmother.  We would put our hands on her and pray with and for her.  And we would anoint her with the Holy Oil.  And that is what we did.

As I came to her bedside, I took the woman’s hand and called her by name.  She struggled for a moment as if disengaging herself from another conversation so that she could focus on the new voice.  Then in a moment she recognized me, nodded and smiled.  She kept looking above my head and smiling as we talked.  Once or twice she let go of my hand and reached out as far as she could, opening and closing her hand in a gesture that seemed to be summoning someone we could not see.

The family and I said the prayers.  We listened to the Scriptures.  Each member of the family took a turn to make physical contact with their beloved one and to pray for her.  One by one they wept.  No one spoke as I rubbed the oil onto her forehead and into the palms of her hands.  And we linked hands around her bed and prayed, “Our Father….”

She focused on the Host I held before her.  “This is the Lamb of God…Happy are those who are called to this supper.”

“Oh, my, yes,” she said, nodding again as she received her viaticum.  After a pause, she repeated, “Yes.”

She was calm then.  She stopped plucking at the bedclothes.  She stopped turning from side to side.  She closed her eyes and seemed to sleep.  The family stood in attention for a moment and then began to shift their attention back to each other with chat about their tomorrows.

I was in the midst of saying goodbye and offering further assistance to the family when we heard her say, “Jesus?  Lord?”  She had risen up from her pillow and was struggling to reach out.  Then she let out a long sigh that sounded like another “yes” as she sank back against her pillow and was gone from us.

The young man in my office leaned forward in earnest, his elbows on his knees, his fisted hands under his chin.  “That was amazing,” he said.  “Do you think she saw him?  Was he really there?”

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I’d like to believe.  I used to, you know, when I was younger.  When you lose faith, can you find it again?”

THE TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – SEPT. 25, 2011

Ezekiel 18:25-28

Philippians 2:1-11

Matthew 21:28-32

If Jesus walked the land today, in whose company would he be seen, who would be numbered among his friends?  What types would they be?  From what class?  Certainly some of them would be the ordinary decent and hardworking types similar to those he invited to leave their boats and nets to follow him and become fishers of people.  His companions weren’t extraordinary in many cases but they had good hearts and were fascinated by the tales he spun.  There would be others with whom he would be seen, with whom he would dine and break bread and practice table fellowship.  These associations would inspire scandal among the elite and those who have no need for repentance and forgiveness.  The challenge as we listen to the readings for this Sunday is to determine where we would number ourselves.  With which group would we stand?

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.

As I write this, New York Representative Anthony Wiener is very much in the news having made foolish mistakes “sexting” suggestive pictures of himself and questionable texts to several women other than his wife.  He is the butt of talk-show hosts’ humor and the subject of editorial cartoons.  I wonder how Jesus would respond to this situation.  One thing I think is for sure, his response would be compassionate.  And so should ours who follow Christ.  That is not to say that what Wiener did was not inappropriate or that he shouldn’t have to be held accountable.  It is to say that we should sympathize with him and the embarrassment he is experiencing, even as we refrain from judging him.  That’s what Jesus would do through us.

The first reading and the gospel hold up the possibility of conversion to us.  Conversion can go in either direction as the readings point 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.  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 response to the 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 as I write 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 as he did: 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 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 then came to profess their faith, die in the waters of Baptism and rise to lives of compassion and service of the poor.  There are a number in our faith community we call the Church 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 the Eucharist.  Bread and wine become Christ’s Body and Blood, his sacramental presence.  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 our examinations of our own consciences to ensure that those attitudes are not ours.  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, none to lord it over but all to empty 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.

Sincerely,

Didymus