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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

One of Mark Twain’s more famous quotations is: “Clothes make the man.”  A superficial reading of this Sunday’s gospel from Matthew 22: 1-14, could draw us to the conclusion that Jesus agrees with Mr. Twain’s assessment about the importance of looking great when we arrive in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Unfortunately for the fashionistas, Jesus is not making a fashion statement here.  What Jesus is talking about in this parable, according to William Barclay, is “the spirit in which we go to God’s house.”   Scripture reminds us in both the Old and New Testaments that we must approach God with reverence and awe.

This is a very straight forward parable and is similar to the parable of the bad tenants we heard last week.  The king sent out invitations to his subjects for the marriage feast of his son.  But the invitation was rejected.  He then sent his servants out with a second invitation but the servants were mistreated and killed.  The king responded with vengeance killing the ungrateful subjects and destroying their town.  Then the king sent his servants out to invite “whomever you find.”  They did as they were instructed and invited good people and bad people who accepted the invitation and attended the wedding feast.  One person attended in inappropriate attire.  The king was enraged and had that person thrown out, saying, “Many are invited, but few are chosen."

Like the parable of the bad tenants, this parable was directed to the chief priests and elders.  Jesus was sending them a clear message, if you reject the invitation to the banquet of the Lord that is described in our first reading from Isaiah 25: 6 – 10a, then others will be called to take your place.  For those who accepted the invitation, there was an expectation that they would attend, casting off their dirty clothing and put on wedding garments which symbolize our baptismal promises.  And as St Paul reminds us over and over again, when we are baptized we put on Christ. 

What does this mean?  St Paul gives us an explanation in Colossians 3: 12 – 15: “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one body.”   

O good and gracious God,
you have invited all the peoples of the world
To the wedding feast of your Son
And offer them a feast beyond compare.
Open our community to all who seek you
The poor and the rich, the weak and the strong.
May we lead others to the banquet of eternal life
where all will be welcome.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever.

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s first reading and gospel we have two parables about vineyards from Isaiah 5: 1 – 7 and Matthew 21: 33 - 43.  Both parables begin with great expectations and hope and both end with destruction and violence.  Although these parables are similar in many ways, there are some substantial differences.  In Isaiah’s parable the winegrower carefully tended his crop from clearing the land to harvesting only to destroy it in the end when it did not yield an acceptable crop.  In Jesus’ parable the winegrower planted the crop then entrusted its care to tenants while he went on a journey.   When the tenants attempted to swindle the winegrower, and murder his servants and his son, they were destroyed and the vineyard was passed on to other tenants who were willing to give the winegrower “the produce at the proper times."

Isaiah and St Matthew explained the meaning of their parables clearly.  Both winegrowers represented God. For Isaiah the vineyard was “the house of Israel” and the plants were “the people of Judah.”    The God presented to us in the Old Testament carefully nurtured the vineyard and the crop but ultimately destroyed everything and everyone that did not meet God’s expectations.  In Jesus’ parable the carefully planted vineyard was the kingdom of God and the tenants were the people to whom God entrusted the care of the kingdom; the “chief priests and the elders of the people.”   I think it is safe to assume that if the new tenants failed to fulfil their obligations they would meet a similar fate.  

What is the lesson for us thousands of years later?  These parables are lessons on our stewardship in the kingdom of god.  We are as much a part of the kingdom as the people of Judah in Isaiah’s time and the chief priests and elders in Jesus’ time. We have the opportunity to produce good fruit, acknowledging God’s role in the process or we can produce wild (sour) grapes.  God gives us everything we need to build the Kingdom and produce good fruit.  He trusts us to do the work.  He gives us second and third opportunities to succeed.  And, as St. Paul reminds us in today’s second reading from Philippians 4: 6 - 9, God expects us to perform our tasks with an attitude that is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, gracious, excellent and worthy of praise.   If we can accomplish all of this, then we can be assured that “the God of peace will be with” us forever and ever.

Lord God, our Father,
today you ask us:
What more could I have done for you?
Teach and help us to respond with our whole being
to your daily forgiveness and patience,
to the riches of life brought us by Jesus,
to the prompting of the Holy Spirit,
that we may be a people that bears lasting fruits.
May we bring to all a justice animated by love,
may we learn to share as you do with us.
Show us your mercy through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Monday, September 25, 2017

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Eighteenth Chapter of Ezekiel is about personal responsibility. Using the example of a man with two sons, God, speaking through Ezekiel, draws comparisons between the sins of the father and the sins of the sons.  He assures us that the father’s sins are not the responsibility of the sons and that the sins of the sons are not the responsibility of the father.  In verse 20 he says, “Only the one who sins shall die. The son shall not be charged with the guilt of his father, nor shall the father be charged with the guilt of his son. Justice belongs to the just, and wickedness to the wicked.”  God goes on to remind us of his compassion and mercy saying “But if the wicked man turns away from all the sins he has committed, if he keeps all my statutes and does what is just and right, he shall surely live. He shall not die! None of the crimes he has committed shall be remembered against him; he shall live because of the justice he has shown” (EZ 18: 21 – 22).

This brings us to today’s first reading from Ezekiel 18:25 – 28.  Here God responds to human accusations that “"The LORD's way is not fair!”  God asks, “Is it my way that is unfair? Are not your ways unfair?”  There is no sense blaming someone else for our individual sins. In verses 30 and 31, God makes clear that, “I will judge you, house of Israel, all of you according to your ways….  Turn, turn back from all your crimes, that they may not be a cause of sin for you ever again. Cast away from you all the crimes you have committed, and make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit.”

In today’s Gospel from Matthew 21: 28 – 32, we hear another story about a father and his two sons.  Both the sons disappoint their father.  The first son humiliates his father by refusing a request but later has a change of heart and complies.  The second son lies to his father by agreeing to the request but fails to fulfil his obligation.  Jesus asked the Chief Priests and Elders “Which of the two did his father's will?"  Their answer was that the first son did his father’s will.  Jesus used this answer as a teaching moment reminding the priests and elders that sinful people who experience a change of heart will enter the kingdom of God before the apparent “Godly” people who pay lip service to God but fail to meet God’s obligations.   

Although the sinners in this story do get into the kingdom of God, they are not shining examples for us as Christians.  Our role model is Jesus.  In today’s second reading from the 2nd Chapter of Philippians, St. Paul tells us to “have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus.” We are to “Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but also for those of others” (PHIL 2: 3 – 4).

Father in heaven,
Form in us the likeness of your Son
And deepen his life within us.
Send us as witnesses of gospel joy
Into a world of fragile peace and broken promises.
Touch the hearts of all people with your love
That they in turn may love one another.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I can't think of a parable more challenging to us today than the Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner found in Matthew 20: 1 - 16a.  It clashes with our human sense of justice.  The landowner’s generosity to all his workers does not seem fair.  Why should someone who has worked only one hour in the vineyard receive the same wages as the person who worked all day long?  Where does this parable fit in with Catholic Social Teaching on the dignity of work and the rights of workers?  Our Church teaches that "the basic rights of workers must be respected -- the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property and to economic initiative."  Were the wages the generous vineyard owner offered to the workers decent and fair?  How you answer this question may depend on which of the workers you associate to yourself.  If you identify yourself with the group of workers who labored all day, then you probably feel that the vineyard owner cheated the hard workers and by association you.  HOWEVER, if you identify yourself with the group of late comers, you might feel that the vineyard owner was incredibly kind and generous.  

Let me give you an example of a late comer. The Apostle Paul was a Pharisee named Saul who hated Christians so much that he made it his life’s purpose to wipe out belief in Jesus Christ.  He stood by and watched as Stephen was stoned.  We are told in the Acts of the Apostles that he “entered house after house, dragged men and women out, and threw them into jail” (Acts 8:3).   Saul had a great conversion experience.  He saw and heard Jesus, changed his name to Paul and became the greatest missionary of the early church.   He wrote almost half of the 27 books in the New Testament. He endured sickness, imprisonment, rejection, and repeated attacks on his life to bring the message of God's grace and forgiveness to Gentiles.  He was martyred.   He was the apostle largely responsible for the spread of Christianity.    Paul’s conversion was so complete that his life meant Christ as we heard in the 2nd reading today. 

However, Paul was a late comer to the Jesus movement.  He was not accepted with open arms by most of the original disciples.  “They were all afraid of him” (Acts 9:26). They didn’t trust him (for good reason) and they “refused to believe that he was a disciple”.  Like the first laborers in the vineyard of the gospel today, the disciples grumbled and complained about Paul.  Did Paul deserve a full day’s pay for his work in the vineyard of Christ?       
Where we fit in the hierarchy of workers isn't really the focus of this parable.  The Parable of the Generous Vineyard Owner is not about us.  It is about God's abundant mercy, it is about God's unconditional love, and it is about God's generous forgiveness that God offers to every one of us over and over and over again.  The Kingdom of God is not built on what is fair; the Kingdom is built on grace.  We don't deserve it and we can't earn it.   And most of us will never really understand it.  Kingdom economics simply don't make sense in our secular world.  In the first reading from Isaiah 55: 6 - 9, God, speaking through the Prophet tells us, "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts."  

God most high,
your ways are not our ways,
for your kindness is lavished equally upon all.
Open us more to the free gifts of your grace,
help us accept them with gratitude
and appreciate how liberally you give to others.
Turn our ways into your ways of love.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In today’s gospel from Matthew 18: 21 – 35, St Peter asked Jesus, "Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive?  As many as seven times?"  Jesus’ answer was staggering, "I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”  Jesus then told a parable about a man who was forgiven a colossal debt but who in turn refused to forgive a very small debt.  The man was turned “over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.”  And Jesus warns us that “So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart."  According to Jesus, there is no statute of limitations on forgiveness.  

As adult Christians, we all know that forgiveness is one of the keys to the kingdom.  Yet so often we are like the sinner in today’s first reading from Sirach 27: 30, “Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight.”  Why do we do it?   What is it about bitterness, vengeance and hate that is so addictive?  To be honest, I don’t know the answer.  But I do know that clinging on to these destructive emotions can enslave us and prevent us from living full, joy filled lives.   

Last Christmas someone gave me a book called, The Book of Joy, written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Douglas Abrams.  The book chronicles a weeklong visit between Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday.    There is a beautiful chapter on forgiveness in this book.  Both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu have myriad reasons to be bitter and angry but they aren’t.  Both men chose the course of magnanimity.  Archbishop Tutu contends that “we do have a nobility of spirit…. you and you and you and you have the potential to be incredible instruments of compassion and forgiveness” (p. 231).  Archbishop Tutu goes on to say that “Forgiveness …is the only way to heal ourselves and to be free from the past” (p. 234).  Quoting from another of his books, The Book of Forgiving, that he coauthored with his daughter, Mpho, Archbishop Tutu writes, “Without forgiveness, we remain tethered to the person who harmed us.  We are bound to the chains of bitterness, tied together, trapped.  Until we can forgive the person who harmed us, that person will hold the keys to our happiness, that person will be our jailer.  When we forgive we take back control of our own fate and our feelings.  We become our own liberator” (pp. 234 – 35).  

In his Good Shepherd discourse, Jesus said, “I am the gate. Whoever enters through me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly” (John 10: 9 – 10).  Unforgiveness is like the thief who steals, slaughters and destroys life.  Jesus came to give us abundant life.  That life is one filled with mercy, compassion and love.  

O God, Most High,
you are slow to anger and rich in compassion.
Keep the memory of your mercy alive in us;
calm our anger and take away all our
resentments.  Create in us a new heart,
formed in the image of your Son,
a heart strong enough to bear every wound
and gentle enough to forgive every offense,
so that the world may see
how your people love one another.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ,
your Son, who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
God for ever and ever.