Tuesday, September 30, 2014

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

This week we continue with our series on morality.  While our readings give us examples of what could be considered “bad behavior”, the focus is not so much on the behavior but the consequences of that behavior.  Bad consequences for bad behavior is indeed a motivation for right behavior, but it is not, and should not, be the only motivator for taking the right path.  God wants us to see the right path, but we sometimes miss the opportunities that are right in front of us...

The Word for the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 5:1-78
Psalm 80:9, 12, 13-14, 16-16, 19-20
Philippians 4:6-9
Matthew 21:33-43

We open with a lament from early Isaiah.  Remember that Isaiah is known as one of the greatest prophets, and is often quoted in the New Testament.  His prophetic book, by three different authors, takes us from a time before the Assyrian uprising, through the Babylonian uprising, through the great Babylonian Exile, and all the way to the return to Jerusalem.  In this week’s passage, Isaiah sings a song about a landowner and his vineyard, which we equate to the people of Israel, but then he poses the question back to us, as if we are the Lord and what should we do with these “wild grapes.”  His song is a lament…of sadness and confusion over what to do.  Our Psalm reflects this same story, looking for God’s mercy.

Our Gospel from Matthew takes a similar tact as we continue on from where we left off last week where Jesus is telling parables to the Chief Priests and Elders.  Here Jesus gives us another parable, this time  about another landowner and his tenant farmers.  The story starts from a familiar place, keeping in mind that both Jesus’ audience and Matthew’s are quite familiar with the story we heard from Isaiah, only this time Jesus is equating the behavior of the tenant farmers to that of the Temple elders.  Jesus warns them explicitly that if they can’t produce fruit in the Lord’s vineyard, it will be taken away and given to others that will.  A stern warning that is just the beginning of the end for Jesus in Jerusalem.

Least these readings fill us too with dread and lament, our second reading should provide us with some hope.  Here in our continued study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he starts the closing to his letter by telling us to “have no anxiety at all,”  Reminding them that if they continue to follow what they have been taught, “Then the God of peace will be with you.”

If our readings for this week make it seem like God is frustrated with us and is ready to brush us aside, you would be correct.  That lesson, however, must always be counterbalanced with God’s infinite mercy and forgiveness.  As Paul reminds us, if we do what is right, God’s peace will be with us.  With God there is hope.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

26th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

How do we know what is right or wrong? But even when we think we have a firm hand on morality, how then do we turn that into a consistent life ethic… a way of living each and every day in a manner that reflects our beliefs? These are difficult questions… but as Christians we turn to our scriptures for some answers.

The Word for the 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 18:25-28
Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
Philippians 2:1-11
Matthew 21:28-32

This Sunday we open with Ezekiel. You may recall that we heard a passage from this same prophet a couple weeks ago. This week Ezekiel, our great prophet from the Babylonian Exile, has a stern warning for us. This passage comes from a time just before the fall of Jerusalem. Ezekiel sees the “writing on the wall” and is urging the people of Israel to reconsider what is fair in the eyes of the Lord, and do what is right and just. While Ezekiel’s message didn’t help the Israelites at that time, it does provide us with a valuable lesson today.

Our Psalm this week not only helps us draw the message of our readings together, but it also serves as an important counterbalance to those readings. Our reading from Ezekiel is quite clear on what behavior allows us to live or die in the sight of the Lord, but as good Catholics we must also remember that God is merciful. With God we have the ability to repent of our sins and be forgiven.

Our Gospel from Matthew this week has Jesus teaching a parable to the chief priests and elders.  Jesus’ teaching authority is being called into question, so in response he gives us the Parable of the Two Sons.  A father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One says, “no” but later goes out to work.  One says, “yes” then does not go out to work. Which of the two did the father’s will?  The answer not only teaches a valuable lesson, but exposes the hypocrisy of the chief priests and elders.  In the end, it is our actions, not our intentions, that speak the truth of our hearts.

Then there is our second reading… a continuation of our study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Today’s passage, though not directly related to our topic of morality, does provide us with the key to unlocking its mystery.  Paul teaches us to “do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory.”  in other words, to put others needs before our own. This change of focus is what defines Christian morality and serves as the cornerstone of how we should approach life.

Many people look to the Church to tell them what is right or wrong.  If only it was that simple.  The context in which we live our lives is not black and white.  Following up on our topic of penance and the examine of conscious from last week, we will spend this week and next week looking at Christian morality… providing us with the tools to determine right from wrong, and how we can use those tools to navigate through the gray areas between right and wrong. Our lives and our society provide many challenges, but the combination of God’s guidance and God’s mercy will bring us to his light.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

25th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2014

When we talk about the Sacrament of Penance, we generally think about what is right and what is wrong… what is a sin and what isn’t a sin.  But our readings for this coming Sunday don’t so much focus on what is right or wrong in God’s eyes, but rather on what is fair in God’s eyes.

The Word for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6-9
Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18
Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a
Matthew 20-1-16a

We open with a reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah… in this case, from the closing chapter of Deutero or “second” Isaiah.  This comes from a point in Israelite history where the people have been released from their Exile in Babylon.  The Lord has shown them great mercy and forgiveness, and freed them from exile.  But why?  They broke their covenant with God and they were punished.  Why now take them back?  By our human standards of fairness, this is difficult to understand.  Because, as the prophet tells us, for those who turn to the Lord, he is always near.  The people have changed their ways and turned back to the Lord.  God understands that we may find such mercy and forgiveness impossible, but he reminds us through Isaiah, “your ways are not my ways.”  Like a loving parent trying to teach a child, God is asking us to trust him on this.  Stay near and follow my example.  Our Psalm for this Sunday continues this theme as we sing “The Lord is near to all who call upon him.”

Our Gospel from Matthew continues on this theme of fairness and forgiveness.  In order to help us better understand God’s idea of fairness, Jesus, the master teacher, gives us the Parable of the Landowner.  At first reading, it seems easy to side with the laborers who were in the field all day.  If the landowner pays a full day’s wage to those who only worked a few hours, it only seems fair in our minds that those who worked longer should get even more.  But in order to truly grasp the impact of this teaching you need to dive deeper into the story and see the larger implications.  As a follower of Christ, our human sense of fair-play has to be completely put aside.  We need to recognize that our sense of what is fair is often coming from a place of selfishness  (I worked in the field all day, I deserve more).  God is saying, “no, you don’t”.  True love comes from a selfless place… putting others first.  As the parable suggests, we shouldn’t envious of God’s generosity.  Instead we should revel in it.  Not only does this parable speak well to the passage we read today in Isaiah, it’s teaching runs deep through the Gospels.  While this particular parable is unique to the Gospel of Matthew, its lessons can also be found in the familiar parable of the prodigal son (which is found only in Luke’s Gospel).

For our second reading we leave behind our long study of Paul’s letter to the Romans and turn to Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  In today’s passage Paul teaches us that our bodies are magnified by Christ, whether by life or by death.  But this creates a conundrum for Paul and causes him some lament.  He sees life with Christ, either here on earth or after death, to be a gain.  So which to choose?  As you read this passage it seems as Paul is longing for death… not surprising since he is sick and in prison.  Death would bring him closer to Christ, but yet he also sees that his continued work here on earth is a benefit and can also bring him close to Christ.  It is a challenge for him, and for us, but his final message is clear… we need to conduct ourselves in a way that is “worthy of the Gospel.”  Even the blessed Mother Theresa wrote of her moments where she felt God had abandoned her, but she, like Paul, continued to serve the Gospel.  It’s a reminder for us, that no matter  how we feel, we much continue to serve the Gospel… and if we do, as our Psalm reminds us, when we call, God will be near.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, 2014

This week we take a break from Ordinary Time to celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross.  This particular Feast is fixed to the date of September 14th (marking the date of the dedication of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in 335 CE).  As this feast falls on a Sunday this year, we use the readings chosen for this feast.  We last celebrated this feast on a Sunday in 2008, but it won’t fall on a Sunday again until 2025.  The Feast itself is a celebration of the cross itself as an instrument of salvation.

The Word for the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Numbers 21:4b-9
Psalm 78:1bc-2, 34-35, 36-37, 38
Philippians 2:6-11
John 3:13-17

In order to understand this feast day, one must first understand the nature of the Cross.  Crucifixion is a pre-Roman form of execution which was adopted by the Romans during the time of Jesus.  Crucifixion was not only used as a form of brutal punishment for accused criminals, but it was meant both as a humiliation to those being crucified, and a warning to others.  Roman citizens were never crucified;  If any Roman citizen was found worthy of the death penalty, more “humane” or “dignified” methods were used.  Only the “lowest of the low” were crucified.  Crucifixions were generally held outside the city walls, not only because the process was prolonged and distasteful, but also as warning to travelers that Roman law was in force.  The bodies of those crucified were not allowed to be removed, but instead left to scavengers and natural decay, stripping the accused of any final dignity or respect for their customs.

The indignity of Jesus, the Son of Man and our Lord, being crucified was purposeful on the part of the Sanhedrin and the Roman authority.  It was meant to be both a humiliation to him and his followers, and a deterrent to any other self-professed “messiah” that might come along.  Yet it is this very indignity that became a symbol of triumph.  Jesus concurred the cross, and in doing so made it a symbol of joy and great hope.  It is this exaltation that comes through in our readings this Sunday.

We open with a reading from the book of Numbers.  The Israelites traveling with Moses have become impatient, complaining against God and Moses.  The Lord, incensed by their impatience, sends down seraph serpents (venomous snakes) to bit the people.  When they cry out to Moses, the Lord instructs him to make a bronze seraph and mount it on a pole, so that those  who are bitten can then look up at the pole and be saved from death.  This is an interesting story that can lead to some interesting discussion, especially when reference to that same serpent staff is found both in the book of 2 Kings, and today’s Gospel.  To help us draw a better understanding of this story, our Psalm reminds us “not to forget the works of the Lord.”

Our second reading is a magnificent passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians.  Here St. Paul is at his best both poetically and theologically, and establishes the basis for how we as Christians should approach life and the Lord...  That by humbling ourselves we not only imitate Christ, but can receive eternal salvation.  The line “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” should come through more deeply based on our discussion on crucifixion above.

This takes us to our Gospel from John.  Here Jesus is talking with Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the Sanhedrin who grew to have high regard for Jesus.  Jesus explains to Nicodemus that just as Moses lifted up the serpent to remind the people of the Lords works, so the Son of Man will be raised up as a reminder of God’s glory.  It is also within this passage we give context to that often shown “John 3:16” poster during football games… “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life.”  While we Catholics may not be as literate when it comes to sighting chapter and verse for scripture, we clearly understand the meaning and context, which is why we no longer consider the cross to be an object of shame, but rather a symbol of God’s glory.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2014

This week our theme is conversion… a most appropriate topic for the opening sessions of the RCIA!  But as can sometimes happen, a quick read of the text might leave you asking where this theme is coming from.  That is because it’s not so much a story about a conversion as it is a teaching on how a converted person should act.

The Word for the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 33:7-9
Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Romans 13:8-10
Matthew 18:15-20

We open with a reading from the book of the prophet Ezekiel, who tells us that we are not only responsible for our own actions, but for the actions of others as well.  Ezekiel is teaching us that the sins of others, if left unchecked, becomes our sin as well.  This is at the heart of issues that revolve around the idea of “social sin.”  In other words, if we know what is right, we can’t just turn out back to it.  For indeed, the mark of a civilized society are the establishment of rules of behavior that all members of that society are expected to follow.  Further, it dictates that we all are responsible for making sure those rules are followed.  Ezekiel is in a unique position to understand this problem, as he is considered to be the “first prophet of the Exile,”  In this case, the first Exile when Jehoiachin surrenders to Babylon, and Ezekiel, not just a prophet but a priest of the royal court, is sent with them.  This is the beginning of the end for an independent Israelite kingdom, and is a pivotal moment in Hebrew history.

Our Gospel from Matthew sounds very similar.  Here Jesus is teaching his disciples that they are responsible for their “brother’s” actions.  Now on the surface, that might seem unfair (especially those of us who grew up with some unruly brothers and sisters), but to insure that we are not held unjustly for the actions of others, Jesus provides us with a stair-step plan:  First tell him privately.  If that doesn’t work tell him with at least two or three witnesses.  If that doesn’t work, tell the whole church.  Only then, if that doesn’t work, he should be treated as an outcast, both from this life and the next.  It is important to note, however, that while not mentioned in this passage, the text around this passage also reminds us of our need to be merciful and forgiving, as our Father is merciful and forgiving.  While the disciples have been given the authority to “bind” and “loose” people’s behavior, it’s not a license to do what they want… they are still bound by the example and teaching of Jesus  in the ways of mercy and reconciliation.

Our second reading continues our study of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Here he explains as Jesus would what it means to love one another.  As is typical with the Roman Church, you have Jews and non-Jews trying to determine how “jewish” they need to be.  Using Jesus’ example, Paul explains what we call “the greatest commandment”, and how that is enough to satisfy the Law.  In other words, we should not let ourselves get caught up in the “letter of the Law” without keeping in mind the “spirit of the Law.”  When viewed in context with our other readings, it’s a reminder that absolutism is itself a sin where there is no due consideration for context.

So while it might initially seem like the topic of “conversion” misses the point of the readings, deeper consideration helps us to see it is through our actions that conversion takes place.  Behavior repeated becomes habit, and if our behavior mimics that of Jesus, then those too become habit, and conversion occurs.  How one is called to Christ is as unique as each individual.  And make no mistake, it is God who calls us here to gather and to learn.  What we do with that knowledge… how we act on it and how we grow it into a way of life is part of an extended process.  Conversion is more than just a moment, it is a process that needs to be nurtured and allowed to grow and evolve (that’s right… the Church does believe in evolution…).