Sunday, November 26 is the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. (We being the new year with Advent on November 30th. It was placed on the calendar in 1931 by Pope Pius the 11th. He wanted to counter the tendency of many people to see their political parties as identical or superior to God’s Kingdom. This tendency is still with us, especially among political progressives and Tea Party members. We need to remember John 18:36-38
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep,…
This is an astounding promise. It will not be some earthly shepherd, but the Lord himself who will look after us.
Then in Mt. 25:31-46 Jesus, the good shepherd, gives us a picture of how we get to the Kingdom while on this earth:
(you will) “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
To the question “When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,…” Jesus gives the answer:
“whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers you did for me.”
While the Kingdom is “not of this world,” it is coming into being. We can help bring it into being and become part of the kingdom by caring for or neighbors. We don’t have to look far, or even go into the streets of Charlottesville, to find people who are desperate and suffering. We can find people in all our daily affairs, if we are just open and listen. When we see people who are suffering, lonely or maybe just afraid of their future, we can extend mercy and bring the kingdom a little closer.
In the Catholic lectionary for Sunday Mass the first and gospel readings are chosen because they reflect a common theme or idea. In this case, the connection between the two is not immediately clear - at least to me. The parable promises a reward: those who use their gifts and talents will find them multiplied. Those who hide them will lose even what they had at the beginning. This should lead us to reflect on what our gifts really are and ask if we have failed to use some of our gifts out of fear, shame, or sloth. The good wife, in contrast, does not seem to be reflecting on her gifts. She simply goes about using them in her daily tasks. She does not even seek praise for her accomplishments. Instead the writer of Proverbs urges us to:
Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.
It should be thus for all of us. Rather than seeking reward for our gifts or worrying about what we might be hiding, we need to go ahead and use the gifts that we know we have. The results, recognition and reward are in the hands of the Lord.
This Sunday, November 9, we interrupt the weekly progress through the scripture readings for Ordinary Time to celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Our readings speak of the holiness of a church, its respect and fruitfulness through the people. To many it seems odd to dedicate a day to the construction of a church in Rome in the year 324. As I reflect on it, I recall the campaign motto for our parish when we started construction in 1973: "Not a house for God, but a house for God's people". Our first
reading (Ez: 47,1-2, 8-9,12) paints a picture of what this might mean:
"The angel brought me
back to the entrance of the temple,
and I saw water flowing out
from beneath the threshold of the temple ...
Wherever the river flows,
every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,
and there shall be abundant fish,
for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.
Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow;
their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail.
Every month they shall bear fresh fruit,
for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.
Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine
Ezekiel views the temple as a source of healing and strength for the entire land. In the second reading Paul takes us a giant step beyond that as he writes to the Corinthians:
"Brothers and sisters...you are God's building."
It is not just from the temple or church building that healing and nourishment flows; rather it is from God's people. This is true, as Paul cautions us, to the extent that our foundation is Jesus Christ.
In taking a day to commemorate a mother church, we can also give thanks and offer prayers that our own local church, indeed all local churches and the universal church may me, in the words of Psalm 46 "Our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in distress, a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God.
This Sunday (Nov. 2nd) is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (aka All Souls Day).(The scripture readings pre-empt the readings we would ordinarily find for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time.) There is a connection between the first reading (WIS 3:1-9) and the Gospel (JN 6:37-40). In Wisdom we read:
“The souls of the just are in the hand of God,and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.”
We might ask: If we take this literally as applying to the “just,” how about the unjust?’ Is this beautiful state promised in Wisdom to be restricted only to the just? I think we get an answer in John. Jesus says that he is sent to do the “will of my Father” and that this is the Father’s will:
“…everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
The unjust can become just by looking at Christ and believing in Him.
Yet, going back to Wisdom, The just will not be sitting on clouds enjoying their rest. There will be some work to do: The faithful departed will dart about igniting the faith and carrying out the Lord’s tasks:
“In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble; they shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever.”
This leads to an interesting speculation: Rather than resting peacefully upon clouds in heaven, the departed faithful are somehow busy darting about as “sparks through the stubble.” We can look to them, or at least to their memories and writings, hoping that they will ignite the sparks of faith among the stubble that still exists in this earth.
We will hear this admonition in the scripture readings for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Oct 28th). These are scripture verses easily made into arguments supporting political ideologies. The first reading from Exodus will be followed by the gospel text giving us the first and second greatest commandments:
"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."
The admonitions in Exodus are implicitly contained in the Gospel. Loving one’s neighbor extends to the alien, the widow and orphan, and the poor. It forbids exacting interest or harsh loans. These texts are the basis for much of Jewish and Chrstian movements to promote social justice.
These readings bring thoughts of modern applications to the questions of legal and illegal immigrants into the United States. This has been the subject of much political commentary, much of it filled with resentment and anger. These feelings result, I suggest, from the tendency of both liberals and conservatives to convert their political ideologies into idols. Elizabeth Scalia writes about this in her book Strange Gods; Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.
There is a remedy for this. When we find ourselves “idolizing” one particular set of political opinions, we should remember that we, ourselves were once “aliens in Egypt.” This thought may seem strange and impossible, especially for those of us who have never been to Egypt. We can understand how this might apply by taking a lesson from Deuteronomy 26:5-6 on how the Hebrews were to read scripture. It tell us that when you make your offering to the Lord, this is what you shall say:
“…‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.”
From the Hebrew point of view, what happened to their father in the past, also happened to them. They were enslaved along with their ancestors - and freed in the Exodus.
We can also interpret “once aliens yourselves in Egypt” in a contemporary spiritual sense. As Elizabeth Scalia writes, it is all to easy to become over-involved in the things of this world. When we do, our dedication to political causes such as opposing or supporting immigration reform, can cause to become resentful and even hateful. This is especially true when politicians and talk show hosts are all too willing to stir up hatred and anger for their own purposes. When these attitudes dominate our thinking we have become slaves to a political idol.
If we can remember that we were aliens and in some sense in Egypt as slaves to an idol, we can look on immigrants as real persons search for a better life. If we do that, our version of immigration reform will strike a balance between conflicting political opinions.
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.