Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Hoarding False Righteousness

As we move closer to the end of the year, the end of the Gospel, and Matthew’s last sermon, on last things, in our Gospel this week Jesus demands from us the fruits that he planted in his vineyard.

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The hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed

Our reading from Isaiah sets the metaphor for many Gospel parables about vineyards.  “What more was there for me to do for my vineyard that I had not done?” the Lord asks. “Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild [or sour] grapes?”  And in his anger, as Jesus with the fig tree, he pledges to destroy the vineyard: by letting Judah be taken to the Babylonian captivity, and later by letting the gentiles partake of the privileges of his people Israel.

The last words of the parable are key, because they describe the fruit he seeks: “He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!  For justice, but hark, the outcry!”  The translation is awkward.  In the Old Testament, “judgment” refers to good judgment, and especially just judgment: treating people right.  The word translated “justice” means more generally “righteousness.”  But instead of just, his people just hurt one another.  Instead of righteous, they squeal and make others squeal.

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Don’t miss this parable’s connection to another Gospel parable, the lead one from Matthew’s third sermon, on parables.  There we read about seed planted (i) on a trampled path, which is (ii) eaten by animals; (iii) on stony places, where it is (iv) scorched by the sun; among (v) thorns; and (vi) on good soil.

In our reading from Isaiah, the master of the vineyard removes the stones (iii in the list above), to make (vi) good soil, but when he is angry he breaks down the hedge so that it will be (ii) eaten by animals and (i) trampled; then he commands it to be (v) overgrown with thorns and (iv) scorched by the sun.  Every one of the elements lines up.

The parable of the sower in Matthew 13 (we read it way back in mid-July) is quoting this parable in Isaiah.  But where the parable in Matthew might make it sound like Jesus is responsible for the seed and we are responsible for the soil, the parable in Isaiah emphasizes that the Lord has given both good seed (“the choicest vines”) and good soil, and his people have still failed to bear the fruit of righteousness.  Isaiah pushes us deeper into the mysteries of grace: we cannot say that God made us the bad soil in Matthew’s vineyard.  Somehow we have rejected his efforts to clear us of stones.

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That connection leads us into our reading from Philippians.  Rather than “anxiety,” as if everything depends on us, we should live by “petition, with thanksgiving,” because everything, even the good soil in the vineyard of our hearts, comes from him.  If we live this way, always “in Christ Jesus,” “the peace of God . . . will guard your hearts and minds.”

Then he urges us to “think about” “whatever is true” and honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy – one of the most beautiful sentences in Paul.  Modern people tend to dismiss thinking, but Paul shows us that meditation is the way seeds are planted in our hearts.  Then we can “keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen”: we do what we learn.  We receive the righteousness and peace of Jesus into our hearts by hearing his word and meditating on it.

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Our Gospel is full of inversions.  The first strange detail is that in his vineyard he places a tower.  That detail is in Isaiah too.  It paints a picture to help evoke the Old Testament prophet.

But the tower here works three ways.  First, it makes the vineyard beautiful.  But second, it lets the wicked tenant see the Lord’s servants and son coming – so that they can attack.  And third, it shows the vineyard to those on the outside: a city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  The conclusion of the story is that the vineyard – that is, Jerusalem, the city on a hill, and the heavenly Jerusalem – is given to a new people, who in Isaiah are always streaming in to that exalted city.

So too with the fruit: we are called to bear fruit for the Lord of the vineyard, but instead they want to keep the fruit for themselves.

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Christ the healer

A third inversion: the messengers.  All the servants and prophets, and finally the Son, reflect the Lord’s love for his vineyard.  We are still in the context of the lost sheep.  But the other sheep turn into wolves, and the lamb sent to call the lost sheep home is slaughtered.  The cornerstone becomes a stumbling block.

The fourth and final inversion: God’s mercy.  It is rejected because it seems to allow unrighteousness, but it really prepares the way for true righteousness.  We are still in the context we discussed last week, the context of the chief priests and elders who reject the prostitutes and tax collectors who followed John the Baptist.  In context, the punchline of this parable is that those who count themselves righteous will lose the kingdom, and “tax collectors and sinners will go into the kingdom of heaven before you.”

Why?  Because those who count themselves righteous fail to bear the fruit of justice and instead attack God’s messengers of mercy.  But of course, those messengers of mercy are not calling us to be tax collectors and sinners any more than they are calling us to be Pharisees and chief priests.  They are calling us to bear the fruit of the Gospel, to live lives transformed by the peace that passes all understanding, lives that reflect whatever is true and honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent, and praiseworthy.

How do you find yourself hoarding false righteousness instead of bearing fruit for the Lord?

Archbishop Gomez on America’s Founding Franciscans

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St. Junipero Serra

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His statue in the National Capitol

“The Franciscan missionaries who founded Los Angeles named our city for the Mother of God, the Queen of the Angels.

One of those missionaries was St. Junípero Serra, our newest American saint. St. Junípero was Hispanic, a migrant from Spain, and he entered this country after living for more than a decade in Mexico.

In his time, there were many in the California colonial government who denied the full humanity of the indigenous peoples living in this land. St. Junípero became their champion. He even wrote a “bill of rights” to protect them. And by the way — he wrote that bill of rights — three years before America’s Declaration of Independence.

Most Americans do not know this history. But Pope Francis does.

That is why, when the Holy Father came to this country in 2015, his first act was to hold a solemn Mass where he canonized St. Junípero. He held that Mass — not in Los Angeles, but right here in the nation’s capital.

Pope Francis was making a point. He believes we should honor St. Junípero as “one of the founding fathers of the United States.”[i]

I agree. I think we should, too. Because remembering St. Junípero and the first missionaries changes how we José Horacio Gómez .jpgremember our national story. It reminds us that America’s first beginnings were not political. America’s first beginnings were spiritual.

The missionaries came here first — long before the Pilgrims, long before George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Long before this country even had a name.

These missionaries — together with the colonists and the statesmen who came later — they laid the spiritual and intellectual groundwork for a nation that remains unique in human history. A nation conceived under God and committed to promoting human dignity, freedom and the flourishing of a diversity of peoples, races, ideas and beliefs.”

 

-Archbishop Jose Gomez, of Los Angeles, preaching to the majority of the Supreme Court and the great Red Mass gathering of the lawyers of Washington, DC

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Evangelical Conversion

Evangelical Conversion

It’s a cold weekend here in New Jersey.  As summer ends and the year comes to a close, we come toward the end of our annual cycle reading the Gospel, and the liturgy looks toward the end.

In our reading of Matthew, we are now in the chapters between the fourth sermon, on Christian community, and the last one, on the end times, part of which we will read in the middle of November.  The stories in between, including the ones we considered last Sunday, on poverty, chastity, and obedience, turn us toward the end by calling us to conversion.

Last week we looked toward the end with the eleventh hour: it is never too late to convert.  This week we skip a chapter ahead, skipping over, too, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Jesus has come to claim his authority.  One of his first steps is to cleanse the Temple, then the Temple officials ask him how he claims such authority, and he challenges them back by referring to John the Baptist’s authority.

Our reading this week comes next: the parable of the two sons, one of whom says he will serve the Father but does not, and the other of whom fails at first but then does the right thing.

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Our first two readings set it up from two directions.  In the first, Ezekiel challenges us to appreciate that the justice File:Хрыстос з палаючым сэрцам.jpgof the Lord is not to count people’s past lives against them, but to let them change, for good or for bad.  Conversion.

Our second reading, now from Philippians 2, tells us what that conversion looks like: to have the same selflessness and self-emptying as Christ, seeing others as better than ourselves.

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Our Gospel reading itself has two parts.  The more obvious is the first part, about the two sons.  But the second part is the punchline: “Tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”

The parable has a context.  It is true enough, on its own level, that like the two sons, we should change for the better, not for the worse – better to fail at first than to claim we are righteous and then not follow through.  But Jesus has in mind a particular debate.

As is often the case, Jesus sets out the parable to make a lesson obvious.  He asks his audience, “Which of the two did his father’s will?”  And the answer is obvious.

But the parable stings.  He is not only commending the son who converts.  He is warning his audience that they are like the son who says he will serve but then does not.

He is in the Temple, which he has recently cleansed.  He is speaking to the chief priests and elders, those who consider themselves righteous.  And he says, “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”  Not just “they are entering,” but “before you.”

Many who are last will be first.  But many who seem to be first, he warns, will be last.  Many who dress up fancy, who act religious, who take the chief places in the synagogues.  Always Jesus warns us who are “religious.”  The coming end is not only an incentive and an opportunity for those who are “outside”; it is a warning for those of us who are inside.  He will end his preaching, in Matthew 25, by sending people to hell for saying, “When did we see you a stranger and not welcome you?”

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Called to be Fishermen

In this reading, the challenge to the religious people is how they react to the prostitutes and tax collectors.  The more righteous we think we are, the more intolerant we can become of those who are still converting.  This, my friends, is the heart of what Pope Francis is saying: if we are not evangelistic, if we are not afire for mission, if we are not always reaching out to draw people in, we fall instead into the place of the chief priests and elders in this story (and the Pharisees in so many others).  Their failing, he says, is to condemn those who are in the process of converting: that is how they fail to do the Father’s will.  We must never grow complacent in our faith.

The reading from Philippians says, “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourself.”  That is a constant call to conversion, a constant call not only for the tax collectors and prostitutes to enter in, but for us to call them in.

In both the story before our reading, where they challenge his authority, and in this story, Jesus reminds us about John the Baptist: “When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”  John is the call to conversion.  Let his voice never cease to echo in our ears.

What sinners do you find your heart hardened against?