Sunday, October 15, 2017

Invitation to the Wedding

                           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 behaved 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 had 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. Althouh our own trials and sufferings may be small compared to those endured by persecuted Christians throughout the world today, we should regard them as our own wedding garment. 

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

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Parable of the Two Sons

                                    Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
                                   



It’s not fair! It seems like even as far back as the time of the prophet Ezekiel, people were complaining that life is not fair. More specifically, they were complaining that the Lord’s way is not fair. Is it fair that people who have lived good, upstanding lives should not attain happiness because of one mistak

Actually Ezekiel is saying that it takes more than one mistake. He speaks of someone who deliberately turns away from virtue to seek what he calls iniquity.

In the same way, is it fair for someone who has led a life of iniquity to be saved by a conversion at the last minute? We saw in last week’s gospel that those who had labored only an hour got the same wage as those who had worked a whole day. Is that fair? Nevertheless, throughout the gospels we are told that the Lord has a special concern for those who have strayed or gone away. Moreover, we are told that we should rejoice when they are found.

Today’s gospel gives us a similar lesson. It is the parable of the man with two sons. One is asked by his father to go work in the vineyard but refuses. But later he decides to do the work. The other son is also asked to go to the vineyard and says yes, but then never shows up. When Jesus asked, “Which of the two did his father’s will,” his hearers readily agreed that it was the first son despite his initial refusal.

It’s easy to understand the moral of this parable but hard to apply it to our own lives. Many of us have been coming to Church our whole lives but might also be dealing with children who refuse to go. They’ve said no but we also know that many of our fallen away relatives and friends are actually working in the vineyard. They are supporting their families, educating and directing their children, and even, in many cases, taking care of their elderly parents.

I have to admit that some of the most Christian people I know do not believe in God or practice any religion. Like it or not, they are cooperating with the grace of God. Sadly, I have to admit that some of the devout Catholics I know would not even give you the time of day. Someone once said, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians he warns the community at Philippi to beware of complacency and selfishness.

Do nothing out of selfishness or vainglory,
Rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
Each looking our not for his own interests,
But also for those of others.

We all know that our favorite subject is ourselves. We never tire of talking about ourselves, our interests and our concerns. We use social media to tell our story to all who will listen, and even love to take pictures of ourselves and put them on the web. Today, even Senior citizens know about “Selfies”.

How many times do we meet someone and all they do is talk about themselves? Worse, how many times do we meet someone, and all we do is talk about ourselves? Selfishness can certainly be observed in even young children. One only has to attend a modern birthday party where the birthday boy or girl sits on a veritable throne. Of course, teenagers are notorious for selfishness. Often their words and actions seem to indicate that the whole world revolves around them.

For many young adults the responsibilities of work and family will help to overcome selfishness, but it is really sad to see men and women shirking their own family and work responsibilities out of an excessive concern for their own self. Unfortunately, Senior citizens are not immune from selfishness. What can be worse than being confronted by a Senior citizen anxious to tell you all about themselves.

I guess you could say that selfishness is part of our human nature. Perhaps, it is even a kind of protective spiritual armor. In any case, it requires a supernatural gift or grace to overcome our natural tendencies. St. Paul tells the Philippians to follow the example of Jesus.
Have in you the same attitude
That is also in Christ Jesus…
He emptied himself,
Taking the form of a slave,…
He humbled himself,
Becoming obedient to the point of death…

When we think of the two sons in today’s gospel, we should think of the first son, who despite his own selfish refusal, gave up his own self to do the father’s work in the vineyard.  Time and time again in the gospels we are told that it is only in giving up our selves that we will find our true self.


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Reading 1. Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Reading II. Philippians 2: 1-11
Gospel. Matthew 21: 28-32 (A man had two sons)

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Last Shall Be First

                  25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
                      


     
We have to remember that the prophets of the Old Testament were not so much tellers of the future but perceptive commentators on their own times. Isaiah was no exception. In today’s first reading he is telling the Israelites living in captivity in Babylon that it is hard for them to see the big picture. Indeed, just like us the Israelites in Isaiah’s day seemed to identify their thoughts and ways with the will of God. Especially in an election year politicians and political commentators of all persuasions insist that their ideas and programs are certain to lead us to the promised land.

Even though we believe that we are made in the image of God, in actual practice we tend to talk and act as if God was made in our image. Yet in today’s reading we hear the Lord say,

      My thoughts are not your thoughts,
      Nor are your ways my ways.

Is there an other place in the Gospels where the disparity between the Lord’s ways and ours is more pronounced than in today’s reading from Matthew? I’m sure that most of us sympathize with the workers who had been toiling in the vineyard all day but then get the same pay as those who only worked a short time. If we were to take a poll I think that an overwhelming majority would say that the landowner was being unfair and unjust.

Commentators on Matthew say that in this parable the evangelist is making a point that newly converted pagan Christians will have as much right to enter the Kingdom of God as the initial Jewish Christians.

Nevertheless, it might be a good idea to take this parable in its context. In the passage immediately before this parable, Matthew had recorded these words of Jesus:
 But many who are first now will be last, and many who are last now will be first.

Then Jesus tells the parable and ends with the same words, “Even so, the last shall be first, and the first last."

Matthew then recounted an incident that occurred immediately after. The mother of James and John, two of the first apostles called by Jesus, asks Jesus to place her sons in a place of honor in his Kingdom. Apparently she has not understood the parable. Jesus explains that she does not know what she is asking for, and tells all the Apostles that true greatness lies in humility.

Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; even as the Son of man has not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The parable then would appear to be a warning against complacency. Because many of us have toiled years in the vineyard of life, it does not mean that we can take on airs or assume we are better than anyone else. Even the best of us can trip and fall. And the least of us can experience a miraculous recovery.  

In today’s passage from the letter to the Christian community at Philippi St. Paul says that though he longs to die and be with Christ, he is content to keep working in the vineyard as long as the Lord requires. “If I go on living in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me.”

Those who have trouble with the parable of the workers in the vineyard should consider that the opportunity to work a long time in the vineyard is a great gift. Working in the vineyard is its own reward. The more we work in the vineyard the more we will understand the concern and love of Jesus for those who have fallen away. In the gospels there are so many examples of the Father’s love for those who have returned even at the last minute.


Perhaps the greatest example occurred on the Cross when Jesus promised the Good Thief that “this day you will be with me in Paradise.” 

Titian: The Good Thief


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Reading 1. Isaiah 55: 6-9
Reading II. Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Gospel. Matthew 20:1-16a (the last will be first).