1ST READING – ISAIAH 5:1-7
Isaiah realized that God cares for us His people like a precious vine: He cultivates us, cares for us, prunes us, nurtures us, waters us and removes the stones from our hearts. He expects us to grow, to bloom, to produce a good harvest.
Those darn Israelites never seem to get it right. Can you relate? Do you ever feel like you try so hard and yet can’t seem to get it together? Sometimes children work hard on an assignment and end up crumpling it up because of their frustration. We hear the frustration in God’s voice through Isaiah. This harsh love language can be difficult because of the strong emotion. But in the end, God stays with the Israelites through their trials.
Some thoughts from Harold Kushner in How Good Do We Have to Be?: “…if we cannot love imperfect people, if we cannot forgive them for their exasperating faults, we will condemn ourselves to a life of loneliness, because imperfect people are the only kind we will ever find,” (p. 111). “Being human can never mean being perfect, but it should always mean struggling to be as good as we can and never letting our failures be a reason for giving up the struggle,” (p. 174).
2ND READING – PHILIPPIANS 4: 6-9
Paul says pray, and peace will be given. Do you experience this in your prayer life? Even if there is no answer, prayer reminds us of God’s constant presence, and there is solace in that. Paul also says hold fast to Jesus’ teachings. Hold on to what is true. There is peace in that too. Do you experience this?
Paul lays it down that thanksgiving must be universal accompaniment of prayer. Every prayer must surely include thanks for the great privilege of prayer itself. Paul insists that we must give thanks in everything, in sorrows, and in joys alike. That implies 2 things: gratitude and also perfect submission to the will of God. It is only when we are fully convinced that God is working all things together for good that we can really feel to him the perfect gratitude which believing prayers demands. The result of believing prayer is that the peace of God will stand like a sentinel on guard upon our hearts. The word that Paul uses (phrourein) is the military word for ‘standing on guard’. The way to peace is in prayer to entrust ourselves and all whom we hold dear to the loving hands of God, (Barclay, p. 77-78).
THE GOSPEL – MATTHEW 21: 33-43
From John Pilch’s The Cultural World of Jesus, Cycle A:
The tenant farmers are frustrated, desperate and driven to violence. They beat and kill the first 2 delegations from the owner. When the owner’s son shows up, they miscalculate and presume that the owner is dead. Believing the son to be the sole surviving heir, they kill him in hope of gaining the vineyard for themselves. The plan is stupid and illegal, but they are driven by their otherwise hopeless situation (Have you even done something “stupid” because of desperation?). The owner is very much alive. The owner must act. Compare this vineyard story to the one in Isaiah. There are no tenant farmers in Isaiah; God destroyed the vineyard itself. In Matthew, the tenant farmers are destroyed and the vineyard given to others. It is a problem of leadership. The tenant farmers (and Jesus may have been calling out the chief priests and Pharisees) must be replaced because they have not born fruit. So leadership will be transferred to others (us?) who will produce proper fruit (p. 145 – 147).
This parable ends with an image of a cornerstone. This picture is from Psalm 118:22: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.” Originally the psalmist meant this as a picture of the nation of Israel. But Jesus is the foundation stone on which everything is built, and the corner stone which holds everything together. It may be that people reject Christ, but they will yet find that the Christ whom they rejected is the most important person in the world, (Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Mathew Vol 2, p. 264-5). Jesus is all about seeking relationship and bringing goodness to fruition. At what lengths will you go to seek relationship with Jesus and bring good to fruition?
1st Reading; Ezekiel 18: 25-28
Ezekiel is among the first people of Israel that the Babylonians take captive in 597 B.C. He is well known for his insistence upon individual responsibility for sin. Children are not responsible for what the previous generation did. We are free to turn from wickedness to good at any time; we will then be judged by the new life that we have begun. (Sunday by Sunday, Sept. 25, 2005, vol. 14, #54; “Scripture in Depth” http://liturgy.slu.edu)
Ezekiel speaks of metanoia, from the Greek meaning a change of mind. Even the term, “turning away” gives the feeling of a physical change of direction. This is not only about our sinful ways. Believing in God is life-changing. It is “an interior transformation that comes about when God’s Spirit breaks into our lives with the Good News that God loves us unconditionally,” (Catholic Update on The Sacrament of Reconciliation, 1986). What is our response to this unconditional love?
2nd Reading: Philippians 2: 1-11
William Barclay makes this important point: Paul is never just interested in intellectual speculation and/or theological guess work. To Paul theology and action are always bound together. Any system of thought must necessarily become a way of life. The purpose of these thoughts on Jesus’ humanity and divinity was to persuade the Philippians to live a life in which disunity, discord, and arrogance had no place. Jesus did not desire to dominate people, but to serve them. So we as followers must have the same desire. And, in the end, the humble service that Christ lived won for him greater glory, even if the glory was not the goal. Jesus gains our hearts not by blasting us with power, but by showing us an irresistible, faithful love. (William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians, 37-39)
“Emptied himself” suggests humility. Humility was a big part of what St. Teresa of Avila wrote about in her Interior Castle. She says, “As I see it, we shall never succeed in knowing ourselves unless we seek to know God: let us think of His greatness and then come back to our own baseness; by looking at His purity we shall see our foulness; by meditating upon His humility, we shall see how far we are from being humble,” (p. 38). She goes on to say, “If, then, you sometimes fall, do not lose heart, or cease striving to make progress, for even out of your fall God will bring good,” (p. 51). Hope connects with love!
From N.T. Wright’s Paul, A Biography: Unity and holiness will come, and will only come, as the mind of the community and of the individuals within it are transformed to reflect the mind of the Messiah himself. The ‘mind of the Messiah’ is then the subject of one of the greatest Jesus-focused poems of all time. Echoing Genesis, the Psalms, and Isaiah in particular (See Isaiah 45: 23-25), it tells the story of Jesus going down to the lowest depths and then being exalted as Lord of the whole world…it encapsulates exactly what Paul most deeply believed about the gospel. It is because of the cross – the defeat of the powers – that Jesus has been exalted as Lord and that every knee shall bow at his name,” (p. 272-274). And to think Paul wrote this in prison in Ephesus, 300 miles away from the people of Philippi, and is feeling JOY there. What can we learn from him right now, in the midst of the environment we are in?
The Gospel: Matthew 21: 28 – 32
Parables can shock us as they can lay bare the truth with great simplicity. We cannot really argue with a parable; we must either accept it or reject it. It is a challenge, but it is also an invitation. Mary Birmingham says that “Living in the reign of God demands that I acknowledge my sinfulness, my reluctance to serve God, and forge ahead anyway.” (W&W, Yr.A, 525, 527)
In Jesus’ culture the son who answered yes to his father even though he did not go to work would have been considered the honorable son. His reply was respectful; it was what the father wanted to hear. Obedience was important, but the honorable appearance was more important. Notice: Jesus did not ask which son behaved honorably. He asked: “Which of the two did the will of the father?” Jesus’ own honor is being questioned by the chief priests and elders. But Jesus rubs salt into their wounds with this very counter-cultural parable and its challenge. They recognize this challenge: 1) Jesus is making them family with harlots and tax collectors (sons of the same Father) and 2) the chief priests and elders are the ones who may behave honorably, but they are not the ones who are always seeking to do the will of their Father. They care more about appearing to be honorable than about truly being about the good that God wants.(John Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context,” http://liturgy.slu.edu)
Sometimes we can love humanity with great conviction, but find it extraordinarily difficult to love people in particular. For most of us, God is not the problem. The problem is those humans that God created, especially the creeps who don’t seem to deserve to take up our time and patience. When people draw near, they bring trouble. Yet, as Paul was emphasizing in his passage, it is our very relationships to each other that embody our relationship to God. Paul says we will only find joy and peace when we die to ourselves: an unwelcome prospect. Too often we want love, but not its cost. Love is more than logic and practical advice. It is a risk of the ego, an emptying of the self, a desire to serve rather than be served. This is at the heart of the Good News: first, God loved us with utter graciousness; second, we are called to love others with this graciousness. We jabber of love, but the living of it is a great shaking down of our pretense. Love in dreams can be easy; the reality of it can be a dreadful assault . . . (“The Word Embodied”, http://liturgy.slu.edu)
In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, it is continually stressed how God adapts God’s love to our ways of reception. Jesus is using a parable to make a teaching point, that of always making loving choices even if we doubt or have bumps along the way. God labors with us. God labors around us to reveal God’s will for us. God only wants this then: that we experience infinite love being revealed within out finite experiences and our reception of that love in our lives, (Retreat in the Real World, p. 13). Where in your life have you had moments of choice…did you choose the loving way? If not, did you have a change of heart? Did you feel God present in that choice? How did your life story change from that moment?
Last year, we had a patio put in our backyard. Digging into the ground to lay a firm foundation, the contractor found a piece of coal.
Coal is formed from trees or plants that get trapped in swamps and accumulate peat. As these layers multiply and the pressure of being buried underground increases, along with the temperature of the earth, coal is formed.
This living matter from trees or plants gets trapped in a place of incredible pressure. Does this sound familiar? Not only do they get trapped, but they get covered in material foreign to them and then pressed deeper into a hole where it’s a hot mess. The energy of what they were gets packed into a tight, little ball. It is so much like the pressure cooker we are in now.
I won’t spell it out for you because it’s different for everyone – politics, virus, environmental devastation, racism, regular living. It is like we as living matter are buried in a hot mess too. It changes us. I’ve seen people close to me act and behave differently; but mostly, I see myself react in ways I often don’t like. The weight of that divisiveness pushes me deeper in. It is exhausting.
But then there is this: But as for the seed that fell on rich soil, they are the ones who, when they have heard the word, embrace it with a generous and good heart, and bear fruit through perseverance, (Matthew 13: 23).
As tension in our world rises, let’s be seeds instead of coal. We can soften and break open, allowing new life to happen within us and around us. We can embrace the word, who is Jesus, to help us persevere. My prayer this week is to look for the good thing in every person I encounter. Maybe these small actions can help us remain living matter and not hard as coal in the hot mess.
Good and Gracious God,
Help us keep our hearts soft and open to you.
We forget we belong to each other.
We don’t want to be coal.
Guide us toward the rich soil,
so we might plant seeds of hope, love and all that is good.
All that is you. We give thanks.
1st Reading: Isaiah 55: 6-9
This chapter starts the writings of 3rd Isaiah, a prophet who wishes to encourage his people as they come back from the Exile and face the rebuilding of their country and their faith. This chapter started with that beautiful image of all being invited to come to the water – come to the feast where there will be rich food and plenty – come without paying and without cost! In light of this vision and the gospel story this reading really says it all: God’s ways are not our ways – alleluia! What do you think of this reading? When might God be found?
2nd Reading: Philippians 1:20c – 24, 27a
Remember when Paul talks about Christ being magnified in his body that he also referred to the church as Christ’s body. Paul is such a powerful example of how the grace of God can transform us and renew us, even in the midst of the most difficult situations.
This was probably written by Paul when he was in prison in Ephesus maybe about 52-55 A.D. In this ‘holding tank’ of a place, death was a real possibility. In this case, we know Paul later went free to travel to Rome where eventually he was again imprisoned and killed. So his words are powerful and real, even if at this point he did not face death. Besides this situation, this letter to the Philippians is probably a compilation from two or three short letters written by Paul to the community at Philippi over perhaps many months. He is in a state of tension, and yet is living the peace that surpasses understanding (4:7) that he talks about in the letter. Paul knows now that “to live is Christ” – it is not about some mystical union, but about trusting that in all his labors and sufferings and work, Christ is at work. That is all that is important. Just like in the gospel, Paul shows us that we are not to be concerned about ‘rewards’ or our ‘pay.’ Rewards are not denied, but they are not the purpose of toiling for Christ and his kingdom. They always come as a surprise. Paul is a profound example of someone who takes the gospel parable to heart – and lives it. (Reginald Fuller, “Scripture in Depth,” http://liturgy.slu.edu. )
What Paul speaks of is freedom. He seems to be okay with living or dying, because either way he is with Christ (like we heard last week). Margaret Silf says, “Whose kingdom am I serving, my own or God’s? It takes a lot of courage to recognize the truth that we ourselves are not the fixed center of things but rather that we are beings through whom life flows. But when we do understand and acknowledge this, we discover that our emptiness will lead us more surely to our true purpose than our imagined fullness ever could, because God’s life and grace will flow so much more fully and freely through empty hands,” (Inner Compass, p. 110). We are called to live in a state of: I don’t mind…
The Gospel: Matthew 20: 1-16a
This parable (unique to Matthew) was probably quite a challenge to Matthew’s community, also. This Christian community was no doubt struggling to understand the place of Gentiles in their community – and God’s kingdom. This was a highly Jewish group of people who were being stretched to accept and welcome ‘the late-comers’, the Gentiles. The ‘same wage’ is extended to all. Of course, it is not about wages at all, but about salvation. No one can get ‘more salvation’ than another. Can there really be ‘higher places’ in heaven, if it is really heaven (There are many dwelling places…)? All who work in God’s vineyard, God’s kingdom, get the same wage: fullness of life with God for all eternity – incredible generosity = truly Good News! (“Working with the Word”, http://liturgy.slu.edu. )
It is important also to notice that the owner calls the ‘complaining worker’ at the end a friend, even though the worker never even addressed the owner with a customary title of respect. Discipleship is serious business; we need God’s insight and grace. Justice is only possible through love. This parable is a clear call to conversion for all of us. There is only one God, and we are not it! There is a place for us in God’s kingdom, but it is not on God’s throne! Our conversion is about seeing anew, considering a new world view. God is kind and faithful, but also surprising. We must stay alert and in relationship with our loving Lord if we do not want to miss what God is doing. Prayer and Scripture are ways for us to do just that. (Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 516-519)
1st Reading – Sirach 27: 30; 28: 7 & The Gospel – Matthew 18: 21-35
Both of these readings this week are about forgiveness: God’s mercy toward us and our mercy toward each other.
From Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series on Mathew:
It is Rabbinic teaching that a man must forgive his brother 3 times. The 4th time they do not forgive. This is based on a Biblical truth in Amos where there were a series of condemnations on various nations; God forgave 3 times and then punished the sinner in the 4th. Since we are not to be more gracious than God, forgiveness was limited to 3 times. Peter thought he was being generous by saying 7 times, but Jesus says 70 x 7, which really means unlimited.
From Living Liturgy, Year A, 236-237:
The ‘large amount’ in the gospel is literally 10,000 talents or 100,000,000 days’ wages, an unthinkably large amount. (John Pilch says that 10,000 talents would require more than 164,000 years of work, seven days a week.) The smaller amount is 100 denarii or 100 days wages. The exaggeration is meant to remind us how much we should be in awe of God’s gracious forgiveness.
The Hebrew word for forgiveness means to lift and carry away (nasa); the Greek word means to send forth (aphiemi). Both words tell us that forgiveness puts transgressions and their hurt at a distance – or out of our mind and focus. We put the hurt at a distance so we can get on with healing and life-giving relationships.
Pheme Perkins reflects like this: God’s forgiveness of us is not primarily concerned with getting himself loved, a two-party reciprocal relationship. The parable is not meant to imply that I have some set of obligations to God . . . rather, it suggests that the experiences we have of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, extra assistance, and so on are meant to be directed outward. They are not relationships to be shaped solely on the legal model . . . the first servant’s experience of forgiveness should have changed his own behavior . . . divine forgiveness is like that – it is so unequal that it must be applied in transitive fashion to other relationships. And, the issue is how I treat the other, not how I feel about the other.
JC Arnold’s Why Forgive?: Certainly forgiveness is sometimes given and received lightly, or used to whitewash the ugly underside of life. But such forgiveness has no staying power. Even the most genuine declaration of forgiveness will wear thin if it is not accompanied by a change of heart (see end of Gospel reading), both in the forgiver and the forgiven. In other words, it must cost something if it is to have any lasting effect. There is, moreover, little value in seeking forgiveness if we let it touch us only momentarily and then slide back into the same behavior that required an apology in the first place. It is true that forgiveness is a gift and that it comes with no strings attached. But it is a useless one unless we let it change us for the better (p. 131-132).
The 2nd Reading – Romans 14: 7-9
This reading from the letter of Paul speaks to the heart of what kind of relationship Christ wants with us and our own restlessness of wanting this relationship with Christ (which Christ puts in us). So we should not be afraid to open ourselves completely to this…
From: “Feeling and Pain and Prayer” by Margaret Bullitt-Jones
The question is whether we are willing to let God in on the depth of our anger and sorrow and anxiety and shame. Are we willing to disclose these parts of ourselves to God? What if God yearns to know and to enter not only our warm and loving feelings, but the depth of our anger and sadness and fear and doubt? What if God not only tolerates, but actually welcomes, the expression in prayer of our true selves, including those feelings that we tend to hide away and repudiate and despise?
C.S. Lewis once observed that “the prayer preceding all prayers is ‘May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.’” If this is so, then our intention in prayer is to be our real selves and to encounter the real God. As Hart pointedly puts it, “The first principle of prayer is to be yourself. Prayer is being yourself before God.” Getting real involves opening to the truth of what we feel.
1st Reading: Ezekiel 33: 7-9
Ezekiel understood his role as prophet to be that of watchman who discerns the moral pulse of the culture, and who also watches for and announces to the people any impending disasters. (Birmingham, W&W Workbook for Year A, 499) You can hear the weight of responsibility he feels in this role, and it challenges us to speak out against what we see is wrong in the world too. We all do this in our own way. How have you had to do it in your life?
During the day, some people who lived in a fortified city worked outside the city gates. So that they could go about their work without worry, a guard stood on the city wall scanning the horizon for any sign of an approaching enemy. When the watchman spied hostile forces, he gave a signal to the townspeople in the fields. It was their responsibility to leave their work to return to safety behind the city walls. Both the watchman and the people had clear responsibilities, (Vawter&Hoppe, Ezekiel: A New Heart, 148). Do you have someone that watches over you? Are you a watchman?
There is reference in this passage of sins by omission, sin for what we fail to do as opposed to sin for doing. R. Gula, S.S. says this type of mortal sin, “comes as a result of frequent failures to love and to do the good within one’s reach. This increasing laxity deadens the person’s sensitivity to the good and responsibility to others,” (Reason Informed by Faith, p. 111). Perhaps we don’t notice this way of sinning until we start to see a pattern developing, or an uncomfortable feeling in our heart over time about something. We will continue to see how this author can help us with this in our next readings.
2nd Reading: Romans 13: 8-10
Paul gives us the “how” in handling the social responsibility that Ezekiel charges: with love.
Indeed, Paul’s words from 1 Corinthian 13 are very close. It also aligns well with Jesus’ preaching as we find it in the synoptic gospels, especially passages like Luke 10: 25+ — here Jesus lists love as the essence of the law and tells the story of the Good Samaritan. These words of Paul predate the gospels. His experience of the Risen Lord taught him the same truth that we find later recorded by others in the gospels — a great testimony to the ‘unity’ of mind and heart that comes from knowing Jesus. (M. Birmingham, Word and Worship Workbook for Year A, 500)
The Gospel — Matthew 18: 15-20
Here we see Matthew applying Jesus’ wisdom and advice to his own community and its needs. He is trying to fashion his ‘church’ on the teaching of Jesus. (Birmingham, 501)
Also remember, Matthew’s community was a highly Jewish/Christian group. Eduard Schweizer asks us to notice these things in connection with this gospel: In Judaism, at least 10 males must be present for corporate worship. For the disciples of Jesus, such rules are no longer needed: even 2 who pray together are heard. Also, the authority of the community is the authority they gain through prayer. It is assumed, of course, that the community prays according to God’s will as Jesus taught his disciples to do in the Lord’s Prayer (See Mt. 6: 9-13.) The promise of Jesus’ presence speaks with a strong ‘taste’ of resurrection faith. When we come together in Jesus’ name we come together under Jesus’ authority and teaching. It is this presence of love that confers the presence and power of Christ on the community. Prayer and love are central: “the presence of the God who is unknown has been replaced by the presence of the man who is known, who can be called by name, the presence of Jesus Christ himself. Jesus now takes the place of the Law, as described by this Jewish saying: “When two men sit together and words of the Law are between them, then the presence of God is dwelling among them.” (The Good News According to Matthew, 374-375)
But then we come to the most difficult part. We are told if the person will not repent we are to treat that one like a Gentile or tax-collector. But Jesus never set limits to forgiveness. In fact in the very next passage in Matthew’s gospel (18: 21-35) Peter is told that we must forgive the one who wrongs us as often as necessary: 7 x 70! And, when Jesus ‘deals with’ tax-collectors or Gentiles in the gospels he does so with sympathy, gentleness, and an appreciation of their good qualities. In fact, Matthew for whom this very gospel is named was a tax-collector. Jesus found no one hopeless; neither must we. Maybe Jesus is telling us that even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, we may still win him over in the end as He did.
Getting back to R. Gula from Reason Informed by Faith: He describes 3 senses of conscience which he borrowed from Timothy O’Connell that might be helpful in our own discernment as to how to act when faced with a moral dilemma:
- Capacity – Everyone has a general awareness of right and wrong. This capacity highlights our basic orientation towards the good.
- Process – To know right and avoid evil requires active interaction. Each situation requires us to act according to our conscience. We have to question our actions and respond according to the information we gather. Our guidelines are based on personal experiences, moral theologians, sciences, scriptures and Church tradition.
- Judgment – Conscience is incomplete until you act on it. After examining all the factors, you commit to an action. An action that you believe is right, (p. 132).