Second Sunday of Advent: A City in the Wilderness

At the center of our readings for the second Sunday of Advent is an image of Jerusalem.  The Entrance Antiphon says, “O people of Sion” (the temple hill at the center of Jerusalem) “behold, the Lord will come to save the nations, and the Lord will make the glory of his voice heard in the joy of your heart.”  The Communion Antiphon again says, “Jerusalem, arise and stand upon the heights, and behold the joy which comes to you from God.”  Jerusalem looks toward the Lord who will come.

The Liturgical renewal of Vatican II is remarkable, sometimes dumbfoundingly rich.  These two antiphons are ancient, and were part of the readings before the Council.  After the Council, the readings themselves changed – though the Gospel continues to bring our attention to John the Baptist – but we enter even more deeply into these antiphons.

The earthly Jerusalem is a strange city. Most cities, like New York, are near the sea and trade routes.  Jerusalem is in the mountains, desert mountains, a fortress set apart.  Jerusalem is a city in the wilderness, a watchtower.

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Our Epistle, from Second Peter, keeps us looking forward, to the Second Coming.  We are reminded that on that day, “the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire.”  All that will remain is “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”  (In Revelation, that’s the New Jerusalem.)  “Therefore . . . be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him.”  Be cleansed so that you can meet your Lord when he comes.

Our Prophet, Isaiah, is more reassuring: instead of threatening the incineration of heaven and earth, he says, “Comfort”: tell Jerusalem that “her guilt is expiated.”  But still we are preparing “in the desert . . . the way of the Lord,” preparing for when “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” because “Here comes with power the Lord God.”  A watchtower.

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The Gospel is John the Baptist, whom Mark calls, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

A central line of the reading points us to the identity of Jerusalem.  I’ll give my own translation, because the point is tricky: “There came out to him the whole Judean territory and all the Jerusalemites.”

Like everything else in this reading, it is a reference to Isaiah and Elijah.  Our reading from Isaiah said, “Go up onto a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news!  Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God!”

Jerusalem, the city on a hill, is a people looking east.  The earthly Jerusalem proclaims salvation to all the nations, beginning with the Judean countryside that surrounds it.  “All of Jerusalem,” Mark says, goes out to John the Baptist.

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John himself is an image of the Old Testament people.  The reading begins, “As it is written in Isaiah the prophet” – but then it quotes two of the prophets, Malachi, who says, “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,” and then our reading from Isaiah, “A voice of one crying out in the desert.”

Both passages have prophets telling of a prophet telling of the Lord who comes.  Jerusalem is a people looking East, a people of prophecy, a watchtower.

John the Baptist himself proclaims a baptism.  In the Greek version of the Old Testament that Mark is quoting, “baptism” is a word derived from the word for the ablutions that are center to Jerusalem’s identity.  In the Passover rite in Exodus, for example, “You shall take a bunch of hyssop and dip [bapto] in the blood in the bowl, and strike the lintel and the doorposts with the blood in the bowl.”  And on Yom Kippur, “the priest shall dip [bapto] his finger in the blood and sprinkle of the blood seven times before Jehovah, at the front of the veil of the holy place.”

But the exact word appears only, of course, in Isaiah, where baptizo is being “overwhelmed” (even in English, “whelm” literally means “submerge”) by the awesomeness of the Lord, and what Elijah’s successor Elisha tells Naaman the Syrian to do in the Jordan.

John leads the people of Jerusalem back to their roots, in the Jordan.  He wears the camel hair and belt that were the marks of Elijah and all the prophets.  He eats wild honey, recalling the promised land of milk and honey, and locusts, a food of the poor in the desert and the animal food allowed by the charter of the people in Leviticus.

John reminds the people of Jerusalem who they are: a prophetic people, a people looking east, awaiting their Lord – a people of the desert, a city in the wilderness, gathered not by trade but by the Lord who comes.

To be Jerusalem and Israel is to say, “One mightier than I is coming after me.  I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals” – to wash his feet, though he submerges mine.

We too are called to be that prophetic people, a people gathered together in prophecy of the day of the Lord.

How would your parish be different if it lived as a prophetic people, a city in the wilderness?

 

First Sunday in Advent: Christ’s Work in Us

“Let us see your face, and we shall be saved,” was our Psalm response this week. “Come, Lord Jesus!” is our prayer for Advent, as we prepare to celebrate for his first coming and look forward to his coming again.

Searching the Scriptures

Our Gospel sets our face toward that second coming when it says, “You do not know when the lord of the house is coming . . . .  May he not come suddenly and find you sleeping.”  Those are the words of Jesus, who has already come, and tells us to look forward to his coming again.

So too in our first reading, from the beginning of First Corinthians: “as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  First Corinthians was written to a community already established by the revelation of Jesus Christ, else they couldn’t even use his name. But they look forward.  In fact, “He” – that is, Jesus Christ himself, who already came, and already is at work in us; “he” of whom Paul has just said, “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus” – “He will  keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Christ who has come prepares us for Christ who will come again.

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We enter into this mystery through the first reading – of course, as every Sunday in Advent, from the prophet Isaiah.  The reading begins and ends, “You, LORD, are our father.”  At the end it explains: “We are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.”  We are what we are because God makes us.  That’s why in the reading from Corinthians Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always on your account” – because of “the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus.”  He makes us.

This appreciation of grace takes a startling turn when Isaiah says, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways.”  He believes so firmly that God alone makes us righteous that he can even blame God for not making us righteous.  And so he begs, “Return.”  And so we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “let us see your face and we shall be saved,” “Lord, make us turn to you.”

Isaiah begs, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down” – and we beg, “Come, Lord Jesus,” “I believe that he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”  Be our king!  Reign!  Make the world righteous at last!

Isaiah would like to say that we are righteously awaiting, but he cannot: “all of us have become like unclean people,” even “all our good deeds are like polluted rags. . . .  There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you,” says the Prophet who is calling on the name of the LORD, but knows he does it so poorly.

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Mary sees

Things are the same and different for St. Paul.  “In Christ Jesus,” he says, “. . . you were enriched in every way, with all logos and gnosis . . . so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift.”  Because we know him, we are enriched by him.

And so now, too, after Christ has come, we long for his coming.  And now too we know that we cannot make ourselves ready for that coming, for that reign of true righteousness.  But “God is faithful,” and so “He will keep you firm to the end, irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Before Christ, Isaiah sees nothing but polluted rags.  After Christ, Paul knows that the power already at work in us through faith in the revelation of Jesus Christ can make us holy, irreproachable as we await the perfect reign of Christ.

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In our reading from Mark’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Be watchful!  Be alert!”  Or “Look, and stay awake!”  Keep your eye on him, on the revelation of Christ who has come and will come again.

“It is like a man traveling abroad,” he says.  “He places his servants in charge, each with his own work.”  We each have a work to do, a way to prepare, a way that he wants to work in us as we await the revelation of his perfect kingdom.

“He orders the gatekeeper to be on the watch.”  The gatekeeper is a specific work, not the work of all the servants.  And yet his work gives the ultimate meaning to all our other works.  “Watch, therefore.”  Be prepared at every moment, by living the vocation, the work that he has given you, and that he works in you.

To prepare for Christ is not to sleep, but to let him who has already come work in us.  If we are to be ready for his perfect reign, we must make sure we are not like the people in Isaiah’s time, when Christ had never come, and they were unclean and no one called on his name.  Rather we must be like St. Paul, enriched with every good gift for every good work, by our knowledge of him who has already come to begin his work in us

How is Christ trying to make you turn to him, to prepare your place in his kingdom?

Thirty-Third Sunday: The Lord’s Work

I am sorry I missed writing a post on last week’s amazing readings.  Part of it is my own laziness.  Part of it is that  this year I have been trying to read the Gospel readings more carefully – and it’s overwhelming.  I get started and can’t imagine paring things down to 800 words.  There is too much there, I had no idea the Gospels were so rich.

But notice how laziness and failure to receive the Lord’s goodness go together.  This week’s readings, in fact, speak right to me.

Searching the Scriptures

The first reading, from Proverbs, talks about the “worthy wife.”  She works hard.  When it says, “charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” it’s telling us something important about women.  But the main point, the reason it’s paired with this Gospel, is to teach us that we’re all called to work.

The bigger context is in our reading from First Thessalonians: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  At the end of the Church’s year and the end of the Gospel – these last three Sundays, we are reading every word of Matthew 25, Jesus’s last words before he goes to be crucified – the theme is preparing for the end of time and the second coming of Christ.  “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”  Let’s get to work.

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First Thessalonians’ discussion of the end – especially the parts the Sunday Lectionary does not give us – is scary.  So too Proverbs talks about the woman who “fears the Lord” and our Psalm refrain is, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord” (which the Psalm again ties to the health of the family).

File:Pantocrator from Gavshinka (1200s, Rublev's museum).jpgThe three readings from Matthew 25, meanwhile, are a crescendo of threats.  At the end of last week’s reading, the Bridegroom locks the foolish virgins out, telling them, “I do not know you.”  At the end of this week’s reading, the parable of the talents, the Lord says, “throw the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (that is, both sorrow and anger).  And at the end of next week’s Gospel, the very last words of Jesus’ preaching are, “Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.  And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”

People think that the Old Testament is scary and the Gospels are nice.  That is because people haven’t read either one.  The most terrifying threats in Scripture come from the mouth of Jesus.

But what is the point of this fear?  In this week’s parable of the talents, the one who had received the one talent says, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here it is back.”

But that was foolish.  As the Master responds, if you are afraid, you should work hard.  Jesus is demanding.  He wants more from us.  The Gospel is not about being fleeing responsibility, it is about being filled with the vigor of Jesus.

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The beginning of our parable is important.  Our translation says, “A man going on a journey.”  The Greek word means, “going away from his people.”  It is a powerful word at the end of Jesus’ preaching, as he goes, first to the Cross and then to the Ascension.

He “called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.”  The Greek for possessions is “things under his authority.”  And notice the two uses of “his.”  The things are his – but the Greek uses a deeper word for saying the servants are his.

The last words of Matthew’s Gospel will be, “Behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world.  Amen.”  He goes away – but he sends us with his authority, because we are his.

So notice too the words of reward.  “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  We are called to be his servants, doing his work – as in the next and final parable we will be called to welcome him in the poor.  The word for Master in this parable is Kurios, as in Kyrie eleison, Lord!  The words we want to hear are that we have been good and faithful servants, that he has been our Lord.

Then he says, “since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great” – possessions? no – “responsibilities.”  Literally, “I will put you over much.”

“Come, share your master’s joy.”  But your Lord’s joy is in the care he gives, the work he does, the love he bestows, and pours into our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

How perfect that the other readings tie this commission to family.  Our joy is not in being relieved of responsibility, but in entering into our Lord’s work.

What’s an important place in your life where you think you will find joy by fleeing the work the Lord has given you?

Thirty-First Sunday: We’re All Priests

This year, I have been making an effort to study the Gospels, especially this year’s Gospel, Matthew, better than I have before.  What has most struck me is the centrality of the Pharisees.  But one of my favorite things about the Pharisees is how accusations of Phariseeism boomerang.  Jesus manages to accuse them without becoming one himself, but every time I point out Phariseeism, I find myself committing it.

In this week’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “They will not lift a finger” to help people carry the burdens they lay, and, “They preach but they do not practice.”

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But the readings start with the minor prophet Malachi cursing the priests of Israel: “You have caused many to falter by your instruction.”  His particular accusation is “you show partiality in your decisions.”  The Hebrew for that is something like, “You look up,” looking at whom they are judging instead of, like our blindfolded Lady Justice, looking only at the case itself.

Thus he ends, “Have we not all the one father?   Has not the one God created us?  Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?”  Instead of angling for whom we can benefit from, we should treat others right, because they are our equals and because they belong to God.  So too – looking back to our Gospel – we should help others carry their loads instead of trying to gain honors.

But one thing that’s fun about this juxtaposition of texts is that the Pharisees are the opposite of the people Malachi is blaming.  Malachi is talking to the Levites, the ones who serve in the temple.  But in Jesus’s day, that was the Sadducees, the enemy of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees thought the Sadduccees, who were worried only about temple observance were – something like what we would call liberals, not tough enough on how people behave outside of church.

In short, both sides of the argument are, in the broad sense, “Pharisees.”  Both sides are failing to practice what they preach.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

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There is plenty in today’s Gospel that we can use to accuse the priests – or the blamers of priests – of our day.  It is true that they tie up heavy burdens hard to carry, but will not lift a finger to move them.   It is true that they sit in the chair of Moses, teaching with authority, so that we should observe all the things they tell us – but often we should not follow their example.  It is true that they often seem to love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Father.’  Some may disagree, but I don’t think we get anywhere denying that there is much about our clergy that is less than inspiring.

And it’s true, as Malachi says, that they ought to have greater respect for the people whom they serve.  The priesthood doesn’t make you the one special member of the congregation.  It makes you a servant of all, because we are all part of the priestly people, all called to holiness.  I think priests would behave better if they remembered the dignity of the Christian people.  So would the people who blame priests.

Fine.  But here’s my point: we are a priestly people in another sense, too.  We are all guilty of the sins of the priests, all guilty of what Malachi blames the Levites for, and Jesus blames the Pharisees for.  We all need Jesus to tell us, “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Whatever we accuse others of, the accusation comes back to ourselves.  Whatever gripes you have with other Christians, whatever you think many clergy are guilty of (whether you think they’re too strict or too lazy) – look to yourself.  It’s not so much that we shouldn’t judge others, as that we should judge ourselves.

In all these passages about the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to judge ourselves.  Perhaps we start by seeing Phariseeism in others, but always the accusation boomerangs to us.

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Instead, as Paul says of himself, let us be “gentle” with one another, “as a nursing mother cares for her children.”  Let us share “the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved” may we see others.

In that way, and only in that way, we can make sure that “receiving the word of God from hearing us,” they may receive “not a human word, but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”

Who in the Church do you tend to judge?  How are you guilty of the same things?

 

Twenty-Ninth Sunday: Earthly Responsibilities

Sorry for my absence.  This past weekend I wrote my post but had technical problems.  The weekend before, life just overwhelmed me!

Our Gospel this Sunday is “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”  It’s a familiar reading – and far richer than we may recognize.

Notice, for example, that this reading about the rights of kings is in the context of controversies about Jesus’

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The King of Glory

kingship: both the previous story, which associates Jesus with the king who gives a wedding feast, and his triumphal entry into Jerusalem.

Note too the way the reading’s ironies about truth.  The Pharisees and Herodians say, “Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth” – which is of course exactly what they don’t believe: they lie in speaking of truth.  But Jesus speaks truth to them.

More could be said on these points.  My only point is to say that the Gospels are worth meditating on.  They are many layered, and richer than ever we expect.

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But the central teaching here is about the meaning of earthly kingship and responsibility.  And Jesus teaches on two levels.

On the first level, he subverts the power of kings by shrugging his shoulders at their authority.  “Whose image is this?” he asks, the perfect insult to the all-importance of Caesar.  Does Caesar want this silly coin?  Fine, whatever, he can have it, I sure don’t want it.

He points further, to the Old Testament teaching on idols: “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.  Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men’s hands.  They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.  They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell” (Psalm 115, cf. Psalm 135).  Money then as now is classic idolatry (cf. Col. 3:5, and Jesus on God and mammon).  All this for a dead picture of a dead president, or a distant Caesar.

Sure, I’ll pay taxes and follow the laws – because, for the most part, what Caesar wants is worth nothing to me.  On one level, the Cross itself shows a kind of contempt for worldly goods.

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But on another level, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” contextualizes our earthly responsibilities.  We do have earthly duties.  On one level, we have contempt for this world, because only

What is truth.jpgGod is God, but on another level, we see everything within this world as belonging to God.

Our reading from Isaiah reminds us of this teaching, found most directly in Romans 13: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.  For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  (The Catechism, following Thomas Aquinas, takes this verse at face value to mean that God demands that we obey Caesar in all but the extreme cases.)  Our reading from Isaiah says that God has instituted even the pagan kings – whether they know it or not.  “I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not. . . .  It is I who arm you, though you know me not.”  Even Caesar and Herod, who killed Jesus.

It is not that Caesar gets one thing and God gets another, but that Caesar gets some things and God gets everything.  Even the taxes we pay, and all our subjection to the secular governing authorities, we also pay to God – just as the true love that we give to our families and neighbors is also and above all love of God.

Jesus’s words in our Gospel only add the important caveat that it isn’t that God has chosen Caesar – in this story, Jesus doesn’t much care who Caesar is – but rather that God demands our civic responsibility.

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Our Epistle is the beginning of First Thessalonians, which we will read for the rest of Ordinary Time.  It is a letter about persecution by kings, with enough of an apocalyptic tone to fit the end of the Church year.

Stadtk-murrhardt-altardet.jpgBut today, all we have is “We give thanks to God always for all of you.”  He gives thanks for their own merits and good works: “calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  But he gives thanks because their strength for those good works comes not from themselves, but from God: “Our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”

It’s a good reminder that everything in this world, whether earthly authority or our ability to live out our earthly obligations, is a gift from God.  We both live those earthly responsibilities and have a bit of contempt for how little they are because we realize that everything is from God and for God.

Do you have disorder, either too much or too little concern, for any earthly responsibilities?

 

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?

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?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday: A Radical Call

Our Gospel for this week is the parable of the eleventh hour: “These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day’s burden and the heat.”

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Sent into the Vineyard

It comes in the middle of what we could read as two chapters on the evangelical counsels, poverty, chastity, and obedience.  After the Sermon on the Parables, Jesus discusses the obligations of marital fidelity.  The disciples say, “If this is the case of the man with his wife, it is not good to marry,” and Jesus says that some are called not to marry.  Nice that chastity is presented here both as the radical fidelity of celibacy and the inconceivable radical fidelity of Christian marriage.

Then the rich young man can’t leave his riches; the disciples say, “Who then can be saved?”; and Peter proclaims, “We have forsaken all and have followed you.”  Commending their fidelity, Jesus for the first time says, “Many who are first shall be last, but the last shall be first,” which is also the conclusion of our parable.

Our parable, the eleventh hour, comes next, followed by Jesus’s third prediction of his death and a discussion of power (and thus obedience): James and John’s mother asks for them to sit at his right and left as judges, and he replies that they must die with him.  He concludes, parallel to “the first shall be last,” “Whoever desires to be chief among you, let him be your servant.”

The eleventh hour somehow fits in the context of the death (and resurrection) which is the radical fidelity of poverty, chastity, and obedience, to which we are all somehow called.

***

It fits, too, in the context of our first reading, where Isaiah tells us that we should turn to the Lord from our wickedness, because his thoughts are not our thoughts.  He does not reject the convert of the eleventh hour, nor does he like our idleness till the twelfth hour or our anger at his mercy.

And the context of our second reading, where Paul, in our first reading now from Philippians, tells us that for him life is Christ, death is gain, and he lives his life for Christ and his people.  We are called to “conduct yourself in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.”

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The parable of the eleventh hour, then, is about that conduct, that conversion, and that radical death and resurrection which is the way marked by poverty, chastity, and obedience.

Notice, first, that the master of the vineyard “went out at dawn,” and then again and again throughout the day.  At the end of the day, he has his “foreman” pay the wages, showing both in the foreman and in the wages that he has others who can go out for him.  (And as he scoops up the last idlers, we see he doesn’t need a talented talent scout: he could have sent his lowest servant to the highways and the byways.)

Christ is that master, going in search of the lost.  In that respect, this parable echoes many others.

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Faithless to the Call

Notice next that he sends them into the vineyard to work.  In the next chapter, he will tell two parables about vineyards, one in which the Father calls his Son to work in the vineyard, the other in which the landowner demands his fruits.

The vineyard, he says there, is the kingdom.   And he sends us in not to lounge around eating grapes, but to work.  The laborer is worthy of his pay, to be sure, and the Master will reward those who work – but the conduct worthy of the gospel of Christ, even the poverty, chastity, and obedience worthy of the gospel of Christ, is, as our reading from Paul says, “fruitful labor,” for the benefit of others.

Yes, he is merciful, even with those of the eleventh hour who come into the vineyard at the end – but he calls us to work for his kingdom.

***

Third, notice that the master is righteous.  In Romans 1, Paul proclaims that in the gospel, “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’”  The theme of Romans is that the righteous God pours his righteousness into us through faith.

So too in our parable we hear the landowner say, “I will give you what is just,” or righteous, then later, “I am not cheating you,” literally, “I do you no unrighteousness.”  It’s all the same Greek word.

He is generous.  But his generosity is not a denial of his righteousness, but a sharing of it.  He who is righteous calls us into his righteousness and righteously passes on his righteousness to us.

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Christ is the Vineyard

Finally, notice the unrighteousness of the workers.  Those who came first complain of his generosity, like the elder brother of the prodigal son.  But with those of the eleventh hour, as with the prodigal himself, he changes his call, from, “You too go into my vineyard,” to “Why do you stand here idle all day?”  “Here”: where he has come, where he has called, where he has seen you.

They answer, “Because no one has hired us.”  In Greek it can also be read, “no one has paid us.”  I’m not going to work until I see some money!  Well, that is not righteous, and that is not how we receive the righteousness of God.

How have you resisted the call to enter radically into the vineyard?

Twenty-Fourth Sunday: How to Think about Debt

St. Thomas thought justice was a good thing

Justice is not a popular virtue, at least not with my students.  Justice seems stingy, the opposite of mercy, which is generous.

So it’s hard to read traditional accounts that say worship is our “debt” to God, something we owe him in justice.  I have not heard much appreciation for the line in the Mass, “let us give thanks to the Lord – it is right and just.”  Justice seems like the opposite of mercy, something we despise.

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday, the end of the Sermon on Community, seems to confirm that Christians don’t care about justice.  Jesus tells us to forgive seventy seven times.  Forget about debts!

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But then Jesus takes it in a different direction.  “That is why the kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who decided to settle accounts with his servants.”  The king concludes, “You wicked servant!  I forgave you your entire debt because you begged me.  Should you not have had pity on your fellow servant, as I had pity on you?”  “Then in anger his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.  So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless . . . .”

Accounts, debt, torturers, debt: he talks about all of it in terms of debts.  We should forgive not because debt doesn’t matter, but because we have a debt.

And notice that this passage follows one in which we were encouraged, not only to forgive, but also to correct: “If your brother sins against you.”

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Please be patient for a little Greek:

When it says the servant, “Had no way of paying it back,” the root of the word is “giving”: he had no way

Gift

of giving back.

The master orders him to be sold “in payment of the debt”: same word, to give back.

The servant says, “be patient with me” – “have a great soul” – “and I will pay you back in full”: same word.

The Master was “moved with compassion” (his guts were moved, splagchna) “and forgave him the loan.”  The word for loan is based on the word for “giving”: a loan as a kind of “gift” that you “give” back.

But the servant finds someone else who “owed him” and said “Pay back what you owe.”  Here there is nothing of gift, only obligation.

The other servant says, “I will pay you back”: and again it’s the word for “giving.”

But “he had the fellow servant put in prison until he paid back the debt”: gave back the obligation.

When the master hears, he speaks no longer of the “gift” but of the “obligation”: “I forgave you your entire debt.”  And so he “gave” him in a different, ironic way: “handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt”: obligation.

***

Perhaps I am stretching the linguistic point – perhaps not.  But there are two ways to look at debt and justice.  In one, it is pure obligation.  Our parable talks about that: this way of thinking involves choking people and handing them over to torturers.

(The selling of the family, I must say, is ambiguous: the Greek is less clear than the English about what is going on.  Leave that aside.)

On the other hand, there is the language of gift.  A loan is a gift I give you, expecting that you will give in return.  People ask each other not quite to “be patient,” as in our translation, but “to have a great soul” or perhaps it means, “have a soul that sees the long term.”  Friendship is a matter of give and give in return.

***

Let us give thanks

This economy of the gift, I think, is a helpful way to think about justice.  God isn’t going to strangle us if we don’t pay him back.  Rather, he gives gifts, and he expects us to live within the gift, to give gifts to one another, to return gifts to him, even to give the gift of thanksgiving, which is nothing but the recognition that things are a gift.

In Latin and its derivatives, like Spanish, the way you say thank you is with the word for “grace.”  Someone gives you something and you say, “gracias: free gift – that was a free gift, thank you, I appreciate that this is a gift.”  Let us give thanks, it is right and just.

***

In our first reading, from Sirach, mercy and forgiveness are a wisdom thing, wrath and anger are stupid.  You don’t want to live in the realm of wrath and anger, he says, live in the economy of gift.

In our reading from Romans, yet again marvelously paired with our Gospel reading, Christ died for us, and so we know that we belong to him and to one another, in life and even in death.  Christ’s death makes clear that we have not a God of choking and torture and obligation, but a God of gift and giving back and thanksgiving.

That’s why we forgive seventy seven times: because we live in light of the gift, because justice is rich and generous, like mercy.

Where in your life have you forgotten the economy of gift?

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time: Christian Community

For weeks we have been reading the stories in Matthew’s Gospel that follow the third great sermon, the Sermon of Parables, on the hidden power of the Holy Spirit.  This week and next week we read from the fourth great sermon, the Sermon on Community, where we find what that hidden power brings about.

Any discussion of grace must have both these poles: both the power of God, which comes first, and the transformation it brings about in us.  And because that power is one, the transformation it brings about in us is unity, Christian community, the Church.

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The Prophet Ezekiel

The first two readings set the scene.  In Ezekiel we read of the prophet’s responsibility to tell the people of their sins.  “If I tell the wicked, ‘O wicked one, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.”

For the second reading, we are now on chapter thirteen of Romans, the first of the last four chapters of Paul’s masterpiece on grace, where he too discusses the transformation that grace brings about in us.  He tells us that all the moral law, all the wickednesses about which the prophet must warn us, are all about love.  “… And whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The work of the Spirit in us is love.  The commandments are necessary because they are part of (not the whole of) love, and correcting wickedness is necessary as itself a way to love the sinner.

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Our Gospel is about correcting the sinner: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.”

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The Visitation: Heart speaks to Heart

The Lectionary has skipped over the first half of the Sermon, where we are taught to be lowly like children, to receive the lowly children, and to go in search of the lost sheep.  Next week we will read the end of the sermon, on forgiving seventy and seven times.  In all, we are talking about the requirements of community.

This week’s reading walks through progressive ways of correcting our brother’s sin.  It ends by talking about the Church, and this point of arrival is essential, because what we are talking about is the Church.  If you can’t correct him, you “tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” – which, coming from Jesus, means you still seek to save him, Jesus is always reaching out to the tax collectors – but you know he is no living the life of Christ’s body, the Church, no longer full of the Spirit that binds us together.

Then Jesus repeats a line he had said to Peter: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  The jurisdiction he gives to Peter and to the Apostles is a function of the jurisdiction he gives to his Church as a whole.  Peter is important because the Church is important; the bishop is a ministry of the Church, the community of Christians.

(There is a strange detail in the Greek, which says “heavens” when it talks about Peter, and only “heaven” here.  The tradition sees in this, perhaps, a reference to Peter’s universal jurisdiction compared to a local jurisdiction discussed here.  But I don’t think the plural “heavens” alone gives us this distinction.)

In any case, what we are discussing here is the bigger question of the Church.  But what is remarkable about our passage is that we are talking about that big question in terms of the little details of personal relationships.

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The Church a communion

Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.”  That is the goal: brotherhood.  That’s the meaning of all the universal stuff about the Church, the papacy, the bishops, etc.: the transcendent value of brotherhood, which exists above all on this local level of fraternal correction.

And it is expressed not only in our membership in the universal Church, but in the details of personal relationships.   You talk to your brother at all – that is, you are willing to correct him, and in next week’s reading, to forgive him – and you talk to him one on one, and then two or three on one, because you care about the person himself.  That is Christian fraternity.

You begin on the personal level, too, out of respect for the person.  The Catechism’s magnificent section on the Eighth Commandment talks about “detraction” (CCC 2477), whereby you tell people something true about someone else’s faults, but something they don’t need to know.  That is a sin, because you should protect people’s reputations, protect them against other people’s “rash judgment,” another sin against truth and charity in the same place.

The point is, you don’t denounce someone in public, because you care about them and want to help them, not to destroy them.  It is a magnificent little detail of the fraternity that is at the heart of the great universal doctrines about the Church.

What conversations is your love of the Church calling you to have?