Orbiting Dicta

Author Archives: Rjwoodsop


Solemn Feast of Christ the King: The End is Clear

The liturgical year draws to a sad end this Sunday with the Solemn Feast of Christ the King of the Universe. Amid a worsening and even spreading pandemic, monumental political blundering, and economic crises, it may seem ironic as kingship seems at least irrelevant in the face of such global disasters. [See Ezek 34:11-12, 15-17, 1 Cor 15:20-26, 28, Mat 25:31-46]

Kings are, almost by definition, a sorry lot. Historically, most were rapacious, egotistical, power-hungry autocrats corrupted, even if they started out well, by that very power, as Lord Acton observed – “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The proto-prophet Samuel sternly warned the Israelites that in demanding a king to rule over them in the manner of the gentiles they were playing with a fire that would consume them [1 Sam 8:4-22]. And it largely did. Hardly any kings in Hebrew scripture come off as less than villainous. Even the best of them taken as a model, David, was capricious and bloody-minded, capable of adultery, murder, and deceit. (That is not to say that modern dictators and presidents are not equally capable and often expert at the task.)

In Christian scripture, the accusation that Jesus “made himself” king of the Jews was a false testimony that led to his execution. But by the time the epistles and gospels were written, what had been taken as a parabolic figure, if not ironic and subversive, was now accorded to Jesus as the “true king.” It is this figure of speech that animated the hopes of subject peoples down through modern history, hopes that were often dashed when the lure of absolute power succeeded in corrupting the royals.

When emergent democratic republics repudiated kings wholesale, the term became odious but managed to survive in folklore and fairy tales as the image of the “true king,” an Arthur or an Aragorn. In fact, modern monarchs are still a pretty sorry if more impotent lot. At best, the survivors are usually little more than expensive political decorations, nice folks kept in office and affection as one might a favorite Corgi.

Perhaps the title of “Christ the King” is a misnomer even apart from the diminished longing for a “true king.” The intention of Pope Pius XI when in 1925 he instituted the Feast of Christ the King for the whole Church was in some measure an effort to shore up what was inexorably becoming a lost cause, at least in Europe, following the First World War. Today there are fewer monarchies than ever – about 25, all told, including grand dukes, sovereign princes, and the like. Only about a dozen actual kings and queens hang on, many in Africa and Asia. Adding to that number several dozen emirs, sultans, an emperor or two, and the pope, the number rises just over 40.

Similarly, when in 1970 Pope Paul VI extended the royal title to the entire universe, cosmologists might well have wondered if that was a pontifical bridge too far, so to speak.  The universe is a mighty big area and whether or not there are any intelligent beings out beyond the reach of present knowledge, it could well be doubted whether the claim of universal kingship of an Earthling would mean anything to them. (Only half our own world is nominally Christian today.)

Where this leaves us on this auspicious Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, may be a little obscure to many.  My suggestion is to once again consider the testimony of the ancient scripture and the gospel for the day. In Psalm 72, one of the “royal psalms,” we hear

Give the king your justice, O God,
and your righteousness to a king’s son.
May he judge your people with righteousness,
and your poor with justice.
May the mountains yield prosperity for the people,
and the hills, in righteousness.
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people,
give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor [Ps 72:1-4].

And, a bit later,

For he delivers the needy when they call,
the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life;
and precious is their blood in his sight [Ps 72:12-14].

The gospel reading chosen for today’s liturgy is perhaps the most telling of all, even though in his parable Jesus does not explicitly identify himself with the Son of Man or the King:

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him,
then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
All the nations will be gathered before him,
and he will separate people one from another
as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,
and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
Then the king will say to those at his right hand,
‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
for I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was naked and you gave me clothing,
I was sick and you took care of me,
I was in prison and you visited me.’

‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these
who are members of my family,
you did it to me.’ [Matt 25:31-36,40].

33rd Sunday of the Year: Being Prepared

It has been another desperately challenging week, especially for healthcare workers who are struggling to keep up with the toll being taken increasingly on our citizens by the new coronavirus. That we, even more than other nations, were unprepared for such an event may be a serious understatement, for there were warning signs and clarion calls as long as five years ago that a new viral pandemic was likely to occur within a few years. The signs were all there, but we were still vastly unprepared when it arrived.

There is much to learned from this dreadful experience, if our leaders are wise enough to pay attention and look ahead. To take precautions.  And that is what today’s readings are about. They continue last week’s theme.  They are all about readiness, which figures strongly in many of Jesus’ parables and direct teaching.  Clearly, it has not ceased to be timely.

Prov. 31:10-13, 19-20,30-31
1 Thess 5:1-6
Matt. 25:14-30

The first reading from the Book of Proverbs extols the readiness of a wise and provident wife.  I love this passage because it calls to mind the work and sacrifices of the women in my own family who in preceding eras had to improvise and often work hard alongside their husbands or even by themselves to make ends meet during  the hard times of the pioneer western settlement, the Great Depression of 1929, and the challenges of facing critical shortages during the Secord World War.  (I still treasure the Victory Garden apron that my parents preserved from the 1940s when home gardening and careful rationing were practical necessities.)

I chose this passage from the Book of Proverbs for my mother’s funeral, because it beautifully illustrates how a good wife and mother tries to be ready for just about any eventuality. It is an attitude St Paul encourages his readers to adopt in regard to Christ’s return at the end of days.  Given both the frenzy and the paralysis some early Christians were experiencing, true readiness for Paul meant living each day as if it might be our last, but providing thoughtfully for the needs of the future as well.  Jesus was clear about that, as we heard last week, for “no one knows the day or hour.” Look ahead! Be ready!

Several years ago, a former student invited me to visit Quantico, VA, where he was in training as a marine.  There I learned that “Always Ready” is a slogan covering just about everything Marines are expected to do, but as I mentioned last Sunday, it is the official (Latin) motto of the U.S. Coast Guard — Semper Paratus – “always prepared.”  Their marching anthem ends with a refrain that begins, prayerfully enough,

We’re always ready for the call,
We place our trust in Thee.
Through howling gale and shot and shell,
To win our victory.
“Semper Paratus” is our guide,
Our pledge, our motto, too.
We’re “Always Ready,” do or die!

As this year’s memory of Veteran’s Day recedes in the wake of the accelerating pandemic, natural disasters, and political intrigue, it is a call surely worth keeping in mind, as we honor those who were prepared to give everything, even to the cost of their lives. Shakespeare, that good Christian, knew his Scripture: “The readiness is all!” [Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2]

But Jesus had even a more urgent cause in mind than Shakespeare or the U.S. Marines and Coast Guard – the shortness of all human life and the approach of judgment.  As we start winding up the Church year, it’s a good idea to pay close attention to what true readiness means before God.

At first glance, his parable seems like a very serious and even unfair story.  It’s actually rather comical, although our world is so far removed from first-century values we fail to see the humor that would have been obvious to his listeners in a story about high finance gone very, very wrong.

To begin with, the amounts of money Jesus describes were astronomically high.  He loved to exaggerate in order to get his point across.  Today just five talents of silver would be worth about 2 million dollars.  So while we might be able to understand why some timid soul might hide a small nest-egg in a coffee can and bury it or hide it under the mattress, but not two million dollars!  No, the fellow who put a fortune in a hole in the ground was not only lazy, but stupid.  You might say he got what he deserved. Or more accurately, lost it. Lost it all.  But even that’s not the point of the story.

Jesus is not saying that God is like a banker who will foreclose the mortgage if you miss a single payment. And he pointedly does not say that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.   But he is saying that we are all too much like timid investors.  We don’t make adequate provision for the future — the future God has in mind for us, and the results can be catastrophic both for us and the world.

So what is his point here?  Make adequate provision for the return of your Lord — he has high expectations of you, much more like those of the Coast Guard than the folks from Goldman-Sachs. Still, “cashing in” on the Coming of Christ requires facing risk and inevitable hardship.  There are other parables about that.  Here, Jesus is encouraging us to count the cost, look ahead, be smart, and not to be afraid to gamble a bit.  Basically, don’t put off until tomorrow what we really should take care of today and just hope for the best. What that amounts to he carefully itemizes in next week’s gospel passage which follows directly on today’s. The care and caution required for admittance to the Kingdom has nothing to do with interest on a wise financial investment, but what we do with our resources, financial and otherwise, specifically in view of the desperate needs of the poor, the starving, the homeless, the sick and imprisoned.  Be warned.

32nd Sunday of the Year 2020: Being Prepared

It has been a momentous week, not only because of the ongoing saga of the presidential election in the United States, but because of the startling figures that outline the grim march of the coronavirus across this land and much of the rest of the world. Here in the Land of Opportunity, we are experiencing the greatest casualty rate in the world – surpassing even India by double digits in the number of cases reported and fatalities. It is a challenging time to lead a normal life, as “Covid fatigue” impels more and more people to abandon precautions followed by unsurprising consequences. [https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/08/health/us-coronavirus-sunday/index.html]

 

As the liturgical year draws to a close and Advent appears on the horizon, the themes of the readings tend to turn to expectation and preparedness. The day of the Lord is coming and, to be sure, while here we have no abiding city [Heb 13:14], the need for vigilance and resolute precaution has never been so urgently needed. Not surprisingly, vigilance is the theme of today’s readings, beginning with the beautiful and poetic late Jewish Book of Wisdom, which so influenced the thought of early Christians: “one who is vigilant on [Wisdom’s] account will soon be free from care, because she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths, and meets them in every thought” [Wis 6:15-16].

The gospel text contains one of the most famous parables Jesus created to encourage vigilance and attentiveness among his followers.  Again, he compares the Reign of God to a wedding feast, one of his favorite images.  This time, however, his focus is not on the guests and their attire, but on the attendants, young girls from the village who were awaiting the arrival of the groom.  That’s a bit strange, but it’s very likely that Matthew left the bride out of the picture to underscore the coming of the groom, who was most likely to have been on his way to take the bride to his home.  But the focus is really on the bridesmaids who get sleepy as the delay grows longer and longer. Night has now fallen. Ten of the girls came prepared for the long wait and ten did not.

When the shout is heard that the groom has arrived, there’s a scramble for their lamps [lampadas], not “torches” as in some translations.  Lamps need oil to keep burning. So the story is really about having a enough oil to keep the lamps lit. The parable might seem a little heartless and even uncharitable, since the ten sensible maidens refuse to share their lamp oil with the foolish ones.  But with parables, it is important to get the main point, which in this case is not about generosity, but about alertness and common sense.  In short, we are to be ready at all times to welcome Christ as Lord not only of Death, but more especially of Life.  Keep awake, Jesus tells us, and be prepared.

The image of Jesus as bridegroom is very ancient, and was traditionally used for his relationship to the people of God.  The messianic banquet is, after all, a wedding feast, right to the end where in the Book of Revelation it is called “the wedding feast of the Lamb” [Rev. 19:9] in case there might be some doubt about the matter. Here, too, the watchword is vigilance – ‘semper paratus,’ as in the motto and marching song of the U.S. Coast Guard. Whether looking ahead to the Great Assize, as John Wesley described it, the preservation of liberty, or protection from the ravages of disease, the peril of falling asleep on the job is always a possibility. And the remedy is still eternal vigilance.

All Saints Day 2020: The Friends of God

In this midst of what can only be called a calamitous year, and our nation prepares to elect a new president in just 48 hours, the Feast of All Saints appears to remind us of a different set of values, a different set of concerns, a different way of looking at life. Call it the long view. It anticipates the ultimate victory of justice over sin, the end of separation because of conflict, hunger, violence, and disease – those Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who seem to have been galloping through the world with abandon this year. [See Rev 7:2-4,9-14, 1 Jn 3:1-3, Mt 5:1-12a.]

Sandwiched between (and overshadowed by) Halloween and The Day of the Dead, All Saints Day has receded from public regard in many respects, but it is nevertheless an occasion and a call to celebrate the lives of all those Servants of God whose names and accomplishments may or may not have been noticed in any official way but changed the world.

When recognition does occur, often by the official process of canonization in the Catholic Church, we are able to envision the whole, not only single examples. Many of the saints, no doubt most, are never in fact canonized, but nevertheless belong among that innumerable white-robed throng standing before the throne of God and the Lamb [Rev. 7:9].

This year, as so many of us were cut off from our loved ones, families, and friends by the coronavirus, this must be of some consolation. But it leaves our task unfinished. Today’s readings put that in perspective, and the reading from Matthew’s gospel especially presents the agenda in his compilation of the sayings of Jesus we know as “the Beatitudes.” It is by following the path of faithful witness, compassionate care, mercy, and forgiveness, that we are joined to that vast assembly. The road lies ahead, but today we acknowledge and learn from those who have gone before us and made the path at least a little wider, a little smoother.

One of the more recent candidates for official recognition, Dorothy Day, that cantankerous champion of peace and social justice, was wary of being elevated to that lofty position. “Don’t make me out to be a saint,” she said. “I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Oscar Romero, she won’t be much longer, but will soon, it is hoped, assume her place among those recognized by the Church as pioneers and trail blazers. But, as I said once before, “…it is not being recognized, being canonized, that makes people saints. It’s what they have done with their lives that earns them a place of honor on the only list that matters, the much, much greater list known only to God and the blessed saints in heaven. As Meister Eckhart said long ago, “It is not what we do that makes us holy, but we ought to make holy what we do.” [Talks of Instruction, 4] King, Romero, and Dorothy Day are saints not because they strove to be, but because they did what they felt compelled to do as followers of Jesus Christ.

30th Sunday of the Year: 25 October 2020 — Neighbors

For those who were appalled by the New York Times report this week on the failure of the U.S. government officials to locate the parents of 545 children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, today’s first reading might come as a shock. After locating 2700 separated parents in 2018, it became apparent that the cruel policy continued to separate children, some as young as 5, from their parents. It was this group that remains separated. [See Exodus 22:20-26, 1 Thess 1:5-10, Matt 22:34-40.]

Perhaps we should not be too surprised. The plight of the defenseless poor, especially widows, orphans, and refugees has been a burning moral issue from the earliest days of the Jewish and Christian scriptural tradition. The first reading from the Book of Exodus. the second book of the Bible, focuses on their treatment. That in itself may not be surprising, although for many of our countrymen it might be surprising to discover that it is one of the most frequent refrains in the entire Bible.

This is the earliest mention of the obligation to tend to the needs of the poor, 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 concluding work of the Canon, 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].

Widows, orphans, and refugees were the most vulnerable of people in the ancient world, as they most often are today. They lacked both defenders and economic security. They were frequently denied the most basic human rights. Paying special attention to the needs of such distressed families and asylum-seekers is a theme found dozens of times between Exodus and Malachi, especially in the Psalms. It is the measuring rod of our moral rectitude in the eyes of God. The command is brought over in the Christian Scriptures as well. St. James, in his Epistle, was very direct: “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 epistle, Paul tells the Christian community in Thessaloniki — 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.

In today’s gospel, Jesus says even more simply, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” And he meant love in action. 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]. He sums up the entire moral teaching of the biblical tradition with his iteration of the two great commandments – love God above all else and love your neighbor as yourself. And he meant love in direct and practical works of justice and mercy. With this he silences his adversaries, but does not quell their enmity. If anything, it enflames. it

If we in this land of plenty have been blessed, 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?

Much of the world is undergoing a severe trial as the Covid-19 coronavirus spreads sickness and death globally without evident signs of diminishing. But it would be a mistake to consider the pandemic to be a sign of God’s wrath, just as it would be in the case of the devastating wildfires in the west or the increasing and intensifying hurricanes creating havoc in the southeast, the coast of Mexico, and the Caribbean. This outcome of is the catastrophic failure of a worldwide effort to stall and possibly to reverse global climate change. We did this ourselves. And the US now appears to be particularly in the way of harm because of our spectacular failure to act responsibly when we could have.

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 or 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 who cry out to us in their want and need.

The measure of our justice is exactly how we provide for them, how we put our love into action. Let us pray that God will inspire and assist us to do it.

 

29th Sunday of the Year: Life and Taxes

[Busy days at hand: students’ mid-terms and papers are clamoring for attention. The following is a trimmed version of a homily I preached in 2017 – odd how little things have changed.] 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 Delta!] and the terrible California wildfires of this year [not to mention Colorado], 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 among the lowest in the world. [https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/6-nations-smallest-tax-burdens-outside-us-ultra-low-tax-2019-12-1028748866# ]

As election day nears, the rhetoric has been heating up even more than usual, as might be expected, and a lot of it focuses on money and taxes, 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, now in league with their usual opponents, the supporters of 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. [See Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6, 1 Thess 1:1-5, Matt. 22:15-21.]

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 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.

One of the most famous rulers of the ancient world, in the 6th century BCE Cyrus the Great 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 box. 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.” 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 life-blood of any society. (Selling bonds or borrowing from banks just kicks the can expensively down the road; it all has to be paid for… with interest.)

It’s interesting how Jesus returned to this theme in his ministry — especially as he watched the poor widow putting her two mites in the collection box. 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.

28th Sunday of the Year: Wine Party

As the focus of national news programs shifted last week (and the week before) to concerns about the president’s health and then the devastating impact of Hurricane Delta, the record-breaking tenth major tropical storm this year, it could be inferred that the horrific wildfires that burnt hundreds of square miles of California and Oregon, as well as other western states and Canada, had somehow miraculously ceased. That, tragically, is not the case, but it illustrates the fickleness and short attention span of what is considered “news.” Take note.

Ominously, and contrary to the claim made in the television debate by Vice President Pence, the number as well as the intensity of hurricanes and other tropic storms has increased significantly over the last year matching or exceeding previous records. There have been 26 tropical or subtropical cyclones, 25 named storms, 9 hurricanes, and 3 major hurricanes. Total damage is estimated to cost in excess of 25 billion dollars. Hurricane “season” still has seven weeks left to threaten us this year. “Wildfire season” will last about as long. These fires are much more deadly and more costly and show little signs of abatement, even as some are brought under control. https://disasterphilanthropy.org/disaster/2020-california-wildfires/ The burning of the vineyards should be a potent reminder that global climate change is real and an existential threat to the whole planet.

As we have heard, vineyards figured prominently in the gospel readings over the last three weeks, even as the nation turned its gaze away from the western inferno. Today’s gospel continues the theme, but by indirectly including the product of those precious vineyards in feasts and celebrations. The Kingdom of Heaven, Jesus tells us, is like a great wedding banquet. And what is a banquet without wine? [See Isaiah 25:6-10, Phil 4:12-14, 19-20, Matt. 22:1-10.]

Isaiah, too, can think of nothing more fitting as an image of God’s restoration of Israel than a huge feast on the Holy Mountain with lots of choice wine: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear” [Is 25:6]. As he testifies in his letter to the Christian of Philippi, Paul knew how to party. So did Jesus. 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. The King James Version is more exact as well as colorful in translating ‘oinopotes’ here as “winebibber.”]

The finale of the parable is not entirely cheering, however. The invited guests, who do not know how to party when summoned, scatter to their own interests. Some get savage in their treatment of the messengers, bringing doom on themselves and their cities. But Jesus anticipates the inclusive salvation offered to all with the closing words of the parable – “Then [the king] said to his servants ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. So go into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ Those servants went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests” [Matt 25:6-10].

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. 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. Many are unable to respond. Quite a lot aren’t even much interested in coming.

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. Urgently, however, 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 now, especially, the homeless made destitute by fire and flood. There is still work to do. There is a world to save.

 

27th Sunday of the Year: Harvest of Flame

In this strange, almost “apocalyptic” year, as the news reporters often call it, one of the most tragic broadcast sequences displayed the terrible devastation of the superb wine country of California, the Napa Valley.  Several vineyards were burnt to cinders, along with wineries that had withstood drought, economic hardship, and even smaller fires for well over a century.  This was different. “Apocalyptic” may be the right word after all, because it means “revelation.” And what has been revealed to us in this annus horribilis is soul-shaking.

(Most of the following is lifted from a homily I gave in 2017.  Little has changed, it would seem, except to get more dire.)

In today’s gospel, we hear again today about a vineyard, one of Jesus’ favorite images of God’s Realm on earth.  Matthew’s gospel uses it three times, and, as we have heard these last three Sundays, they appear one after another in the 20th and 21st chapters.  This particular parable also appears in the gospels of Mark and Luke.  John’s use of the image is different, the vine being Jesus, and we, his followers, are the branches.  Clearly, Jesus liked the ancient symbol. [See Isaiah 5: 1-7, Phil 4: 6-9, and Mat. 21: 33-43.]

Vineyards have been of particular importance in Israel from the earliest times right up to the present.  In Scripture, the first mention occurs in Genesis, where Noah is credited not only with being first to cultivate grapes, but first to enjoy the product of his labors to their fermented excess.  Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy all contain specific injunctions about the care of vineyards, and also the social responsibilities of those who owned them (as well as the danger of over-indulgence in product).  Deuteronomy 24: 21 specifies that “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not glean it afterward; it shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow.”  Then as now, grapes and social justice are linked in surprising ways.

In later centuries, the fate of Israel was portrayed in terms of the prosperity or destruction of the vineyards.  In the time of Elijah the prophet, Ahab’s envy of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite leads him to murder and initiates the events which lead to his own death and the fall of the royal family. Vineyards appear in the wisdom literature and the Psalms, particularly the 80th Psalm, chosen for today’s responsorial, which may represent the earliest identification of Israel not so much with the vineyard, but as in the Gospel of John, with the vine:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land…. [Psalm 80:8-15].

It is in the books of the great prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel that the most telling images of Israel as the vineyard of God is developed, and nowhere more pointedly or poignantly than in the passage from Isaiah, our first reading.  For now the expected harvest yields disappointment, rather than satisfaction.  The grapes are not just wild; the Hebrew has “stinking.”  These grapes rotted on the vine before they could be plucked.  The terraces and protective hedges are in ruins, the vats and towers overturned.  Animals root through the vines randomly, and all is gone to ruin.  The very real desolation of the Holy Land and Jerusalem itself, soon comes to pass by the permission of God, so that Israel would return to her senses, and justice and peace flourish again in the land.

It is to this image that Jesus calls us in his third parable of the vineyard.  Each of Matthew’s vineyard parables is vexed.  In the first, dissension arises because of the jealousy of the workers.   Then, rivalry and resentment corrupts those who would restrict entrance to the Kingdom to the religious elite.  And now, the ferocious possessiveness of the tenants leads to violence and murder, including the killing of the owner’s son and heir. Once again, the welfare of the vineyard has been forfeited by human malice.

Originally, Jesus was most likely speaking of John the Baptist, whose imprisonment and death figures prominently behind these stories of the vineyard.  It was John’s preaching of the Coming Kingdom that the scribes and elders resisted, while the tax collectors and prostitutes thronged to the good news.  But Matthew’s community clearly sees Jesus as the sacrificial victim, the son who is the last in the line of messengers to be slain because of his commitment to God’s Realm.  And again, in both cases, rivalry, resentment, and envy lead to death. Jesus drives the point home first by his challenge: “When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?”

The conclusion is unavoidable: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons.”

Jesus next says to them, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The very stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes’?  The logic of Kingdom is topsy-turvy, at least as the world judges. “Therefore I tell you,” he concludes, lest there be any misunderstanding, “the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation producing the fruits of it.”

In coming weeks, we will see how Jesus presses his challenge to the religious authorities further and how they decide to destroy him.  But at this point, you might well wonder what all this has to do with us today.

It is simpler than it looks.  The selection of the passage from St Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi is not merely a continuation from where we left off last week.  It is a clear statement of the harvest God’s Realm requires of its citizens, the bright counterleaf of the sorrows predicted by Isaiah and Jesus.  The opposite of resentment, rivalry, and murderous possessiveness is what Paul exhorts his readers to cultivate: peace of mind and heart, a devotion to truth, honesty, social justice, and purity of intention…

Returning to the present, the current annus horribilis still has months to go. Please God, it will not worsen, but usher in a time of healing. Government inaction in the clear advance of global climate change may have cost the world the opportunity to prevent calamities such as the wildfires in the western US (and, lest we forget, other parts of the world), as well as unprecedented storms and floods. But we can still mitigate the disaster at our doorstep with wise, compassionate, and inclusive care for the planet, its people, and generations to come. May the present generation be recalled as a blessing, not a curse.

We  have some work ahead of us.

26th Sunday of the Year: True Obedience

September has been another record-shattering period for wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the Southeast. Globally, the last three years have been the hottest on record. In fact, the 10 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998. The top ten were 2016, 2019, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2014, 2010, 2013, 2005 (tied), and 1998, The hottest of all was 2016, which broke the record set in 2015, which broke the record set in 2014 and so on. But 2020 may wind up topping the charts. Meteorologists say 2020 is on course to be hottest year since records began, breaking the record set four years ago.
www.theguardian.com › environment › apr › meteorologi.

While politicians debate whether climate change is real, the climate is changing whether we like it or not – inexorably now, it appears. One might think it would feature more prominently in the political campaigns this year. It is the gravest problem threatening this country and the world as a whole. But it seems politically convenient to overlook the growing and urgent danger.

Another blind spot concerns capital punishment. Like fire and flood, Federal executions are on the increase in the US. A year ago, Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic, directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt an updated execution protocol and schedule the executions of five death row inmates. The last federal execution had been in 2003. As a result, more federal executions have been carried out in 2020 than in the previous 57 years combined. The last such executions were carried out on Sept. 22 and Sept. 24.

A few years ago I gave a keynote address at a conference on justice and forgiveness. During the discussion, the topic of capital punishment came up. Although the conference was organized by a Catholic organization and approved by the archdiocese, some people were surprised when I mentioned that both the official teaching of the Church and the bishops of the United States oppose capital punishment and have done so for decades. The news seems not to have trickled down to the level of the pews – or of the Department of Justice or the most Catholic U.S. Supreme Court in history.

That may change, however, as Amy Coney Barrett, the candidate for the vacancy on the Supreme Court nominated by Donald Trump, and a Catholic, is on record opposing capital punishment under any circumstances. This may (and should) ignite another storm of controversy. [https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1523&context=law_faculty_scholarship]

Appropriately enough, over the last three weeks, the readings from scripture at our Sunday liturgies have focused on justice, mercy, and forgiveness, themes which are always in season and a favorite of Pope Francis. And we need to hear the Word of God about them, not least since Jesus set such great store by them that forgiveness came to be called “The Law of Christ.” Without forgiveness, there is no peace. Without mercy, there is no justice.

A lot of recent social unrest and political rhetoric have focused on punishment, revenge, and retribution. Not surprisingly, when someone actually forgives a person who has wronged them, people not only sit up and take notice, they think something has gone dreadfully wrong. Today’s readings are strangely out of tune with all that. Together, they tell us something important from very different viewpoints about our relationship with God and each other, basically God’s mercy and our need to forgive. [See Ez 18:25-28, Phil 2:1-11, and Matt 21:28-32.]

First, the prophet Ezekiel again reminds us again that God’s ways are not like our ways. God not only does things differently, but wants us to do them differently as well. Differently from how the world does them. God shows mercy and spares the life of the repentant sinner. And we feel that it isn’t fair. We find it especially disagreeable when it comes to people many of us normally avoid and hope will avoid us as well. What kind of justice is it, after all, where “there is more joy … over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance?” [Luke 15:7].

God forgives us, after all, to the extent we forgive each other. It’s plainly stated in the Lord’s Prayer, but do we really pay attention? I will always remember the execution in Texas of Karla Faye Tucker, sentenced to death for a double homicide, but who had undergone a genuine conversion while on death row and was conducting scripture classes at the time. The State of Texas executed her anyway, despite national and international appeals for clemency.

In the gospel reading, Jesus explains the strange logic of the kingdom of heaven in another parable, those stories that challenge us even as they often charm us. He had just been speaking about John the Baptist, and this parable is also about John, as he makes clear at the end: “For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him” [Matt 21: 32].

The point of the gospel has to do less with the notion of true obedience, which succeeds even after an initial refusal, but with our attitude towards those who seem to getting away with something. The attitude is resentment or envy. And that something is salvation, the Kingdom of God. We heard this last week in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, when the Lord of the harvest asks the grumbling workers, “are you envious because I am generous?”

Neither Jesus nor Ezekiel nor Paul are saying that injustice goes unnoticed. Far from it. Injustice denied is an affront to the living truth, and we therefore have a duty to protest injustice. To resist the domination of sin, if only by our suffering, is to serve the Truth and the Light. And with God’s grace, it will bring those responsible for injustice and suffering not to punishment and death, but to conversion of heart. But it’s very hard to write that into a party platform.

Let us pray, then, that in the midst of all the bad news, we will not forget the good news, that God’s ways are more than fair, that outcasts and hard cases will enter the Kingdom just as surely as anyone else. They may even show us the way in.

 

25th Sunday of the Year: Beyond Justice

This past week, the Chicago area was witness to a nurses’ strike for more just wages and fairer conditions, which may seem odd when the country is still held fast in the grips of a pandemic. In this most prosperous nation on earth, as we are informed, where millionaire politicians enact the laws, it would be even odder if there weren’t such strikes. The struggle for just wages, not least for those who are essential workers in a desperate situation, is hardly something new. That it persists in the so-called richest country on earth should be deeply troubling.

Today, the gospel reading, which continues the section of Matthew’s gospel devoted to expounding the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in parables,
focuses on justice and generosity not only in labor relations, but in all our relations. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign, is revealed to us in the form of a vineyard, one of the favorite prophetic symbols from Hebrew scripture and one Jesus used several times. There are echoes here of the Book of Isaiah, of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and even perhaps of Tobit, where the issue of generous wages comes to bear. What is distinctive in this parable, however, is that, typically, Jesus stands ordinary logic and even conventional notions of strict justice on their head to tell us what God’s reign is really like. [See Is 55:6‑9, Phil 1:20c‑24,27a, and Mt 20:1‑16a.]

For here, at first glance Jesus seems to know as little about labor relations as he did about herding sheep, fishing, farming, and economics. What the men were doing in the vineyard is not clear. We don’t even know what time of year it was supposed to be because that isn’t important. It was probably harvest tine. But the fact that Jesus mentions a vineyard essentially tips us off that this is a story about God’s realm and how things are done there, which is to say, very differently from how they are done in the ordinary human realm.

Traditionally, a vineyard was a symbol of Israel. Here, however, Jesus is not interested in the vineyard, or even in the grapes, but in the workers. Specifically, in their attitude toward each other’s wages. Fair wages and prompt payment for a fair day’s work were an important part of ancient Hebrew ethics:

“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning” [Lev 19:13].

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you” [Deut 24:14-15: 14].

A strong echo thunders in the Epistle of James: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4).

But even basic justice, much less generosity, fall short of what Jesus has in mind in his sweeping revision of human relationships. He is not really interested in money. His warrant is found in the Book of Isaiah, from which we took the first reading. God’s ways are no more like ours than our thoughts are like God’s thoughts. Mercy and forgiveness are here at stake, which reminds us of last week’s readings. God, Isaiah tells us, is generous in forgiving. The question is are we generous in forgiving? As generous as the Lord of the Vineyard is to the laborers? Are we really comfortable with the Law of Christ, the topsy-turvy world of the gospel in which the first shall be last and the last first? Are we willing to receive the mercy of God, or, rather, are we also willing that others receive it in ever greater measure because their need is greater?

Are we really at home with a God for whom mercy means overwhelming generosity, complete remission, total reconciliation? With a realm in which there will be more joy … over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance? (Luke 15:7) Envy, we are told, is being pleased with someone’s misfortune or saddened by their good fortune. But what is the opposite of envy?

In the end, it gets down to this: it is not the sense of justice Jesus preaches that rebels in us when the person next to us in line or at table gets a bigger slice of pie than we do. Or, for that matter, a bigger salary. What is it to you or me what Oprah Winfrey , Bill Gates, or Elon Musk earn? What does matter is fundamental justice and inclusive mercy, the divine generosity without which love and forgiveness remain empty concepts.

Small wonder that Paul could long to be free from the burdens of this life to be with Christ. But because he was at home in the upside-down world of the gospel of Jesus, he was a true bodhisattva, content to remain in the world to preach that gospel to every living creature. He did not require to be admitted first. Last was good enough. He was even willing to give that up if more of his countrymen would be saved. That is God’s way. Let us pray that God will so increase in us the spirit of generous giving and forgiving, beyond strict justice, that the word around us will be shocked at the scope of our foolishness.