Isaiah 25: 6-10a Phillipians 4: 12-14 Matthew 22: 1-14
An on-going struggle or challenge which was present during the ministry of Jesus involved efforts that he made to convey a correct understanding of the nature of God and, especially, of the relationship that God seeks with us. In the Gospel of Saint John, for example, there are recorded regular conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees. The other gospels recall similar matters. We frequently hear Jesus directing his message to the elders, the scribes, the teachers and leaders of the people as he wanted them to realize how they were falling short in their responsibilities. Thus he often challenged them to understand that the relationship with God was more than superficial.
We must remember that for ourselves and in our Faith, Jesus is not just some sort of outstanding teacher or a type of wise man. In the Incarnational faith we declare, God became man in Jesus Christ. What we experience in the teachings of Jesus is another effort on the part of God to being us into a deeper appreciation of God’s desire to be joined with us in a loving relationship.
This is the context in which we can hear the beautiful insight, the poetic message, of Isaiah. On this mountain, on this height, where God can be encountered away from the distractions and temptation of our day to day world, we experience God at a banquet, a celebration with God that nourishes and sustains us. God’s presence is revealed to us, not in power, conquest, fear, or intimidation, but in the rich foods and fine wines of a joyous feast. It is an overflowing demonstration of the joy and celebration of God’s abiding love.
It is this same imagery which provides the framework used by Jesus to describe “the kingdom of Heaven.” The reign of God with us, the totality of the experience of God in life, is to be seen as a rich and abundant banquet to which we are invited, The total manifestation of God’s love and care for us is offered to us.
How is that invitation received by those described in the parable and by us? Some cannot be bothered, others have something better to do, still others have somewhere else to go. These are rude responses, much like Jesus often received during his ministry from the leaders of the people, the elders, the scribes and the teachers.
But God’s love is not thwarted. It continues to reach out for a response. It is extended to those who are open, who are willing to listen and to respond. These are not the ones who were really considered as “desirable.” They were quite the opposite – the disreputable. The love of God for mankind, which we are called to reflect in our lives, is not restricted in any way, especially by human, judgmental attitudes..
But the story also continues. A response that is evident and sincere must be made. It is to be a response that is genuine and committed. It is a response that is to reflect a newness of life, a wedding garment that replaces what has gone on before.
The totality and the generosity of God’s love for mankind is central to the message of the ministry of Jesus. It is found not only in his teaching, but also in his death and resurrection. It is continued in his presence with us in the Eucharist and the other Sacraments we celebrate in our lives. It is to this totality and generosity what we are called to respond by transforming ourselves with a wedding garment of a newness of life. This “wedding garment” is to be shown in our words and action, day to day and every day, in a continuation of the ministry of Jesus as Church, proclaiming to the world our faith and our commitment to our good and gracious God.
Isaiah 5: 1-7 Philippians 4: 6-9 Matthew 21: 33-43
Our minds and our imaginations can often be quite creative, even fantastic. This is especially true in the effort to appreciate and understand the vastness and complexity of the universe around us. Scenarios are developed, creatures of different sorts are imagine. We need only think of productions like Star Wars and Star Trek. Why does this happen? Because we are easily fascinated by what we have been given in being alive and living those lives in this vast complexity that surrounds us, one which we have really probed in a very limited way.
There are so many things that appear to escape our understanding, and especially in how we ought to respond to that understanding that we, in many ways, prefer to dwell on the fantastic rather than the simple. Especially is this true with respect to the idea that the source of this great universe, the created reality around us, truly loves us. Time and time again we need to be reminded of this. We need also to be reminded of the need on, our part to respond gratefully and generously to this loving relationship that is extended to us.
Even though we can often allow our imaginations to run wild about creation, simple images are those which are most direct. They are a basic and common part of our experience as human beings. These simple images can be, on the one hand, the rancher, the shepherd. On the other hand, a simple image is found in the farmer, the owner of a vineyard. They are simple images but they are also the basic resources of how we are fed and sustained. For this reason, they enable us to appreciate the depth of the love of our God for us. They illustrate to us how the God of our universe reaches out to us in very ordinary ways in order to care for us and to love us.
The poetic beauty of the prophet Isaiah rings out clearly in what we have heard today. The world, creation, is like a vineyard. It is a reality that is planted and cultivated so that it might produce what gives joy and peace. Humanity are the grapes of that vineyard that are to grow and produce. But grapes can also fail and rot. We know that well enough from plants in our own gardens which do not live up to our expectations. But the owner, the vineyard keeper, like God, persists.
Jesus makes use of the image of the vineyard, but with a conclusion that differs. He focuses his attention on the behavior of the tenant farmers. But, within that story, we are told of the consistent effort of the owner, of God, to reach out to the tenants. Messengers are sent, even the Son, to convey God’s care and concern. Thus we are reminded within this story of God’s desire to reach out to us, despite our often neglectful reaction. God continuously calls upon us to respond in a fruitful and productive manner.
The images used by Jesus are not fantastic or fanciful. They tell us of a simple reality. Despite the vastness and mystery of the universe in which we live, we are loved by our God, its source, its creator. We are so loved, as we are told, that in the person of Jesus Christ, our God, once more, seeks to be with us, to do “more” on our behalf. What is to be our response? We are to be that pleasing, peaceful refreshing product. Is that how you or I might be described today?
To gain a better appreciation of what we are to be, we can listen to Saint Paul as he addresses the Christians at Philippi and us. We are to demonstrate in our lives whatever is pure, whatever is gracious, whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise. We are to do what we have learned and what we have received in this Faith we profess. It is in this way, in the vineyard of the world in which we live, the vineyard that needs so desperately the fine wine of our lives lived well, that we will produce the abundant and refreshing revelation of our good and gracious God.
Ezekiel 18: 25-26 Philippians 2: 1-5 Matthew 21: 28-32
At times when I read over the communication we received from God in the Scriptures read when we gather at the Eucharist, I ask myself what word might offer a good summary of what is heard. This week an answer came quite quickly. The word was “smarmy.” It may not be a familiar word, but it is defined as: “ingratiating and wheedling in a way that is perceived as insincere or excessive.” This describes well, at least to me, the second son in the example given by Jesus. It is as if he said: “Sure, Dad, I’ll take care of that. I’ll get right on it.” He said all of the right things and did nothing about it. I can easily envision him as one who was all smiles and charm. He had the right words. He was all talk and no action. For those of my era, who recall the televison show “Leave It to Beaver,” he was a regular “Eddie Haskell.”
In the example that Jesus presents, our reaction would probably be that we do not really care for the first son. He seems to have a real attitude. He is blunt and disrespectful., But, in the end, he gets the job done. That fact, getting the job done, as those who Jesus addressed acknowledge, was the real bottom line. What needed to be done was done.
There is, however, another aspect to this example, to this question posed by Jesus. It is an even more significant element to the story and our consideration of it. Stated simply, no one is beyond redemption. No one is beyond making a change. No one is beyond accomplishing in life that very basic identity we all have to be true reflections of God in whose image we are made.
As we hear Jesus, he also is quite blunt. Tax collectors and prostitutes, the very lowest of the low, the dregs of society, were often written off as beyond redemption. Jesus tells the rather smug leaders and teachers of his time that these supposedly disreputable persons are the ones who are willing to hear him, to listen to his call and to live their lives in response to that call.
Jesus is reflecting the thoughts that were expressed at another time by the prophet Ezekiel. Everyone, each individual, is responsible for his or her own actions. The worst sinner can undertake personal reform and change his or her own life. It is this reform that is important and will benefit the individual in the end. On the other hand, a person who has been seemingly virtuous throughout life can change and abandon that virtuosity. Negative results will occur. It is the person who has acted, it the person who has freely decided for good or for ill.
It is not words, it is action. It is not prominence or position, it is whether that situation is properly used. It is not wealth or possessions, it is how the opportunities offered are employed.
St. Paul makes it clear to the Christians at Philippi and to us. We are encouraged in Christ. We take solace and comfort based on the love of God. We participate in the life of the Spirit. It is because of this that we are to regard all others as more important than ourselves. Each of us is to look out, not for our own interest, but for the interests of others. It is in this way that we are to have the same attitude that is Christ Jesus in actions and not just in words. This is the particular opportunity we have this week and next in responding to the needs of those devastated by Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, and the earthquake in Mexico through support of Catholic Charities USA and the Catholic Relief Services. This is the way that we reveal to ourselves and to others the truth and the reality of our good and gracious God.
Isaiah 55: 6-9 Philippians 1: 20c-24 Matthew 20: 1-16a
I have frequently considered the parable told by Jesus, to which we have just listened, to be one of the more difficult ones we hear from him. It appears to challenge some of the understanding we might have about what is just or correct. Of the many parables or stories that Jesus surely used during his ministry, only St. Matthew includes this particular one in his account of the Good News, the teaching of Jesus.
We might ask why, in the larger context of Matthew’s Gospel. account, he judged that this parable of Jesus fit into his framework about how a community of believers in Jesus Christ can appreciate the revelation of the nature and presence of God with us.
What gives us some insight into the importance of this story, I believe, are a few of the words spoken by the landowner. He had promised to pay the first ones he hired the “usual daily wage.” To the ones he hired later, he said he would pay “what is just.” He did not even discuss pay with the last ones he hired. The “usual; daily wage” was basically the standard amount that was needed to get by. It was what those who were hired could justly expect for a day’s work.
In the imagery of Christ’s revelation of God to us, we can recognize that God provides to us, and to our lives, our individual capabilities, what makes us up,what we are. Jesus is teaching us that God provides what is sufficient for anyone of us to live out our lives. If we use what we are and what we have been given, then we have all that we really need. It may not be a great deal, at least by a material measurement. We may often think we need more, but envy or jealousy of those who have otherwise is really pointless.
What this story, as it continues, reveals to us is that no matter when and how the relationship with God has been established in our lives, no matter whatever way any one of us accepted the invitation to live and work in the world in a union, a partnership, with our loving God, we can be assured of possessing all we need to live and grow, all that is sufficient for this loving relationship, no matter what we might encounter.
In other words, if any of our lives seem to be more difficult or challenging, if they seem to be too burdensome than others we know seem to be experiencing, it is not the unwillingness of God to extend a loving relationship to us, rather it is a self-centered and self-indulgent perception on our part – not unlike the first workers hired by the landowner. It is a perception that thinks I deserve more. It is a perception that defeats the possibility of a genuine growth as a person and as a reflection of God.
This is all a part of an important understanding we heard both from the prophet Isaiah and from Jesus in the Gospel passage. Very simply, it is this: God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, God’s ways are not our ways. Put in a different way, none of us have cornered the market on how things ought to be, especially in contrast to how the Creator of all life intends things to be,
Thus, for any one of us, actually for all of us, the challenge of our faith, the true test of our commitment in faith is to adopt the thinking of Paul. In dire circumstances, perhaps even in prison because of his preaching, Paul says that the most important point is not whether he lives or dies, but whether he was acting in a way worthy of the Gospel, the Good News of Christ. For us that means that we are to live in such a way as to make known in the parables of our own lives the truth and the reality of our good and gracious God.
Sirach 27:30-28:7 Romans 14: 7-9 Matthew 18: 21-35
It makes no difference what medium happens to be used: a computer, newspaper, television or radio, sound bytes taken from a politician or some well known person are all teasers, a way of getting our attention, or upset us in some way. In order, though, to evaluate or understand what is briefly presented for whatever reason, it is necessary to know the context, the history, what surrounds the statement.
In the same way, we need to appreciate the relatively brief passages we hear from the Scriptures week after week. They are God’s communication to us. It is only a brief snippet of the whole of revelation God seeks to make to us.
In the context of the way St. Matthew is presenting the message of Jesus to us, what we heard today is actually part of a much larger framework. It is part of the teaching of how the life of a follower of Jesus is to be lived out within the community of believers that we are as Church, and, thereupon, in the whole of our lives.
What we are told, what is made quite clear, is that central to living the life of a believer is forgiveness. It is to be forgiveness without limits. It is to be extended not just a few times – seven times. It is to be extended seventy-seven times, that is, it is forgiveness that is uncounted, unrestricted.
That forgiveness is so significant in the life of a committed follower of Jesus is evident in the formula for prayer that has been left for us by Jesus and is recorded in the Gospels. Forgiveness is the very basic measure of the sincerity of our relationship with God. We ask God to forgive us based on the way in which we forgive one another. This is the model presented to us in the parable Jesus relates. If we want to experience the forgiveness of God for our own faults and failures, then that same spirit and attitude of forgiveness has to be essential in our own lives. It is a rather risky stipulation we make in our relationship with God.
What, though, is forgiveness? The insight which I gained rather recently, and which I have shared in various ways, because it makes sense to me, allows for an understanding of forgiveness that goes beyond mere saying the words. This insight understands forgiveness as not permitting myself or my living of life to be controlled in some fashion by how I may have been hurt by another. The decisions or choices that I may make are not based on how whatever was said or done affects me. I do not allow whatever event it was to change me or my attitude toward others.
Think of the opposite of an attitude or practice of forgiveness. This is what is suggested in the words of the wise man, Sirach. Wrath, anger, holding a grudge, seeking vengeance are the opposite of forgiveness. They can so readily control one’s life.
I offer a suggestion. Clench your fist as hard as you can. It takes effort. It can even hurt. Then let go and open that hand. Wrath, anger, grudges, vengeance – being so controlled by these emotions – that is the clenched fist. Opening that hand, letting that hand go in a free and unrestricted way, that is forgiveness. This is the open and willing forgiveness of our loving God.
As Jesus, through Matthew, seeks to instruct us on how to live as Church, as part of this created world in which we dwell, as he teaches us the very basic quality of forgiveness throughout the Scriptures and in the prayer that is so identified with our Faith, so it is to be forgiveness, freely given and unrestricted, that reveals in our lives the nature and extent of our faith and commitment to our good and gracious God.