Twenty-Seventh Sunday: Visit This Vine and Protect It

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 5:1-7; PS 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20; PHIL 4:6-9; MT 21:33-43

Our Gospel reading for this Sunday speaks of “when vintage time drew near.” Matthew’s Gospel builds to a fabulous crescendo, perfectly attuned to the liturgical year. It is a real gift of the reformed Lectionary that we can more directly experience how the rhythm of the year is right here in the Gospel.

Vintage time draws near. The end of the year approaches. And our Gospel readings move more and more towards thoughts of the end of time, and the coming of the owner of the vineyard to demand his produce.


Our readings this Sunday take us into this mystery of the Final Judgment by giving three angles on the same metaphor. The tensions among the stories help us to appreciate the many aspects of our relationship with the Lord.

In the Gospel, we are the tenant farmers. “When vintage time drew near, [the owner of the vineyard] sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned.”

Jesus asks the hearers of the parable, “‘What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?’ They answered him, ‘He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.’”

So in the first version, we are threatened that we must give the owner of the vineyard his proper fruit.


But in the Old Testament reading, from Isaiah, we are the fruit. “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his cherished plant.”

And he is angry with the grapes themselves:

“Then he looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes. Now, inhabitants of Jerusalem and people of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard: What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done? Why, when I looked for the crop of grapes, did it bring forth wild grapes?  Now, I will let you know what I mean to do with my vineyard: take away its hedge, give it to grazing, break through its wall, let it be trampled!”

Again, there is fearsome judgment at the vintage time. But now we are the produce, instead of the ones who are supposed to give the owner his produce.


Finally, in the Psalm it is not the Lord crying out against the vineyard, but the vineyard crying out to the Lord: “Once again, O LORD of hosts, look down from heaven, and see; take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted, the son of man whom you yourself made strong.” “Why have you broken down its walls, so that every passer-by plucks its fruit?”

All these angles of the story are true, and together they give us the full truth.


We are the tenants. It is our responsibility to work, to be holy, to do right. Isaiah too gives this angle: “he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! for justice, but hark, the outcry!” Justice is the fruit the Lord calls for. And it is our responsibility.

But we are also the fruit itself. Though, like the tenants, we are responsible, what God wants is us ourselves. He doesn’t want the “fruits” of justice: he wants us to be just. The Judgment is not, finally, about whether we have been responsible with things outside of ourselves, but whether we ourselves are good. Whether, in fact, we love him.

And that is what we, too, want, so that as in the Psalm, we cry out to him and beg him to make us good. It is our responsibility to be good because the goodness must reside in us ourselves – but the source of that goodness is God himself, working in us.


And so the reading from Philippians takes us deepest into these stories of the vintage.

We cry out to God to make us good: “make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Notice that “guard” is just what he does for the vineyard: protect us, and make us holy! Deliver us from evil!

And we long for holiness itself, for the goodness which is God: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Do we know how precious we are to God? How much he wants us to be beautiful with holiness?

“Grant Me Justice” – the Psalms on Justice and Mercy

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

Today we begin our meditation on Psalm 26, using it to explore central themes in all of the Psalms.

The very first words of our Psalm are “Judge me.” It’s not a place we want to go. In the second stanza it continues, “probe me and test me, burn the dross from my inmost parts.” (Throughout this series I will be making my own translations, from the various Latin versions, the Greek, and the Hebrew; I will not be consistent.) We are inclined to say, no thank you. We know he will find a lot of impurities there.

Most Christians, Catholic and Protestant, think the great good news is that mercy has triumphed over judgment. We don’t want to be judged. So it is surprising to find that judgment is a constant call of the Psalms. Surprising, too, if you actually read the New Testament, to find that there even more, judgment plays a pretty central role.

What is going on? What has happened to mercy?


First, notice how this whole first stanza goes. “Judge me, oh Lord, for I have walked in innocence; and trusting in God, I have not fallen away.” In fact, there are two sides to this, combining mercy and justice in a way that exceeds our expectations.

On the one hand, there is the claim of innocence. Yes, the Psalmist dares to say, “Judge me, oh Lord, for I am innocent.” This is a claim about himself. Indeed, by making it “I have walked in innocence,” he makes it even more concrete. He doesn’t say, “well, I may sin, but deep down I’m not so bad.” To the contrary, his claim is precisely about the way he behaves. I am innocent!

But the next line turns this around: “Trusting in God, I have not fallen.” It turns out that he is not the source of his innocence. He claims no ultimate responsibility whatsoever. It is God’s work that saves him. We could even translate this, “when I trust, I do not fall” – with the obvious corollary, and “when I do not trust, I do fall.”

The Catholic, Biblical understanding of mercy and justice is not that God’s mercy allows him to overlook our wickedness – or at least, not just that. Because in that view God is purely outside of us. The Biblical understanding is that God is more interior to us than we are to ourselves. God’s mercy can make us just. He can change the way that we walk.

When we say, “judge me,” we really say, “despise not the work of your hands.” Be glad, O Lord, at what your hands have made!


Now, nonetheless, it remains pretty gutsy to say this. It is like when the Roman Canon says of us, “whose faith and devotion are known to you” (just as our minds are wandering off), or when we dare to say “forgive us as we forgive” (just as we are annoyed at the priest, and the organist, and the person down the pew, and daydreaming about various other people). Yikes. That comes awfully close to saying, “don’t bother to forgive me at all.”

There is something aspirational in this. We dare to say, “judge me, for I have walked in innocence,” when we really mean, “oh God, please let me become someone who could say something like that!”

In one sense, we simply accept the fact: God wants to make us just. It is not his will that we remain unforgiving, hurtful, hateful, unloving creatures. We say what we cannot yet say, accepting the fact that one day we must truly say it, and hoping that God will make us able to do that. Oh, let me one day be just in your eyes!

In another sense, we realize that his work has already begun. We are meant to acknowledge our sin. But we are also meant to acknowledge the work of conversion God has already done in us, the innocent steps we have already taken through trust in him. We are on our way.


But finally, always we must turn to Christ. The Psalms are ultimately his prayer; our great grace is to be joined to him. We ought to pray this as if he prays it, and Our Blessed Lady, who is truly and totally united to him, prays it. They can say, “I have walked in innocence.”

Our great hope is to be joined to them.

Do we hunger and thirst to be just as Christ would have us thirst?

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: The Fulfillment of the Law

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

SIR 15:15-20; PS 119: 1-2, 3-4, 17-18, 33-34; 1 COR 2:6-10; MT 5:17-37

Almost Jesus’s first word, after the Beatitudes, is about the Law. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. . . . Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

We can learn much from this Sunday’s readings about mercy and justice.

Now, often people think of justice and mercy as opposites, identifying one with the Old Testament and the other with the New. But this is not Jesus’s attitude. Jesus does not think the Old Testament was evil, or harsh.

“You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment.”

“You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

The pattern is clear: what the Law of the Old Testament set out, Jesus intensifies. He fulfills the Law by showing the heart of the matter. The prohibition against adultery is not about seeing how far you can tiptoe before it counts as adultery. The prohibition against adultery is about rooting out anything in our attitude toward sexuality that undermines marriages. And so too with the other commandments.

When it says “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees,” the word is actually the word for justice. One of the things Jesus’s reinterpretation of the Law shows us is that justice defined as obeying legal commands and justice defined as treating other people right are one and the same: the Law commands that we treat other people right, profoundly right. And Jesus is on the side of justice.


But what about mercy? The reading from Sirach helps us go a little deeper. “Before man are life and death, good and evil,” it says. “Whichever he chooses shall be given him.” The Bible presents justice, fulfillment of the Law, as good for us. The commandments are not ugly obligations, restricting our freedom and crimping our life. They are life, goodness. Injustice is death.

We are made for relationships: for relationships with other people, and relationship with God. When the Law commands healthy relationships, it commands our own health. It is good for us to fulfill the Law. The Law itself, precisely by teaching justice, is mercy, because justice is good for us.

A “mercy” that set us free from the Law, allowing us to be unjust, would be no mercy at all, because it would allow us to self-destruct, by destroying our relationships.


But God is still more merciful than that. “If you choose you can keep the commandments,” says Sirach. I don’t think the original readers of the Old Testament were any more clueless about this than we are. I can? Actually, it’s really hard to fulfill the commandments! The Pharisees devoted their whole lives to fulfilling the commandments – and Jesus says their righteousness was not good enough.

But Sirach immediately goes on: “If you trust in God, you too shall live.” A moment later it will say, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power.” This is two different things. We trust the wisdom of the Lord by accepting his Law. But we trust in the power of God by begging him to help us. We can only fulfill the Law, only live true justice, by the grace he gives us.

That, in fact, is precisely what “grace” means: the power, which only God himself can give us, to live true justice, true righteousness, true, perfect right relationship with our neighbor and with God.


The reading from First Corinthians gives us a glimpse deeper in. God’s wisdom is “not a wisdom of this age.” He offers us something greater than we can imagine, “which God predetermined before the ages for our glory.” “This God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”

The great mercy of Jesus Christ is not to set us free from the Law, not to ignore our injustice, but to make us just, and good, so that we can fulfill the beautiful Law of justice and right relationship.


Are there times when you have trouble appreciating the mercy of the Law? When you have trouble seeing the good in being just?

The Second Sunday of Advent: The Spirit of Justice

our lady of millenium

IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12

Our readings for the Second Sunday in Advent have us looking forward to the Messiah. “Messiah” means “anointed one,” and this is the one anointed with the Spirit of God. The Messiah is prophet, priest, and king: he speaks the truth, reconciles the people with God, and makes order in the earth.


The first thing to see in Isaiah 11 is the spirit that rests on the Messiah: “the spirit of the Lord” – the Holy Spirit – “a spirit of wisdom and understanding, of counsel and strength, of knowledge and of fear of the Lord.” Because of this Spirit, he will judge “not by appearance nor by hearsay” – not with the shallow judgments of fallen man – but with the insight of God’s Holy Spirit. A prophet and king who sees the truth.

Thus he will bring justice, set things in right order: because he sees truly, with the Spirit of God. Isaiah – like Pope Francis! – emphasizes how this especially serves the poor, who are always the worst victims of injustice. The just one will treat them right.

This Holy Spirit of the Messiah, by the way, is the same Spirit he sends to us: that we too might see rightly and judge justly.


The long reading from Isaiah goes on to the famous discourse about the wolf and the lamb, the leopard and the kid, the calf and the lion, etc. There are two ways we can read this.

One is that it is an extended metaphor, further developing the theme of human justice. The Just One is so good that he will reconcile those who are most opposed, the most unlikely enemies. So good that even those who are like wolves will no longer oppress those who are like lambs. He will create a truly just and peaceful world.

Another way to read this is that a just order among men will even bring justice to the natural world. Consider Genesis: “The LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15), but when Adam sinned, God said, “cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shall thou eat of it all the days of thy life; thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee” (Gen. 3:17-18). Man’s role in the world is so fundamental that even the natural order depends on the goodness of the gardener.

In either case, the point is an extended meditation on justice, on the beauty of a truly just order. And a recognition that only the Spirit of God, the Spirit of the Messiah, can bring that justice. Come, Lord Jesus!


The reading from Romans gives a more priestly, religious angle to the same teaching. Again, God “grants us to think in harmony with one another.” But here it is so that “with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The justice of the Just One gives us harmony with one another precisely by bringing us into harmony with God.

This is the perfection of Israel. It is not that God gave up on the Old Testament thing and then moved on. No, he is completing that work. Jesus came among the nation of Israel “to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises to the patriarchs,” to build up and perfect that religious nation. But he did it in such a way as to bring us all in: all nations shall flow into Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2).

The holy nation expands into the universal Catholic Church. All the promises to Israel are perfected in that worldwide kingdom, with Christ its head, joined in peace and in praising God. Or at least, the Church on earth is the beginning of the final perfection of the kingdom of God.

So good is the Messiah, the just one, the one anointed by the Spirit of God!


Finally, the Gospel gives us another angle on this kingdom with John the Baptist. John is a figure of repentance; baptism is a figure of repentance. And John warns us that if we are to follow the Just One, we must be just, we must truly join into his ways: “prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his paths!”

But this is not our work. As he judges justly by the Holy Spirit, so to do we: “he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” He will raise up the holy people.


How can we better hunger and thirst for God’s justice this Advent season?

The 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Mercy and Justice

St Dominic with BibleThis reflection refers to the readings for Sunday, October 27, 2013.  For last week’s reflection, click here.

SIR 35:12-14, 16-18; PS 34: 2-3, 17-18, 19, 23; 2TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14.

We are often told to think of mercy and justice as opposites. My kids just found a Protestant tract saying we are doomed if God is just. The first problem with this view is that it is completely un-Biblical. In the Bible we are taught to love God’s justice, to seek it above all. The second problem is that it makes nonsense of Jesus. If God’s “mercy triumphs over justice,” then it makes no sense for him to be just sometimes and not just others: why the Cross, why the threat of Hell, if his justice is an evil just to be pushed away?

The full line about “Mercy triumphs over justice” says, “Judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). What he is saying is that we should be merciful if we want to be just – because God is just, and will judge us on our mercy.


Our first reading, from Sirach, says, “God is a God of justice.” Don’t be fooled by those who say this is the “Old Testament God,” conquered by the “New Testament God” of mercy. There is only one God – and Jesus himself says he will come in judgment.

The emphasis here is on God’s impartiality. God does not play favorites. Whether you are rich or poor, you will be treated fairly. Whether you are in the in crowd or the out crowd, you will be judged justly. Christianity is not a chance to triumph over God’s justice; the Bible insists, over and over again, that God “knows no favorites.” Being part of the family does not triumph over justice.

On the other hand, “he hears the cry of the oppressed.” In the courtroom metaphor, that means he is not like the judge who only gives you justice if you can afford a fancy lawyer. We all have an advocate before the Father. But also, in prayer, he will come to help whoever asks for his help.


St. Paul discusses both sides of this dynamic in our second reading. “The crown of righteousness awaits me, which the Lord, the just judge will award me.” St. Paul believes he has earned this crown. How has he earned it? By “being poured out like a libation.” (A libation, or “drink offering,” is a sacrifice of wine, symbolic of our life blood, poured out on the ground.) By giving his whole life. God is just: he “rewards” those who give their whole lives to him.

Then where is mercy? “The Lord stood by me and gave me strength” – even when everyone else abandoned Paul. God’s mercy does not come after his judgment, cancelling his justice. It comes before, making us just. God’s mercy is in justification. This is what Catholics mean by grace. Grace is not, as in Protestant theology, God “covering” us or overlooking our faults. It is God fixing our faults, actually making us better. This is why Our Lady, full of grace, is so important: to see what grace does. Grace gives us strength.

But the deepest part of this justice is the fulfillment of our desires. “The Lord, the just judge, will reward me on that day, and not only me, but all those who have longed for his appearance.” This is the real inner core of “being poured out like a libation.” It is not that Paul has earned heaven by something unrelated to heaven. It is that those who want heaven, and live as if they want heaven, receive it. God’s mercy is the grace that makes our hearts long for his face.


This is the inner core, too, of Sunday’s Gospel, about the Pharisee and the tax collector. The Pharisee fasts twice a week, and pays tithes on his whole income. Good for him. “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” Jesus says elsewhere. “You pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these you ought to have done, and not leave the other undone” (Matthew 23:23).

The problem with the Pharisee is not that he cares about justice instead of God’s mercy. The problem is that he isn’t just, and he doesn’t care. He isn’t pouring himself out like a libation, because he doesn’t long for the Lord’s appearance. He worships himself, not God.

The one who really longs for God will live a life of mercy: works of mercy to others, and begging the mercy of God’s grace, to make him truly just.


How do you appreciate God’s justice? How do you beg his mercy?