The scripture readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time bring us to a question that has challenged Christians since Jesus’ time. In the first reading (IS 45:1, 4-6), we hear that King Cyrus, even though he is unaware of it, serves the Lord’s purpose. Secular leaders can be fulfilling God’s plan. In the Gospel reading (MT 22:15-21) we will hear about Jesus’ response to a trap set by the Pharisees:
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
This is a dilemma. If Jesus opts for Caesar, he offends the Phairisees. If he refuses to pay the temple tax he offends the governing Roman Army. Jesus responds by asking the Pharisees for a coin - which has an image of Caesar on it. Since the coin has an image of Caesar on it he responds by putting the dilemma back in their laps:
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
This answer evades the dilemma and puts the question back on the Pharisees. It may have embarrassed them: they were carrying an image of a “strange God” -Caesar and were in violation of their own law.
Through the centuries the institutional church, theologians and political pundits have devised various answers to this question. At times the church has been closely allied with the government. Thomas Jefferson called for a separation between Church and State. Up until Vatican II, the Institutional Catholic Church was uncomfortable with this principle. Today some political progressives hold that gospel values require that the government be active in alleviating suffering and promoting social justice. Libertarian conservatives argue that the government is harmful and tends toward tyranny. Churches and private individuals should be in the forefront of alleviating poverty and promoting social justice. The text from Isiaih applies here: the state may be doing the Lord's work even though progressives and libertarians may not recognize it. The Phairisees' attempt to pit one against the other may be mistaken.
In all my decades of following public discussion and reading about politics, I’ve never developed an answer that satisfies me, even on a personal level. In the end, Jesus has put the question back on each of us and we must answer it within the resources of our own (properly formed) consciences.
I have, however, reached one wish - that people on each side of the question (especially progressives and libertarians) would at least practice civility as they argue their positions and attempt to actually listen to one another.
“…On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples A feast of rich food and choice wines,…”
Then in the Gospel (Mt. 22:1-14) we hear Jesus tell of a wedding feast, filled with rich foods and wines. Just as with the scriptures from last week, Jesus changes the image to emphasize Isiah’s point that the Lord will provide “for all peoples.” In his image the king sends out invitations for a wedding feast but some of the respectable people do not show up. They were preoccupied with the business of life. Some even mistreated or killed the king’s servants - just as the people of Israel had done to the prophets. As if to underline Isaiah’s point that the Lord provides for all peoples, Jesus changes the story. In his version the king wants his wedding feast filled with guests. He sends invites people of the streets, many of whom disreputable. The story ends with another twist, one that the chief priests and elders would dislike. The disreputable and low-lifes were welcome at the feast - except for one who came without a wedding garment. He was cast out.
We can draw two lessons from this. First, we never want to be so concerned with our daily life that we miss an invitation to a feast in which the Lord will:
“…destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face;..”
On the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time (Oct. 5th) we are approaching the end of the liturgical year. For the next few weeks the selections from Matthew will focus on the closing days of Jesus’ public ministry on earth. We will see stories of misunderstanding and conflict between Jesus and the chief priests. This Sunday we have a story which pointedly demonstrates, Jesus frustration with the Chief priests and elders of the people.
From their viewpoint, they are resisting Jesus. They would rather minister to respectable and properly behaving people while Jesus continues to reach out to the broken, bad-acting and disreputable people. Increasingly exasperated, Jesus takes a story from Isaiah and puts a twist on it.
This is the story (Is 5:1-7) of a vintner in love with his vineyard. When it goes bad, he acts as a betrayed lover, abandoning it to ruin. (This Sunday, Psalm 80 takes the part of Israel as the vineyard, asking to be restored and promising reform.)
When he tells it, Jesus changes the story. (Mt. 21:33-43). Here a landowner planted a vineyard, and then hired tenants to care for it. When the landowner sent servants to obtain ripe grapes the tenants killed his servants. After the tenants had killed more servants, the landowner sent his son, thinking that the tenants would not risk killing his own son. Jesus then asks:
“What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?"
At this point the chief priests and elders get another quote from Isaiah and Psalm 118:
‘“Did you never read in the scriptures:
‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;…”
Read at the first level this story does not work. No landlord would risk sending his own son to tenants who had killed his servants on three occasions. Read as persuasive rhetoric, the story does not work. The chief priests and elders are likely to be angered at being compared to stupid, greedy tenants who murdered the landowners son.
Jesus told the story as a comparison to the way Israel had treated its prophets throughout its history. He did not need to be clairvoyant to see that he would be treated the same way:
“When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parables, they knew that he was speaking about them. And although they were attempting to arrest him, they feared the crowds, for they regarded him as a prophet.”
The story ends on a hopeful note. Even the most disreputable can seek admittance to the vineyard and produce good fruit.
The “chief priests and elders” in the persons of Catholic Bishops will meet in a Synod this weekend. I hope that they will take this parable to heart and find ways to extend mercy and the sacraments to those with “disreputable” histories and marital arrangements, while somehow preserving the Church’s teaching on marriage.
On the Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Sept 28th) the Gospel reading (Mt. 21-28-32) starts “…A man had two sons…” When read in context this parable is an admonition to the chief priests and elders of the people, warning them that the people should repent. Read on the personal level, we get almost the same answer. In the story the father told his first son to go out and work in the vineyard. The son readily agreed but found something else to do. The second son, when he got the same order, flatly refused but then changed his mind and went to work. (Bear in mind that this took place in a culture in which honoring one’s father is a commandment.) Jesus then asks the chief priests and elders which son did his father’s will? He gets the obvious answer - and then tells the chief priests and elders that they are like the first son. They show up in the temple and say the right words, but lack compassion for the people. Real sinners, meaning tax collecting agents of the Roman occupying army, and prostitutes on the other hand, have repented and “are entering the kingdom of God …” even ahead of the chief priests and elders. (We can apply this same parable to some high ranking church officials as well.)
On a personal level, we can identify with both the first and second sons. We have made promises and failed to keep them. We have refused service to others and then later done our duty. In both cases we have fallen short. The difference between the second and first sons is that the second one acknowledges his shortcomings. The story does not tell us that the first son also changed his mind and returned to his father’s vineyard. Yet this is clearly the hope behind Jesus’ admonition. When we recognize and acknowledge our own failures we can find hope in Sunday’s responsorial Psalm (PS 25:8-9, 10,14). Whether we are the first or second son, we can make these our prayer;
Remember that your compassion, O LORD,
and your love are from of old.
The sins of my youth and my frailties remember not;
The gospel for the twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Sept 21st) poses just this question. In Bidden or Not Bidden, God is Present Gregory Pierce tells a story about taking one of his daughters on a birthday outing. It seems that this daughter thought another one got a better birthday present and he wasn’t being fair. Pierce’s question was: Would you rather have me be generous or fair? This is the story we get in Sunday’s gospel (Mt 20:1-16a). This is the story of workers reporting for vineyard work at various times during the day. When the landowner pays wages in reverse order he gives the late arriving workers a full day’s pay. The early arriving workers expect a higher pay. When they don’t get it they complain and get this answer:
‘My friend, I am not cheating you.* Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? [Or] am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?’
In this case the landowner was both generous and fair. He was generous to the late arriving workers by giving them a full day’s pay. He was fair to the early arriving workers by giving them what he promised.
We can ask: If we had a choice, which kind of God would we prefer? (In truth, we don’t have a choice. God is who God is and we don’t earn our way into the kingdom by virtue of our work.) We should choose a fair God only if we are certain of the value, quality and quantity of our work. We would be much better advised to choose a generous God. We can be confident in God as presented in today’s Psalm 145:8-9:
The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in mercy.
The LORD is good to all, compassionate toward all your works.
This Sunday (Sept 14th) provides an excellent example of the way the Catholic Lectionary arranges scripture for Sunday Mass. For each Sunday the Gospel (Jn 3:13-17 for this week) and first reading (Numbers 21:4b-9) are connected by a theme. The second reading is usually unrelated, since it follows a separate pattern, moving week by week through the epistles in a more or less continuous sequence.
This Sunday is titled the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. The word exaltation means to raise up in dignity or honor. In the first reading, Moses prayed to the Lord to protect the people who had been bitten by saraph serpents. He got this answer:
“Make a saraph and mount it on a pole, and if any who have been bitten look at it, they will live.” Moses accordingly made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a pole, and whenever anyone who had been bitten by a serpent looked at the bronze serpent, he lived.
John 3:14-15 makes a specific reference to this:
'And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”
For this Sunday the second reading (Phil 1:6-11) has been chosen to specifically reinforce this point. Because of death on the cross
"God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."
If we were in the same situation as the Israelites, bitten by deadly serpents and in danger of death, we would look on the sign that is lifted up. This look would be filled with conscious attention and hope. If we are not in danger, or out of danger and have forgotten that we were in danger, we glance briefly at the cross, forgetting what it means. If we are Catholic we make the sign of the cross as a quick, unconscious gesture - one often ridiculed as superstition by the media. This Sunday, we pause from our usual sequence of readings to be reminded that when we look on the One who is lifted up, we are looking on the source of rescue from desperation, danger and illness of the spiritual as well as the physical kind.
The scripture for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (September 7th) presents us with a seemingly contradictory picture on how to love our neighbor. What are you to do if your fellow Christian “…sins against you?” From the Mt. 18:15-20 we get this: First, attempt to be reconciled: “…go and tell him his fault.” if he listens, your relationship is restored. If he does’t (assuming the harm done is serious, get a friend to go with you. If not tell the church. And if that fails, “treat him as you would an gentile or tax collector.”
Great, and how did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors? In the good Samaritan story gentiles are treated with extreme love and compassion. Jesus took tax collectors as disciples. From this, we get contradictory guidance. One the one hand we are to exclude the brother who has sinned against us from our company. On the other, we treat him with compassion and respect.
Maybe we can get an answer from our second reading (Rom 13:8-10):
“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no evil to the neighbor;hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.
This, at least, sets a minimum standard for our conduct. If a neighbor has, or probably will, hurt us, we can protect ourselves - but we may not do evil to him.
From all of this we get some guidelines for choice of what to do in a situation in which we have a neighbor (or relative) who is obnoxious, untrustworthy or even dangerous. Guidelines sound good, but we still need to discern what to do in a particular, concrete situation. Our decisions are often made on the fly. In classical philosophy the ability to do this is called the virtue of Prudence. The philosophers have some careful and thorough description. I think that Kenny Rogers in his song The Gambler gets it better.
You've got to know when to hold 'em
Know when to fold 'em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
Prudence is a skill developed by practice and by learning to know one’s own resources and motivations. Many times we are caught between the sense that we should do something but are reluctant to do it. At others we struggle to avoid taking action and have to learn to accept a situation that is unchangeable - at least at present. We need to ask for the wisdom to choose between the two by saying the Serenity prayer.
“For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Mt 16:25.
We find this same saying in Luke. We heard it last year on the 12th Sunday. Since this is a busy weekend for us, I’m going to simply repeat my posting from June 19, 2013
Thomas Keating's concept of the "homemade self" helps us to understand what today's gospel means in terms of personal and spiritual development.
In The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation Fr. Keating describes the development of the "home-made self." (Most often called the "false self.") When we are children, we mature in an environment that is somewhat hostile - in spite of the best efforts of our parents. We develop coping mechanisms that provide us with happiness and satisfy three energy centers or needs:
Safety and Security
Esteem and Affection
Power and Control
We develop a set of routines and behaviors that satisfy these needs. Keating calls these routines "Programs for Happiness." Our problem arises when we become so strongly attached to these programs that they become more important than life itself. When threatened or distressed we run the program again and again. We adopt the attitude that if a little is good more is better. (this little includes money, possessions, power, entertainment, and many other things.) Getting more and more provides less and less satisfaction and can lead to despair and even loss of our physical life.
When we finally admit that our homemade self isn't working well and our life is unmanageable - or maybe just part of it is - we are ready. When we lose our homemade self we can grow into our Godmade self.
When the goal of our program, whether it be power, possessions or pleasure (to use Msgr. Michael's "3P's), becomes so important that it controls us, it is time to give it up. When we do, we will get our life back. This seems hard until we focus on the key words in Luke 9: 24 --"for my sake." Once we reach that point, the rest will follow.
On the 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 24th) we will hear about the Keys to the Kingdom, First, in Is 22:18:9-23 and then in Mt. 18:13-20. As I reflect on these texts, I realize that I have always pictured the keys as being held by a Church Authority and used to close the door on erroneous opinions and keep it closed to shut out unworthy people. As I read it now, it seems be the reverse. We read in Isaiah:
“I will place the key of the House of David on Eliakim’s shoulder;
when he opens, no one shall shut…”
Similarly, I find a positive meaning in the word “bind” in Matthew:
“I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;…”
The holder of the keys has the power to bind us in God’s love. Once bound, once the door to the kingdom is open, we can never be shut out. We always belong. This will be even more true on the days when we feel like outcasts.
This is a 180 degree shift in perspective for me. Does anyone else share it?
“my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples."
Yet in the dialogue between Jesus and the Canaanite woman Jesus seems reluctant to answer her desperate plea. He says:
“It is not right to take the food of the childrencand throw it to the dogs.”
In context the Canaanites were foreigners, ie. not Jewish and to be treated like dogs. Jesus was saying that his mission was to the people of Israel. But the woman, desperate to find healing for her daughter, persists, saying
“Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.”
Her request is granted as Jesus says:
“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.”
Scholars debate whether this story depicts Jesus changing his perspective. One view is that as a result of ths encounter he changed his mind. Hi sministry to the children of Israel would include foreigners as well. The alternate view is that, he already knew and accepted Isaiah’s words that the Lord’s house shall be for all peoples. In this view, he used the exchange of wit with the Canaanite woman to emphasize that his ministry reached beyond Israel to foreigners.
In either case we can learn from the Canaanite woman. She was bold to speak to him. In that culture women did not speak to men and Jews did not speak to Canaanites. Yet she spoke her mind. She did not back down. She knew what she needed for her daughter and she boldly answered Jesus. We should be willing to do the same in our prayer. Sometimes we may not feel worthy. We do not just feel like dogs, we feel like rebellious dogs, yet we speak frankly to the Lord. Of course we should not be surprised if we get frank answers.