Preaching the Word

PREACHING THE WORD

       29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1,4-6                1 Thessalonians  1:1-5b                 Mathew 22:15-21

In today’s gospel the Pharisees are trying desperately to get rid of Jesus.  If he says you can pay taxes to Caesar, then he’s on the side of the Romans and the Jewish people who hated the Romans would become his enemy.  But if Jesus says not to pay Caesar, then he’s guilty of treason and they can hand him over to the Romans.

          Somehow, Jesus saw straight through this. His answer was not just clever. It had a very basic message that we often forget—God is in control, not us! We don’t need to try and manipulate God or others. If we are faithful to God, and work within our situation, God will do the rest. So how does God work within any situation?

          Our first reading today tells the story of what happened to the Israelites under the emperor Cyrus. The Prophet Isaiah calls Cyrus “God’s Anointed One.” He was a Persian King who had conquered the Babylonians, the people who had taken the Israelites into captivity. Wanting to be seen as tolerant and good, Cyrus allows the Israelites to return home and he helps them to rebuild their temple.

          It is important to see how Isaiah sees Cyrus. Cyrus is the ruler over people in a large empire, but Cyrus falls under the providence of God. God is working through him, though Cyrus does not know the one who calls him by name. God is the creator. God is the source of all life and all living things, all humans, Jewish or other. The inner dynamic of the Spirit of God is working silently in this situation.  

          Our God is a God of surprises. In the gospel, Jesus is asking us to reflect on our own sincerity as we seek a Christian response to the challenges and problems in our lives today. I think it is interesting how the United States Congress and Senate have abandoned their latest campaign to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Could it be that the Spirit of God is working now in a certain way in a specific situation to change our minds about the way we do things now and in the future?  After all, in the wake of the Depression, we created Social Security, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the Securities Exchange Commission, and other important initiatives for getting people back to work and creating a safety net so that people wouldn’t fall through the cracks.  God always works through people and not just one individual.

          St. Paul was an amazingly active and energetic apostle, yet always in response to the guidance he received from the Holy Spirit in prayer. In tough times, we too need to rely on God’s providence.  If we put our trust in God, and listen to God’s voice, we can persevere in real hope, working especially to help our neighbors in need, knowing that what we do comes from our faith in God. 

Just as the people and things we expect to help us may disappoint us, sometimes God acts in the most unlikely ways. So, by all means we ought to ask God for what we want. But let’s be open to the ways God may want to respond. Let’s depend on God’s initiative and not on our own. In today’s gospel, out of a small piece of political crossfire between the Pharisees and Jesus comes the reminder of just how much we owe and to whom we owe it.  

 

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 15, 2017)

Is 25:6-10a          Phil 4:12-14,19-20             Mt 22:1-14 or 22:1-10

I believe that most people would agree with me that a parable about a wedding feast is a difficult one to understand. How do we make sense of a story where all the invited guests refuse to come? Because the invited guests refuse to come their city is destroyed. Some street people then find themselves invited to a wedding party they never dreamed of attending. Furthermore, one of the guests who the king calls “friend” but who really isn’t a friend is singled out, confronted, bound, and thrown into the darkness for not wearing a wedding garment. At first, it is a very peculiar parable.

Scripture scholars tell us that the writer of Matthew’s gospel adapted this parable to speak to the circumstances of his community. To do this, several allegorical features not spoken by Jesus were added. If you remember from your high-school English class, an allegory is a metaphor in which people are given meanings that lie outside the story itself. Therefore, an allegory is a story with two meanings, a literal meaning and a symbolic meaning. If we concentrate on the literal meaning, as most readers do, it is likely we will overlook the symbolic meaning.

A good example of an allegorical story whose symbolic meaning is explained is in the gospel of Luke. When a large crowd gathered, Jesus told them the parable of the Sower and the Seed. Then after withdrawing, his disciples asked Jesus what the meaning of the parable might be. Jesus responds, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God . . . .,” so on and so forth.

When we look at the symbolic meaning of the parable about being dressed for a wedding feast, God is the king who sent out servants. The first servants sent are the Old Testament prophets who called the guests to get ready for the celebration. The invited guests are the Israelites, God’s chosen people. Some of them mistreated and even killed the servants. This mistreatment corresponds to the rejection of the prophets and their message. The destruction of the city probably represents the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.

But the parable does not end here. After the king destroys the city, he sent servants out a second time to invite whomever they could find. These servants are the disciples of Jesus who without any discrimination invite people to follow Jesus. Scholars suggest that this shift in the guest list represents the extension of the church’s mission to include not only gentiles but also the poor, the sinners and the disenfranchised as equals at God’s great feast.

But the parable does not end here either. The part about the “friend” not wearing a wedding garment was like a separate parable told by itself at first. This explains the lack of continuity with the first parable. It is logical that a person called in from the streets would not have a wedding garment to wear. Some scripture scholars suggest that wedding hosts in the ancient world offered wedding garments to invited guests but this person refused it. It is also suggested that the “friend” in the parable represented the people who were baptized but who did not truly put on Christ and live out their baptismal promises. Consequently, they were thrown out of the Christian community. Through the harsh treatment of the incorrectly dressed guest, the writer of Matthew’s gospel warned against becoming lazy in living out the Christian life or taking the invitations of God for granted.

I believe that the challenge of today’s readings is not to try to understand God but to be aware that God is real and speaks to us in the world that surrounds us. In his book Theology of Culture (1964), Paul Tillich describes human beings as creatures who orient our lives with meaning through our relationship with symbols. For Tillich, religion is the “dimension of depth” in all aspects of human life—a dimension expressed and opened up for us through religious symbols. In other words, our world is filled with the visual and the verbal presence of God, but nothing physical will ever give us a total grasp of the love, acceptance, forgiveness, and future that exists in the divine life of God.