Sunday of Christ the King: Shepherd and Savior

van eyck adoration

 EZ 34:11-12, 15-17; PS 23: 1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 COR 15:20-26, 28; MT 25:31-46

We come at last to the final Sunday of the year, Christ the King.

Year B, next year, when we read through Mark’s Gospel, the Gospel for this feast will be from John: Pilate asks, “are you the king of the Jews?” And Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (Before Vatican II, this was the reading for the feast every year.)

Year C, in Luke, we read, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” But the good thief says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

His kingdom is not what we expect.

***

This year we read the final words of Jesus’s preaching, the end of Matthew’s magnificent Fifth Sermon. We begin with kingly grandeur and judgment: Jesus tells his disciples, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another.” Christ the King!

But the story quickly takes a strange turn. First, “he will separate them one from another . . . as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” The King is a shepherd . . . .

And then it gets stranger. Judgment seems appropriate to this king of glory: “the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ . . . ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

But then he explains his judgment. “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.” It’s quite a list. I must visit prisoners? Bad guys?

The Tradition, of course, takes these words with dreadful seriousness, and is full of St. Martin’s giving their cloaks to the naked Christ. (Even a boring saint like Thomas Aquinas was said to do this frequently.)

***

The sheep and the goats each ask the same question: “When did we see you?” And they get the same answer, “What you did . . . .” In his most distressing disguises, it is hard to see Jesus. He asks us to serve him anyway.

But why? How does all this fit together? What do filthy prisoners have to do with Christ the King?

***

The reading from Ezekiel gives an answer in metaphors. “I myself will look after and tend my sheep,” says the Lord. “The lost I will seek out.”

We have seen this theme several Sundays this year. “To the merciful I will show myself merciful.” In our acts of mercy we recognize his mercy. The problem with saying to the prisoner, “you are a lost cause, not worth my time,” is that we are a lost cause, not worth Christ’s time.

In stooping to the poverty of others, we recognize that he stoops to our poverty. In refusing to stoop, we refuse to acknowledge that he stoops. We deny his love, his mercy, his generosity. Deny it also by thinking we have to be stingy: any time I say I don’t have enough to share – enough money, enough time, enough energy – I deny also that the Good Shepherd provides for me.

***

Ezekiel gets strange. “The sick I will heal,” says the shepherd, “but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. . . . I will judge between rams and goats.”

What is the difference between sheep and goats? The sheep follow the shepherd: they go where he goes (even to the lowly), and they receive their food from him (and not from their own strength).

“The sleek and the strong” could also be translated “the greasy and noisy” – and then it sounds more like goats. But perhaps the deeper difference is that they have no need for a Shepherd.

***

Our reading from First Corinthians explains more directly. At the Resurrection, “in Christ shall all be brought to life.” The deeper question of Christ the King is whether we receive all from him, whether we are “those who belong to Christ,” or more simply, just “those who are of Christ.” In him is life. Without him is death.

And therefore he will “destroy all sovereignty.” Those who think they are mighty cannot abide the way of Christ: cannot follow the shepherd, cannot receive life from him.

This is what we live out, in our acts of mercy or our refusal of mercy. Will I follow the one who stoops to seek the lost? Will I receive from the one who provides for my hunger and visits me in my sickness?

Where does your life call you to acts of mercy? Can you see the provision of the Good Shepherd there?

33rd Sunday: Joy in Action

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

PRV 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; PS 128:1-2, 3, 4-5; I THES 5:1-6; MT 25:14-30

As the end of the Church year approaches, our readings from Matthew turn to the end, and to judgment. How will we be judged? And why?

The reading from Matthew 25, the end of Jesus’s preaching, is certainly familiar: “To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one . . . . ‘Master, you gave me five talents. See, I have made five more.’”

But the conclusion, perhaps, remains a little obscure: “Take the talent from him and give it to the one with ten. For to everyone who has, more will be given and he will grow rich; but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Why? Why is Jesus like a master who wants “interest on my return”?

Our first clue is in the specific reproach: “’You wicked, lazy servant!” There’s something more specific than wickedness here. His wickedness is laziness.

And on the reverse side, there is his commendation of the others: “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come, share your master’s joy.’” Perhaps we notice the faithfulness in small matters, and miss the deeper point, which follows. “Your master’s joy” is “great responsibility.” Responsibility is the reward.

***

The deeper point is that our joy is in action. Not in having, but in doing – even were we to be given a reward of money, we could only enjoy it by using it.

And so too the punishment: “darkness outside.” It is a double punishment: to be in darkness, and to be outside. But both signify not being part of the action, not being where we can see, and interact, and be part of things. “Responsibility” is about being alive, doing, action. To lack responsibility, to be in out in the dark, is the ultimate frustration: a place of weeping and gnashing our teeth.

Our Master is “a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant” in the sense that he gives us our humanity not just to hold, but to perfect. He has made us the kind of being that needs to act to be happy.

***

The two readings give us two angles on this central teaching.

The first is from Proverbs: beautiful words about the “worthy wife.”

“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting.” The deeper purpose of matching this reading with our Gospel is to discover where human worth really lies. The worthy wife is someone her husband can “entrust his heart to,” who “brings him good.” She has “loving hands” – first working with “the distaff” and “the spindle,” but then “she reaches out her hands to the poor.”

She is a woman of action: “give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her.” But what makes this reading so beautiful is the deep humanity of her action.

Sometimes people say we are “human beings” not “human doings.” The truth in that saying is that we have to find the kind of action that truly perfects us; we have to discover what we really are. We have to discover which “doing” we ought to be doing.

Action is bad when it is the frivolous action that distracts us from knowing and loving God and neighbor. But God does not call us to sit around looking pretty. He calls us to love, and look lively.

***

While the reading from Proverbs focuses on love of neighbor, the reading from First Thessalonians focuses on love of God. “The day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” The point is, “let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”

“Sleeping” is checking out of life. “When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’” it is as if they have stopped caring about life, stopped looking for the Lord.

But we are to watch vigilantly for him – not by sitting still, but by waking up. Our prayer itself should look not like sleep, but like wakefulness, vigilance, aliveness. (This is why the Tradition so insists on the value of words: prayer is not about spacing out, like a Buddhist.)

In our life, too, we should be constantly watching for the Lord, looking for him: in everyone who comes across our path, in every task. Our reading from Paul takes us deeper into our reading from Proverbs: Proverbs itself describes that active, lively, relational woman most deeply as “the woman who fears the LORD” – or, we could say, the woman who is looking for the Lord at every moment.

That is what puts our hands to the distaff, our fingers to the spindle, and causes us to reach out our hands to the poor.

Are there aspects of your life where you are half asleep, not vigilantly looking for the Lord?

Sunday of St. John Lateran: Life “In” the Church

lateranEZ 47:1-2, 8-9, 12; PS 46:2-3, 5-6, 8-9; 1 COR 3:9c-11. 16-17; JN 2:13-22

This Sunday Ordinary Time is again superseded, this time by one of the Church’s most surprising feasts: the Dedication of St. John Lateran. What is this feast, and why is it more important than our Ordinary-Time journey through the Gospel? In fact, it is a feast that takes us deep into our own identity as members of the Church.

***

The Lateran was in ancient times the palace of a great Roman family, the Laterani. By the time of Constantine (early fourth century) it was in the hands of the Emperor; Constantine gave it to the Popes, who lived there for a thousand years, up until Avignon (the fourteenth century). There, for example, were the great Ecumenical Councils of the medieval Church – just as more recently they have been at the Vatican, where the Popes now reside.

There too, naturally, was and remains the Cathedral of the Pope, bishop of Rome. St. Peter’s is, for obvious reasons, his preferred Church for ceremony, but the Lateran is his actual seat, or cathedral. The Cathedral has burned and been rebuilt (896 and 1360), and its name changed from The Savior to St. John’s, after the Benedictine monastery next door.

But it remains, as it says on the wall, Omnium urbis et orbis ecclesiarum mater, et caput: “Of all the churches, of the city and of the world, the mother and the head.” To Catholics I need not explain why the Pope’s church is the most important Church. The deeper question is why a church building is of such importance anyway.

Years ago a Protestant friend had his little girl sing to my wife and I, “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.” True enough. The Church is the people. So who cares about the buildings?

***

lateran altarOddly enough, Jesus himself cared about buildings. In our reading from John’s Gospel, Jesus cleanses the temple. He says of this building, “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace,” and John quotes the Psalm, “Zeal for your house will consume me.”

The reading quickly shifts keys. Asked for a sign, Jesus says, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up . . . . But he was speaking about the temple of his Body.” Jesus himself is the true temple, the true “house” for which zeal should consume us, the true dwelling place of God. The Church is not principally a building, but his body.

So why did he care about what they were doing in “the temple area”?

***

And then, too, we are his body. Our reading from First Corinthians says to the people, who are the Church, “You are God’s building. . . . You are the temple of God . . . . The Spirit of God dwells in you.” He even presses the metaphor, “like a wise master builder I laid a foundation.”

Jesus is the Church. We are the Church. So who cares about the building?

***

The key is in the first reading, from Ezekiel. Ezekiel tells us of a vision. This is not reality – but it reveals reality.

He sees “the temple,” with “water flowing out from beneath the threshold of the temple” and from “the altar.” “This water flows into the eastern district down upon the Arabah” – into dry lands – “and empties into the sea, the salt waters, which it makes fresh. Wherever the river flows, every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live. . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.”

The temple is, first, a vision of Jesus himself, source of living waters, source of life. Life flows out from the temple – just as we receive life from the sacraments that dwell there.

And then, too, it is a vision of us, the Church. “Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow; their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail . . . for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary. Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine.” Those who receive the life-giving waters from the altar themselves become full of life, and life giving.

***

So yes, the Church is Jesus, his Body and all its members. “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church.”

But this is a mystery worth dwelling on. We celebrate the buildings – and, today, the “mother and head” of all such buildings – because they remind us that life flows from the altar (from Christ), and that his life is poured into all those gathered around the altar (I, and you, and we).

Ezekiel’s vision trains us to see the building as a powerful vision of this reality.

How could we more consciously reverence the altar and the life that flows to the people from it?

All Souls: The Meaning of Death

Carracci-PurgatoryWIS 3:1-9; PS 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; ROM 5:5-11 OR ROM 6:3-9; JN 6:37-40

This year November 2, All Soul’s Day, the commemoration of those in Purgatory, replaces the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time. The readings teach us that the meaning of Purgatory and the meaning of death are both revealed in God’s love for us.

The reading from John’s Gospel makes two central points, more fully explained in the first two readings.

The first point is, “This is the will of the one who sent me, that I should not lose anything of what he gave me, but that I should raise it on the last day.” The key is in the impersonal word “anything.” Jesus saves not just us, but every “thing” about us. Indeed, we would not be truly saved if he left any aspect of our humanity behind.

The second point is that “this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.” It is Christ who saves us.

***

Our reading from the Book of Wisdom explains the connection to death, and to Purgatory.

“They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead.” It seems that life ends in “affliction” and “utter destruction.” This is the central riddle of human existence – the “foolish” are all those who lack the wisdom of Christ, and thus almost everyone. Without Christ, life seems to end in death.

“But they are in peace. For if before men, indeed, they be punished” – death is the greatest punishment of all – “yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed.” Death, we learn, is not the end – not for those who know Christ. Death, and all suffering, is rather a purgation, a passage.

***

But why must there be punishment at all? The surprising truth is that we must die precisely so that we may live, in all our fullness: “that I should not lose anything of what he gave me.”

“As gold in the furnace, he proved them.” For the faithful, death is not destruction, but purgation. It is about burning away all that is not true, all that is not really us – not to destroy us, but to discover us, as gold is discovered when the dross is burned away.

“As sacrificial offerings he took them to himself”: the fire of suffering does not destroy us, but lifts us up, turns us entirely to praise, but uniting our true selves to him.

Then comes another key: “They shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever.” Now, the problem of sin is that we act as if God is not our King.

There are three possibilities for us whose hearts are not yet set on him. One is that we could remain sinners, and make our own judgments, but God would not be king. The second is that God could be king, but we would have to be passive, because our judgments would contradict his kingship.

The third possibility is that we could be changed, so that our judgments are as his judgments: so that we can be true participants in God’s kingdom.

This is why we must be purified: not so that we will be destroyed, but so that we can be fully active in God’s kingdom, so that we can fully embrace his will as our own. One way or another that has to happen, if we are to be happy when God is king. But it will take purification. That is the purpose of suffering: to turn our hearts fully to him.

***

Our purification is in the Cross of Christ. The Lectionary gives us two options for the second reading, from Romans 5 or Romans 6. The theme is essentially the same. The first focuses on Christ dying for us. The second focuses on our entrance into that death through Baptism: “we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death.”

“Our old self” has to be “crucified,” has to die and rise again new. In order for our entire self to be saved, we must be changed – and that can only happen in Christ who saves us: “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life.”.”

Christ’s death itself “proves his love for us,” it is a sign of “hope.” His cross is the sign that, if we are united to him, our own death, and all the little deaths of our suffering, are not ends, but passages to new life.

What is your darkest suffering? How does Christ offer it to you as a path of transformation, of letting God be truly king?

30th Sunday: Living God’s Mercy

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EX 22:20-26; PS 18:2-3, 3-4, 47, 51; 1 THES 1:5c-10; MT 22:34-40

“Teacher, which commandment of the law is the greatest?” a scholar of the Law asks Jesus in this Sunday’s readings. As frequently happens, the readings are familiar, but the Lectionary helps us to see that they are richer than we might have realized. This week’s readings help us to see how God’s mercy for us should express itself in our mercy toward others.

Jesus’s answer is so familiar as to be almost not worth quoting. “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.”

But then comes something a little surprising, “The second is like it . . . .” How is the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves “like” the commandment to love God? They are both about love, yes. But in fact, our neighbor is not loveable as God is – Jesus himself acknowledges this by giving radically different standards for how much we love God and neighbor. Only God is worth loving with all our heart, and soul, and mind.

A second strangeness takes us deeper: “The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” Remember, it is a scholar of the Law – the Old Testament Law – who is asking him this question. In my experience, most people do not consider the Old Testament to be all about love. To understand Jesus’s teaching, we need to read the texts to which he directs us.

***

The first reading is from the second half of Exodus. The first half of Exodus is the exciting part, with plagues and pharoahs and the Passover and the Ten Commandments. But most people stop reading there: after the Ten Commandments comes endless law-giving, all the way through Leviticus. The next book, Numbers, gives some stories, but then comes Deuteronomy, which literally means “second law” – or “more laws!” The stereotype is that this is all pretty awful stuff; my students tell me they think it’s all about stoning people.

So it’s important that the Lectionary gives us a taste: “You shall not molest or oppress an alien . . . . You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. . . . If you lend money to one of your poor neighbors among my people, you shall not act like an extortioner toward him . . . If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge, you shall return it to him before sunset; for this cloak of his is the only covering he has for his body. What else has he to sleep in?”

It turns out that all this law giving is about mercy, mercy, mercy. What is hardest about the Law of the Old Testament is that it tells us to care for the poor, the weak, and the outcast.

***

Oh, it is violent too: “If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,” God tells them, “. . . My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword.” Yikes!

But it is violent only in demanding that we be merciful.

And there is a rationale: “for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt.” If you mistreat widows and orphans, “then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”

The Psalm response says, “I love you, Lord, my strength.” The heart of the teaching is that those who have received mercy should be merciful – and we all rely on God’s mercy. If God had not loved us, undeservedly, we would not have the opportunity to abandon the weak – or even to pass over the undeserving.

We are called to express mercy (to love our neighbor as ourselves) as a way of acknowledging God’s mercy toward us (and thus loving him above all things).

***

The reading from 1 Thessalonians reminds us that this is how we give witness to God’s mercy toward us.

“You became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers.”

First, they were in affliction, but discovered the Holy Spirit as their joy. God has saved them, been mercy to them, and strength.

But in receiving that mercy, they imitate those who received mercy before them, and become models to those after them.

Our readings calls us to discover God’s mercy in our lives. In showing that mercy to others, we both pass on the Gospel of his love and give him the thanks he deserves.

Think of someone who doesn’t deserve your mercy. Can you think of specific ways that God has already been merciful to you in just the same way you are called to be merciful to them?

29th Sunday: God’s Providence, Inside and Out

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 45:1, 4-6; PS 96: 1, 3, 4-5, 7-8, 9-10; 1THES 1:1-5b; MT 22:15-21

Sunday’s readings teach us about God’s Providence, both in the external world and in the internal.

The reading from the Gospel is “Repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” The story is familiar enough, but the teaching is subtle.

On first glance we might take it for a kind of dualism. There’s a principle (contradicted by Thomas and the Catechism) that sees government and God as two unrelated principles. You have your obligations to God, and your relationship to God – and you live that out dealing with the practical realities of the State. But God really doesn’t care what you do with the State (says this incorrect reading). If you get penalized, you get penalized. Speeding tickets are just the price you pay. It has nothing to do with God.

There are various ways to respond to this, but let’s stick to the readings.

If you read Sunday’s Gospel seriously, you see that this is precisely the dualism that is being presented to Jesus. “The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians.”

The last word is key. The Pharisees think they have him trapped between two opposing parties. Either he will take the side of Herod (by paying the tax) and violate their religious principles, or he will take the side of the Pharisees (by refusing to pay the tax) and go against the secular king. Either way, the party he offends will have grounds for prosecution. Clever.

Jesus’s answer, by itself, simply dodges. By itself, he doesn’t fully answer what paying our taxes has to do with God.

***

But the first reading, from Isaiah, does. “Thus says the LORD to his anointed, Cyrus, whose right hand I grasp.” Cyrus is the king of Babylon and Persia. He is not an Israelite, not a believer, not one of God’s people. He does end up helping them, but let us not miss the strangeness of calling this king God’s anointed – literally, his Messiah, or Christ, though we needn’t confuse the matter too much.

The lectionary chooses to focus on the good that can come through the secular powers, but let us not miss the point. Jeremiah says, “I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants” (25:9). Nebuchadnezzar is the most evil of all. God calls him “my servant.”

And in Romans 13 (a text quoted by Thomas and the Catechism when they teach that secular law obliges us in conscience, unless it is an inherently wicked law), it says, “there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed” (13:1-2). We’re talking about the Roman Emperors here, the ones who killed Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

Our reading from Isaiah says to the foreign king, “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.” God is in control, even of those who do not know him.

And most importantly, this is all “For the sake of Jacob, my servant . . . so that . . . people may know that there is none besides me.”

When Romans 8 says, “for those who love God all things work together for good,” it means also that God is truly in control, even of those who hurt us. Caesar is God’s.

***

The point is not, of course, that we give glory to Caesar. The Psalm insists, “Give the Lord glory and honor. . . . The LORD is king, he governs the peoples with equity.”

***

And we too are God’s. In our reading from First Thessalonians, Paul says, “We give thanks to God always for all of you.” But why? Why does he thank God for what they do? Shouldn’t he just thank them?

He is “unceasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” But isn’t that really their work, not God’s?

No. Just as Caesar can be both wicked in himself and still an instrument of God, so too their goodness is a gift of God. “For our gospel did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”

All things are in God’s hands. How that works is a mystery beyond this post(!!). But when we are hurt, let us never forget that God is working through that. And when we are good, and see good, let us give thanks to God for all his gifts.

Are there forces in your life that you could better appreciate if you saw God’s hand in them?

Twenty-eighth Sunday: The Feast

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 25:6-10a; PS 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6; PHIL 4:12-14, 19-20; MT 22:1-14

As we approach the end of the Church year, the readings continually urge us to think about divine judgment – and help us to understand what it really means.

Our Gospel reading is the parable of the wedding feast: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. He dispatched his servants to summon the invited guests to the feast, but they refused to come.”

This story enriches our understanding of judgment in two directions. First, it shows the real meaning of punishment. The king in the parable casts the unworthy guest “into the darkness outside, where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.”

We tend to focus on the wailing and grinding of teeth. We could call this the “active” aspect of punishment: the king is hurting that man! But we ought to focus on the “darkness,” and even more, the “outside.” We could call this the “passive” aspect of punishment: the true punishment is not what the king is doing to the man, but what the man is refusing to receive from the king.

God has prepared a feast for us. Hell is not where God, or anyone else, whips us. Hell is where we would wail and grind our teeth, because we are outside, in the darkness, without the great feast that God offers. He has prepared a feast; it is we who choose to starve.

***

Second, this story shows the real meaning of “worthiness,” the criteria of judgment. It does this through a series of images of unworthiness. Paradigmatic are those who “laid hold of his servants, mistreated them, and killed them.” Perhaps we are not surprised that “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” Here it seems, again, that punishment is an active thing: they actively do evil, and he actively punishes them for that evil.

But first comes another interesting – and ultimately revealing – category. “Some ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business.” What excludes these ones from the feast? Not the king’s positive action against them, but their failure to receive the feast he offers them.

These ones seem innocent enough. Farms and businesses aren’t bad. But the image of the feast calls us to see more deeply what the real criterion of judgment is. It’s not that they’re hurting anyone. It’s that they refuse to receive the feast. They choose to remain in the darkness, outside. In this sense, their farms and businesses are not so innocent: not because those things making the king angry, but because they are choosing wailing and grinding of teeth, choosing something else instead of the feast.

Indeed, only these characters make sense of those who kill the servants. Why do we kill the prophets, kill the martyrs, kill Jesus, hate the messengers of the Church? Only, and precisely, because they distract us from our other interests by calling us to the feast. This ends in destruction, to be sure. But it is self-inflicted.

***

The parable ends, strangely, “many are called, few are chosen.” Chosen? It doesn’t match the story, in which many seemed to be chosen. The point is that God’s choice, God’s judgment of us, is purely in our choice of him. Not to choose and not to be chosen are one and the same.

This, too, is the explanation of the third man who is punished, the man “without a wedding garment.” Why is the king so angry with this man? Only because he refuses to celebrate, refuses to participate in the feast. Even to be at the feast, but not to celebrate fully, is already to be in the outer darkness: not because he does not choose us, but because we do not choose him.

***

Listen closely – like one in a wedding garment – to the reading from Isaiah, where God offers “a feast of rich food and choice wines,” and will “wipe away the tears from every face.” This is the offer. This is what we choose to refuse: to stay instead in the “web” of death.

This is the secret to the reading from Philippians. “I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry.” “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

It is not that God gives some rule that we will be punished if we refuse to go hungry. Not at all. Rather, we have no fear of going hungry in this world, when we know that God in “his glorious riches,” offers us the perfect feast, the only thing that really matters, his presence.

Do we approach Christ – in our prayer life, in our moral obligations – as anything other than the most delightful feast? Do we see the darkness of being outside of that feast?

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?

Twenty-Sixth Sunday: Believe in Repentance

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

EZ 18:25-28; PS 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14; PHIL 2:1-11; MT 21:28-32

Our readings this Sunday focus us on the possibility of repentance.

The prophet Ezekiel shows the life-and-death necessity of repentance: “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity . . . he must die.” There’s a middle part of the sentence that I’ve left out, but don’t miss the conclusion: iniquity, says Ezekiel, leads to death: spiritual death, ultimate death.

Whereas he who “does what is right and just . . . shall surely live, he shall not die.” Ezekiel is making life-and-death claims.

Now, there’s a bigger narrative that surrounds this. The people say, “The LORD’s way is not fair!” The Hebrew word for fair is rooted in the idea of balance: the old translations, both English and Latin, have “equal.” Does God’s giving life and death according to righteousness “balance” with the reality?

God says, through Ezekiel, that the Lord is very fair. He who turns away from life receives death.

The old Greek translation for “fair” here is about being “straight.” We continue straight on. He who aims at destruction ends in destruction. He who aims at life finds life.

What is “fair” is for God to give us what we ask for. We cannot rest on our laurels: we have to head straight in the direction we want to go.

***

In the reading from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells of the two sons, one who changed his mind and did what his father asked, one who changed his mind and did not do what his father asked. “Which of the two did the father’s will?” The first.

But the second part of the reading takes us a step further. “When John came to you in the way of righteousness,” Jesus says, “you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did.”

The word “repentance” hangs over this whole reading. It is the word Jesus uses for the son who changed his mind and does the right thing. (He does not use it for the son who doesn’t do the right thing.)

And “repentance” is the key word that goes with John the Baptist. After the infancy narrative, Matthew’s Gospel begins, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:1-2). And John gets killed for telling King Herod to repent of his marriage to his brother’s wife.

John’s “way of righteousness” is the call to repent, and turn in the right direction.

***

But the really interesting word here is that Jesus says they “did not believe him.” Believe? Perhaps he means, “believe that you need to repent.” But then he says that “when you saw” that the sinners had repented, “you did not later change your minds” (it’s a slightly different word, related to repentance) “and believe him.”

The conversion of the prostitutes and tax collectors is evidence that should have made them change their minds and believe John’s message. Evidence of what? This is evidence that conversion is possible.

***

The key figure is Jesus.

The reading from Philippians, working up to the Christ hymn, begins, “If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy . . . .”

All these words are rich. Christ is the encourager, the consoler: it’s the same word used for the Holy Spirit, Paraclete, and for what those who mourn receive in the Beatitudes, consolation. He comes to our aid. He helps us.

He nurtures us with his love. He gives us a “participation” – a koinonia, or communio – in his Spirit. He feels compassion for our plight: the word speaks of visceral feelings, in his gut. And he has “mercy”: actually “pity,” for the death-dealing plight of our unrighteousness.

Jesus comes to our aid. This is why we “believe” in repentance. It seems impossible to turn the right way, impossible to become good when we are so wicked. But look at the sinners who have converted, and believe: Jesus comes to our aid, and leads us to the path of life.

***

The reading from Philippians is long, and endlessly wonderful. We don’t have space to do it justice.

Let us only note the key word, which gets translated “attitude,” “mind,” “thinking.” The Greek seems to have to do with “putting reins on our mind.”

We are to have the same attitude of mind as Jesus. Because he has compassion on our sins, we can have compassion. Because we believe that he can heal, we must live as if he can heal: as if he can heal us, and as if he really can heal those around us.

Are there places in your life – in yourself or in those around you – where you have too little faith in Jesus’s power to give the gift of repentance?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time: There is Enough

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

IS 55:6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; PHIL 1:20c-24, 27a; MT 20:1-16a

A theological education does not replace Scripture. It just gives you tools to read Scripture better: it warns you of possible pitfalls, and sometimes suggests important themes you might not have noted.

This all comes in handy with this Sunday’s readings. My Thomistic education taught me to beware of any over-emphasis on the will. It also helped me appreciate the real meaning of “the common good.”

***

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

So the landowner is “free” to do what he wants with his money. (Actually, the Greek is just “his own stuff”; this isn’t specifically about money.) We could take the lesson to be that God arbitrarily spreads his wealth. We could gloss this over with mercy, and say that God freely welcomes others, but we could still end up focusing on God’s radical freedom.

But we should go a step deeper, and see that the freedom in question is God’s freedom to be generous. The landowner has enough that he doesn’t need to be stingy: he can pay people a full day’s wage even if they haven’t earned it, because he has the wealth.

That is the heart of God’s mercy: his super-abundance. He can afford to be generous.

***

The other two readings give us two applications of this lesson.

Isaiah says, “Let the scoundrel forsake his way . . . let him turn to the LORD for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving.”

At the heart of that mercy is God’s generosity, and his superabundance. God does not need to keep accounts with us. He does not need to get us back for our sins, because we can never hurt him. He is self-sufficient. He has enough.

That doesn’t mean everyone goes to heaven. We do not have enough! We need the wealth that he shares with us. We need his mercy, which does not only spare punishment, but shares his riches, and transforms us. We need to receive from him – and so the scoundrel must forsake his way. But when he does, the Lord always has enough grace to save him.

That’s why “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways.” We live in the realm of scarcity, where if I give you half my apple, there’s that much less apple for me. That’s not how it is with God. He gives us himself, and remains infinitely rich.

***

But where Isaiah talks about the sinner turning to God, our reading from Paul’s Letter to the Philippians talks about how the righteous turns to God. “To me life is Christ, and death is gain.” “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit.”

Paul is not afraid of suffering. He is not afraid of death, because if he loses everything – and death is the loss of absolutely everything – but has Christ, he has lost nothing. Because Christ is infinite riches, infinite happiness. Paul has nothing to fear from death.

But neither has he anything to fear from life. He can give himself entirely to others. His willingness to die puts a nice spin on this: life is not something he clings to for his own sake, but something he gladly pours out for others.

Paul can afford to be generous, because Christ is generous with him. If God is our sufficiency, we never need to be stingy. If my kids are needy (as they often are!) and I am left to myself, I need me time, I need to focus on my own happiness sometimes, I need to take care of myself – if I have not Christ. But if I have Christ, if I possess infinite riches, if I know the happiness that is God alone, then I don’t need to be stingy, any more than God needs to be stingy.

This comes out also in the parable of the workers in the vineyard. “When the first came, they thought that they would receive more” – they wanted to hoard! But the Master gives us our daily wage, and our daily bread. That’s all we need – if we know that he will be there for us tomorrow, and the day after, and forever, to be our sufficiency.

Are there places in your life where you don’t think God is sufficient to care for you?