October 8, 2017 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Oct 082017
 

 Matthew 21:33-43

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people: “Hear another parable. There was a landowner who planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey. When vintage time drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce. But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat, another they killed, and a third they stoned. Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones, but they treated them in the same way. Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking, ‘They will respect my son.’ But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’ They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him. What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?” They answered him, “He will put those wretched men to a wretched death and lease his vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the proper times.” Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; by the Lord has this been done, and it is wonderful in our eyes? 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.”

Let’s take a look at today’s parable. The standard interpretation is that God is the Landowner, the Vineyard is Israel, the agents are the prophets and Jesus is the Son. Although this is foundational, I’d like to come at it from a slightly different angle.

So, we have a landowner who is being given the run around by his tenants. They no longer want to pay their rent. These tenants want to be in control; they want to own the vineyard if you will. However, it is not for sale and it never will be. The owner is not looking for buyers.  He is looking for tenants who will give him his fair share of the produce at harvest time, and this is the key part, the real issue is stewardship, a word that puts many of us on the defensive because it challenges our sense of entitlement and ownership.

With few exceptions, we have worked hard for what we have; we have deeds and titles and fence lines to prove ownership of our property. We have registered land plats and mortgage payment books and tax bills and home owners insurance, all with our names on them. We have gone to a lot of trouble to get these things and hanging on to them requires no small amount of financial courage but according to today’s Gospel lesson we are simply deluding ourselves.

Our ancestors became divine tenants thousands of years ago; it was so far back that most of us have forgotten the circumstances. Somewhere along the way someone misplaced or ignored the tenants’ agreement and wrote up a deed instead, saying that we now own the property instead of leasing it and that is the basis of the problem in this parable.

In the story today, the Landowner—representing God—spent most of his time in a far off place.  His absence made him really, really easy to ignore. When he sent messengers to remind the tenants of their agreement, they said, “You have been gone so long and have been so undemanding that we’ve decided that things have changed. This vineyard, this land, is now ours.”

All it took was a little bravado and a couple of bursts of violence and—bada bing— the agents of the land owner who were still alive ran away empty-handed.

The owner could have sent the police or the sheriff or even recruited his own army of thugs. He could have returned violence for violence but he did not. He just kept sending messengers, one after another, each of them pleading with the tenants to come to their senses and honor their agreement with the landowner.

Finally, when there was a whole row of unmarked graves full of messengers outside the vineyard walls, the owner sent his son, unaccompanied and unarmed, to teach the tenants things they had clearly forgotten or had opted not to learn. He reminded them that they were stewards and tenants, not owners. In fact they were guests on the earth. He even might have reminded them of Psalm 24:1—“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein…” It’s all His—none of it was theirs—or now ours.

The Son reminded them that being guests placed them in relationship with the landowner who also was their host, who also placed them in relationship with each other, and once they got over their delusions of ownership, these relationships, with him and others, could be based on our gratitude, not our fear, nor our resentment nor a false sense of security, nor even the mere desire for power.

He reminded them that as guests they had free access to far more than they could ever have earned for themselves. All he asked was that they take care of the vineyard and that they give him a prescribed portion of what they produced; not because he needed it, for he turned around immediately and gave it away, but they needed to be constantly reminded that they were tenants and stewards and not owners.

They needed to give, in order to remember who they were: grateful tenants and stewards who took their lives and the fruits of their efforts from the Lord’s favor and returned the favor by giving a portion of their largess back to him and to others.

The Son probably reminded them of the Hebrew Scriptures that God, the land owner, gave instructions on paying what they owed to him by giving to others. There’s a good chance he reminded them of the importance of honoring God with the “first fruits” of their labor. Most likely, he shared with them that they would be greatly blessed by so doing. He may have quoted Proverbs 3:9-10: “Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce—then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine.”

He may even have told them of God’s confrontation through the prophet Malachi, referring to the only place in scripture that God challenges his people to test him. God says: “…you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and your offerings.  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me.  [What can we do?, we may ask. The answer God says is to…] Bring the full tithes into the storehouse that there may be food in my house and thereby PUT ME TO THE TEST’ says the Lord of hosts. [See] if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down on you an overflowing blessing.” (Mal.3:8-10) By the way, this is the only place in all of the scriptures where God commands us to test him. In all other places we are warned not to test him. I think this was the son’s message.

But in the parable, the tenants weren’t buying it; they killed the son but he would not stay dead and to this day he challenges the tenants and stewards, reminding us that we are God’s guests, welcome on this earth and loved with a fierce love, all the while being reminded that we are not the owners. There is also the warning that violence will befall us if we do not heed.

All this is right in the wheelhouse of Pope Francis’s teachings, especially his 191 page encyclical on the environment, Laudato si. Although the Holy Father doesn’t hold much back about our troubling stewardship of the earth, I would like to share a word of hope with you. He writes:

…all is not lost. Human beings, while capable of the worst, are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start. He does offer a word of hope. We can change our ways. And what does that mean?, we may ask.

Well to start, we must not spurn the owner and persecute his messengers because to do that is to court our own destruction. To do that is to forget, or ignore, who we are and what our purpose here is. We are God’s sharecroppers. We tend the earth and reap it’s riches on God’s behalf. We can love this vineyard, this earth, as our own. We can water it by hand and build fires against the frost and take deep pleasure in the harvest. We can even will pieces of it to our children or sell our part of the tenancy to others. But we are expected to represent God’s interests, being as generous with each other as God is with us. We are not owners. We were never meant to be owners. It may fly in the face of much of what we have been taught, but it is the way of the Kingdom of God and I will tell you, if we abide by God’s rules, the harvest will take your breath away.

 

 

 

 

October 1, 2017 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

 01 October  Comments Off on October 1, 2017 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Oct 012017
 

 Matthew 21:28-32

Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people: “What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir, ‘but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. When John came to you in the way of righteousness, you did not believe him; but tax collectors and prostitutes did. Yet even when you saw that, you did not later change your minds and believe him.”

Tension is rife in today’s Gospel lesson. The setting is Tuesday in Holy Week. Jesus has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem with an overwhelming ovation and the city is abuzz with rumors and anticipation: “Is this the Messiah? What’s going to happen?” We see in the text that Jesus is in the Temple and he’s having a significant dust-up with the Chief Priests and the Elders of the People. They are feeling threatened and are both defensive and looking for a reason—any reason— to have this self-proclaimed Messiah put in his place.

It’s not going well for the Chief Priests and Elders, they are getting testier, and as we know their reaction is going to get Jesus crucified. Consider their mind-set; they have witnessed this popular Galilean teacher enter their city in a Messianic fashion. They have watched in horror and outrage as he trashed the whole sacrificial system of worship by driving out the money changers with a whip, and he has announced the Temple’s destruction, implying that he has authority that is much greater than theirs. They are more than threatened and so they confront him publically and at length.

In the preceding section of the scriptures they ask: “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you that authority?” (vs. 23): Authority has become the central issue.

This particular confrontation started when Jesus asked the chief priests and elders questions about the authority of St. John the Baptist and because the atmosphere was so fraught with political explosiveness, they punted. They chose not to undermine their own authority by affirming the authority of John, and at the same time they were also aware of how popular John was and the crowd was edgy enough without firing them up by refuting John’s authority. So they said that they’ didn’t know.

Jesus responded by saying that since they wouldn’t answer, neither would he. But the whole thing comes down to Jesus’ Messianic authority and whether or not folks were going to submit to it. Jesus then told the little parable about the two sons, the first said that he would not be dutiful, then repented and was obedient. The second said that he would do what was required of him, and then refused. As we know, the first one who repented is the model for faithfulness.

Faithfulness is a matter of submitting to authority. The question is who’s authority? For Christians, it is the authority of Christ. And the primary place for discerning the authority of Christ is the Catholic Church. The basis of Catholic teaching and belief is that Christ’s authority has been passed on to the Church, the Catholic Church. Let me tell you why I have accepted it and continue to submit to it after living the first 60 years of my life as a Protestant.

First this authority is historical. In the little one chapter NT book of Jude, in the third verse, there is this phrase that refers to the “faith which was once for all delivered.”  In other words, the faith of Jesus was delivered to the first century apostles and in turn it has been handed on through the centuries by means of the apostolic succession of bishops and this faith has been delivered to us today.

This is the Faith of Jesus and it is supremely authoritative. This faith is conveyed to us through the teaching Magisterium and it transmits to us what Christ would have us believe and do and what we do not believe nor should we do. Over the years we’ve often had to have the faith explained through the teaching of ecumenical councils and the prayerful reflections of Popes and bishops and some of the concepts have had to be developed, but there has always been one faith that has been passed along to the Church. That is basis of our authority and it is an historical authority.

My second reason is that this authority is objective. In other words, it couldn’t be subject to my personal whims or the whims of some vote by a Church convention. A 50% plus one vote is not authoritative enough to say that abortion is ok or that the definition of marriage can be changed, let alone issues like the nature of the Eucharist or the question of the Incarnation of Christ. These latter points had to be settled by Church councils.

This authority had to operate within the very fibers of the Church itself. To prove its objectivity, this authority had to be spread out over a large number of people, over a long period of time while remaining consistent in its themes and purpose. The Catholic Church has been faithful and consistent for 2000 years.

Third—connected with the criterion of objectivity— is that this authority is universal. As you know, Catholic means universal. St. Cyril of Jerusalem (d. 396) said that “The Church is called Catholic because it extends through all the world…because it teaches universally and without omission all the doctrines which ought to come to man’s knowledge…because it brings under the sway of true religion all classes of men, rulers, and subjects, learned and ignorant; and because it universally treats and cures every type of sin…and possesses in itself every kind of virtue which can be named…and spiritual gifts of every kind.” (Catechetical Lectures 18.23) The Church cannot be the voice of just one person, one nationality, one theological grouping or one pressure group. This authority has to transcend geographical, cultural and intellectual boundaries. Not only does this authority have to be universal in geographic terms, it also has to transcend time as well. It has to be universal down through the ages, connecting authentically with every age.

But if this authority is universal it must also be particular. This fourth trait means that this authority must be practical and applicable in a particular place and through a particular person. It cannot be just a vague ‘body of teaching’ determined by majority vote, nor can it be some kind of ‘consensus of the faithful’ at a particular time and place, something that is subject to change 10 years from now. However, if it is particular, then it also has to be able to speak to particular problems and circumstances. A particular authority will apply the universal truths of the gospel to particular problems with confidence.

Fifth, this authority is intellectually satisfying. Unlike some traditions, the Catholic faith has not been “dumbed down.” While it must be simple enough for every person to understand and obey, it also must be challenging enough for the world’s greatest intellects. As St. Jerome, whose feast day is today, said of Scripture, ‘it must be shallow enough for a lamb to wade and deep enough for an elephant to swim.’ This authority must be intellectually coherent within itself and it must be able to engage confidently with all other intellectual religious and philosophical systems. Furthermore, if it is intellectually satisfying, it must offer a world view which is complete without being completely closed. In other words, there must be both answers and questions which still remain.

Sixth, this authority is Scriptural. The Church’s authority is rooted in Holy Scripture. Because it is Scriptural it also looks to the Bible continually as a source of inspiration and guidance. While this authority flows from Scripture it also confirms Scripture and the Church offers the right interpretation of various texts with confidence, never contradicting Scripture as a whole, but always working to further illuminate Holy Writ. In fact,“ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!” insisted St. Jerome. So to review, I accept and submit to the authority of the Catholic Church for six reasons:

  1. The authority is historical.
  2. It is objective.
  3. It is universal.
  4. It is practical and applicable in particular places and through particular people.
  5. It is intellectually satisfying.
  6. It is based on Sacred Scripture.

The authority of the Catholic Church fulfils all six of these traits. They show that the Church’s authority is not ephemeral and merely human, but is of divine origin; in other words much of it has been revealed by God. Obviously there are many, many more reasons to accept and submit to the authority of the Church. This is at best a partial list. The point is that I need reasons to say “yes” when the Father instructs me to go work in the vineyard of the Lord and these in part are my reasons. And more importantly, I want to follow through, especially during times of great stress and tension. That is the essence of being faithful.