Oct 17, 2020

29th Sunday: "Whose image do I follow?"

 


Give to Caesar . . . Give to God

Matthew 22: 15 - 21

The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/101820.cfm

A number of years ago I pastored a parish that enjoyed a local farm family with 15 children.  One thing was for certain; there was a definite family resemblance that ran through all the children and youth who were a mixture of grade, high school and college age youth.  You knew what their family name was and all you had to do was look at any of them to know what “clan” they belonged to.  That is, with the exception of one of the older boys.  As far as I could tell he didn’t look anything like his brothers or sisters.  Meeting the family for the first time, I thought he was a friend of one of the older boys but soon was corrected and told, nope he’s one of us.  A roll of the genetic dice I suppose. Whose image do we show? 

Many things may run through our minds here in light of the Gospel this Sunday.  In a clear effort to entrap Jesus, the Herodians and Pharisees join forces to pose a question to Jesus that would reveal on whose side he really was – or so they thought. 

He is first insincerely complimented by his questionnaires: “Are we or are we not permitted to pay taxes to the Roman Emperor?” If Jesus said “no” you should not pay the census tax, then he would anger the Romans and side with those rebels whose intent was to bring down Rome.  If he said “yes” then he would challenge the very Commandment to the Torah to have no other God’s before you by siding with the Romans and their brutal occupation of Israel. For imprinted on the coin they showed Jesus was the clear image of Caesar and an inscription which claimed his divinity.  

A trick? Yes, but Jesus sees right through it. For Tiberius claimed divinity as the coin they showed to Jesus stated on it.  What does Jesus do in this apparent attempt to finally trap him?

They approach him with a near sickening flattery that has no one fooled, let alone Jesus. “Show me the coin, “Jesus stated.  As Pharisees, being representatives of the Sacred Law, they should have no such graven image in their pockets let alone in their hands. Still, someone does although it isn’t stated who but the very fact that it is produced for Jesus proves their complicity.  They possess the coin which pays the census tax, which reveals their complicity with Rome.

Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and give to God what belongs to God,” our Lord responds.   In typical Jewish practice, Jesus answers their question with a question then changes the whole focus of their confrontation. Wouldn’t you love to have been there to see the expression on the face of Jesus’ interrogators?  Out of the blue, he turns the cards on them and does not answer their question but rather reveals their motive.

Yet, there is likely no other line Jesus spoke that Christians have wrestled with its meaning.  What is Cesare’s?  What is God’s? How wealthy can the Church be and what about the right use of money in light of our Christian faith? We modern American’s may point to this as a classic example of the separation of church and state but its meaning has nothing to do with our American Constitution.  It is far more about our right relationship in the human community and the one God, who is Lord. One example may help to answer the question as to what belongs to who.

If we compare God’s image upon humanity, as we are created “in the image and likeness of God,” and Caesar’s image on the coin it may help to put things perspective.  The ancients knew that every coin looked the same.  Every denarius had the same image of Caesar and every inscription claimed his divinity.  Uniformity and repetition was paramount yet it reminds us that the power of “Caesar” is limited.

On the other hand, every human created with the image of God is unique.  We don’t look the same, we don’t walk in lock step uniformity and each human person has a unique individuality that reflects the limitless power of God over all things.  Creation is the same. A tree is a tree but not every tree is identical.  A mountain is a mountain but each mountain bears a unique shape.  And so on.  To God is owed all things because he is Lord of all.

So to whom do we owe what?  As citizens of a nation we have responsibilities of good citizenship of course and to determine what is “Caesars,” that is taxes, obedience to law and order, good citizenship, and patriotism is pretty clear. Government officials have a legitimate authority to protect its citizens and we work for the common good of all in this Country.  We all know how fortunate we are to have a say in our own governing. Yet that power is limited and uniformly applied, we hope, like the money we carry.

But the things of God have no limit for to imagine what does not belong to God is to challenge our belief that all is gift and all is grace.  All authority ultimately comes from him. Our first reading from Isaiah today reminds us how God used the pagan Babylonian King Cyrus as an instrument to return the exiled people to Israel: “I have called you by your name, and given you a title, though you knew me not.”

We human beings belong to God for as money is printed in the image of an earthly nation we human beings are created in the image of God.  Therefore it may be not so difficult to recognize that when it comes to our human obligations to our government pitted at times against those that call us to Christian discipleship, we find a tension, especially now as we find ourselves in another very crucial election year.  

It should be for us a matter of how the human person is recognized, respected, protected, and honored by our government.  If we live in a culture which looks at life as more pragmatic rather than as sacred, then our allegiance must be always to the higher moral standard which God has established.  As the poor, the elderly, the frail, the unborn child the innocent are all unable to support and protect themselves are ignored or dismissed, then we rise to make a difference and speak to “Caesar” so that laws can be changed.  We give to God what is God’s. If the sanctity of the marriage covenant is seen as not what God intended, then we must choose what God is owed not what is popular or political.

We are called to good citizenship and to make a contribution to the good of our society.  Yet our faith can be a valid contribution to contribute to the common good and is a gift we have to bring in the marketplace and not from the fringes. Pope Francis, for example, has made it starkly clear that the poor and vulnerable among us cannot be ignored by our secular governments.

So, while we may separate our allegiance to State and Church we cannot live as dual citizens – one way for one and another way for the other; one way in Church and another in the public place. The choice must be ours.  We are Catholic/Christians who live in a secular culture and we cannot compromise the things of God for the things of Caesar.  As citizens of a Nation life stops here when we are gone.  But as citizens of the kingdom of God, we go on beyond this world where our total giving will be for God alone.  So, whose image do we follow?

 

Grant, O Lord, we pray,

that, benefiting from participation in heavenly things,

we may be helped by what you give in this present age

and prepared for the gifts that are eternal

Through Christ our Lord.

 

(Prayer after Communion)

Oct 10, 2020

28th Sunday: "Come to the feast!"

 

"On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide . . .

a feast of juicy rich foods and choice wines - Come!"

Matthew 22: 1-14


The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/101120.cfm

Weddings are happy events.  In our present American culture the wedding industry has become a billion dollar business.  For some it’s all about the presentation, the venue, the clothing, the flowers, the food, the photographer, the guest list, the music.  Exorbitant amounts of money, in excess of $20,000 is not unheard of.

Now we priests could easily write a book about the weirdness and the beauty of what we have all seen in Church weddings. One wedding I had a number of years ago was a beautiful, very Catholic nuptial Mass with about 300 guests.  All was planned well, the bride and groom and the parents were proud and all the guests felt welcome.

You would think that everything would be as perfect as possible.  Until, you met the best man.  Without telling anyone, including myself, he had secretly planned a surprise to happen during the ceremony – in Church! As I moved to the blessing of rings, he pointed, I looked up and here comes an Elvis impersonator, swaying down the middle isle, shiny pants, thick hair and all, who presented the rings right into my hand! Without a word, he was gone and I stood there with my mouth open as the Church broke into uncomfortable laughter.  However, if looks could kill I hope the best man got a good look at the Bride and her parents. What happened after the wedding? Use your imagination on this one

Still, of all the details that go into creating a wedding celebration, the one which seems to cause the most stress is who to invite. Invitations are sent hoping that everyone is included and no one suffers hurt feelings. Where to hold the actual nuptials is also a serious consideration and it is sad that the number of Church weddings are clearly down these days.  There is still a very good reason why Catholic weddings are held only in the sacred space of the Church.  We have much to evangelize about here.  And if Elvis decides to show up, we would politely ask him to visit the reception instead.    

Where is the feast held, who comes and what to eat and drink are basic to a memorable wedding celebration whether it is over the top in its planning or simple and meaningful.

In our readings this Sunday the prophet Isaiah speaks of a “feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy rich foods and pure, choice wines . . .” It is God himself, the Lord of hosts, who has prepared this banquet for us and the one who extends his invitation to anyone who would accept it.  This Feast is a foretaste of heaven.  Clearly not a place where we will recline on clouds strumming a harp as angels float by for eternity.

Likewise, in our Gospel from Matthew Jesus once again shares a similar parable with the chief priests and elders of the people. “The kingdom of heaven” is likened to a king who prepares a sumptuous wedding feast.  All sounds delightful, delicious and merry.

Like any wedding the guest list is very important and in this story it changes over time.  One would think that anyone would be honored to be invited to a royal wedding feast.  Some people would do anything for such an honor.  Yet, those first invited refused to come. Despite the royal invitation some refused and others found themselves just too busy to come. How unusual that sounds.

So, the king sent servants into the byways and highways to invite everyone both the bad and the good. The wedding hall was filled, the party began, and the very generous king arrived.  One would think that wedding attire would not be an issue considering where the servants went to fill the hall with guests but the king spots a guest “without a wedding garment.” That person is treated harshly and eventually thrown out of the banquet! Like all the parables of Jesus they are meant to have a twist or to pull the rug out from us to think about a deeper implication.

Yet, that garment is somewhat key to understanding that although the invitation offered by God (the King) is not only generous and merciful there is still a caveat about our willingness to embrace and to live by the Gospel. There is a theme of conversion and repentance that our life in Christ is not without a cost.

The call to the kingdom of God includes a reassessment of our lives. We are invited to conversion; to set ourselves in a new direction and to return on the mark the Gospel shows us. In a real sense the “wedding garment” is a symbol of the white baptismal garment and the virtues we have acquired in our lifetime. It is the moment to “put on Christ” as Paul reminds us and to acquire a life of virtue: love, forgiveness, compassion, selflessness.  To put on Christ and to conform our lives to his is how we must be clothed to enter the Feast of heaven.  So, we can’t just show up – it’s more than that.

The color white represents cleanliness, the washing away of the stain of original sin, and more than anything else the new direction of our lives and the call to holiness that we are all invited to share in.

In a way, in telling this parable, Jesus’ invitation was consistent in his ministry.  God, through Christ, has proposed a new vision for humanity and the values of the kingdom are its blueprint. Through his preaching, miracles, his person he constantly extended the invitation yet many refused and many accused him of siding with the sinners and outcast.  It was the poor and fringe population that embraced his call.  Like those invited to the parable at the end, those Jesus received were among the forgotten, the fringe, the poor and powerless. 

Maybe an interesting question that we must all ask is “why am I here and about to share in the very body of Christ?  What brings me here?” Even in this time which is so challenging to our faith we still must seek an answer to this fundamental question. We can find an excuse for anything but why would we refuse the invitation that God himself is offering us?

That feast is a sign of both our Christian faith and the joy of sharing in the Eucharist.  Are we joyful Christians?  Are we here just out of obligation or do we come because we truly want to keep our lives directed in the ways of the Gospel? As the Eucharist has been so limited during these days of 2020 do we hunger for what we are missing?

So, if we want to be dressed well, put on Christ and enjoy the party!

 

May your grace, O lord, we pray,

at all times go before us and follow after

and make us always determined

to carry out good works.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,

who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit,

 

Oct 3, 2020

27th Sunday: Tend your vineyard carefully

 


"Then he leased it to tenants and went away . . ."

Matthew 21: 33- 43

The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/100420.cfm

I think most of us will easily call to mind the successes we’ve had in life but will either deny or much rather forget the failures or the past painful memories.  Maybe you worked hard, studied hard, really prepared well on a project or an assignment only to find out that it didn’t quite meet the level you were hoping.  Why was he/she chosen instead of me?  Why was I not recognized for the effort I made rather than him? Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time!

I’ve had successes in my priesthood and I’d be glad to share those but I really would rather not bring up the failures or the disappointing memories. Maybe it’s our ego or own sense of self-importance or it could be a lack of appreciation for what we have rather than what we don’t. Sometimes, we’re just sour grapes.

 In light of today’s readings, both the first from Isaiah and the Gospel parable of Jesus about the wicked tenants in the vineyard I think we find some of this.  They provide us a moment to remind ourselves about what we have and the richness God is expecting of us and maybe our failures can turn out to be successes in the end.  

Both Isaiah and Jesus’ parable from Matthew speak of a vineyard.  In fact the Gospel has Jesus making comment on the specific passage we hear today from Isaiah.  Yet, the images are tough.  They begin with a vineyard owner who very lovingly prepared his vineyard: on a fertile hillside, spaded it, cleared the ground of stones, planted the finest vines he could find and then built a watchtower in the vineyard to guard it carefully.

But those best laid plans went sour.  He went to harvest the fresh, juicy grapes and found they were wild and tasteless.  He is angry and disappointed so he abandons it to become a ruin filled with thorns and briers.  How sad.  Such care and love had been given to it in the beginning but for some reason it was wasted.

 More specifically, Isaiah clearly states that the vineyard is a sign of the “house of Israel” and that God, who tended his “vineyard” with tenderness and love, has found only rejection and carelessness.  But, let’s be careful here.  Does this mean that God has rejected his chosen people?

 This is where Jesus fleshes out further commentary in the Gospel.  Tenants in the vineyard had squandered its riches on their own selfish pursuits.  Any servants sent to the vineyard were welcomed with a violent end (Prophets) and even the son of the landowner was killed there (Jesus).  It’s a tough story for sure.  The vineyard taken away may identify the rejection of Jesus by the Jewish leaders and God who then handed over the care of the new vineyard, the Church, to the mix of Jews and Gentile community. The point is more about us because in similar vein we see the Church as the vineyard of the Lord as well.  

So, if we see this for what it is meant it challenges all of us who have been given all as gift from God.  Our task, by reason of our Baptism, is to take care of that vineyard in which we live: the vineyard of our faith community and the values by which we live here and in this world as missionary disciples of the Lord.  Yet, this history of humanity since the creation of Adam and Eve and the journey through the Old Testament is a patchwork of fidelity and of rejection of God by humankind.  Yet, it is also a story of God’s eternal faithfulness and mercy offered to everyone who would accept it. 

Remember the parables on the kingdom of heaven that Jesus often speaks of and that we heard not too many Sunday’s ago.  The kingdom of heaven is a way in which we live together in a new relationship not based on my own selfish desires but rather on virtues that are centered on the other: those in need, the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the suffering.  That my life is guided by knowing that I’ve been placed in the Lord’s vineyard with many gifts given from him that are not meant for me alone but meant to be shared for the good of all.  In other words, to take care of one another, to nurture our faith in the Lord, and to guard God’s creation around me for example and not exploit it for my own selfish pursuits.

It’s a very Catholic perspective to say, “all is gift.” God has prepared the vineyard of our lives, gifted us with certain advantages, and shared with us the richness of our faith and it’s spiritual treasures.  Do we honestly appreciate what has been gifted to us? 

 One reminder, I think, in this time in which our Churches have been so limited on attendance, groups gathering safely, our schools restricted to tighter protocol, and so many faithful who still are fearful of showing up is that how much do we miss?  Do I truly feel a loss by not being able to attend so easily or live the fullness of fellowship in sharing with my fellow Christians in the regular Sunday Masses and other ways?  Or have I simply fallen out of practice and quite frankly, don’t really feel I miss it. 

As I’ve been given the charge and the gift from God to carefully till the soil of my faith and to grow in imitation of Jesus himself, I can see all as gift and all as an invitation for me to be a good servant. Because our culture today is becoming more critical of who we are as Christians and Catholics and of how we more and more challenge the status quo of what is considered acceptable in society it is becoming all the more important for us to tend our vineyards with care and not let it simply turn to sour grapes through our neglect.

Our second reading from Philippians drives this home beautifully for us.  After a poetic reflection on truth, honor, justice, and beauty, Paul writes: “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.  Then the God of peace will be with you.”

 As we gather at the Eucharist each Sunday we see this played out as well.  The very word “eucharist” means to give thanks to God.  We gather not to decide what’s in this for me but more to recognize our unity in the Lord and our care for one another in Christ.  Baptized into Christ we have been placed in the vineyard of the Lord.

Take care to tend it carefully.


Almighty ever-living God

who in the abundance of your kindness

surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you

pour out your mercy upon us

to pardon what conscience dreads

and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. 

(from Collect of Mass)

Sep 26, 2020

26th Sunday: Who walks to the front?


 "Son go out and work in the vineyard today"

Matthew 21: 28-32

The Word: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/readings/092720.cfm

Our Gospel parable today begins: “A man had two sons.” Right away we might be thinking that we are going to hear not about how wonderful these two boys were but rather about how tense things became between a father and his older sons.  Jesus told parables to point out differences, sometimes very stark, between the behavior of the characters and that of the main character who represents God. Well, he does not fail to disappoint us this week as we’ve also heard these past two Sunday’s. Yet, the bottom line as the main theme of this story is God’s infinite mercy towards those who seek him no matter at what point.  Good news for us.

That being said, what if we imagined a “culture of forgiveness.” Maybe Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a field hospital where the wounded go to be healed and reconciled would be more the norm. A culture of forgiveness might be one in which everyone has multiple chances to get things right. They are more loved than judged. There is always a time, a never too late opportunity, to seek reconciliation and healing and to change my life direction.  Such a culture should not be imaginary.

The Gospel parable is addressed to the self-righteous religious leaders in the time of Jesus.  They are obstinate in their viewpoint and rigid in their approach to faith. The parable is simple and straightforward in its message. 

Two sons are asked by their Father to go work in the vineyard. Remember last Sunday when we heard another vineyard parable about the generous landowner who paid everyone the same regardless of how long they were employed.

Today, we hear that one son says “no,” I will not work there but later he changes his mind and does his Father’s will. The other says “yes,” with an insincere nod to honor his father but never follows through.  Which of the two did his Father’s will?” Jesus asks - obviously the first son.

Then the clincher which insulted the chief priests and elders of the people: Jesus states: “tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”  Wow!  How could such shameful sinners, such public immoral behavior by “those kind” walk ahead of the righteous leaders?  Because God’s culture of forgiveness is more concerned about our present lives, our sincere repentance and conversion, than he is about our past. We are invited every day of our life to get things right; to come back on the mark Jesus shows us. We should never be labeled by our past sins but identified by who we have become. Examples? St. Augustine, St. Ignatius, St. Francis of Assisi to name a few.

In order to press his point further Jesus reminds the leaders about the preaching of John the Baptist and his call to conversion.  In the same vein the preaching of Jesus and his call to embrace a new understanding and direction as well as the prophet Ezekiel’s words in the first reading today all imply the constant and never failing invitation to conversion from a God who longs to welcome his people.  As Jesus stated: “When John came to you in the ways of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds . . .” Ouch!  The truth can sting when it finds its mark.

Those consumed by their own vain pursuits are responsible for their choices.  The same is true when the good is chosen regardless at what time.  Conversion, a change of heart, a time to reconsider the “no” I may have said always finds a welcome forgiveness when we choose the way that Christ shows us.

How is such possible - by God's generous grace.  Though the tax collectors and prostitutes had said "no" to God, after hearing the preaching of John the Baptist they turned back and said "yes" to him. So their response, though later, places them ahead of the self-righteous religious leader's Jesus addressed in the parable as the sons who said "yes" but never went. 

In a culture of forgiveness we would know that change is not an optional choice.  That change of heart, turning back to God and leaving behind sin and selfishness is God’s invitation to the right way.  God’s mercy is just waiting to be extended to everyone.  A culture of forgiveness makes that choice clear and supports the importance of changing the direction of our lives to always aim at that of Christ.

If we choose to be a people of forgiveness and mercy rather than judgment and division then we grow in both holiness and virtue.  Virtuous behavior completes us and deepens our sense of purpose for we are all sinners and we are all in need of mercy. Every human being is invited to this process but God respects our choice to say yes or no as we hear in the Gospel this Sunday. 

In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel spares no words: "When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity that he must die. But if he turns from the wickedness . . . and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life . . . he shall surely live." His “no” to God is now a heartfelt “yes.”

Whatever sociologists, historians, and health care professionals will call this year of 2020 in the future, there is no doubt we are hearing a great deal of “no” shouted loudly.  That followed by violent protest and fierce political division brings us great concern. As much as this virus epidemic we are caught in! What can we do as people of life and people of forgiveness?

So, think about your marriage, your personal life, your family life, your association with friends and strangers, your place of work, and I reflect on myself in priestly service. Is there in place a culture of forgiveness found towards others? God touches us primarily in community life.  While the sacraments of forgiveness (Reconciliation, Eucharist, Anointing of the Sick) for example are intimate moments they are offered in and through the community of the faithful.

What can we do to institute a more forgiving, more merciful, less judgmental culture? How can we develop a more forgiving spirit in order to let go of feelings of retribution and wish even those who have hurt us, to wish them well? Our parishes should be ideal models of what the larger culture can be.  If there is division, competition, judgment, selective membership or cliques that is not the work of God.

If a large group of non-practicing Catholics suddenly showed up at the Church door after living lives that were sinful or scandalous how would they be met?  With indifference, avoidance or with open arms and mercy? Where would they be invited to sit in the Church?  In the back pews or welcomed home to sit in the front? 

If we stand above others and consider that the words of the Gospel “are not for me but for them” then today’s readings must call us to task.

Ask the Holy Spirit, then, to reveal times you have said “no” or still haven’t let go of that negative will. It’s time to let go and to change.  It may be time to celebrate what you have seen as life giving and not continue a cycle that promotes harm or hurt. God help us to create a culture of forgiveness, to inspire each other to change the direction of our lives and to always be grateful for God’s never failing mercy.”

God said “yes” to humanity by sending his Son among us, by the cross and resurrection and now by the gift of the Eucharist, Jesus own true presence among us.   Receiving him should always push us to let go of resistance and to be willing to work in his vineyard.  

Father, 

you show your almighty power

in your mercy and forgiveness.

Continue to fill us with your gifts of love. 

Help us to hurry toward the eternal life your promise

and come to share in the joys of your kingdom.

We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son, 

who lives and reigns with you

in the unity of the Holy Spirit, 

one God for ever and ever. 

(Collect of Mass)