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.
[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.
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.
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.