Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Greatest Commandment

                           30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                           


      

Today’s readings deal with the true spirit of Jewish law, the law that Jesus came not to abolish, but to fulfill. In today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus we see that the commandments of the law required aid and support of the weak and powerless.

Aliens or people displaced from their homeland are deserving of protection. The Lord reminds his people that they themselves were once aliens. Widows and orphans were also vulnerable in a society where a father or husband was the sole means of support and protection for women and children. The Lord reminds his people that there wives and children could also be left out in the cold. The Lord also commands his people to help their needy neighbors, and not drive them further into poverty and misery.

In the past few weeks we have been going through chapter 22 of the gospel of Matthew, a chapter that describes the increasing tension between Jesus and the various Jewish leaders. Initially, Jesus had been critical of them for their failure to be faithful to the true spirit of Jewish law.

In return they resorted to plotting against Jesus by trying to get him to say something that will either get him into trouble with the Roman authorities, or cause the Jewish populace to turn against him. Although they couldn’t stand each other, each faction takes their own shot at Jesus. Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees all try to trip him up.

In today’s gospel passage they ask him “which commandment in the law is he greatest?” Jesus knew that scholars had counted over six hundred commandments in the Law but, as usual, he chose to simplify and get right to the true spirit of the Law.

         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 first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

In his reply Jesus combines two verses from the Hebrew Scriptures, the first from Deuteronomy 6:5, and the second from Leviticus 19: 18ff. He combines them because his whole life and mission was to show that the love of God and the love of neighbor went hand in hand. One is not possible without the other.

Moreover, in his teaching Jesus also extended the very meaning of neighbor. We recall that in the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, he asked, “who was neighbor to the man”? In our Lord’s time, just as in the days of the Exodus, neighbor had a very narrow meaning. Every people, every city, every tribe, every family was at odds with one another. We see in the gospels that not only would the Jews have nothing to do with strangers, but also that they were constantly bickering among themselves.

Of course, the Jewish people were surrounded by people who behaved even worse. Today, despite the words of our Lord, things do not seem to be much better. In places like Syria and Iraq it seems like only a brutal dictatorship can keep people from cutting each other’s throats. It is hard for us to imagine the animosity among the different factions in that world.

It is also hard for us to imagine how people could believe that they are serving God by brutally beheading alien captives, raping their wives, and selling their orphaned children into slavery. Have we made any progress from the time of the Exodus?

Sadly, it is the followers of Jesus who are enduring the greatest persecution. In fact, the persecution of Christians throughout the world today is far greater than at any time in the past. These people are being dispossessed from their homes, tortured, and even murdered for t heir belief in Christ. They are the true heirs of the Thessalonians that St. Paul praises in today’s second reading. They are the “imitators of the Lord,” and “a model for all believers.”

To love someone means to be willing to give all for him or her. After all, what can we really give to God who has given us everything? Jesus has shown us that the way to loving God is through the love of our neighbor. All that we do for those entrusted to our care and protection, we do for Him. We may not have to suffer the cruel martyrdom of our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, but we are still called to give our lives in the service of others.


###

Reading 1. Exodus: 22: 20-26
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 1: 5c-10
Gospel. Matthew 22: 34-40 (Love Your Neighbor)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Render to Caesar

                           29th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                          


        
In the past few weeks we have seen that Jesus has become increasingly critical of the leaders of the Jews, especially the Scribes and Pharisees. Matthew tells us that in response they have begun to plot against Jesus. In today’s gospel they try to lay a trap for Jesus by asking him if is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, the leader of the hated Roman empire that holds the Jewish people in subjugation.

In their long history the Jews had often been subjugated by foreign rulers. About 700 years before Jesus, the Prophet Isaiah told of another conqueror, the Persian King Cyrus. Isaiah argued that this great King was actually doing the Lord’s work without even knowing it. 

         It is I who arm you, though you know me not,
So that towards the rising and the setting of the sun
People may know that there is none besides me.
I am the Lord, there is no other.

We know that he relationship between Church and State was an important issue to our Founding Fathers. The very first amendment to the new Constitution forbad the new federal government from establishing or supporting any church. Although we have always argued about the proper relationship between Church and State, the American way seems to involve a separation of church and State.

In the time of Jesus there was no such separation. The head of the mighty Roman Empire was also considered to be the head of the Roman religion. Some emperors had even been declared to be gods. The Jews regarded the Almighty as their true King, and so their political leaders were also their religious leaders. Their law was a religious law and governed every aspect of their lives.

There was bound to be conflict and tension then when the Jews were conquered by the Romans. Even though the Romans could be cruel and brutal when the need arose, they had a way of dealing with conquered peoples that would seem strange to us today. In general Rome believed in leaving conquered people to be governed by their own traditional leaders, laws, and customs. They only insisted that these native leaders keep peace and order, and collect the taxes or tribute demanded by the Empire.

This situation is the background of the scene in Matthew’s account where the leaders of the Jews try to draw Jesus into a trap. They are out to get him not only because of his criticism of them, but also because of his popularity among the people. They ask him a loaded question:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?

If Jesus answered that paying the tax violated Jewish law, they would be able to bring charges of sedition and treason against him to the Roman governor. If he answered that it was ok, then they hoped it would turn the Jewish populace against him.

The answer of Jesus confounds his powerful enemies.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax ... whose image is this and whose inscription? 

When they replied, “Caesar’s”, he said,

Then repay to Caesar what belongs to CaesarAnd to God what belongs to God.

Not only did the answer of Jesus confound the Jewish leaders, but it also has confounded theologians and political scholars ever since. What exactly belongs to the State? What belongs to God? What is the relationship between the civil authority and religious authority?

I think that Jesus is saying that we do have a dual citizenship. As citizens here in the United States we have rights and duties that pertain to our status as citizens. We can be critical of leaders and laws because that right and duty belongs to us as citizens. But we are also subject to a King whose realm transcends our national boundaries. I am not talking about the Pope because he is subject to that same King.

Hopefully, our dual loyalties will act together in much the same way that the laws of Connecticut will not conflict with the laws of the United States. For the most part in America they have gone hand in hand although there are signs today that Caesar might be overstepping his boundaries.

In many parts of the world today our fellow Christians are being persecuted, tortured, and even murdered because of their refusal to bow to the demands of their brutal captors. Those people are giving all they have for their belief in God.

We can only hope that we will never be put in this position.

The best safeguard against attacks on religious freedom in this country is for us all to do our duty and act as responsible citizens. We must respect and follow the laws when they are just, but oppose and seek to change them when they are unjust.

So, if we should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, what are the things we must give to God? We must realize that none of our possessions can have any value for the Almighty. The only thing we can really offer to God is our own self. We have been called to be good and faithful stewards. 

Today's second reading is taken from the opening lines of St. Paul's first letter to the young Christian community at Thessalonia. Speaking for himself, and his co-workers, he says:

We give thanks to God always for all of you,remembering you in all our prayers,increasingly calling to mind your work of faith and labor of loveand endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ...

###

Reading 1. Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6
Reading II. 1 Thessalonians 1: 1-5b
Gospel. Matthew 22: 15-21 (Render to Caesar)

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Highways and Byways

         28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                          

      
In the tenth month of the year as the days and nights get colder, and they leaves turn color and start to fall, we can sense that another year is coming to an end. The liturgical year of the Church follows the same pattern and as we go along the readings will increasingly point to the last days.

This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah can be read as a prophecy of what will occur at the end of time. Isaiah uses the metaphor of a mountain where people will gather for a great feast. Of course, this feast is a symbol of heavenly bliss. Death and suffering will be finally overcome.

         The Lord God will wipe away
The tears from every face;
The reproach of his people he will remove
From the whole earth…

These words are not so much a prophecy as a perennial wish of all people in all times. Today it remains a wish as tears continue to flow throughout our world. Headlines every day tell of unimaginable brutality and violence in many parts of the world. Will it ever end?

Jesus knew the words of Isaiah like the back of his hand. In today’s gospel, He tells a parable using the same imagery of a feast or banquet. It is the story of a King who gave a wedding feast for his Son. However, the invited guests behave very badly. Some just ignored the invitation and went about their business. Others even had the audacity to mistreat and even kill the messengers of the King.

In this Gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus is speaking directly to the leaders of the Jewish people, the priests and elders. It shouldn’t have been hard for them to understand the message. The Jewish nation had entered into a covenant or contract with the Lord The covenant was designed to bring them happiness and make them a great nation. But time and time again they ignored their responsibility, even to the point of attacking the prophets who had been sent to warn them.

As a result, Jesus warns that the invitation will go out to others and that there will be a new covenant. The King sends his servants into the highways and byways to invite everyone, the bad as well as the good. Before we start blaming the Jews or feeling smug and self-satisfied, we should consider the rest of the parable. The banquet in honor of the King’s Son is now full of people, but there is one person there without a wedding garment.

I must confess that as a child I was upset at the treatment of this man. It’s not as if he crashed the party. He had been asked to come and just because he wore the wrong clothing, he was going to be unceremoniously kicked out. What did he do to deserve such treatment? I realize now that the wedding garment was a symbol for the man himself. He had accepted the invitation but did not live up to the responsibilities involved. After all, a covenant is a two way street.

We all understand that when a baseball player can no longer play on a major league level, he will either be let go or retired. The team will have to find another to take his place. They might bring someone up from their farm system. However, just being called up to the big leagues is not enough. The rookie will have to perform up to expectations or he will be ultimately be traded or sent back to the minors.

So, there is no reason for us to think that just because we are on the Christian team, we do not have to perform. We have to play our position. No one says that we have to be perfect or make the All Star team but we have to make the most of the tools we have been given.

The wedding garment is not something that we wear on the outside but it represents that which is within us. In the Psalms we hear that the Lord will not spurn a humble and contrite heart. Our wedding garment has little to do with our material condition in life. If we are rich, it is not necessarily a sign that we have been favored by God. If we are poor, it is not necessarily a sign that we have incurred the wrath of an angry God.

In today’s second reading St. Paul tells us that our material status is not an issue when it comes to the Heavenly banquet. He says to the people of Philippi that:

I know how to live in humble circumstances;
I know also how to live with abundance.
In every circumstance and in all things
I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry…


Ever since his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, his faith has strengthened him and enabled him to deal with all the ups and downs of life. We should all be familiar with the trials and sufferings that Paul experienced on his missionary journeys. We should regard the trials and suffering that we endure, small as they may seem compared to those endured by persecuted Christians in other parts of the world, as our own wedding garment. ###

Reading 1. Isaiah 25: 6-10a
Reading II. Philippians 4: 12-14, 19-20
Gospel. Matthew 22: 1-14 (Many are invited)

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Vineyard of the Lord

                                    Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                  

In both today’s first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, and the gospel account from Matthew, we hear about a vineyard. In particular, it is a vineyard that is not bearing much fruit. Isaiah makes it clear that the vineyard is a metaphor for the House of Israel.

The vineyard of the Lord of Hosts is the House of Israel,
And the people of Judah are his cherished plant…

Nevertheless, even though all was done to make the vineyard productive, something went wrong. The Lord expected justice and harmony to grow among his people but only found bloodshed and dissension. Jesus was well aware of this passage from Isaiah. Even today’s Psalm, which any good Rabbi would have memorized, echoes the vineyard theme.

In the parable in today’s gospel Jesus refers to tenants who had been put in charge of the landowner’s vineyard. When it was time for the vintage or harvest, the tenants manhandled the landlord’s servants or agents who had come to collect what was due. The greedy tenants, anxious to keep all for themselves, beat, mis-treated, and even killed one of the servants. They even killed the landlord’s son when he was sent to them.

It seems obvious that, like Isaiah, Jesus used the vineyard as a metaphor for the House of Israel. The servants represent the prophets who were often ignored, scorned, and beaten. The son represents Himself who would shortly be arrested, subjected to a mock trial, beaten, and crucified.

Jesus directs this parable to the leaders of the Jews of his time, the chief priests and elders. Perhaps some have used the harsh words of Jesus against the Jewish leaders as an excuse for anti-Semitism or hatred directed against the Jews. I believe that this would be a great mistake. Jesus was a Jew. He was a Rabbi intimately connected with the Jewish people. Jesus was not critical of the Jewish leaders because they were Jews; he was critical of them because they had failed to live as true sons of Abraham. They were not Jewish enough. By their words and deeds they had fallen away from the covenant, and lost sight of their mission.

No one ever accused Isaiah of being anti-Semitic but he castigated his own people severely for their failure to be true to their Jewish beliefs. In the same way, Jesus criticizes the Jewish leaders because they had substituted slavish following of rites, rituals, and laws for the true spirit of the Law. Just before this passage Jesus had driven the moneychangers from the Temple because they had profaned his Father’s house.

I believe that whenever we can we should put ourselves in the gospel scene. So, when Jesus is talking to the Jews, we must take his words to heart, not as an indictment of someone else, but as directed to us. We may believe today that we Christians are the heirs of the Kingdom, but we are always in danger of losing it.

Sometimes, we, our families, our friends, and neighbors reject our heritage suddenly and dramatically but more often there is a slow and gradual erosion of faith and commitment. We live in a society that regards Christianity as either irrelevant or pernicious. It is so easy to go along rather than rock the boat. We read the same news, watch the same TV shows, listen to the same music, and go to the same movies together.

Holy Scripture is not about some far off time and place. We are the vineyard and the Kingdom has been given to all those who believe whether Jew or Gentile. No one understood this better than St. Paul. In today’s passage from his letter to the community of Philippi he states that by their conversion, they have been given a great gift but that they must be careful to treasure it.

Finally, brothers and sisters,
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.

Isn’t this the life we want? A life of truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, and graciousness. Why would we exchange it for lies, dishonor, injustice, impurity, and ugliness? None of these things will bring us real happiness and peace.

Paul urges the Philippians and us to keep on working in the vineyard.

Keep on doing what you have learned and received
And heard and seen in me.
Then the God of peace will be with you.


###

Reading 1. Isaiah 5:1-7
Reading II. Philippians 4:6-9
Gospel. Matthew 21: 33-43 (the stone that the builders rejected)