The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Isaiah 5:1-7  +  Philippians 4:6-9  +  Matthew 21:33-43
October 4, 2020

The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.

Parables are often puzzling and intended to get under your skin.  This Sunday’s parable is no exception.

The parable’s setting is a vineyard, which in the words of Sunday’s Resposorial refrain, symbolizes “the house of Israel”:  that is, the great mass of God’s chosen People; or in other words, the “Family of God”.

Within the vineyard are several actors.  The parable’s landowner symbolizes God.  The tenants symbolize those at whom Jesus is aiming the parable:  that is, those whom God had entrusted with the care of the vineyard.  So if the vineyard is Israel, then the tenants are the leaders of Israel.  Among them are the chief priests and elders mentioned as Jesus’ audience.  Why, then, is Jesus trying to get under their skin?  What does Jesus think that they’re doing wrong?

You’ve all heard the saying, “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians.”  Likewise:  “too many cooks spoil the broth.”  Those sayings get at the problem that Jesus was addressing.  The leaders of Israel were no longer listening to the founder of Israel.

But who was the founder of Israel?  Was it King David?  Moses?  Abraham?  No, the founder of Israel is the Lord God of Hosts.  The Psalmist says as much in today’s Responsorial, when he cries out:  “O Lord of Hosts … take care of this vine, and protect what your right hand has planted”.

But the chief priests and elders had forgotten the place of the Lord in their lives.  They thought that they were the masters of Israel, rather than its shepherds; that they were the landowners, rather than the tenants; that they were the lords of the manor, rather than the stewards.  Jesus’ parable warns them to be better stewards.

The action of the parable demonstrates just how topsy-turvy these stewards are.  Believing that they’re the masters of the situation justifies, in their minds, their beating and stoning of the landowner’s messengers, and finally, their murder of his son.

Of course, you and I know how this parable foreshadowed the events of Holy Week.  The chief priests, elders, and other leaders of Israel are not willing to give up the claim to be masters.  So when they come face-to-face with Jesus, who is the rightful heir to the throne of Israel, there’s bound to be conflict.  Like the son in the parable, Jesus is seized and put to death.  Jesus is the “stone that the builders rejected” which “has become the cornerstone”.

At the end of today’s Gospel Reading, Jesus—with divine fore-knowledge—foretells the consequence of Israel’s rejection of Him.  Jesus speaks formally and almost solemnly, declaring:  “Therefore, I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you[,] and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”  Who is this new people?

This new people is the body of Jesus’ followers:  the Mystical Body of Christ.  Jesus is the cornerstone of this new foundation.  The Church that Jesus founded is the new Israel.  This is the body of Christians to which you and I belong.  Jesus was speaking of you and me when He foretold that the “kingdom of God [would] be… given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

But the question in front of us today is whether we are producing spiritual fruit within the vineyard of the Church.  The Church chose this parable for proclamation at this Sunday’s Mass not so that you and I could learn a history lesson about the opposition that Jesus faced two thousand years ago.  We hear this parable today in order to allow it to get under our skin.

Saying “Yes” to God’s call isn’t the same as bearing fruit.  It’s on the latter that God will judge us at the moment each of us dies.  Merely belonging to Church doesn’t mean entrance into Heaven.  Maybe you and I are taking as much for granted as those elders and chief priests.

To make a good examination of conscience in this regard, and to consider how we might go froth and bear fruit in the Lord’s vineyard, we might reflect on two questions this week.  First how much time do we spend in the Lord’s vineyard; and second, what does it mean to be a steward?

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church
Job 19:21-27  +  Luke 10:1-12
October 1, 2020

“The harvest is abundant but the laborers are few ….”

The Church often quotes from today’s Gospel passage in her promotion of vocations.  However, these seventy-two to whom Jesus speaks are appointed and sent for a specific reason.  They are sent “ahead of” Jesus, not in His name or in His person.  They are sent “in pairs to every town and place He intended to visit.”  They are “advance teams”, if you will.  In the general sense in which they are sent ahead of Jesus, we can consider these 72 as symbolizing all baptized Christians.

Jesus offers many brief sayings in today’s Gospel passage.  Many can be singled out and meditated upon for a long period of time; for example:  “behold, I am sending you like lambs among wolves.”  It’s not difficult for a Christian disciple to use these words falsely:  that is, as a justification for self-righteousness in the face of any opposition.  Nonetheless, that possibility doesn’t nullify the meaning of Jesus’ words.  At our best, we disciples are “lambs among wolves”.

While a Christian might be tempted to turn away from this “vocation” to be a lamb, we ought to take solace in two simple Gospel truths.  First, Our Savior is the Good Shepherd [John 10:11].  Second, He is also the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world [John 1:29].  Yet both of these titles that Our Savior bears make sense only within the shadow of the Cross.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus, Virgin and Doctor of the Church

St. Jerome, Priest and Doctor of the Church

St. Jerome, Priest and Doctor of the Church
Job 9:1-12,14-16  +  Luke 9:57-62
September 30, 2020

“I will follow you wherever you go.”

Teachers need to teach their students—and parents, their children—that the two most important moments of one’s life are now and the hour of one’s death.  Likely we’ve known persons who live as if death will never arrive, living only for “now”.  The spiritual goal is constantly to relate these two:  now, and the hour of one’s death.

The world around us, including secular schools that want to produce “achievers”, seeks by contrast to relate every now to goals that one plans for:  goals to be realized next week, next month, next year, or upon retirement.  Yet those are short-sighted if they’re not set within the larger context of one’s death.

In fact, everything we do now, or don’t do now, bears on that hour of our death.  By everything we do or don’t do, we choose whether to follow Jesus.

If our young people are firmly resolved to prepare themselves for the hour of death, they will be firmly resolved in the “now” of every moment to follow whatever God asks.  Yet here we have to be mindful of the way in which God dwells in the present moment.  The need of a human person in the here and now often upsets our well-laid plans.  But Jesus often presents Himself to us in the present moment in the guise of those most in need.

St. Jerome, Priest & Doctor of the Church

Sts. Michael, Gabriel & Raphael, Archangels

Sts. Michael, Gabriel & Raphael, Archangels
Daniel 7:9-10,13-14 [or Revelation 12:7-12]  +  John 1:47-51
September 29, 2020

“… you will see Heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

About a month from now, the Church will celebrate All Saints’ Day, when we spend time thinking about the “lives of the saints”.  But it’s difficult to read and learn about the lives of today’s saints since they haven’t led “lives” in our normal sense of the word.  Furthermore, their lives are still going on as always.  Still, these three saints—the archangels Michael, Gabriel and Raphael—are a very important part of our Catholic prayer and belief.

These archangels—among the most important of all the angels—are messengers who carry the most important messages from God to human beings like us.

St. Michael, in the beginning, was the one who had to fight against the devil, and force him out of Heaven as punishment for turning against God.  At the end of time, it will be St. Michael who will lead all the good angels in battle against the fallen angels in league with the devil.  But in between the beginning and end of time, Michael protects all those who call upon him, to defend them in the day of battle, which is any day when we face temptation, and are tempted not to love God completely, or tempted not to love our neighbor as our self.

St. Gabriel, by contrast , goes to the heart and center of history, with the most important message that God ever wanted delivered.  It was Gabriel whom God chose to deliver the message to Mary that she should be our Blessed Mother, because God’s own Son should be born from her, that Son destined to be the Savior of all mankind.

In these archangels, we honor three models for the vocation to which God has called all of us through the Sacrament of Baptism.  In word and action, we—like the angels—serve God, and bear His messages to others, all of which are about the sort of love with which God loves us.

Even when we have sinned, God continues to love us, and wants us to draw closer to Him through Jesus.  But when we pray and realize how great God’s mercy towards us is, we are called to take that same message to others, and let others know of God’s love for them.  Even more, we are called to offer forgiveness to others:  to be God’s messenger of love and mercy by forgiving others in the same way that God has forgiven us.

Monday of the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [II]

Monday of the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [II]
Job 1:6-22  + Luke 9:46-50
September 28, 2020

“Whoever receives this child in My Name receives Me ….”

During Christmastide we are used to thinking of Jesus—the divine Word made Flesh—dwelling among us as an infant.  But today, near the start of Autumn, Jesus counsels us to receive Him as a child.  Clearly, then, spiritual childhood isn’t just for Christmas!

To receive Jesus as a child means that the one who receives Jesus becomes a child him- or herself.

Spiritual childhood is a common theme in the literature of the Catholic masters of spirituality.  Of course, pondering this theme first requires a distinction between the childhood of fallen human nature and the childhood of what we might call either the “original human nature” or the “redeemed human nature”.  What does this distinction mean concretely?  We can picture this distinction by comparing two different images:  on the one hand is a two-year-old who refuses to go to sleep; on the other, the child resting peacefully upon his mother’s chest.

In addition to what Jesus says in today’s Gospel passage, we can use a Scriptural image to help us picture the spiritual childhood to which the Christian is called.  Consider Calvary, where Jesus entrusts Mary and the Beloved Disciple to each other’s care.  This Beloved Disciple, child of Mary, is our icon for spiritual childhood.

Saturday of the Twenty-Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Saturday of the Twenty-Fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Zechariah 2:5-9,14-15  +  Luke 9:43-45
September 26, 2020

“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.”

Today’s Gospel passage, from fairly early in Luke’s Gospel account (in chapter 9 of 24 chapters), helps us to focus squarely on Jesus, even if His words here confuse the disciples.  You and I have the advantage of hindsight, of course, in knowing “the rest of the story” of the Gospel.  We know perfectly well what Jesus is referring to when He predicts that the “Son of Man is to be handed over to men.”

Still, we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back for being unlike the disciples portrayed today.  Consider the setting of today’s Gospel passage.  We need to recognize Jesus’ deliberateness in choosing the moment that He did to speak the words that He did:  it was “[w]hile they were all amazed at His every deed” that Jesus foretold His Passion.

What is the relationship between these two:  Jesus’ amazing deeds and His Passion?  Did Jesus foretell His Passion when He did to bring the disciples back down to earth, similar to the occasion of His Transfiguration?  Was Jesus wanting to minimize the significance of His amazing deeds, or at least to help the disciples realize that they were not the ultimate reason for His presence in their midst?  Reflect on these questions in the light of your own desire for God to work amazing deeds in your life, and your reluctance to share in the “handing over” of Jesus that He foretells today.

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Friday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Ecclesiastes 3:1-11  +  Luke 9:18-22
September 25, 2020

There is an appointed time for everything ….

Today’s First Reading is one of the Old Testament options for a Requiem Mass.  The first two-thirds of the passage are striking, as the phrase “a time to…” is proclaimed repeatedly.  Taken together, all these descriptions of times in a man’s life stand in contrast to the immortal life than one enters after his death.  This passage can stir something profound in the hearts of those attending a Requiem Mass.  They may leave the church pondering how the “times” of their own earthly lives fit into a larger picture.

The first sentence of today’s Gospel passage shouldn’t be overlooked in this regard.  “Jesus was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with Him.”  This might seem like an odd statement, perhaps even contradictory.  But from the larger canvas on which all four Gospel accounts are drawn, we see several portraits of Jesus as one who prays intensely, at length, in solitude, and often.  That His disciples were with Him doesn’t mean that they were all engaged in prayer together, but that they had the occasion to witness Jesus in this intense, solitary prayer with His Father.

The point of this first sentence within the context of today’s Gospel passage, however, is heard in what Jesus says next.  “Who do the crowds say that I am?”  After they offer the view of the crowds, Jesus asks, “But who do you say that I am?”  After they give their own view, Jesus offers His view of His own identity.  This portrait of Himself as the “Suffering Servant” who will be raised on the third day was most likely the content of His prayer moments earlier.  There is no doubt about Jesus accepting this call from the Father.  But the disciples’ reactions show that most of them could not accept Jesus as someone called to suffer, much less accept such a call themselves.  We might make an examination of conscience, asking if we ourselves are like these disciples.

The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]

The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time [A]
Ezekiel 18:25-28  +  Philippians 2:1-11  +  Matthew 21:28-32
September 27, 2020

“Which of the two did his father’s will?”

Likely you’ve seen those license plate frames with sayings on the top and bottom.  One of them states:  “Insanity is hereditary:  you get it from your children.”  We might say that the capacity to drive others insane is something we’re born with.  The capacity for self-sacrifice, however, has to be acquired.

The capacity for self-sacrifice is the measure of authenticity in the Christian life.  By contrast, the world around us encourages us to do what is contrary to the path that Christ asks us to walk.  Instead of choosing self-sacrifice, we choose self-glorification and self-gratification.  Or in contrast to Christ’s path of self-sacrifice, we fudge a little bit:  we make sacrifices, but not of our selves.  We sacrifice things to which we have no attachment.  We’re like the child on Ash Wednesday who proudly announces that he’s giving up spinach and homework for Lent.

Our children receive our attention regarding the discernment of their vocations, and rightly so.  But our efforts will be of no avail if we don’t help each young person free himself to accept whatever call God makes of him.  In other words, putting knowledge about vocations into our young people’s minds is not enough.

A vocation is also a matter of the will.  After all, education in any subject requires a shaping not only of the intellect, but also of the will.  Any school that only gives knowledge about math, English, music, etc. is largely wasting its time.  If a school doesn’t first give its students a love for those subjects, then the knowledge will likely evaporate after the final final exam.

Love in the will must be the start of seeking knowledge.  Yet the will also has a role at the end of education.  The will takes the acquired knowledge and puts it into action, whether practical or speculative, secular or sacred.

A similar process has to guide a young person’s search for his or her God-given vocation.  It’s not enough for the young person to learn what that vocation is.  The young person also has to want what is learned.  The young person has to want whatever God wants for him or her.  But for a young person to be able to want whatever God wants, a change has to happen inside the young person.

A young person’s own fallen human will has to be purified like the biblical gold that’s tried in fire, so that what emerges is the capacity for self-sacrifice.  This is the capacity described poetically by Saint Paul in Sunday’s Second Reading, where he paints a portrait of self-sacrifice in the Flesh, in the person of Jesus, who, “though He was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.  Rather, He emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave … He humbled Himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

For sinners to grow in this capacity requires purification.  For while it’s true that each human being is conceived and born with free will, that free will is tempted from the start by selfishness.  Any parent of a two-year-old can tell you that his favorite word is “No!”, while his next favorite word is “Mine!”  Unfortunately, self-will doesn’t disappear on a child’s third birthday.  We human beings don’t spontaneously become more selfless as we grow older.  Instead, we learn social skills that help us mask our selfishness.  Giving up our selfishness is something that comes only with difficulty.

To accept a vocation in Christ is to recognize that my life is not “mine”, but “His”.  To live a vocation in Christ is to say “Yes!” to God’s Will for me.  God our Father calls us to spend our earthly lives not like the first son in Jesus’ parable:  saying “No” to the father’s will, and only later doing it.  Nor does God will for us to be like the second, who’s all talk and no follow-through.  To call God our Father means to be a child who not only says “Yes” to Him, but also always puts the words that we mouth inside church into action during the week when we’re outside church and in the world.

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]

Thursday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time [II]
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11   +   Luke 9:7-9
September 24, 2020

Nothing is new under the sun.

In our First Reading today, we continue to hear from the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.  But we are not still hearing from the Book of Proverbs.  We hear today through Saturday from the Book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes is probably best known for its opening verses, from the very first chapter, from which we have heard today.  The writer of this book, who is named Qoheleth, is talking about the uselessness, or vanity, of things in this world.  We hear:  “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!”  We might wonder why God would want a book like this in the Bible.

This book is not Manichaean in nature.  That is, it’s not arguing that life itself, or creation in general, is evil.  We can profitably focus upon this book by focusing upon the meaning of the word “vanity”.  Not all vanity comes from looking in a mirror.

Here is the question that all seven books of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament concerns themselves with:  which things can help us get to Heaven, and which things cannot?  The things in this world that cannot help us get to Heaven are vain:  they are vanities.  They may have some meaning and value, but in the end, that meaning or value is going to pass away.  The more we hold on to them, the more of our own self that will pass away.