Being Christian is not the Result of an Ethical Choice

Mt Teresa cropped

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 26, 2014

Today’s first reading from Exodus (22:21-27) and Matthew’s Gospel story about the greatest commandment (22:34-40) challenge us in the ways that we love God and neighbour. The Exodus reading relates some specific provisions of the Law regarding widows, orphans, and the poor. The Lord reminds his people that they themselves were once strangers in a foreign land. To the strangers, widows, orphans, and the poor we must show justice and compassion. If not, the Lord himself will punish wrongdoers and defend the helpless.

The Lord deals severely with our negative attitudes and action towards others, particularly the poor, strangers, the disadvantaged, and those different from us. The authenticity of our faith, our love of God, and our relationship with Christ is measured by the way we treat others.

The readings challenge us to seek repentance and forgiveness for our negative attitudes towards others and the way we tend to treat them. Today’s Gospel contains the fundamental prayer of the Shema – the Hebrew profession of faith: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:4). Just as we profess our faith with the Creed in Christian worship, the Jewish people profess their faith with the Shema in their synagogue services. The Shema is a summary of true religion: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might” (6:4-5).

Matthew 22:34-40 has a Marcan parallel (12:28-34) which is an exchange between Jesus and a scribe who is impressed by the way Jesus has conducted himself in the previous controversy, and compliments him for the answer he gives him. Jesus responds by saying he is, “not far from the kingdom of God” (12:34). Matthew has further developed that scene.

The scholarship of the Pharisees was the knowledge of the Law, which they regarded as the sum of wisdom and the only true learning. The position of scribe in the Jewish community was a respected place of leadership. At first glance, the scholar’s question to Jesus appears to be very honest.

The teachers of the Torah (scribes and Rabbis) had always argued about the relative importance of the commandments in the Old Testament. Scribes were the scholars and intellectuals of Judaism. The Pharisees identified 613 commandments in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). Of those 613: 248 were positive, “you shall” commandments, while 365 were negative, “you shall not” commandments. The fundamental question, “Which is the first of all the commandments?” offers Jesus an important teaching moment as he is “put to the test.”

In his response, Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and the Shema, recited daily by the Jews. Even though Jesus is asked for one commandment, he provides two in his response. In combining the two commandments, Jesus goes beyond the extent of the question put to him and joins to the greatest and the first commandment, a second: love your neighbour (Leviticus 19:18). The double commandment is the source from which the whole law and the prophets are derived. Jesus does not discard other commandments. He explicitly adds: “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40). The remarkable thing about the Marcan parallel is that the “scholar” expresses agreement with Jesus by paraphrasing him without any hint of hostility or irony (Mark 12:33-34).

Love of God and neighbour not an original idea of Jesus

Love of God and love of neighbour as the fulfilment of the law is not an original idea of Jesus. It exists very early in the Hebrew Scriptures. There is something unique, however, in Jesus’ assertion that they are alike. Jesus teaches that we cannot have one without the other.

Motivation to love our neighbour springs from our love of God; our love of God is demonstrated and strengthened by our love of neighbour. Love of neighbour is not only a love that is demanded by the love of God, an achievement flowing from it; it is also in a certain sense its antecedent condition. There is no real love for God that is not, in itself, already a love for neighbour; and love for God comes to its own identity through its fulfilment in a love for neighbour.

Teaching of Moses and Jesus

Moses teaches in the Shema (cf. Deuteronomy 6:5; Leviticus 19:34) – and Jesus reaffirms in today’s Gospel – that all of the commandments are summed up in the love of God and loving-kindness towards one’s neighbour. Every time that Jews recite the “Shema Israel” and when Christians recall the first and second great commandments, we are, by God’s grace, brought closer to each other. Whenever we make the sign of the Cross, we are tracing the Shema upon our bodies as we touch our head, heart, and shoulders and pledge them to God’s service.

God is Love

In light of today’s Scripture readings, let us reflect on two texts this week. The first is #42 of Lumen Gentium, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church from the Second Vatican Council:

“God is love, and he who abides in love, abides in God and God in Him.” But, God pours out his love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, Who has been given to us; thus the first and most necessary gift is love, by which we love God above all things and our neighbour because of God. Indeed, in order that love, as good seed may grow and bring forth fruit in the soul, each one of the faithful must willingly hear the Word of God and accept His Will, and must complete what God has begun by their own actions with the help of God’s grace. These actions consist in the use of the sacraments and in a special way the Eucharist, frequent participation in the sacred action of the Liturgy, application of oneself to prayer, self-abnegation, lively fraternal service and the constant exercise of all the virtues. For charity, as the bond of perfection and the fullness of the law, rules over all the means of attaining holiness and gives life to these same means. It is charity which guides us to our final end. It is the love of God and the love of one’s neighbour which points out the true disciple of Christ.

The second text is from the opening paragraphs of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s first encyclical letter Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), published in 2005, and beautifully summarizes the message of today’s Scripture readings:

Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction […] In acknowledging the centrality of love, Christian faith has retained the core of Israel’s faith, while at the same time giving it new depth and breadth. The pious Jew prayed daily the words of the Book of Deuteronomy which expressed the heart of his existence: “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God is one Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might” (6:4-5). Jesus united into a single precept this commandment of love for God and the commandment of love for neighbour found in the Book of Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (19:18; cf. Mk 12:29-31). Since God has first loved us (cf. 1 Jn 4:10), love is now no longer a mere “command”; it is the response to the gift of love with which God draws near to us.

Blessed Teresa of Calcutta

I once had some lengthy discussions with several good Catholics who claimed to be “prophetic” in their embrace of social justice issues in the Church. While they held up some great role models of authentic social justice in the Catholic tradition like Archbishop Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, they were quite negative about Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and claimed that she never addressed the “systemic evils” of our day. They said that Mother Teresa never embodied authentic prophetic criticism, claiming that she was simply a safe role model for a male-dominated Church!

What has always impressed me about Mother Teresa and her sisters is that when they speak of loving God and neighbour, and “sharing poverty,” it defies the logic of many of our institutions and agencies today that prefer political agendas for the poor instead of deep, personal communion with individual poor people. The agents and instruments of this type of communion are dismissed as being irrelevant.

What the Church looks for in saints is not just good works – for that there are Nobel Peace Prizes and other such worldly awards – but solid evidence that the candidate for canonization or beatification was transformed, inwardly and outwardly, by God’s grace and embodied a deep love of God and neighbour.

Years ago when I first met Mother Teresa of Calcutta after teaching a group of her young sisters at their formation house on the outskirts of Rome, she placed firmly into my hands one of her famous business cards unlike any “business” card I had ever seen. On the front of the card were printed these words:

The fruit of silence is PRAYER.

The fruit of prayer is FAITH.

The fruit of faith is LOVE.

The fruit of love is SERVICE.

The fruit of service is PEACE.

God bless you. Mother Teresa

I still carry that card with me. There was no address, phone number, e-mail or FAX on the card. Today, we don’t need any of her contact information, as she is available to all of us in the communion of saints. May Blessed Teresa of Calcutta pray for us and teach us how to love God and neighbour in unity and harmony.

[The readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Exodus 22:21-27; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; and Matthew 22:34-40.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

We Are Marked and Sent Into the World

Render Unto Caesar cropped

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 19, 2014

In today’s Gospel (Matthew 22:15-21), the Pharisees try once again to entrap Jesus in his speech. They realize that they are being portrayed by Jesus as having refused an invitation to conversion of heart (as in last Sunday’s banquet story of Matthew 22:1-14). Therefore they begin to plot against Jesus by launching an attack. They begin their questioning by flattering Jesus, attempting to take him off-guard. Disciples of the Pharisees, together with Herodians, compliment Jesus for being honest, teaching the way of God authentically, and taking no account of any person’s status or opinion.

In asking Jesus the question, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” (22:17) they acknowledge that Jesus is qualified to explain the Torah. Jesus was certainly aware of the hidden agenda behind this question, and he understood the challenge before him. The Pharisees intended to force him to take either a position contrary to that held by the majority of the people or one that will bring him into conflict with the Roman authorities.

The significance of the poll tax

The specific tax described in today’s Gospel is a head or poll tax required of every man, woman, and slave between the ages of twelve and sixty-five. It amounted to a denarius, that is, one day’s wages. This hated poll tax, instituted in 6 AD when Judea had become a Roman province, was fuel on the flames of nationalist opposition to the occupying power. From such sentiments emerged the Zealot movement, which fomented the disastrous Jewish War of 66-70 AD. The Pharisees resisted the poll tax, while the Herodians openly supported the Romans and favoured payment of the tax.

If Jesus supported paying tribute to Caesar, he would be discredited as a prophet. If however, he argued against paying this tax, it could be used later to portray him to the Romans as a dangerous revolutionary. Jesus saw through their trap and asked for the coin used to pay the tax. The Pharisees handed Jesus the Roman coin (22:19). The mere fact of producing this currency indicated their use of it and their acceptance of the financial advantages of the Roman occupation in Palestine.

Jesus inquired about the image and inscription found on the coin. Most Jews considered the coin blasphemous because it had a human representation and violated the commandment against graven images. Its inscription “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the Divine Augustus, high priest” made a claim that rivalled God’s exclusive sovereignty over Israel. The coin was therefore rightly despised by the Jews.

Give to Caesar…

Jesus’ response, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (22:21), implies that neither the Pharisees nor the Herodians are doing that. This is a serious charge. Those who willingly use Caesar’s coin should repay him in kind. Jesus’ answer avoids taking sides in the question of the lawfulness of the tax.

Jesus is fully aware of the hypocrisy of his opponents (22:18), and he does get the better of them, but he does so with the simple truth. Jesus raises the debate to a new level and he does not compromise his integrity and honesty. Those who have hypocritically asked about tax in respect to its relation to the law of God should be concerned rather with repaying God with the good deeds that are his due.

Service to God and to Caesar

Two images are before us: that of Caesar and that of God. To the first image, Jesus asks a simple question: “Whose picture is on the coin?” And the answer is simple, “Caesar.” Therefore, give to Caesar what belongs to him, i.e. the part of your possession that belongs to him. But Jesus also has a second, penetrating question: whose image and blessing is on every human being? And the answer is simple, “God’s.” Therefore, give to God what belongs to him, i.e. your entire being, whole and undivided.

From whom do we receive the blessings of life and to whom do we owe thanksgiving and allegiance? Is it God? Are service to God and to Caesar compatible? Or are they competing loyalties that carry with them divergent senses of blessing? The Lord commands not only to give to God what is God’s (that is, everything), but also to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, that is to say, to live completely the requirements of justice and peace in social relationships, and to work for the common good.

Cyrus was an instrument in God’s hands

In today’s first reading from Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, we encounter Cyrus, King of Persia. Isaiah tells us that he was “anointed,” a word that originally referred only to those of Israel, but it is applied here to Cyrus because he is the agent of the Lord (45:1). Israel’s period of slavery ended when Cyrus, King of Persia, permitted the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild the temple that had been torn down in Jerusalem. Cyrus represents the Messiah awaited by Israel. He is an image of the promised Redeemer who was to set the People of God free from the slavery of sin and bring them into the kingdom of true freedom. Though he was raised as a pagan, he was anointed of God to be the deliverer of his people. Though he did not know God, he came to know that he was called by God. The Lord God gave everything into Cyrus’ hands for the accomplishment of his purpose. God raised him up specifically for the purpose of delivering the Jews out of Babylon.

Remembering Gaudium et Spes

In light of today’s Gospel, let us recall one of the most important Church documents that speaks about the Church’s mission to, and involvement in, the modern world. The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church, Gaudium et Spes, offered the Church a new strategy which emphasized neither withdrawal, triumphalism, nor assimilation, but critical conversation (listening and speaking) along with principled cooperation with other social institutions and communities of people. The mission of the Church must be expressed in social categories and had to take seriously the realities of secularization and pluralism. It is good to recall some of the key points of this landmark document.

The Church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World promoted an attitude of openness to the reality of the presence of the sacred in dimensions of temporal existence, too often understood simply as secular and therefore bereft of religious significance.

Gaudium et Spes developed a Christian humanism which has shaped the social teaching of Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and certainly the life and ministry of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. The document provided an understanding of the human person, which took into account the contemporary concern for human freedom, equality, and solidarity. It helped to redefine the mission of the Church as the sign and safeguard of human dignity. The Pastoral Constitution thus provided a theological basis for the Church’s social mission.

Finally, it suggested an ecclesial strategy for how the Church might engage the world with an attitude of respect and reverence for the activity of the Spirit working through the many events, institutions, and communities of our world. The work of Gaudium et Spes is far from complete or over. We need further integration of social mission into the centre of Catholic life. We need to insist that social ministry is the work of the whole Church, not a task for a few people or an elite group of experts. Pope Francis is an example par excellence to be emulated in this regard.

Ultimate evaluation of Vatican II

The ultimate evaluation of Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, and all of our pastoral and theological efforts, lies in this key point: if we truly believe that Jesus Christ is the Lord of history, and that our world and our times belong to him, should we not judge our efforts according to the mind and heart of Christ? Should we not evaluate everything we are and do in terms of how well we have opened our eyes and the eyes of others to the radiant and saving beauty of Christ? Should we not ask ourselves if our efforts have deepened our commitment and trust in the kingship, presence, and power of Jesus Christ in human history?

If the image of Caesar was stamped on Roman coins that were to be rendered to him, the human heart bears the imprint of the Creator, the one Lord of our life. He has marked us for his own and sent us on mission to the world. Do our human projects make us better prophets, servants, and agents of the Kingdom of Jesus? Let us never be ashamed of working publicly for Jesus’ Kingdom, and telling people about him. He alone guarantees us authentic joy and deep hope, a real “gaudium et spes” for the people “in our time.” His Kingdom will have no end.

Let us pray this week for the courage and wisdom to give simple, truthful answers when we find ourselves in ambiguous and compromising situations. We are marked and blessed with God’s image. Let us never forget to whom we really belong, and why we really do the things we do. We are not called for ourselves, but we are summoned by the Lord and sent to the world, to proclaim his name and his saving works. It is a daunting mission. But it is also cause for rejoicing.

[The readings for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5ab; and Matthew 22:15-21.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Dressing Properly for the Feast

Jesus at Table cropped

Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 12, 2014

Matthew’s parable of the wedding feast and the declined invitations (22:1-14) is the last of three successive parables of judgment (beginning in 21:28) against Israel, especially her leadership. There are obvious connections among the three parables. Each has an “authority figure” (father, landowner, and king respectively). “Sons” or “a son” appear in all three. The second and third parables share the two groups of slaves and the severe judgment against those who oppose the son.

In today’s parable, the king represents God; the son, Jesus; and the wedding banquet, the time of divine-human celebration symbolized by the kingdom. The beautiful spousal imagery of the Lord (YHWH) and Israel (Hosea 2:19-20; Isaiah 54:4-8; 62:5) provides a rich, biblical backdrop. Today’s story incorporates two favourite Old and New Testament images: a feast and a marriage.

Matthew has provided many allegorical traits to today’s story, e.g. the burning of the city of the guests who refused the invitation (22:7), which corresponds to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. It has similarities with the preceding parable of the tenants: the sending of two groups of servants (22:3, 4), the murder of the servants (22:6), the punishment of the murderers (22:7), and the entrance of a new group into a privileged situation of which the others had proven themselves unworthy (22:8-10). The parable ends with a section that is very peculiar to Matthew (22:11-14) which some take as a distinct parable on its own.

Matthew’s parable appears in significantly different form in Luke 14:16-24. Today’s story most likely comes from “Q,” a hypothetical written source for the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. “Q” (short for the German Quelle or “source”) is defined as the “common” material found in Matthew and Luke but not in the Gospel of Mark. This ancient text supposedly contained the logia or quotations from Jesus.

The King’s Feast

In today’s story, the king has gone to great trouble preparing a wedding feast for his son, slaughtering enough oxen and fatted calves to feed several hundred people. It was not uncommon in Jesus’ day that invitations would be sent out in two instalments: first, a general invitation to a future event; then, on the day itself or just before, a “reminder” to come since everything was prepared for the celebration. Not only do the guests refuse, but some of them seize the king’s messengers and kill them. In response, the king sends his troops to burn their city. Then he sends out another invitation requesting that all persons – the “good” and the “bad” – be brought to the celebration.

The succession of invitations corresponds to God’s declaration of truth concerning his Kingdom and his Son – first to Israel and then to the Gentile nations. Matthew presents the Kingdom in its double aspect: already present and something that can be entered here and now (22:1-10); and something that will be possessed only by those present members who can stand the scrutiny of the final judgment (22:11-14).

Proper attire for the feast

Matthew’s addition of the guest without the wedding garment (22:11-14) can certainly leave the reader perplexed. I remember my first reaction to reading about this poor man without the proper vesture. Who is this king who dared to ask the poor man: “Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?” Was it not the king who commanded his slaves to go out to the highways and byways and bring in anyone they could find? How then could the king be so cold and harsh to someone who has been “rounded up” for the royal feast, without even having the time to procure clean and proper clothing?

It is important to recall that this story is an allegory and doesn’t necessarily follow normal ways of thinking and acting. Some scholars believe that the king provided the proper attire for his guests. It is not surprising then that the king becomes furious upon seeing a man improperly attired. This shows that this man deliberately refuses to receive the generous gesture of the king in providing proper attire.

The garment of righteousness and holiness

The parable of the wedding feast is not only a statement of God’s judgment on Israel but a warning to Matthew’s Church. As early as the second century, Irenaeus wrote that the wedding garment signified works of righteousness. The wedding garment signified repentance and a change of heart and mind. This is the condition for entrance into the Kingdom and must be continued in a life of good deeds.

The saying: “For many are called, but few are chosen” (22:14), should not be taken as a forecast of the proportion of the saved to the damned. Rather the saying is meant to encourage vigorous efforts to live the Christian life. The wedding feast is not the Church but the age to come. Matthew’s parable confronts us with the paradox of God’s free invitation to the banquet with no strings attached and God’s requirement of “putting on” something appropriate to that calling. Who are the many and the few concerning the wedding garment? Are there some people God doesn’t choose? How is being chosen different from being called?

The wedding garment of love

Let us consider the moving words of St. Augustine of Hippo in his sermon (#90) on today’s Gospel passage:

What is the wedding garment that the Gospel talks about? Very certainly, that garment is something that only the good have, those who are to participate in the feast… Could it be the sacraments? Baptism? Without baptism, no one comes to God, but some people receive baptism and do not come to God… Perhaps it is the altar or what a person receives at the altar? But in receiving the Lord’s body, some people eat and drink to their own condemnation (1 Corinthians 11:29). So what is it? Fasting? The wicked also fast. Going to church often? The wicked go to church just like others…

So what is this wedding garment? The apostle Paul tells us: “What we are aiming at… is the love that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5). That is the wedding garment. Paul is not talking about just any kind of love, for one can often see dishonest people loving others… but one does not see among them this love “that springs from a pure heart, a good conscience, and sincere faith. ” Now that is the love that is the wedding garment.

The apostle Paul said: “If I speak with human tongues and angelic as well, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong, a clanging cymbal… If I have the gift of prophecy and, with full knowledge, comprehend all mysteries, if I have faith great enough to move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2). He said that even if he had all that, without Christ “I am nothing.” It would be useless, because I can act in that way for love of glory… “If I have not love, it is of no use.” That is the wedding garment. Examine yourselves: if you have it, then come to the Lord’s banquet with confidence.

Invite everyone to the banquet

Let us consider section #22, “Evangelizers and Educators as Witnesses,” of the Lineamenta for the 2012 Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization:

The formation and concern needed to sustain those already engaged in evangelization and recruiting new forces should not be limited simply to practical preparation, albeit necessary. Instead, formation and pastoral care is predominantly to be spiritual in nature, namely, a school of faith, enlightened by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and under the guidance of the Spirit, which teaches people the implications of experiencing the Fatherhood of God. People are able to evangelize only when they have been evangelized and allow themselves to be evangelized, that is, renewed spiritually through a personal encounter and lived communion with Jesus Christ. Such people have the power to transmit the faith, as St. Paul the Apostle testifies: “I believed, and so I spoke” (2 Cor 4:13).

The new evangelization, then, which is primarily a task-to-be-done and a spiritual challenge, is the responsibility of all Christians who are in serious pursuit of holiness. In this context and with this understanding of formation, it will be useful to dedicate space and time to considering the institutions and means available to local Churches to make baptized persons more conscious of their duty in missionary work and evangelization. For our witness to be credible, as we respond to each of these areas requiring the new evangelization, we must know how to speak in ways that are intelligible to our times and proclaim, inside these areas, the reasons for our hope which bolsters our witness (cf. 1 Pt 3:15). Such a task is not accomplished without effort, but requires attentiveness, education and concern.

Questions for reflection this week

  1. Do our Christian communities plan pastoral activity with the specific aim of preaching conformity to the Gospel and conversion to Christianity?
  1. What priority have individual Christian communities placed on the commitment to attempt bold new ways of evangelization? What initiatives have been most successful in opening Christian communities to missionary work?
  1. How do the local churches view the role of proclamation and the necessity of giving greater importance to the genesis of faith and the pastoral programme for baptism?
  1. How are our Christian communities displaying their awareness of the urgency of recruiting, forming, and supporting persons to be evangelizers and educators through the witness of their lives?

[The readings for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; and Matthew 22:1-14.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

The Lord Will Never Abandon His Vineyard

Vineyard green

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – October 5, 2014

We are back in the vineyard again this week, immersed in another of Matthew’s complex Gospel parables. Jesus told these parables in answer to the question: “What is the kingdom of God like?” His parables are short narratives that combine realistic details from first-century Palestinian life in little villages with details that are foreign to the ways that things happen in daily life.

Today’s Gospel parable is often called the parable of the wicked tenants. Like last week’s parable of the two sons and next week’s parable of the royal wedding feast (22:1-14), today’s story is clearly one of judgment at the centre of Jesus’ threefold response to the religious leaders who are putting his authority to the test (21:23-27).

In the Old Testament, “vineyard” or “vine” is often used as a metaphor for God’s people. The vineyard figures frequently in Jesus’ parables, setting the stage for the Kingdom of God to take root and the drama of salvation to unfold. The work in the vineyard is hard labour; patience is essential, and wages are unpredictable as we saw in a previous Gospel parable (Mathew 20:1-16). The vineyard can also be a dangerous place to work. Scuffles between workers can erupt (Mark 9:33), and violence may erupt as we see in today’s story (Matthew 21:33-43).

A story of violence and want

The juxtaposition of peace and plenty with violence and want in today’s parable is part of what makes this Gospel story so powerful. A closer look helps us understand the harsh reality of people’s lives in Jesus’ day.

The estate of the landlord would have housed between 50 and 70 people, mostly slaves or servants. The most trusted servants would have had significant responsibilities. The landlord’s servants did not hesitate to “lord it over” those in his charge (21:35). In early fall, when the harvest was ready, the landlord sent out a succession of his workers to collect the rent. The landlord would not go out himself to collect the rent. On the contrary, landlords protected themselves, their families, and their considerable possessions in fortified tower-residences.

The people of Jesus’ day were also all too familiar with the violence the story portrays. When the landlord finally sent his son to collect the rent, the tenants said: “This is the heir. Come, let us kill him, and the inheritance will be ours” (21:38). What remains very odd is that the tenants would repeatedly mistreat and even kill the one sent to them without any reprisal by the vineyard owner. In interpreting parables, the glimpse into the kingdom of God often comes to us through the strange details that are not the way things are in life around us, then or now.

The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God

Today’s parable is not just an allegory of hot-headed and greedy servants. Those who listened to this parable from Jesus also perceived something underlying the story. Earlier they had asked Jesus about the authority he was claiming for himself. They knew he was telling the story for a reason, and this upset them. The first hearers would have recognized some familiar themes under the surface.

The vineyard imagery invites us to look at the first reading from Isaiah 5, where the vineyard symbolizes Israel. Since the vineyard has been planted by God, it represents the gift, grace, and love of God. Yet the vineyard also demands the labour of the farmer that enables it to produce grapes that yield wine. Thus it symbolizes the human response: personal effort and the fruit of good deeds.

If the vineyard refers to Israel, then the tenant farmers represent Israel’s religious leaders, who despite their professed loyalty to Israel’s law (Torah), refuse to give God his due by acknowledging and accepting his mighty presence in the life and mission of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.

When successive “prophets” are sent to the “tenants” – and killed – they heard Jesus remind them of the habit leaders had of ignoring many of the warnings the prophets had previously announced. The religious leaders were being criticized for ignoring their own God-sent messengers. This of course would lead to the reaction we see in Matthew 21:45-46: “Then they looked for a way to arrest him because they knew he had spoken the parable against them. But they were afraid of the crowd; so they left him and went away.”

Matthew has transformed this allegorical parable into a rich account of salvation history. The vineyard is Israel and the landowner is God. The slaves sent to collect the produce are the prophets sent to Israel. The son whom the tenants throw out of the vineyard and kill is Jesus, who died outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem.

The fact that the vineyard is to be taken from the wicked tenants and given to others (21:41) does not refer to Israel but to the kingdom of God (21:43). It is not suggested that God will remove Israel’s present leadership and provide it with more faithful leaders. Rather, “the kingdom of God” will be taken “from you” and given to a nation that will produce the fruits of the kingdom. The “you” addressed consists not only of the opponents mentioned in the context but of all who follow their leadership in rejecting John and Jesus. The nation to whom the kingdom will be transferred is the Church. The reach of the parable extends to include the Resurrection when Jesus directs his hearers (21:42) to the prophecy about the “stone that was rejected” that has become the “corner stone” (Psalm 118:22-23), while the final comment (21:43) reinforces the sense of the Church as inheritor of the kingdom removed from the original tenants.

Avoiding anti-Semitism

We must always avoid an anti-Semitic reading of this parable. The first way is to hear it as a piece of prophetic invective addressed by a Jew to fellow Jews. We must focus attention not so much on what the passage has to say explicitly about Jewish leaders as to what it implies about Christians. The “others” to whom the vineyard is given over in verses 41 are accountable to the owner. They too are charged with the heavy responsibility of producing the fruits of the kingdom (21:43).

The vineyard will not be destroyed

In his homily at the Mass to mark the opening of the XII Synod of Bishops on “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” on October 5, 2008, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke beautifully of today’s parable:

In the end, the owner of the vineyard makes a final attempt: he sends his own son, convinced that at least they will listen to him. Instead the opposite happens: the labourers in the vineyard murder him precisely because he is the landowner’s son, that is, his heir, convinced that this will enable them to take possession of the vineyard more easily. We are therefore witnessing a leap in quality with regard to the accusation of the violation of social justice as it emerges from Isaiah’s canticle. Here we clearly see that contempt for the master’s order becomes contempt for the master: it is not mere disobedience to a divine precept, it is a true and proper rejection of God: the mystery of the Cross appears.

Yet there is a promise in Jesus’ words: the vineyard will not be destroyed. While the unfaithful labourers abandon their destiny, the owner of the vineyard does not lose interest in his vineyard and entrusts it to other faithful servants. This means that, although in certain regions faith is dwindling to the point of dying out, there will always be other peoples ready to accept it. For this very reason, while Jesus cites Psalm 118:117, “The stone which the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (v. 42), he gives the assurance that his death will not mean God’s defeat. After being killed, he will not remain in the tomb, on the contrary, precisely what seems to be a total defeat will mark the beginning of a definitive victory. His painful Passion and death on the Cross will be followed by the glory of his Resurrection. The vineyard, therefore, will continue to produce grapes and will be rented by the owner of the vineyard: “to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons” (Mt 21:41).

The vineyard is the house of Israel

The parable of the wicked tenants reminds us once again that we cannot control God’s continuous merciful outreach to others. It compels us to look at our lives, our attitudes, and actions, in light of whether they are an embrace or rejection of Jesus’ saving message. Rather than putting the focus on what the story says about Jewish leaders, we must ask: what does it say about us Christians? What is my vision of the kingdom of God? How am I producing a harvest for God’s kingdom, in my private and in our communal lives? What does the parable say to me about my own troubled relationships with family, friends, and colleagues? What does the story teach me about my inability to forgive others and forgive myself? Yes, the wicked tenants in today’s Gospel do indeed try God’s patience. But I do as well! How do I respond to the boundless mercy and goodness that God offers me each day?

[The readings for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; and Matthew 21:33-43.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

Are we faithful and generous workers in his vineyard?

Vineyard cropped

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – September 28, 2014

Immediately preceding today’s Gospel story, Jesus has returned to the Temple (Matthew 21:23a) and reclaimed this sacred space for his healing ministry (21:14) and the stage for teaching and challenging his opponents. The chief priests and elders of the people continue to pressure him: “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” (21:23b). It is God himself who is the source of Jesus’ authority, but stating this fact clearly would be nothing short of blasphemy on Jesus’ part. Instead of directly answering his opponents, Jesus challenges them with his own question about the baptism of John. Those gathered around Jesus refuse to see God at work in John’s ministry. They therefore reject Jesus in the process. This withholding of faith in God and in Jesus is thus exemplified in his opponents’ reaction to John the Baptist.

Today’s story begins by introducing us to the familiar scenario of a father who asks each of his sons to go out and work in the vineyard (21:28-32). To Jewish listeners familiar with the stories of the Hebrew Scriptures, this would already have been an important clue that problems would ensue! We need only recall myriad stories of Biblical brothers that are almost always tales of conflict, alienation, misunderstanding, competition, and tension. We need only recall Jacob and Esau, Isaac and Ishmael, or Joseph and his brothers. Jesus is truly a gifted storyteller who draws his listeners into the teaching moment. I can only imagine what the listeners were thinking as Jesus began his story: “What do you think? A man had two sons…”

After giving his command, the father expects an answer from them. Not satisfied with mere words, the father desires a real commitment. Initially the first son responds negatively but then repents or has a complete change of heart and goes out to work. The second son acknowledges with lip service his father’s request and gives in, but does not follow through on his promise.

Blindness to God’s work

The two sons represent the religious leaders and the religious outcasts who followed John’s call to repentance. By the answer they give to Jesus’ question (21:31) the leaders effectively condemn themselves. As religious leaders, they claim to be faithfully obedient to God, but they are blind to the fact that authentic obedience includes responding in faith to the new things God is doing. In the end, the sinners in Israel, exemplified by the tax collectors and prostitutes who had carelessly ignored the demands of their religion, will take their place in the kingdom, while Jesus’ adversaries will be shut out. Those who would otherwise be judged as outside the reach of salvation because of their rejection of the outward form of religion may in fact be those who are most sensitive to their need for God’s grace and thus repent and serve the Master most meaningfully. This same strange and surprising way of God is found in today’s Old Testament reading, in which the ways of God and the ways of God’s people stand in stark contrast (Ezekiel 18:25-28).

Insight into the kingdom

Today’s parable gives us a glimpse into the radical nature of the Kingdom of God. Although this parable may contain a judgment on Jewish religious leaders, Matthew intended a much wider application of its message, even to us. In this parable each one of us can recognize his or her own personal experience. We ourselves can become blind to what God is doing in the world around us. Could the parable be speaking about those who seem to be very religious and subservient at the start but in reality may never sufficiently probe the depths of God’s mercy to truly know the heart and mind of God? The parable is a lesson for those who claim to be Christian, but do not worship as Christians or live the Christian life; compared to those who come to Christ later but never claimed to be righteous.

Today many claim to know Christ but do not live the Christian life. It doesn’t matter so much what you say on the outside if it is not matched by your heart on the inside, or your actions. Lip service to Christ that is merely an outward mouthing of polite promises and pious platitudes is empty by comparison with the inward acceptance of the message that prompts people to repentance and action. What God looks for is the final outcome in people’s lives. God is infinitely patient with us and can certainly tolerate our initial “no” on the way to our final, definitive “yes.”

Evangelization and renewal require enthusiasm

How easily our “church efforts” end up being little more than simply maintaining the institution, with no excitement concerning what God’s active grace is doing and consequently no enthusiasm for true evangelization and renewal. We say that we are going to work in the vineyard but instead of harvesting the grapes we spend our time complaining, moaning, ridiculing, despairing, collecting the stones along the path and not rejoicing in the abundant growth that is taking place around us.

The mind and lenses of Jesus Christ

Today’s second reading from St. Paul to the Philippians (2:1-11) contains one of the most beautiful Christological hymns of the New Testament. The short rhythmic lines fall into two parts: verses 6–8 in which Christ is the subject of every verb, and verses 9–11 where God is the subject. The general pattern is thus of Christ’s humiliation and then exaltation.

Although Paul is in prison and no longer can visit and preach to his beloved community at Philippi, they are not without his intercession and assistance. From his prison cell, Paul begs them to make his joy complete by being of “the same mind” and “having the same love” (2:2). Rather than being caught up in the upward mobility and passing things of the world, of society, and of all of our broken and sinful ways of life, we are invited to enter into the downward mobility of Jesus Christ who empties himself in order to find fullness and life.

Jesus and the Law in the Catechism of the Catholic Church

The Catechism elaborates the relationship between Christ and the Law in the following way (#580-581):

The perfect fulfilment of the Law could be the work of none but the divine legislator, born subject to the Law in the person of the Son. In Jesus, the Law no longer appears engraved on tables of stone but “upon the heart” of the Servant who becomes “a covenant to the people,” because he will “faithfully bring forth justice.” Jesus fulfils the Law to the point of taking upon himself “the curse of the Law” incurred by those who do not “abide by the things written in the book of the Law, and do them,” for his death took place to redeem them “from the transgressions under the first covenant.”

The Jewish people and their spiritual leaders viewed Jesus as a rabbi. He often argued within the framework of rabbinical interpretation of the Law. Yet Jesus could not help but offend the teachers of the Law, for he was not content to propose his interpretation alongside theirs but taught the people “as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.” In Jesus, the same Word of God that had resounded on Mount Sinai to give the written Law to Moses, made itself heard anew on the Mount of the Beatitudes. Jesus did not abolish the Law but fulfilled it by giving its ultimate interpretation in a divine way: “You have heard that it was said to the men of old… But I say to you…” With this same divine authority, he disavowed certain human traditions of the Pharisees that were “making void the word of God.”

Questions for reflection this week

1. The world around us longs for truly Good News from workers in the vineyard of the Lord: joyful evangelizers who are not dejected, discouraged, impatient, or anxious; but ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ, and who are willing to risk their lives so that the Kingdom may be proclaimed and the Church established in the midst of the world. How do we evangelize? Do we approach the new evangelization with a sense of enthusiasm?

2. What prevents us from becoming real communities, true fraternities, and a living body, rather than a mechanical institution or enterprise?

3. How have certain events in the world and in the Church helped us to refine and rethink our proclamation? What does the Spirit say to our Church through these events? What new forms of evangelization is the Spirit teaching us and requiring of us?

4. Are we faithful, generous, enthusiastic and hopeful workers in the vineyard of the Lord?

[The readings for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

“Are you envious because I am generous?”

Red Vineyard cropped

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time – September 21, 2014

When Jesus teaches through parables, he expresses profound truths with simple stories and images that engage minds and hearts. In the Old Testament, the use of parables reflects an ancient, culturally universal method of teaching an ethical lesson applicable to everyday life, by using symbolic stories with concrete characters and actions. Most of the time, the original audience that first heard these stories was left to draw their own conclusions. Other times, the evangelists provided an explanation of Jesus’ story. Often the indirectness of parables makes the wisdom of Jesus inaccessible to hostile literalists.

The parable of the workers in the vineyard in today’s Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16) serves as a corrective to false notions of entitlement and merit. The story reflects the socio-economic background of Palestine at the time of Jesus. The parable is offensive to us and it challenges our sense of justice. In order to grasp the full impact of the story, it is essential to understand the sequence of events in the parable. The householder hires labourers for his vineyard about 6:00 a.m. for a denarius, which would be considered a fair day’s wage. We are already given a hint of the householder’s generosity as he engages labourers at varying hours during the day. Could it be that the householder has a compassionate concern for the unemployed and their families as opposed to actually needing them for the harvest? The question is open-ended.

The workers who were hired first appeal to common sense, equitable treatment, logic, and reason. Their complaint is not necessarily that the last hired received a payment, but that if the householder was so generous with the last, then certainly he might provide them with a “bonus” for having endured the heat of the whole day. Some interpreters have attempted to minimize this breach of fairness by explaining that perhaps the quality of work done by the late-comers during the last hour was equivalent to the work done the entire day by the others. Certain others use the rationale that a contract is indeed a contract, and therefore the labourers hired at the beginning of the day have no reason whatsoever to argue about the wages due to them. The fact of the matter is that from the purely human, logical point of view, they had reason to complain. However, this parable is not about ethical and fair labour management, but rather about the radical nature of God’s generosity, compassion, and the in-breaking Kingdom.

The radical moment of the parable (as indicated by 19:30 and 20:16) is noted in 20:8-9 as those who were employed not only receive payment in reverse order, but also receive equal payment for their efforts! The parable reaches its crescendo in verse 15 with the question: “Or am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous?” The owner of the vineyard reserves the right to pay his employees not on the basis of their own merits but rather on the basis of his own compassion.

Generosity condemned as injustice

In today’s parable, why should such generosity be condemned as injustice? This idea finds its roots and deepest meaning in the Old Testament understanding of God the Creator who is good and generous to all who turn to him. This is the God in whom Jesus believed and lived, but in the person of Jesus, the divine compassion, mercy, and goodness surpass the divine justice. Therefore all who follow Jesus as his disciples and friends must imitate this extraordinary compassion and lavish generosity and never question, deny, or begrudge it.

The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ reveals his identity to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)

We are like the eleventh-hour workers

Perhaps many of us feel strongly with the disgruntled workers of verse 12. How often have we known whimsical employers who have compensated lazy or problematic workers far too generously, rather than acknowledging the faithful, dedicated, day-in day-out workers. We may ask ourselves: How can God be so unfair? How can God overlook his most faithful workers? Underneath this parable is the issue of bargaining with God. From the very beginnings of religion it has been assumed that we mortals can bargain with the gods to obtain from them what we want.

How many times have we experienced this in our belonging to and service in the Church? Some may grumble and claim that their long, dedicated, tireless service qualifies them instantly for higher pay, higher rank, and greater privilege and prestige. It is precisely at moments like this that we must humbly acknowledge that we are like those eleventh-hour workers. Not one of us deserves the blessings that God has prepared for us. Our grumbling and lateral gazing often leads to serious resentments that are hard to shake off. All our good works give us no claim upon God. How much less do we have the right to demand, even if we have done everything we ought to do, that we should be honoured and rewarded by God in a special manner as if we were such meritorious, indispensable persons in his service? The word “entitlement” does not exist in the vocabulary of the Kingdom of God.

The only remedy to such sentiments is to look upon the merciful face of Jesus and thus recognize God’s lavish generosity in the flesh. Human logic is limited, but the mercy and grace of God know no limits or boundaries. God doesn’t act by our standards. This means that we must see and accept God in our sister and brother, just as God has wished them to be. When God chooses a person, granting him/her particular graces, blessings, or gifts, God does not reject the other person nor deprive him/her of his grace. God’s graces and blessings are boundless, and each person receives his or her own share. God’s choice of a person or people should not be a cause of pride for those chosen, or of rejection for those not chosen. It is only when both parties live in humility and simplicity, and recognize together a God of love and mercy at work in their lives that they will begin to learn the real meaning of love and justice, and finally come to reconciliation and deep, mutual understanding.

For your reflection

In the New Testament, Jesus teaches us that we must overcome jealousy and envy. This is brought out in today’s parable of the labourers who come to work at different times of the day, but receive the same salary nevertheless. Those who came at the first hour grumbled against the landowner. “He said to one of them in reply, ‘My friend, I am not cheating you… Are you envious because I am generous?’” (Matthew 20:13-15)

Consider these two sections from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2552-2553):

The tenth commandment forbids avarice arising from a passion for riches and their attendant power.

Envy is sadness at the sight of another’s goods and the immoderate desire to have them for oneself. It is a capital sin.

Envy is that fault in the human character that cannot recognize the beauty and uniqueness of the other, and denies them honour. In order to approach God, who is total goodness, beauty, and generosity, this attitude must be broken from within. Envy can no longer see. Our eyes remain nailed shut. Envy and avarice are sins against the tenth commandment. What can we do to move beyond this blindness and hardness of heart?

Caritas in Veritate

In light of today’s Gospel about compensation, I offer you section #63 of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate “On Integral Human Development in Charity and Truth”:

No consideration of the problems associated with development could fail to highlight the direct link between poverty and unemployment. In many cases, poverty results from a violation of the dignity of human work, either because work opportunities are limited (through unemployment or underemployment), or “because a low value is put on work and the rights that flow from it, especially the right to a just wage and to the personal security of the worker and his or her family.” For this reason, on 1 May 2000 on the occasion of the Jubilee of Workers, my venerable predecessor Pope John Paul II issued an appeal for “a global coalition in favour of ‘decent work,’” supporting the strategy of the International Labour Organization. In this way, he gave a strong moral impetus to this objective, seeing it as an aspiration of families in every country of the world. What is meant by the word “decent” in regard to work? It means work that expresses the essential dignity of every man and woman in the context of their particular society: work that is freely chosen, effectively associating workers, both men and women, with the development of their community; work that enables the worker to be respected and free from any form of discrimination; work that makes it possible for families to meet their needs and provide schooling for their children, without the children themselves being forced into labour; work that permits the workers to organize themselves freely, and to make their voices heard; work that leaves enough room for rediscovering one’s roots at a personal, familial and spiritual level; work that guarantees those who have retired a decent standard of living.

[The readings for the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16.]

Triumph of the Cross

JPII Cross cropped

The Exaltation of the Holy Cross –  Sunday, September 14, 2014

At the heart of every World Youth Day is a very simple, powerful, ancient Christian symbol: two large planks of wood, known as the World Youth Day Cross, that not a few journalists have called the “Olympic Torch” of the huge Catholic Festival that we were blessed to have in Canada in July 2002.

In 1984, at the close of the 1983 Holy Year of the Redemption at the
Vatican, Saint John Paul II entrusted to the young people of the world a
simple, twelve-foot wooden Cross, asking them to carry it across the world
as a sign of the love which the Lord Jesus has for humankind and “to proclaim to everyone that only in Christ who died and is risen is there salvation and redemption.” Since that day, carried by generous hands and loving hearts, the Cross has made a long, uninterrupted pilgrimage across the continents, to demonstrate, as Pope John Paul II had said, “the Cross walks with young people and young people walk with the Cross.”

The memories of the World Youth Day 2002 Cross Pilgrimage throughout Canada continue to stir many hearts and evoke wonderful memories many years after the great pilgrimage began in our land on April 11, 2001. The WYD Cross literally touched the three oceans that border Canada. It visited our cities, towns, and rural areas, inviting throngs of people into the streets for processions, prayers, all-night vigils, tears, and moments of reconciliation, healing, and peace.

Such expressions of popular piety had been absent for far too many years from the Canadian ecclesial landscape. In the midst of the carefully orchestrated pilgrimage throughout the 72 dioceses of Canada, the Cross took a detour in February 2002, which was not part of the normal World Youth Day preparations in previous host countries. A convoy of buses left Toronto early on a cold Sunday morning, accompanied by representatives of Canadian police, ambulance, and fire fighters, and set out with the WYD Cross in tow for 48 hours in New York City.

After a Sunday evening Mass in Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral with a Canadian Bishop, and an early morning Mass with the Vatican’s permanent observer at the United Nations, we carried the cross to Ground Zero, into the “pit,” to pray for the victims of the September 11th tragedies at the World Trade Centre and elsewhere throughout the United States. The visit, which received international media coverage, was a sign of hope, consolation, solidarity, and peace to the people of America and the entire world, struggling to understand the evil, terror, violence, and death-dealing forces that humanity experienced on September 11, 2001.

The journey into Ground Zero was for us a very public act of defiance and
courage. Six young people from the World Youth Day 2002 National Team
carried the large cross up to the special platform built for the families of the victims of the World Trade Centre tragedy. While they processed with the cross, the rest of us sang the Taizé refrain: “Jesus, remember me, when you come into your Kingdom.” As the cross was placed in its metal stand at the edge of the huge crater where the twin towers once stood, the singing grew louder. It was an act of defiance because there, in a place that spoke loudly of destruction, devastation, terror, and death, we raised up a wooden cross – an instrument of death that has been transformed into the central life-giving symbol of the Christian faith. The significance of the action was lost on no one.

Earlier that morning at Mass in the Church of the Saviour near the United
Nations, Archbishop Renato Martino, told us in his moving homily:

The Sacred Scriptures speak to us about sin, and the desperate need we all have for conversion. What you will see today when you visit Ground Zero is the consequence of sin: a crater of dirt and ashes, of human destruction and sorrow; a vestige of sin that is so evil that words could never suffice to explain it.

Nevertheless, it is never enough to talk about the effects of terrorism, the destruction it causes, or those who perpetrate it. We do a disservice to those who have died in this tragedy if we fail to search out the causes. In this search, a broad canvas of political, economic, social, religious, and cultural factors emerge. The common denominator in these factors is hate, a hate that transcends any one people or region. It is a hatred of humanity itself, and it kills even the one who hates.

The Cross of Jesus Christ blessed and marked World Youth Day 2002 in an
extraordinary fashion. Each catechetical site was graced by a replica of the World Youth Day Cross. It was present at each of the main ceremonies. It led our processions, called us to prayer and reflection, healed us, reconciled us, and touched our hearts. Its memory lingers among us several years later.

Who can ever forget the hauntingly beautiful images of the World Youth Day Cross leading over half a million people – mostly on their knees – in the Stations of the Cross on Friday evening, July 26, 2002: up Toronto’s majestic University Avenue, passing before its court houses, the American Consulate, Government Buildings, hospitals, the university, Provincial Parliament, and various museums? A principal street of a great city was transformed into a contemporary Via Dolorosa, while over a billion people watched the scenes of this modern-day passion play unfold via satellite and television.

On Saturday evening, July 27, 2002, during the Great Vigil of World Youth Day 2002, at a former military base that is now Toronto’s Downsview Park, Pope John Paul II begin his address to over 600,000 young people with these words:

The new millennium opened with two contrasting scenarios: one, the sight of multitudes of pilgrims coming to Rome during the Great Jubilee to pass through the Holy Door which is Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer; and the other, the terrible terrorist attack on New York, an image that is a sort of icon of a world in which hostility and hatred seem to prevail. The question that arises is dramatic: on what foundations must we build the new historical era that is emerging from the great transformations of the twentieth century?

During the closing Eucharistic celebration on Sunday, July 28, 2002, the
Holy Father presented to young pilgrims in the crowd of more than 850,000 people gathered with him small wooden crosses, hand made by young people living in the poorest barrios of Bogotá and Medellín in Colombia. We could have chosen many places to have these crosses made – but World Youth Day 2002 chose to have the crosses made in a land that has had its share of cross over the past years.

Because we follow a crucified Christ, we enter into solidarity with the world’s suffering masses. We experience the power and love of God through the vulnerable and suffering. The Cross teaches us that what could have remained hideous and beyond remembrance is transformed into beauty, hope, and a continuous call to heroic goodness.

At the conclusion of the closing Eucharistic liturgy, the elderly Pontiff told young people not to be afraid “to follow Christ on the royal road of the Cross! At difficult moments in the Church’s life, the pursuit of holiness becomes even more urgent.” He invited his young friends to “learn from that cross.”

The feast of the Triumph or the Exaltation of the Cross originated in the
tradition that Emperor Constantine’s mother, Helena, discovered the Cross on which Jesus died on September 14, 320 AD in Jerusalem. From very early on, the triumph attributed to the Cross functioned more within the “normal” understanding of triumph: namely, a victory won over another, achieved by violence of some sort. But is it not rather outrageous to speak of a cross as triumphant? The crucifixion of Jesus is the great, divine paradox. The Cross, an instrument of death, is transformed into our life-giving tree. Through the mystery of the Cross, Jesus crucified becomes our life and our light in the midst of death and darkness.

When all the commotion and frenzied activity of World Youth Day was over, I was convinced that one of the lasting memories that would remain in our country was that simple, wooden Cross, which was such a huge blessing and source of consolation, healing, strength, and peace to the hundreds of thousands of people who embraced it, touched it, kissed it, learned from it, and allowed themselves to be touched by the awesome message and memory of the One who died upon it.

To celebrate the Triumph of the Cross is to acknowledge the full, cruciform
achievement of Jesus’ career. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life
similar to his own. Suffering cannot be avoided nor ignored by those who follow Christ. Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross. The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples.

[The readings for the Exaltation of the Holy Cross are: Numbers 21:4-9; Philippians 2:6-11; and John 3:13-17.]

The Communal Dimension of Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Zubik Confession cropped

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – September 7, 2014

Today’s Gospel passage from Matthew 18:15-20 compels us to consider the essential elements in the process of forgiveness among members of the Church community. Matthew’s text stresses the fraternal correction of members who sin (18:15-18); the importance of the disciples’ prayer (18:19-20); and the continuous need for forgiveness that must be extended to repentant members of the Christian community (18:21-35).

At Caesarea Philippi, we learned that Peter is the foundation on which the Lord builds the edifice of the Church. Peter is entrusted with the keys of the Kingdom of heaven to open or close it to people as he sees fit. Peter will be able to bind or to loose, in the sense of establishing or prohibiting whatever he deems necessary for the life of the Church. Peter is entrusted with the keys. In verse 18 of today’s Gospel, we see an almost identical repeat of the expression found in 16:19, and many understand it as granting to all the disciples what was previously given to Peter alone.

The harsh language about Gentile and tax collector in today’s Gospel probably reflects a certain period in Matthew’s Church community when it was primarily composed of Jewish Christians. Just as observant Jews avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so must the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful members who refused to repent even when convicted of their sin by the whole Church. Such individuals are to be set outside of the fellowship of the community.

In today’s second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:8-10), Paul considers the obligations of charity. When love directs the moral decision making of those who bear the name of Christian, the interest of law is safeguarded (13:9). Love anticipates the purpose of ecclesial and civil legislation, namely: to secure the best interests and common good of all its members or citizens.

The Church’s teaching on penance and reconciliation

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that (#1440-1441):

Sin is before all else an offense against God, a rupture of communion with him. At the same time it damages communion with the Church. For this reason conversion entails both God’s forgiveness and reconciliation with the Church, which are expressed and accomplished liturgically by the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. Only God forgives sins. Since he is the Son of God, Jesus says of himself, “The Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” and exercises this divine power: “Your sins are forgiven.”

Binding and loosing

The Catechism goes on to explain the meaning of the “binding and loosing” in today’s Gospel (#1444-1446):

This ecclesial dimension of their task is expressed most notably in Christ’s solemn words to Simon Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The office of binding and loosing that was given to Peter was also assigned to the college of the apostles united to its head.

The words bind and loose mean: whomever you exclude from your communion, will be excluded from communion with God; whomever you receive anew into your communion, God will welcome back into his. Reconciliation with the Church is inseparable from reconciliation with God.

Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion.

More than forgiving and forgetting

Forgiveness never means to overlook what someone has done to us. The emotions we feel when someone has wronged us are genuine, real, upsetting, and they must to be honestly and painfully acknowledged and dealt with. They can provide a way of healing with the hurt and of moving toward healing and forgiveness. Harbouring feelings of resentment, unforgiveness, anger, hate, and rage can prevent the healing process from ever beginning. To forgive is not to say that what others did to us was okay. To genuinely forgive means that I refuse to allow the hurt to prevent me from growing and moving forward. If I refuse to move forward, wallowing in my own hurt and anger, I become paralyzed by the evil that has taken place.

An unforgiving spirit and festering resentment harden my heart and block it up from any flow of love. I am terribly diminished when I cannot forgive others. If I am sincere about forgiveness, I must allow God to remove my hard-heartedness and meanness of spirit. Forgiveness does not mean forgetfulness. It is rather a conscious decision that I make in my head, and pray that it slowly descends to my heart. What are some painful examples of forgiveness in action today? Forgiving the person who murdered my innocent child does not mean to push for them to be released from prison. To forgive the husband who has been routinely violent does not necessarily mean choosing to take him back after violence and infidelity. To speak rationally to the wife who left her husband and children for another partner does not condone the terrible suffering that followed for the entire family. To forgive the priest who has abused children does not mean advocating for his return to active ministry around children. To speak honestly to the boyfriend who abandoned the young woman who found herself pregnant and refused to have an abortion as an easy way out, is the beginning of forgiveness and healing for all involved. We need clear thinking when it comes to making wise, compassionate judgments about the great, ambiguous situations in which we often find ourselves.

The frequently used expression “forgive and forget” is not a scriptural or particularly Christian saying. Jesus offers us another way in which we can forgive even while remembering a past hurt. When I forgive in the name of Jesus Christ, and with his strength and presence, I can actually help others who have been deeply hurt and begin the healing process. Just as there is nothing that one human being cannot do to another, there is nothing that one human being cannot forgive another, with the help and grace of Jesus.

Amish Forgiveness

In light of today’s Gospel on the necessity of forgiveness, I wish to recall a tragic incident that occurred several years ago in the United States that caused the entire world to reflect on the meaning of forgiveness. I know how much the story jarred me in my own understanding of forgiveness.

The Amish school shooting at the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room schoolhouse in Amish community of Nickel Mines in Bart Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, took place on October 2, 2006. A lone gunman, Charles Roberts IV, stormed the Amish school, releasing 15 boys and four adults before tying up and shooting 10 young girls. Roberts then killed himself.

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the murdered girls warned some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another father noted, “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God.”

An Amish neighbour comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted the killer’s widow, parents, and parents-in-law. About 30 members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims.

Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbours thanking them for their forgiveness, grace, and mercy. She wrote, “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Toward authentic reconciliation and hope

Many people criticized the quick and complete forgiveness with which the Amish responded, insisting that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of denying the existence of evil. Those who have studied Amish life noted that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply rooted value in Amish culture. They explained that the Amish willingness to forgo vengeance does not undo the tragedy or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward real reconciliation and a future that is filled with realistic hope.

The emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation in the response of the Amish community was widely discussed in the international media. Forgiveness is woven into the fabric of Amish faith. Such courage to forgive jolted the world as much as the brutal killing itself. I have often felt that the transforming power of forgiveness may be the one redeeming thing that emerged from the horrendous massacre at Nickel Mines in 2006.

Amish forgiveness raises many thorny questions for us. It may be one thing to forgive a mentally ill killer; but what about those who are not out of their minds, who intentionally murder or threaten to do so for political ends or personal retaliation? How does forgiveness relate to justice? If everyone forgave so quickly, would it truly transform human relations or lead to civil anarchy?

Watchers of the morn

Today’s first reading from the prophet Ezekiel (33:7-9) uses the expression “watchman for the house of Israel” (33:7). The word “watchman” or “sentinel” speaks of someone who will announce salvation (Ezekiel 33-48), just as the same word (3:17-21) referred to Ezekiel’s ministry to announce judgment (chapters 3-24). The use of the word “watchman” certainly evokes memories of Saint John Paul II’s use of that word during World Youth Day 2000 in Rome and again during the preparation of World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto.

In his message announcing World Youth Day 2002, the Holy Father wrote:

“You are the light of the world…” For those who first heard Jesus, as for us, the symbol of light evokes the desire for truth and the thirst for the fullness of knowledge which are imprinted deep within every human being.

When the light fades or vanishes altogether, we no longer see things as they really are. In the heart of the night we can feel frightened and insecure, and we impatiently await the coming of the light of dawn. Dear young people, it is up to you to be the watchmen of the morning (cf. Is 21:11-12) who announce the coming of the sun who is the Risen Christ!

Through World Youth Days, young people are commissioned to be watchers of the morning, bearing the light of Christ and announcing hope and salvation to a world often steeped in darkness and despair. There is no better school of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace than World Youth Days, which model to young people the constitutive elements of the Christian life and what true citizenship means in the Kingdom of God.

[The readings for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; and Matthew 18:15-20.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.

(Photo: Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh hears the confession of a young woman; CNS Photo/Leslie Kossoff)

The Passion of John the Baptist

JohnTheBaptist

On August 29, the Church remembers the death of St. John the Baptist, a prophet who was put to death through beheading because he spoke the truth.

There is no Gospel that begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry without first telling the reader about the life and mission of John the Baptist.  John’s preceding Jesus was clearly fixed in the Christian tradition, so much, that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus’ first appearance on earth, John the Baptist is brought forth to precede the appearance as well.

John the Baptist was a man of the desert and began his preaching in the desert:  “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his path”  (Mk. 1:3; Mt. 3:3).  His long years in the desert before his appearance as a preacher and teacher of repentance (Lk. 1:80) were the source and time for many possibilities.  When the time had come, John led his own disciples to Jesus and indicated to them the Messiah, the True Light, and the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  Jesus’ own testimony to John makes the Baptizer the greatest of all Israelite heroes (Mt. 11:7-19; Lk. 7:24-35).  Jesus also testifies to John’s greatness in calling him a “witness to the truth, a burning and shining lamp” (Jn. 5:33-56).

John considered himself to be less than a slave to Jesus, “There is one among you whom you do not recognize- the one coming after me- the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to unfasten” (John 1:26-27).  When John’s own disciples came to him and were troubled about the meaning of Jesus’ baptizing in the Jordan, he answered them confidently:  “No one can receive anything except what is given them from heaven…” John says that he is only the friend of the bridegroom, the one who must decrease while his master increases (Jn. 3:25-30).  The Baptizer defined his humanity in terms of its limitations.

John experienced the loneliness of an authentic prophet of Israel when he was the only one willing to say a truth that everyone knew, that King Herod was living with the divorced wife of his brother.  John is finally imprisoned by Herod Antipas because of his public rebuke of the tetrarch for his adulterous and incestuous marriage with Herodias (Mt. 4:12; Mk. 1:14; Lk. 3:19).  John was executed as a result of the foolish pledge made by Herod during a drunken orgy (Mt. 14:1-2;  Mk. 6:14-28;  Lk. 9:7-9).  Just as the Baptist and the Messiah are closely linked in their births so too are their fates so closely intertwined.

O God, who willed that Saint John the Baptist
should go ahead of your Son
both in his birth and in his death,
grant that, as he died a Martyr for truth and justice,
we, too, may fight hard
for the confession of what you teach.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Image: The Beheading of John the Baptist by Caravaggio 

Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross

Get Behind Me cropped

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A – August 31, 2014

Today’s Gospel from Matthew 16:21-27 presents us with the first prediction of Jesus’ passion. It follows the story told in Mark 8:31-33 and serves as a corrective to the misunderstanding of Jesus’ Messiahship as solely one of glory and triumph. Matthew’s account of the first passion prediction is also about the sufferings of the Son of Man. In the New Testament Greek text, Matthew’s formulation is almost identical with the pre-Pauline fragment of the kerygma in 1 Corinthians 15:4 and also with Hosea 6:2, which many take to be the Old Testament background to the confession that Jesus was raised on the third day.

By his addition of the words “from that time on” (16:21), Matthew has emphasized that Jesus’ revelation of his coming suffering and death marks a new phase of the Gospel. Immediately following Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (16:21). We are told that in response to Jesus’ statement, Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you” (16:22). But Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (16:23).

Peter’s refusal

Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ predicted suffering and death is seen as a satanic attempt to deflect Jesus from his God-appointed course, and the disciple is addressed in terms that recall Jesus’ dismissal of the devil in the temptation account (Matthew 4:10: “Get away, Satan!”). Peter’s satanic purpose is emphasized by Matthew’s addition to the Marcan source of the words “You are a stumbling block to me.” A readiness to follow Jesus even to giving up one’s life for him is the condition for true discipleship, which will be repaid by the Lord at the final judgment (16:24-28).

What is behind Peter’s refusal to accept Jesus’ suffering and death? Peter gives voice to the bewilderment and dismay of the other apostles at Jesus’ announcement of his imminent passion. “This cannot be, Lord! This should not be! It just isn’t fair or right!” Such a reaction portrays Peter’s and our own inability to understand the mystery of God at work in Jesus, and in our lives. Peter and the others are confronted with the harsh reality of God’s designs, completely unacceptable from the perspective of human logic. To undergo great suffering at the hands of the religious authorities, to take up a cross, to be killed – is this all part of Jesus’ package? Are there no incentives or benefits? Wouldn’t it be better to erase the cross and suffering from the whole plan? Is it really necessary? Is Jesus experiencing some form of depression in saying these things?

From “Rock” to scandalon

Just last week at Caesarea Philippi, Peter was called “Rock.” Now he is called scandalon – a stumbling block or stone! Jesus reminds Peter that he understands nothing of the reality and mystery of God’s designs for him and for us!

Jesus tells his disciples if they want to become his followers, they must deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow him (16:24). What does it mean, “to deny oneself”? To deny someone is to disown him and to deny oneself is to disown oneself as the centre of one’s existence. Think for a moment of Peter who would later deny his friend and Lord – “I do not know him!” (26:74) It means precisely that for us as well. To deny myself means that I no longer know myself, I no longer take my own life into account, I no longer think of myself – I am no longer at the centre of my universe. But the action does not stop there: the whole force of this injunction rests on Jesus’ invitation “Follow me.” Everything said before and after are the necessary prerequisites for being able to love Jesus and stay with him, and to continue staying with him.

Following Jesus

This teaching of Jesus to the small group of the Twelve can be summarized as follows: “Whoever has accepted the personal call to follow me, must accept me as I am.” Following Jesus implies suffering and a cross! The mark of the Messiah is to become the mark of his disciples! They are to get behind him and follow him as he goes up to Jerusalem.

That which gives fullness of meaning to the cross is to carry it behind Jesus, not in a journey of anguished solitude, hopeless wandering or rebellion, but rather in a journey sustained and nourished by the presence of the Lord. Jesus asks us to courageously choose a life similar to his own. Those who would follow Jesus cannot avoid suffering. God’s ways are not our ways – today we are encouraged to conform our ways to God’s.

Discerning God’s will

Since Christ marks the termination of the Mosaic Law as the primary source of guidance for God’s people, the Apostle Paul explains in his letter to the Romans (12:1-2) how Christians can function – in the light of the gift of justification through faith – in their relation to one another and to the state. The Mosaic code included elaborate directions on sacrifices and other cultic observances. The Gospel, however, invites believers to present their bodies as a living sacrifice (12:1). Instead of being limited by specific legal maxims, Christians are liberated for the exercise of good judgment as they are confronted with the many and varied decisions required in the course of daily life. Paul invites Christians to be “transformed by the renewal of their minds, so that they may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect” (12:2).

Grasping the mystery of Christ

In his homily at the concluding Mass of World Youth Day at the Cuatro Vientos Airforce base in Madrid, Spain on Sunday, August 21, 2011, Pope Emeritus Benedict said this of our belief in Jesus Christ:

Faith is more than just empirical or historical facts; it is an ability to grasp the mystery of Christ’s person in all its depth. Yet faith is not the result of human effort, of human reasoning, but rather a gift of God: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” Faith starts with God, who opens his heart to us and invites us to share in his own divine life. Faith does not simply provide information about who Christ is; rather, it entails a personal relationship with Christ, a surrender of our whole person, with all our understanding, will and feelings, to God’s self-revelation. So Jesus’ question: “But who do you say that I am?”, is ultimately a challenge to the disciples to make a personal decision in his regard. Faith in Christ and discipleship are strictly interconnected.

And, since faith involves following the Master, it must become constantly stronger, deeper and more mature, to the extent that it leads to a closer and more intense relationship with Jesus. Peter and the other disciples also had to grow in this way, until their encounter with the Risen Lord opened their eyes to the fullness of faith.

Dear young people, today Christ is asking you the same question which he asked the Apostles: “Who do you say that I am?” Respond to him with generosity and courage, as befits young hearts like your own. Say to him: “Jesus, I know that you are the Son of God, who have given your life for me. I want to follow you faithfully and to be led by your word. You know me and you love me. I place my trust in you and I put my whole life into your hands. I want you to be the power that strengthens me and the joy which never leaves me.”

The Church’s fundamental mission

Returning to the Lineamenta for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelization that took place in October 2012, we find a striking connection between today’s Gospel reading and section #10, entitled “The First Evangelization Pastoral Solicitude and the New Evangelization”:

The new evangelization is the name given to the Church’s project of undertaking anew her fundamental mission, her identity and reason for existence. Consequently, it is not limited to delineated, well-defined regions only, but is a way to explain and put into practice the apostolic legacy in and for our times. In the project of the new evangelization, the Church desires to bring her unique message into today’s world and the present discussion, namely, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, begun in Christ Jesus. No part of the Church is exempt from this project. The Christian Churches of ancient origin must deal with the problem of the many who have abandoned the practice of the faith; the younger Churches, through the process of inculturation, must continually take measures allowing them to bring the Gospel to everyday life, a process which not only purifies and elevates culture, but, above all, opens culture to the newness of the Gospel. Generally speaking, every Christian community must rededicate itself to its programme of pastoral care which seems to become more difficult and in danger of falling into a routine, and thus little able to communicate its original aims and goals.

A new evangelization is synonymous with mission, requiring the capacity to set out anew, go beyond boundaries and broaden horizons. The new evangelization is the opposite of self-sufficiency, a withdrawal into oneself, a status quo mentality and an idea that pastoral programmes are simply to proceed as they did in the past. Today, a “business as usual” attitude can no longer be the case. Some local Churches, already engaged in renewal, reconfirm the fact that now is the time for the Church to call upon every Christian community to evaluate their pastoral practice on the basis of the missionary character of their programmes and activities.

Questions for reflection this week

1) What have been the principal obstacles and the most challenging efforts to raise the question of God in today’s world? What have been the results of asking such a question?

2) Have I ever “rebuked” God for an outcome or situation I wasn’t expecting? In the end, what did I learn from this experience? Did I grow from it?

3) Do my expectations of who Jesus is and what he wants from me keep me closed and resistant to anything beyond those boundaries? How do I form my ideas of Christ and His will? What are they grounded in – the truths transmitted by the Catholic faith, or something else?

4) When do I make sacrifices for my faith, my family, or others? Are they done grudgingly or with an attitude of joy?

[The readings for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time are: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Roman 12:1-2; and Matthew 16:21-27.]

This reflection first appeared on the Zenit International News Service in 2011 as well as on the Salt + Light Blog. The complete collection of reflections for Year B, entitled “Words made Flesh,” is now available in book form through our online store. Book editions for Year A and C reflections are coming soon.