In our message series leading up to Advent called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion, we’ve been taking an honest look at some of the uncomfortable statements made by Jesus in the gospel readings.
Love is at the center of this week’s gospel when Jesus distills the law into a simple, two-fold directive: love God with everything you’ve got and “love your neighbor as yourself.” While that may not sound very uncomfortable, loving authentically is the greatest challenge of the Christian life.
God repeatedly reminded the ancient Israelites that they must love and care for three groups of particularly vulnerable people: widows, orphans, and aliens (Exodus 22:21-24; Deuteronomy 10:18; 14:29; 24:17-21; 26:13, 19; 31:12; Leviticus 19:34; 25:35; Jer. 7:6; Mal. 3:5). Since women were unable to provide for themselves, a widow without sons to support her would be reduced to poverty. Fatherless orphans suffered for the same reason. Aliens were strangers in the land and therefore at the mercy of their hosts.
Today, our nation provides a safety net for many people. But immigrants still suffer. On September 5, Archbishop Cordileone issued a statement on the termination of the DACA program. “America at its best,” he wrote, is “a nation that welcomes immigrants, affording them the opportunity to attain the ‘American dream’ while they in turn give back to the society that has welcomed them.” For this reason, the Archbishop pledged that the Catholic community in San Francisco would “continue standing with our immigrant brothers and sisters, assisting them in exercising their rights and assuring them that they are not alone.”
Indeed, Pope Francis has spoken out on immigration issues since the beginning of his papacy. The U.S. bishops also issued a pastoral statement at the turn of the century entitled, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, which sets forth the three basic principles of Church teaching on immigration.
The first principle is that people have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. This is based on the Christian teaching that the goods of the earth belong to all people and that individuals do not have the right to use private property without any regard for the common good.
The second principle is that a country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. While people have the right to migrate, no country is obligated to accept everyone who wishes to resettle there.
The third principle is that a country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. Therefore, a just nation may not simply choose to exclude all immigrants or criminalize the mere attempt to immigrate. Thus, the undocumented who have managed to enter a country must be treated with compassion, according to their human dignity.
The social teaching of the Church begins with the truth that we are a human family entrusted to one another’s care. Although it may be uncomfortable, loving our neighbor means caring for the most vulnerable among us, including the stranger, the alien, and the foreigner. For more information on Pope Francis’ Share the Journey campaign, visit our website at www.stbrendanparish.org.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve been taking an honest look at some of the rather uncomfortable statements made by Jesus in the Gospel readings. Our eight-week message series leading up to Advent is called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion. The personal challenge issued to each of us in these passages should not be a source of discouragement, but rather a call to honest self-assessment and the desire for change and growth.
In the passage from Saint Matthew’s Gospel this week, the Pharisees team up with the Herodians, another Jewish sect, to entrap Jesus. It is an unholy alliance to bring down the Messiah. The Pharisees are religious patriots, bitterly opposed to the Roman occupation of Palestine at the time, while the Herodians are perfectly content to remain strange bedfellows with their Gentile rulers. Together they approach Jesus and ask him whether a Jew should pay the census tax to the Roman Empire.
It’s a trick question. Advising not to pay the tax would bring him before the authorities as an instigator of a tax revolt, but advising to pay the tax would discredit him in the eyes of the people who hated Roman rule. Jesus’ response was a simple one: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22:21).
While the statement is intentionally indirect, Jesus basically renders the claims of Caesar far secondary to those of God. Compared to the coin of God’s realm, Caesar’s claim is rather trivial. While Caesar demands a coin, God demands the entire human person. Our highest obligation in life, therefore, is to give ourselves back to the Lord. The uncomfortable truth is that God has claimed us for his own before we even could choose him and expects us to align our allegiance to him alone.
A common interpretation of this passage segregates the two realms belonging to God and society into two separate and exclusive kingdoms: one religious, the other secular; one spiritual, the other temporal; one holy, the other ordinary; one sacred, the other profane. In this view, the two worlds never converge.
However, God has always used the profane and the secular as instruments to carry out his divine will. Cyrus, for instance, was the king of Persia at the time the ancient Israelites were allowed to return to their homeland after a hundred years of exile in Babylon. Though Cyrus had never known or worshiped the God of Israel, the Lord used him to free the exiles.
Once, I asked a class of young people to write down the name of every group or organization to which they belonged. The most common answers were school, sports teams, family, nation, or ethnic background. Church didn’t really come up, I suppose, because it must have seemed separate and alien from the ordinary world that occupied their daily attention.
But what if we were to pledge our undivided allegiance to the one and only God by living in the temporal, secular, and profane world as his followers, rebuilding human society from within? Instead of perceiving God and culture as two separate realities, what if we were to sanctify the world by our holy actions “in the ordinary circumstances of social and family life?” (Lumen Gentium n. 31).
Last week, we began an eight-week message series called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion. Many people think of prayer as just something we speak using our tongues and mouths. However, true prayer is more than lip service. It is a call to live in the way we pray and to pray based on the way we live. And that can be just a little uncomfortable to think about, if we’re not living as we should. Over the next eight weeks leading up to Advent, we will examine some of the rather unsettling statements made by Jesus in the gospel readings.
This week, Jesus tells his disciples a parable about a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son (Matthew 22:1-14). Many had been invited, but they refused to attend or, when the time came, found a number of excuses to stay away. They even mistreated and killed the king’s servants, who had announced the arrival of the great feast. In response, the king burned the city and sent his servants out to the “main roads” to invite anyone they found, “the bad and good alike.”
God the Father is the king, the Son is Jesus, and the feast is the heavenly wedding banquet. The servants are the prophets, who were mistreated and killed by the Jewish religious leaders like the scribes and Pharisees, who rejected Jesus and his ministry. The burning of the city most likely refers to the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, which eliminated Jewish temple worship ever since. Since God’s chosen people refused the invitation, the king will gather people from all walks of life, including those of no account, notorious sinners, and the Gentiles from outside Israel, who will experience salvation.
The second part of the story, however, is not as encouraging. One man arrives to the banquet without a wedding garment and therefore is thrown into the “outer darkness.” The garment most likely represents the righteousness that comes from repentance and the fruitfulness that results from the conversion of our lives ever more deeply to the Lord.
The point is that we all are called to the kingdom, but not all of us will be found worthy of the invitation. Some will turn it down outright and exclude themselves, while others will accept the invitation but fail to follow through on its demands to put their lives in the service of the Gospel. That also is uncomfortable to think about.
However, there is hope. As some scholars have pointed out, there was a practice in Jewish antiquity of providing wedding garments for guests. Therefore, the harsh sentence meted out to the man in the parable most likely was based on his complete cluelessness about showing up to the party in what effectively was jeans and a dirty T-shirt. To the extent that we are willing to take even the smallest amount of time to reflect on our need to repent, I believe that Christ the bridegroom will be the first to hand us that beautiful white garment, covering the dirtiness of our sins with his redemption. We simply need to take it in hand.
Our parish year of prayer with its theme--Pray Together, Stay Together—officially launched last weekend. Over the next nine months, we will endeavor to grow closer to the Lord through prayer. Last week, a parent told me that our church and school have become more integrated and the parish more welcoming. Having worked together over the last year on becoming more deeply connected as One Body in Christ, we will spend this year becoming more deeply connected with God, so that we can stay together as his people.
Bulletin articles each week will focus on practical approaches to prayer in the Catholic tradition. Through our innovative Small Bytes program, guest speakers in a series of talks on Sunday mornings will deliver small “servings” of theology and catechesis to teach us different ways to pray, with an opportunity to learn more later in the same week. We will also put into practice what we have learned about prayer in our many small groups, which are forming quickly. We also will be preaching about prayer throughout the year. In fact, this week we begin a new eight-week message series at Sunday Mass called, More Than Lip Service: Living Out An Uncomfortable Religion.
Many people think of prayer as just something we speak using our tongues and mouths. But true prayer is more than lip service. It is a call to live in the way we pray and to pray based on the way we live. In other words, prayer leads to action, and good works lead us back into prayer. As the Catechism tells us, “prayer and Christian life are inseparable” (CCC 2745). And that can be just a little uncomfortable, if we’re not living as we should.
For instance, Jesus makes a rather uncomfortable statement in the gospel reading today. He says that the kingdom of God will be taken away from those who are unfruitful and “given to a people that will produce its fruit.” Many Christians comfort themselves with the oft-quoted maxim that God does not call us to be fruitful but only faithful. Yet, the opposite of fruitfulness is not faithfulness but failure. That God would destroy his own vineyard because it did not bear fruit, as the allegory set forth in the first reading today suggests, is indeed uncomfortable to think about.
Perhaps even more uncomfortable is the question whether we are producing sufficient fruit for the Lord. Discipleship is more than lip service, and the purpose of the Church is more than to secure the comfort of its members. In reality, a comfortable religion is a dead, sterile, self-serving religion. Christians instead are called to produce good fruit by growing the kingdom of God through mission and ministry. If Christ is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5), then we will produce good fruit by grafting the wild shoots of the unchurched, the lost, and the questioning onto the true vine that is Jesus.
We can do that by being welcoming at church, inviting at work and school, serving the poor with the love of Christ, and witnessing to him by conforming our lives to gospel values.
Over the last four weeks, we have examined four destructive and isolating behaviors and attitudes Jesus addressed in the gospel readings over the same period. These include making judgments about others, refusing to forgive people, as well as jealousy and resentment when others have received more than their fair share. Indulging these behaviors and attitudes is like getting up on a “high horse” with a false arrogance that comes from jealousy, bitterness, indignation, and resentment.
This week in the gospel reading, Jesus calls out the smug, sanctimonious, and self-righteous nature of the chief priests and elders of the people. They had set themselves up on high horses over the people, demanding stringent observance of the Mosaic law and standards that were nearly impossible to achieve. But Jesus tells them that even the most notorious sinners of the day, “tax collectors and prostitutes,” would be first to enter the kingdom of heaven because they had repented.
The gospel reading identifies two types of “sons.” The first agreed to go into the father’s “vineyard” and work, but then did not, while the second initially refused, but then changed course. The worst offenders and violators of the law, Jesus suggests, were like the sons who at first refused to go but then did what the father asked, while the chief priests and elders were too self-satisfied to comply. Their pretentious and supercilious attitude was the result of their sense of ownership of the law that had been handed down from Moses. In other words, they believed that they could save themselves by rigid observance of the law and therefore rejected even God’s Son and refused to go into the vineyard to tell others about the message of salvation he had brought to humanity.
We have all heard the message of repentance. But how deeply do we perceive the need to change, grow, and deepen in our spiritual lives, leaving behind sin, arrogance, false beliefs, and destructive behaviors? Are we willing to get off our high horses and join the rest of the human race in the struggle of life, recognizing our dependency on God? Or do we remain entrenched in the stubborn belief that we can do it ourselves, with a private spirituality and the false belief that simply attending Mass once a week and receiving the Eucharist with a closed heart is sufficient to save ourselves?
As lifelong Catholics, the temptation to treat the sacraments and Sunday Mass like talismans is ever present. Without intending it, we can easily fall into the trap of believing, like the chief priests and the elders of the people in the gospel reading, that our external religious observance will be enough to “earn” our way into heaven. Yet, the grace of God poured out in the sacraments is a living relationship with the God who desires our whole hearts. The grace of the sacraments will indeed remain inactive in our lives, unless we are open to its effects and are willing to go into the vineyard to do the Father’s will. In other words, true repentance means investing ourselves fully in the God who created and loves us and is the only way off our high horses.
Father Roger Gustafson