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THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 29,2017

A reading from the Book of Exodus 22:20-26
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians 1:5c-10
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 22:34-40

Dear Reader,

Nothing inspires God’s wrath so much as does the exploitation and abuse of the vulnerable.  The Law expressed in the Exodus reading for this week’s Liturgy of the Word calls for death by the sword for anyone who molests or oppresses an alien, or wrongs any widow or orphan.  God will wield the sword.  God forbids extorting the poor by demanding interest on a loan.  Even a cloak offered by the poor man, as a pledge of repayment, must be returned to him by sundown so that he will not have to face the chill of the night with nothing to protect him from the cold.  Beware!  God protects the widow, the orphan and the poor.  The obvious point is that God’s protection of these little ones ought to be manifested in the attitude of the abler Jews toward them.  God admonishes the people with a motive for caring.  Remember their vulnerability when they were aliens in the land of Egypt.

We are in very dangerous territory as we sit beneath the readings for this Sunday in Ordinary Time.  Watch how easy it is to think of just whom these readings must be warning, even as we are confident that they do not address us – unless, of course, we are numbered among the orphaned, the widowed, the poor, or the aliens.  Then the readings become our safety net, our guarantee that there will be those in the faith community we call Church who will respond to our needs.

Jesus remains under scrutiny in this week’s Gospel.  The Pharisees continue to search for something with which to charge him, even ignorance of the Law.  What was the tone of voice the scholar used when he asked his question?  Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?  Note that the question is not unusual.  The Pharisees spent hours in discussions and theoretical arguments about the Law and its 613 commandments.  Jesus answers without a pause as he quotes from Deuteronomy and Leviticus and their mandates with which his accusers should be well familiar.  You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.

We have heard Jesus’ answer many times.  More than likely we can quote it verbatim from memory.  The question now before us is the same as the implied one Jesus put before the scholar.  What are you going to do with these commandments?  How are you going to live them?  How can you fulfill the first on without fulfilling the second?

Aye, there’s the rub, to quote the Bard.  Very religious people can think they are fulfilling the law through lives of faithful Mass attendance and prayer, along with a little fasting for good measure.  Jesus might say: I beg to differ.

The operative word in both commandments is the verb to love.  One can argue whether love can be commanded.  Still, regarding the first commandment Jesus cites, God does want the people to love God with their entire beings.  Perhaps if they remember all that God did for them and continues to do, love will be their response.  The fact of the matter is, that is the way God loves the people, with God’s entire being.  We don’t often squirm when we are admonished to love God.  Even if the preacher harangues a bit, we don’t mind.  After all, one can’t love God too much.

We must not miss an important inference here.  In his response to the scholar, Jesus links the two commandments.  In effect he makes them one.  Jesus is saying you can’t fulfill the first without striving to carry out the second.  Love again.  Dare we hear the standard that is applied in the commandment?  You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  How much do you love yourself?  How much do I?  How is this expressed practically?  That practicality is the measure or standard for the practical love Jesus commands us to have for our neighbor.  This is where our stares are apt to become glazed.

Whenever I reflect on this text, I hear Eliza Doolittle’s song to Freddie: Don’t talk of love.  Show me!  Jesus might be saying something like that to us.  Don’t talk about loving God.  Don’t talk about loving the neighbor.  Show me in imitation of the way I love.  Jesus loves through service.  Jesus loves by pouring himself out.  Jesus loves by giving his body and blood as food and drink.  Remembering that may help us see why celebrating Eucharist defines us and is at the heart of our faith response.  Doing Eucharist should translate into living Eucharist.

Pope Francis urges a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  Do you hear today’s Exodus reading in the pope’s words?  John Paul II admonished the Church to exercise a fundamental option for the poor.  Before him, Paul VI shocked people by questioning anyone’s right to excess wealth while the poor lacked essential wealth.  John XXIII reminded us that all people are created by God and are brothers and sisters in the human family.  The popes probably had the two great commandments in mind in their proclamations.

We can be very good at throwing up barriers of self-defense that shield us from the Word’s full impact.  You know as well as I do, that classes of people consort with others of the same class.  Not many of the elite hobnob with the poor.  Among their own, they can be deluded into thinking that everyone lives in their kind of comfort and wealth.  Parishes can be as monochromatic, especially those situated in finer neighborhoods.  I am reminded of a book of several years ago: The Church of the Padded Pew.  It is difficult for a parish whose membership is almost exclusively of one race and an upper middle financial bracket to reflect the Body of Christ.  Where are the poor?  Where are the disabled?  The widows?  The orphans?  The aliens?

We sit at the Table of the Word to be nourished.  We must be hungry for the Word in order to be fed by it.  That might mean that we must lower the barriers and make ourselves vulnerable to the Word.  Dare we ask: What would you have me do?  What altering of my value system are you looking for?  Saints in our family tree have asked those questions, and when they did, they were never the same afterwards.  Think of Ignatius.  Think of Camillus.  Think of Elizabeth Anne Seaton, and Theresa of Avila, and Mother Teresa of Calcutta and countless others.  Then there is Vincent de Paul.  And don’t forget Damien of Molokai.  The list goes on and on.  All of them are canonized or about to be because to a wonderful degree their love for God expressed itself in a love for the poor that expressed itself in service of the poor.  Damien rejoiced the day he could address his flock as my fellow lepers.

In a few short weeks we will celebrate the final Sunday of the Liturgical Year.  The Gospel will be Matthew’s Day of the Lord, the day of final Judgment.  I won’t comment on it here.  But you might be enriched if you spend some time with that text as today you hear Jesus voice the two great commandments.  It does that for me.

So we proceed to the Table of the Eucharist and enter into the Lord’s dying and rising.  We do not do that alone.  We cannot do that alone.  It is never my Eucharist.  It is always our Eucharist.  It is the Body of Christ, the Church that acts and renews.  We gather as one with the poor, the orphans, and the widows, as vulnerable as they are to be formed and transformed.  Then we recognize the family we are in Christ and will know the measure of the love we ought to live.

Sincerely in Christ,

Didymus

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TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – October 22, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 45:1, 4-6
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Thessalonians 1:1-5b
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 22:15-21

Dear Reader,

The opening words of Isaiah’s prophecy in this Sunday’s first reading should stun us.  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 revere this powerful and significant word.  Cyrus is the only Gentile on whom the title is bestowed in the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures.  The fact that a Jew would call any Gentile the anointed of God is astounding.

Who was Cyrus?  He was the Persian King whose armies routed the Babylonians, the ones who had held the Israelites in captivity, enslaving them as their ancestors had been enslaved in Egypt.  The Babylonians 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.  YHWH knew Cyrus intimately and chose him, the Prophet said, and through him brought about the deliverance of Judah that would result in the Jews 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 YHWH’s will.

To what can we liken this case in order to understand its impact?  Think of the horror of the Holocaust.  In large measure, Jewish people, among others, were enslaved in the prison camps, having been taken from their homes and their way of life, to be shipped off in boxcars and enslaved in the holding camps where torture and death reigned.  The skies darkened with the smoke from the crematoria’s chimneys.  Millions were gassed.  Other hundreds of thousands slowly starved to death.  I don’t know if Cyrus had a counterpart during that terrible time, but the eyes of faith will recognize YHWH working through the allied forces as they brought about Judah’s deliverance, freeing the survivors and allowing them to return home.

Faith is a gift, the result of God’s grace achieving its purpose.  We say we believe, but that is not a result of anything we have done other than to cooperate with grace.  Paul said it in practically every salutation he wrote to the various churches, as he does in today’s greeting to the Thessalonians.  God chose the Thessalonians – and the Galatians, and the Romans, and the Corinthians – through Paul’s preaching.  To varying degrees the churches responded with the work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This Letter to the Thessalonians resulted from a crisis of faith that rose from their taking from Paul’s preaching that they would live to see the Day of the Lord, the day of Christ’s return in glory.  Some of their members were dying before the realization of that day.  Paul reminds them of their faith and urges them to live in hope.  Hope has been defined as the confident assurance (confident = with faith) that nothing will separate us from the love of God that is ours in Christ Jesus.  To live in faith is to live in Christ and to remember that God loves them.  The challenge is to live in that love day by day in their various labors, believing the Good News Paul announced.  Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ who 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.

You, dear reader, believe with that same faith of the Thessalonians.  Live with their hope, too, that hope that Paul is trying to encourage in us.  You are loved by God and chosen by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit to believe that Jesus is Lord.  Through your Baptism you have put on Christ and been endowed with the Priesthood of the Baptized.  Your labors contribute to the building up of the Kingdom and hasten the day of the Lord’s glorious return.  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 off scouring of society, those deemed unlovable, you will see Jesus there and know where hope reside.

Bill and Melinda Gates, through their Foundation, make tremendous efforts through their hands-on charitable work with AIDS patients in Africa.  Their involvement in the work is genuine.  Their hope is to find a cure and alleviate suffering. Bill has said that he leaves the believing part to Melinda, a Catholic.  Believers recognize God working through both of them, just as they might see Christ in those suffering ones to whom they minister.

Recently I saw a woman working rehabilitation with her husband who had suffered severe stroke.  She rejoiced with each step, faltering though it might be, that her husband made.  The love they share is palpable.  So, it would seem, is their faith.  Their hope will not be disappointed.

Recently a mother told me about her son, a second grader.  She was waiting impatiently to pick him up after school.  She saw him coming toward the car and was preparing to scold him for being tardy when he turned away from the car and headed toward another student standing alone.  She watched the two exchange a few words before her son turned again toward his waiting transportation.  When he got into the car, his mother asked him what he had been doing.  He told her, “Nobody likes that boy.  I didn’t want him to go home with that thought in his head.  I wanted him to know that I was his friend.”  She didn’t reprimand her son for keeping her waiting.

You cannot hear about the wonderful work of the Gates Foundation in Africa without being touched.  You must be moved by the heroics of the wife with her disabled husband.  You might even get a lump in your throat as you read about the second grader, who, by the way, recently was Confirmed and received his first Holy Communion.  We didn’t even mention the efforts of those to minister to the storm victims in Puerto Rico and rescue the victims of the earthquake in Mexico.  What if their actions should prompt you to move in a direction you would rather not go?  Jesus can do that and you will have to make a decision.

There are not a few who are angered by Pope Francis’s urging us to be a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  He washes the feet of the poor to illustrate his appeal.  He breakfasts with street people.  Down through the centuries that has not been the image the church presented to the world.  More and more Popes took on the finery of monarchs, as did bishops who lived in splendid mansions.  Francis lives in a ground-level apartment.  He doesn’t wear splendid robes.   How many of those who have wandered away would return to the practice of their faith if the image of a poorer church serving the needs of the poor reemerged?

In the Gospel, the Pharisees plot to entrap Jesus because they do not want to accept his message.  He would have them change their lives in ways that they would rather not.  No one can be indifferent to Jesus.  One has to decide one way or the other.  The fawning ambassadors of the Pharisees, along with the Herodians, those who accept King Herod, want to gather information that will contribute to Jesus’ execution.  They want to be rid of the prick to their consciences that he is.  Matthew’s linking of the two groups indicates compromise on the part of the Pharisees that will play out in the verbal trap in which they try to ensnare Jesus.

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?  Either way Jesus should answer, they are sure they will have him.  Either he will be set against the Romans leading to his crucifixion, or against the Jews leading to his being stoned to death.  Show me the coin.  The Pharisees must have wondered how he knew they would have the coin since it bore the image of Caesar, something they should not handle or have part in.  Looking at the coin presented in their hands, and then looking into their eyes, he asks 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 o God.  Those confronting him 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 is easy to say, gotcha!  But that is not 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 those we might b tempted to hate.  Jesus will 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 have to decide one way or the other, to love or not to love.  To walk with Jesus on the way and imitate him is to decide and to realize that that 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.  For the believer, the constant question centers about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God.  Then s/he must act accordingly.

What has love got to do with it?

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Didymus

 

TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – October 15, 2017

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 25:6-10a
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 22:1-14

Dear Reader.

Always remember that we experience The Living Word of God each Sunday as the Liturgy of the Word washes over us.  The historical context of each reading has a bearing on our interpretation.  But, too, the readings impact us in the here and now, as each of us hears them in his/her lived situation.

Isaiah prophesied to a people broken and in exile, a people burdened with the memory of their beloved Jerusalem in ruins, a people enslaved with heavy judgments on their heads.  Hear the Prophet in that context and imagine the elation if you believed the promise that God would act in that way in your life, not only that God would treat you to a lush banquet, but also would wash away your shame and restore your dignity.  Hear of rich food and choice wines.  If you were half starved and such a menu the stuff of distant memory, wouldn’t those words ring in your consciousness?  You might even find yourself salivating.  On the other hand, if you have never been tempted to despair in a situation that seemed hopeless, never been hungry, if you have never been the object of reproach, or never wept the tears of the pariah, Isaiah’s words might strike you as lush poetry, the vision fanciful, but your heart might not be touched.

If you dare to admit to the vulnerable you, or to call up painful memories of rejection or betrayal, or of anything you fear, you will find also a longing for deliverance and the end of the tyranny of those things you remember or fear, even if the only thing you fear is death.  At the same time, your compassionate heart may be touched by the images of a war-torn people crying out in anguish as they pull their children from the rubble and as they bury their dead.  You might be brought to tears as you see images of children, covered with flies, too weak to flick them away because the little ones are starving to death.  Again, you might have watched recent footage of people whose homes were blown away in the might of hurricanes Harvey, Jose, or Maria.  Holding these broken ones up in prayer will make Isaiah’s words resonate as you are reminded of the faithful God who delivers and saves.

Paul, grateful to the Philippians whose generosity has been poured out to help meet his needs, reminds his benefactors that he has seen both sides.  He knows what it is like to be poor.  He remembers times when he lived with abundance.  He knows what it is like to be starving, even as he relishes memories of having been well fed.  God graces the good times and is the source of all blessings, just as God is his strength in times of desperation.  In all of these memories, Paul gives thanks for the constancy of the Philippians and their generosity there for him in the good times and the bad.   He tells them that God remembers, too, and will reward their generosity in God’s great gift that is Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father, glory forever and ever.  Amen.

We come to Matthew’s Gospel and listen to Jesus as he tells the parable that begins: The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.  In its historical context the parable may well speak of the generosity of God’s grace in calling a people to be God’s own.  The parable may also speak of that people’s infidelity and their cruelty to the Prophets who delivered God’s message to the people.  This is tantamount to the chosen rejecting the invitation to the banquet.  In the face of their rejecting the invitation and the violence done to the servants, the Prophets, who tried to deliver the invitation to the banquet, the king becomes enraged with the people and destroys their city.  The parable may well have been written with the Fall of Jerusalem in mind and taken as a sign that God has rejected the Jews who had thrown Jesus’ followers out of the synagogue, just as they had rejected Jesus.  The Gentiles who have accepted Jesus are now the recipients of the invitation.

That may well be the historical context and the sufferings of those first believers may explain the theme of rejection in the parable; but the idea that God has rejected the Jews must be banished from our thoughts, even as we banish thoughts of a vengeful God in the person of the king.

If we stand in awe of the gift of faith that is ours, of that grace that enables us to recognize Jesus as Lord, and the universality of God’s love, of that invitation to come to the Table where we celebrate Eucharist, then we hear the message that can assist our ongoing transformation in Christ.

If we have any sense of our own unworthiness, any sense of being loved by God far beyond our worth, then we begin to get the point.

I urge you to think of that moment when you first came to faith, when you first could say: I believe.  The difference between all that followed that moment from what preceded it is the proverbial difference between day and night.  Do you remember your joy when you knew that God meant all of this for you and that Jesus had called you by name and said: Come follow me?  You responded with a fearful but firm, yes.  Again, proverbially speaking, that has made all the difference in the world.

But what about the poor wretch who came into the banquet without a wedding garment and then was thrown out into the exterior darkness as a result?  Is the offense the same as that committed by a gentleman’s showing up at a fine restaurant without a jacket and tie?  On one level, perhaps.  It is quite possible that something far more important and significant is involved here.

As you come through the main entrance of the church into the worship space, your first encounter ought to be with the Baptismal Font that is strategically placed on the axis line between the entrance and the Altar.  The symbolism ought to be obvious.  There is only one way to the Table and that is through the Font.  What happens in the Font?  The person being baptized enters what can be called both a tomb and a womb.  The one responding to the invitation enters the abundant waters to die to selfishness and whatever is of sin, to be reborn into a new life that is union with Christ.  Coming out of the water, as a sign of having put on Christ, that one is clothed in a white robe – in the parable, a wedding garment.  The decision to accept the invitation to come to the Table has to be major and life altering.  Through the Font is the only way to be initiated into this communion of believers.  To enter into Eucharist otherwise makes no sense and is a contradiction.

We don’t have to dwell on the final words of rejection of the one without the wedding garment.  He also stands for those who refuse to change their lives, refuse to repent.  They should make the decision themselves before they approach the Table.  In our tradition, that decision is theirs.  No minister should presume to make the decision for them, that is, refuse them access to Communion.

For our part, we rejoice in the call that is ours, and each day say yes to the grace of ongoing conversion that is offered us in the Eucharist.  We have been clothed in the wedding garment.  The challenge is to live the reality signified by the robe.  We have put on Christ.  In him we have been baptized.  Our every action should begin in him and proceed through him, as an expression of God’s love that comes to us through Christ.

So, never forget that in Baptism you are identified with Christ.  God loves you with the same love that God has for Christ.  I heard one preacher say that God can’t tell the difference between the baptized and Christ.  Be that as it may.  All the more important that we strive to correspond to that grace and live the life that is ours in the One in whom we have been baptized.  That means that we have to be willing to love as Christ loves.  Every one.  Every day.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Didymus