1 Thess 1:5-10
After weeks of parables about vineyards and harvest banquets, and last week’s Good news about hard decisions regarding competing loyalties, the mood of the readings is turning to ultimate matters. Winter is coming, and with it Advent. I suspect that we could all use a little downtime after the ordeals of the last couple of months… hurricanes, earthquakes, train wrecks, mass shootings and assassinations, the migrations and suffering of refugees and the poor in Yemen, Myanmar, Niger, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and the agonizing struggle continuing in Iraq — to cite only a few. But the readings for today’s liturgy remind us all too clearly that such matters require our urgent and special attention.
The first reading and, if we are attentive, the gospel focus on widows and orphans and refugees.
That in itself should not be surprising, although for many of our countrymen it might be revealing
to learn that it is one of the most frequent refrains in the entire Bible. But then, many of our countrymen have a habit of reading the Holy Scripture selectively.
Almost all of us have or will become widows or orphans at some point. Some of us may even become refugees. Many are already refugees, whether voluntarily or by necessity.
Because of the speed and universality of video communication today, the plight of thousands of our own citizens affected by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria has hardly escaped attention or controversy. We may be unaware, however, of the suffering of the Muslim Rohingya of Myanmar, half a million of whom are fleeing genocide, or of the desperation of the poor people of Yemen — bombarded, starving, and now besieged by a cholera epidemic. Some government and non-governmental agencies have responded to their need, although generosity is never enough. Something else is required. Something more.
Today’s reading from the book of Exodus contains the earliest mention of the obligation to tend to the needs of the poor – beginning with the second book in the Bible, where God says, “You shall not wrong a resident alien or oppress him…. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan” [Exodus 22:21-22, NRSV].
The final mention in Hebrew scripture is found in the Book of the prophet Malachi: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the refugee, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts” [Malachi 3:5]. God’s words in the passage from Exodus were far more direct: “My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans” [Ex. 22: 24].
It is a theme found dozens of times in between Exodus and Malachi, especially in the Psalms. In all of them, there’s threat involved in God’s words, even more than usual, which is the Hebrew way of affirming that “This is important: pay attention!” And the command is brought over in the Christian Scriptures as well.
There is ample reason for all that. Widows, orphans, and refugees were the most vulnerable of people in the ancient world, as they most often are today. For they lacked both defenders and economic security. They were frequently denied the most basic human rights. It’s not surprising that Jesus showed himself to be exceptionally sensitive to widows and orphans, to their needs as well as their hope and generosity, as when he restored to life the dead son of the widow of Nain [Luke 7:12-15] and praised the widow who put her two small coins in the Temple treasury [Mark 12:42 and parallels]. Widows, the most vulnerable of all, figure prominently in several of his parables. For him, they were models of faith and trust in God, like those very early Christian in Thessalonika to whom Paul was writing.
In today’s epistle, Paul tells them — and us — that we are to imitate him as he imitates Christ and in turn become models for others, living expressions of the Good News. St. James, in his Epistle, was very direct in regard to how: “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” [James 1:27].
In today’s gospel, Jesus says even more simply, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he meant love in action.
Yesterday, I found myself stunned by a report about a 10-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, an undocumented refugee brought to the US by her parents when she was 3 months old. Early this week, as she was being rushed to a Texas hospital for emergency gall bladder surgery, the ambulance was stopped by federal immigration officers at a checkpoint. They followed the ambulance to the hospital and after the child was discharged following life-saving surgery, she was arrested and placed in detention rather than being allowed to return to her parents, also in the country illegally. She is now in a juvenile custody center 150 miles away awaiting deportation.*
Beyond generosity lie love and justice. If we have been blessed, especially in this land of plenty, our abundance is not a reward nor is it a treasure to be hoarded, much less wasted on vast engines of death and destruction. The word of God is clear: we are to use the riches of the earth to help those in need. And who could personify that need more than those widowed and orphaned and made homeless refugees by natural or man-made disasters?
In keeping with much of the religious chatter these days, some of my theology students tend to interpret natural disasters and the vast human suffering that result from them as God’s wrath, as punishment for our sinful ways. No, I tell them, God does not punish the poor and innocent for the crimes of the rich and powerful. Jesus taught us that clearly. Awful events happen in the course of nature not as punishment nor even as a test, as if God were some sort of petulant schoolmaster. Rather, they present us with the opportunity of finding Christ and through Christ God in the hunger and thirst, the nakedness, the illness, and mourning of the least of his sisters and brothers.
The measure of our justice is exactly how we provide for those in want and need, how we put our love into action. Let us pray that God will inspire and assist us to do it.
No one likes paying taxes. I have known several people who worked for the IRS, and they say it’s a little like being a dogcatcher, only worse. Dogs just bite you. Strangely enough, Jesus seems to have been fond of tax collectors, including one, Matthew, among his closest followers, and he got a pretty constant stream of abuse for it.
The United States of America is one of the few countries in the world where there seems to be a commonly held opinion that people ought not have to pay taxes at all — as if the city, state, and national benefits we expect and sometimes demand should somehow materialize out of thin air. In the wake of disasters such as hurricanes like Harvey and Maria and the terrible California wildfires of this month, that doesn’t make much sense. But when it comes to mixing politics, taxes, and especially religion, people rarely make sense. The odd thing is that taxes in the United States, however unequal, are some of the lowest in the western world.
As next year’s elections already begin to dominate politics and the news media, the rhetoric has been heating up even more than usual, as might be expected, and a lot of it focuses on money and taxes, even religion, as might be expected. Fierce debates on the issue are nothing new.
According to the gospel tradition, Jesus and the Pharisees of Judea engaged in a series of heated disputes in which the Pharisees, in
league now with their usual opponents, the supporters of the Tetrarch Herod Antipas, whom Jesus called “that fox,” tried to trap him into taking positions that would alienate him from his followers, or antagonize the authorities, or both. Times evidently haven’t changed all that much.
The outcome was bound to be decisive. For Jesus posed a challenge to the status quo that meant that his followers in particular would inevitably have to choose.
The debates grew in intensity as Jesus evaded the Pharisees’ snares. One of the most famous of these encounters concerned what was called the temple tribute which is related in today’s gospel reading from Matthew, the former tax collector. Jesus’ solution to the dilemma of having to choose between Caesar and God, between paying taxes and devoutly resisting an oppressive government, has been used in America for generations to justify the separation of Church and State. It fuels the violent resistance of some groups who claim Christian warrant for refusal to pay taxes and even for armed attacks on local and federal government.
Whether or not separation of Church and State is a good or bad idea, it has nothing to do with what Jesus was talking about. What he was talking about has its roots in what Isaiah tells us in the first reading, in which God calls Cyrus, the King of Persia, “my anointed,” and, later, “the Shepherd of Israel.” The Lord has, Isaiah says, called Cyrus by name, raising him up in order that all peoples might come to know the one true God, even through Cyrus himself was a pagan and an Iranian at that. They were called Persians then.
Cyrus the Great was much more than an instrument in God’s hands. One of the most famous rulers of the ancient world, in the 6th century BCE, he overthrew the empire of the Medes, and then the Babylonians, who had invaded Israel, conquered Jerusalem, burned the Temple, and taken the Jews into captivity. Around the year 538, Cyrus allowed the Jews to return home and rebuild, taking with them the sacred vessels that had been looted from the temple, for which he was accorded the title messiah – “anointed,” the only non-Jew ever given it. He was killed in battle ten years later.
But it is as an instrument in God’s hands that Cyrus is of interest to Isaiah: “It is I who arm you, though you know me not.” Freeing the Jews was in God’s power to decide, just as was allowing them to fall into the hands of the Babylonians in the first place. God rules over all, whether we know it or not, or whether we like it or not. St. Paul states it plainly enough in his letter to the Christians of Thessalonika: “We know, too, brothers and sisters beloved of God, how you were chosen.”
The issue is not whether, but how we do God’s will; not whether we are Jews or Iraqis or Iranians, Democrats or Republicans, or even Prohibitionists. It’s about how we welcome and implement God’s rule in our lives. The God we worship is the Creator of the Universe, the Lord of History, not the mascot of some political party or church faction. Political parties and Empires and individuals may perform their part in God’s plan well or badly. But God’s plan will prevail one way or another.
So, Jesus says, it’s not just whose image is on the coin: if the coin is from the Roman mint, it belongs to Rome. If it’s Temple coinage, put it in the collection. He doesn’t even bother to point out that Roman coinage was not allowed in the Temple, but had to be exchanged for Temple currency, incidentally at a big profit for the official money changers. That’s another story.
This debate appears in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus’ enemies later twist what Jesus says into an accusation against him before Pilate, claiming that he forbade paying tribute to Caesar [Luke 23:2]. But what Jesus is in fact saying is that trying to isolate religion from politics is as foolish and self-defeating as is confusing them. God and country are not the same, but to think we can banish God from the decisions of ordinary life, including politics, is supremely foolish.
Adlai Stevenson once said, “We mean by ‘politics’ the people’s business—the most important business there is.” The ancient Romans said, vox populi, vox dei: the voice of the people is the voice of God. And Jesus said, render both to God and to Caesar what is due them. Whether you favor throwing the bums out of office, keeping the bums in, or bringing in a whole new set of bums, everyone’s vote is important. And so are their taxes.
The same is true for the Church. In many countries, salaries for ministers and religious educators are paid for out of public taxes. That may change. But in this country churches rely largely on the generosity of people contributing to the collection box. It’s interesting how Jesus returned to this theme in his ministry — especially as he watched the poor widow putting her two mites in. When we render unto God the things that are God’s, whether mites or tithes, we do so not out of compulsion, as so often with our public taxes, but out of love and devotion.
One way or another, we can at least pray that God will guide us in all our actions, so that as good citizens of God’s realm as well as the human community, we will act responsibly and generously, especially to assist the poor and unfortunate, which seems to be a major part of what God has in mind first of all. More about that next week.
Vineyards are still aflame in the once-beautiful valleys of California but, please God, they will flourish again. Many have survived the flames. And after three weeks of stories about bad labor relations in the vineyard, today we hear a word of hope.
I first preached this sermon several years ago, but I think it still seems apt. Maybe even more so. The theme of today’s readings turns to
abundance, to the harvest festival. There’s a little mayhem here and there, but nothing worse than the evening news. The Kingdom of Heaven is like …a dinner party, a great wedding feast…
Sometimes you still hear it said that real Christians have a hard time having a good time. If something is a lot of fun, it’s probably sinful and may even be fattening. The American satirist, H. L. Mencken, defined Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Laughter itself has been condemned now and then and a lot of saints and mystics kept skulls on their desks to remind them of cheerful things like the inevitability of death. I can think of only a few saints who thought highly of fun. St. Philip Neri was one. He used to go around Rome balancing pillows on his head to make the children laugh. (Of course, scholars these days suspect that he was suffering from manic depressive psychosis.)
The puritanical attitude was pretty well summed up by Lord Light, an English politician, who said back in 1935, “People must not do things for fun. We are not here for fun. There is no reference to fun in any act of Parliament.”
But Isaiah can think of nothing more wonderful as an image of God’s restoration of Israel than a huge feast on the Holy Mountain with lots of pure choice wine. Here there is no treading on the grapes of wrath, but a prophecy which in time will come to figure in the Mass for the Dead, “when every tear will be wiped away and death is destroyed forever.” This is no ordinary party, not the noisy little bashes our students throw on Saturday nights. At this banquet, we will, as Isaiah promises, “behold our God, to whom we looked to save us.”
Knowing when and how to celebrate lies at the heart of Christian spirituality. Appropriately enough, there is a joke in today’s epistle, which continues our reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here his sense of humor is a little hard to spot. But he is deliberately having fun with his Greek converts, who knew all about mystery religions. He tells them that he has, in fact, been initiated into a mystery cult. But his cult is very simple. The secret knowledge he has learned is how to do with and do without. How to feast and how to fast. He does both with a willing heart and a ready spirit.
Jesus himself knew how to party, and he was roundly criticized for it by the scribes and Pharisees, who called him names: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Behold, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ [Matt. 11:18-19].
It gets down to being able to accept the Kingdom of Heaven like a little child. Paul tells us, “God will supply your needs fully, in a way worthy of his magnificent riches in Christ Jesus.” So what is there to fret about? Jesus told us, “don’t be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Take a good look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?[Matt. 6:25-26]. And St. Paul writes, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” [1 Cor. 10:31].
And, of course, the gospel reading is also about a party. It’s a little like an Italian wedding or an Irish funeral. Everyone eventually has a good time despite the bit of mayhem outside on the lawn. The important point Jesus is making in this parable (besides the Kingdom of God being like a party) is that only those who actively refuse to join in the fun are excluded. They actually exclude themselves, like the fellow at the end of the story who hasn’t put on a wedding garment. Like everyone else in a Middle Eastern wedding party, he would have been given an appropriate garment if he didn’t have one. It is like having the maitre d’ supply you with a jacket and tie when you show up at a fine restaurant in a tee-shirt. This fellow simply wouldn’t wear it. Some reject the invitation passively, some aggressively. But in the end, the hall is filled — both (and Jesus is very clear about it) the good and the bad, those tax collectors and thieves and prostitutes who storm the very gates of heaven.
What the scriptures have to tell us today seems pretty clear. First, it is not about some kind of irresponsible frolic. We still need to temper our anticipation with the facts of real life, especially the great imbalance that keeps some people beggars and others feasters. The joy of God’s realm is deeper and more lasting than some Saturday-night bash. It is a future reality that casts its bright shadow ahead. All our joys are hints of what is to come. There is no room here for cynicism and gloom, despite what happens in Washington or on Wall Street.
The second point is related to the first: unlike school parties and political parties, the true joy of God’s realm consists in unbroken human solidarity, begun now and reaching its fulfillment in eternity — a unity of all peoples beyond any division of race or class or economic condition. Liberals and conservatives, even. And this is important — our inclusion in the feast of heaven hangs on our attitude now, especially towards those the world so easily despises — the poor, the oppressed, the powerless, and homeless. It’s a diversity thing.
For Jesus, God’s Kingdom is a real party, a wedding banquet, the marriage feast of the Lamb of God. And we all have received an engraved invitation. But it is also important to remember that not all of life is a feast. Not yet. Plenty of people still out there in the highways and byways haven’t received their invitations yet. Quite a lot of folks aren’t even much interested in coming. There is still work to do. And that’s the third point.
So it’s important to recognize what our role is in Jesus’ parable. Not just whom we identify with, but whom we are supposed to identify with. If we think of ourselves as God’s servants, envoys and representatives of Christ, then these words are addressed to us: “Go out into the byroads and invite to the wedding anyone you come upon.” The word for that is evangelization, spreading the good news. And the best way of doing that is not so much with words, but with our lives. The fact is, we are the invitation sent by God. If we do our part, people will read us correctly. Good and bad alike. So we might as well begin by acting as if we’re going to the party ourselves. Work hard, but enjoy the ride.