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Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 22, 2017
TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Scripture Readings)

GOD AND GOVERNMENT

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21

Read all of chapter 22. Matthew gives us here three “temptations” of Jesus by different groups of people, all of which serve to illustrate the types of refusal to the feast of the kingdom at the beginning of the chapter.

The Herodians were partisans of King Herod, and characterize those who are so attached to a particular earthly kingdom that they have no time for submission to God’s authority. The Sadducees (v 23) represent those who cannot (or will not) see beyond the here and now. The Pharisees (v 34) are those who cannot see the forest for the trees — they are so meticulously concerned with details that they lose sight of the whole picture.

The simple message of Jesus’ reply is that there is no opposition between genuine civil obligations and responsibilities, and the obligations of God’s kingdom. Concern for God’s kingdom cannot be used as an excuse to neglect the realities of the world in which we live, any more than earthly concerns can be allowed to cloud over our response to God’s invitation to his kingdom.

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6

Cyrus, the pagan (perhaps Zoroastrian influenced) king of Persia who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C.E. and liberated the captive people, including the Hebrews, is here described in terms that reflect an intimate relationship with God — anointed (v 1) and shepherd (44:28). The one God is seen as master of all events, and therefore even a foreign pagan king can be the instrument of his will.

[The Cyrus Cylinder – featured image above – documents the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus and the liberation of captive peoples, including the Jews. It is regarded by some as the earliest existing declaration of human rights, although it speaks explicitly only of the return of captive peoples and their gods to their original lands. It was on display at The Getty a few years ago, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to have seen it.]

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 96:1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10

This psalm praises God for his lordship over all creation and over all peoples. Response: “Give the Lord glory and honor.”

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5

Paul wrote this letter from Corinth not long after he had established the Christian community in Thessalonica. He is encouraged by their progress in faith. He emphasizes that the preaching of the word is the first step of the Christian life, but the completion rests solely on the power of God, the Holy Spirit. Faith is deepened and strengthened in hope — through the patient endurance of trials we grow.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Should a Christian in government behave differently from a non-Christian? What sort of issues should he or she approach differently?

2. Abortion, capital punishment, and prison reform, education, rights and opportunities of minorities, the “Third World” nations, nuclear armament —does the relationship between God and Caesar spoken of by Jesus have any bearing on these issues?

Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 15, 2017
TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Scripture Readings)

THE WEDDING BANQUET

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

This parable of the wedding feast and the invited guests presents us with several difficulties as Matthew tells it. A much simpler version is given by Luke (14:16-24). Luke’s telling of it speaks of the original guests refusing the invitation and the poor being brought in, clearly referring to the rejection of the kingdom by the Jewish leaders and its acceptance by the Gentiles.

Matthew adds a number of elements to the telling. This is a wedding banquet given by a king for his son (v 2). In Jewish prophecy, God is often presented as the husband of his people (see Is 54:4-10; 62:1-5; Jer 2-3; Ez 16 & 23; Hosea 1-3). The New Testament continues this image, seeing Christ as the bridegroom (see Mk 2:19; Jn 3:29; Mt 25:1-13; 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:22-27) and his final coming as the consummation of his marriage with his people (Rev 19:6-9; 21:2; 22:7). The wedding banquet indicates that this parable refers to the kingdom both now and in its future fulfillment.

The hostility of some of the invited guests (vv 6-7) should be seen in the light of the increasing hostility of the chief priests and pharisees (21:45-46), and reflects very strongly the preceding parable of the vineyard workers (21:33-43). But it is a somewhat awkward addition to the parable by Matthew, because no appropriate reason for such a reaction is given.

V 10 emphasizes that both bad and good come into the banquet. This refers to the time of the Church, and, in connection with the expulsion of the man without the proper garment (vv 11-13), indicates that mere external membership in the Church does not guarantee true justice or final salvation. A garment is an outward expression of what a person is inwardly. These words relate to Paul’s about putting on Christ (Gal 3:27: Eph 4:24; col 3:9-10). V 14 simply emphasizes the extensive generosity of God in calling all to his banquet, and laments that few respond. It does not indicate any form of predetermined salvation or predestination.

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-10

Read all of Is 24-28 which sets the salvation of a remnant within the context of the general destruction of the wicked. This section depicts the enthronement banquet of God when he victoriously establishes his kingdom. A banquet on the occasion of the enthronement of a king was a public manifestation of his power as well as a sign of his generosity and friendship with the people over whom he rules.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23:1-3, 3-4, 5, 6

Sharing and providing food is one of the strongest signs of love and care for another person; here it describes God’s care for his people. Response: “I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.”

Second Reading: Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20

Having or not having material possessions is not so important. What is important is looking beyond merely having or getting so that we see Christ at the heart of what we have or need. Detachment from material things, therefore, must also go hand in hand with generosity.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. What are the characteristics of a meal that make it a good image of God’s kingdom?

2. What can you do to make your meals a better image of God’s kingdom? How about your participation in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist?

Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 8, 2017
TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Scripture Readings)

THE LORD’S VINTAGE

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43

Foreign absentee landlords controlled much of the land in Judea and Galilee in the time of Jesus. The tenant farmers, who rented these lands, naturally held considerable resentment towards these rich and powerful (and often foreign and pagan) landowners. The Zealot party, a band of guerrillas who fought to overthrow foreign domination, stirred up opposition that occasionally became violent, just as the action of the tenants in the parable. Killing the heir of the property might be a way of getting possession of it. By law, in the absence of an heir, ownership would fall to the first occupant. In the parable, the workers made the mistake of forgetting that the owner, upon his return, could give his land to others.

Jesus may have originally addressed this parable to the leaders of the Zealot party, to emphasize that their goals and methods were alien to the true kingdom of God. Injustice in human affairs there might be, and we cannot be indifference in our efforts to bring about justice. But the justice of God’s kingdom cannot come about through partisan violence and hatred. The leaders of the Zealots, then, would have been identified with the vineyard workers, and because of their infidelity to the true purposes of God’s kingdom, their responsibility would be given to others.

In the course of the first few decades of the Church, the Zealot question was no longer a burning issue, but the Jewish-Gentile problem remained. By the time the Gospel was written, the emphasis of the parable seems to have changed. The workers were now seen to represent the Jews who had rejected Christ, and therefore were unfaithful to their “chosen” status. And so the kingdom itself was taken from them and given to the Gentiles. It also became an explanation of the reasons for Christ’s death, and its consequences — he was rejected and put to death because he was a threat to the personal security of Jewish leaders as God’s favored people.

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

At first glance this allegory seems very similar to the Gospel parable, but it is likely that Jesus did not have this in mind at all. Notice that the subject is vastly different: in Isaiah, the grapes do not ripen; in Matthew, the tenants revolt. The outcome is different: in Isaiah, unredeemed ruin predicted; in Matthew , Jesus foretells transfer of possession. The point of this allegory in Isaiah is to contrast the tender care which God lavishes upon his people with their ingratitude and unresponsiveness.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 80:9, 12, 113-14, 15-16, 19-20

This psalm extends the allegory of the vine as representing God’s people, and asks him to care for it once again. Response: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.”

Second Reading: Philippians 4:6-9

Paul’s final words to his beloved Philippians are not just a pious bit of farewell advice. There is a sense of urgency in his parting exhortations. The catalogue of virtues that should underlie a good life are not merely intended for the community’s own self-perfection. The missionary dimension of the Christian life is never far from Paul’s mind. Christians are to behave well so that their lives maybe a sign of the love of God to others. Note that vv 4-7 are read on the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. How can the Gospel parable apply to your life today?

2. How do you understand the meaning of “God’s peace” in Phil 4:7?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

October 1, 2017
TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Scripture Readings)

FAIRNESS AND OBEDIENCE

Gospel: Matthew 21:28-32

The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem (21:1-11 — see Palm Sunday, Gospel for the Procession) marks the beginning of the fulfillment of the kingdom. The symbolic gestures of cleansing the temple and cursing the fig tree establish a clear set of priorities: materialistic greed and empty show have no place in the kingdom because they produce no genuine fruit.

The parable in the liturgical reading (vv 28-32) is addressed to the “professional holy men” — the chief priests and elders (v 23) — as a response to their questioning of Jesus’ authority (see vv 12-27). He had addressed similar parables to Pharisees, who were not religious officials, but a “super-saved” lay sect (Lk 7:40; 15:2; 18:9).

It should be clear that Jesus does not prefer sin to virtue. But he emphasizes that many of those classified as sinners are actually closer to salvation through repentance than those who profess themselves just but are blind to the real demands of God’s love.

The parable originally shed light on the Jewish rejection of Jesus and the Gentile acceptance of him. God did not decide at a particular moment to reject the Jews and choose Gentiles. He consistently wills all people to share in his love. But, for the ones who rejected Jesus, their “yes” to their own sense of being favored by God stood in the way of their saying “yes” to the very fulfillment of that favor in the Gospel of Jesus.

For us Christians, there is an important moral. A professional “yes” or a loudly proclaimed “yes’ to God may contain so much “system” or so much ego that a real “no” is lurking behind the facade. On the other hand, one who begins by saying “no” outwardly, may really be searching for a genuine image of God to say “yes” to.

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:25-28

Ezekiel emphasized personal responsibility to the Lord for one’s own actions in an age when it was held that descendants inherited the punishment for their fathers’ sins. (See Ex 20:5-6; Dt 5:9-10; 29:18-21.) It is quite true that a child may inherit the consequences of a parent’s sin. If a father squanders a fortune, his son enters the world poor through no fault of his own. Also, an innocent individual may suffer the consequences of collective guilt. Everyone in Germany suffered in the Nazi defeat. However, Ezekiel is fighting against a fatalism that says, “If we must pay for the sins of our fathers, what point is there in changing or being good ourselves?” Here personal responsibility has the last word. In the final analysis, each person can be held accountable only for his own deeds.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9

This psalm is the prayer of a sinner who understands the consequences of his sin, yet trusts in God’s mercy. Response: “Remember your mercies, O Lord.”

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-11

Philippi was one of Paul’s favorite communities. Relations were affectionate, and little of the dissension that occasioned many of Paul’s other letters is found here. Paul writes to them in a positive vein, seeking to lead them to greater perfection in the love of one another based on Christ.

The core of Christian perfection is humility (v 3),which is based on the humility of Christ (vv 5-11). The humble person does not have to look at himself or herself as dirt, but must be motivated by a healthy appreciation of the other person’s value. Humility is not an invitation to unhealthy insecurity or paranoia. In fact, only the whole and secure person can really forget titles, privileges, and self-praise, and concentrate on the good and worth of others. Christ’s attitude is an invitation to health. Holiness is wholeness.

Vv 6-11, the great hymn of Jesus’ Lordship through self-emptying, is also read each year on Passion (Palm) Sunday. In chapter 3, Paul reflects on the place of Christ in his own life as a model for his hearers. The stern yet hopeful tone of this chapter makes it appropriate for Lent, and two sections appear on Lenten Sundays in Year C — 3:8-14 on the Fifth Sunday of Lent and 3:17-4:1 on the Second Sunday of Lent.

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Do you find the Gospel passage comforting or disturbing? Why?

2. How, in a practical sense, can Christ’s attitude be yours?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

September 24, 2017
TWENTY-FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (Scripture Readings)

ENVY AND GENEROSITY

Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

Chapter 19, omitted from the cycle of Sunday readings, continues the theme of God’s transcendence over human ways, and the challenge to adopt God’s mentality as the realization of his kingdom. The cross in the Christian life is not an abstract ideal, but shows itself in the difficult decisions concerning committed relationships and our attitudes toward justice and the use of the world’s goods.

The parable about the laborers in the vineyard is sandwiched between two repetitions of the same saying of Jesus, “the last shall be first and the first last” (19:30; 20:16). The verse itself does not correspond perfectly to the parable. There is no question in the parable that the last ones hired were given any real priority over the first. The problem arises because they were given equal treatment. The complaint against the owner (v 12) is that he is unjust — the same complaint of the elder son in Lk 15:29-30, the legalistic Jews in Ez 18:25, and Jonah in Jon 4:2. The point of the parable has nothing to do with God’s first and last choices, but rather exemplifies the overwhelming goodness of God surpassing our limited concept of justice. God’s covenant with his people is not a business contract, but a completely free gift on God’s part, seeking only our acceptance and response.

The “first-last” saying seems to refer specifically to the Jewish-Gentile situation — the Jews (the “first” to receive God’s covenant) rejected Christ and became the last; the Gentile (i.e., non-Jews) were not included in the first covenant, but shared its fulfillment in Christ.

First Reading: Isaiah 55:6-9

An awareness of the total giftedness of God’s love runs through all the prophets. The Lord can be found only because he has made himself near (v 6). Even the worst of us have no reason to despair of his mercy, but every reason to turn to him confidently seeking forgiveness, because God is not limited by our narrow ideas of justice and retribution. It should be noted that God is often proclaimed as a God of love, mercy and tenderness in the Jewish Scriptures. The Christian Gospel adds a radical new dimension to this love of God by seeing his people not merely as recipients of his love but as participants in his very act of loving. We are challenged to duplicate his love and forgiveness in our relations with others.

Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18

The words of this psalm echo those of Isaiah in the first reading. Even though the Lord created the universe in all its splendor, the greatest of his works is his compassion. Response: “The Lord is near to all who call him.”

Second Reading: Philippians 1:20-24, 27

After an introduction in which he expresses his deep affection for the Christian community at Philippi (see the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C), Paul points to his own example of how to hear the voice of the Lord speaking in the circumstances that face us. He is writing from prison, uncertain of the outcome. He may be released or he may face death. The meaning of living in the spirit takes on a new and more urgent perspective. The power to choose what will happen is out of his hands, yet he remains perfectly free. If he is to die, death would fulfill his wish to be with Christ. If he is to remain alive, release from prison would fulfill his desire to strengthen the Lord’s people by his presence with them. (For more background on this letter, see the Second Sunday of Advent and the Fifth Sunday of Lent, both in Year C.)

Questions for thought, discussion, and prayer:

1. Discuss the Gospel in relation to envy in your own life.

2. How do the Gospel and the first reading speak to the meaning of conversion of heart?