100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.

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Homily, October 22, 2017- the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

29 sun4One thing we must first remind ourselves of today is that the gospel has nothing to do with our concept or idea of separation of church and state. The question involved was a question of authority and God as the ultimate power. The first reading is interesting because Cyrus was not a Jew but the Persian Ruler. Isaiah refers to him as “God’s 29 sun1anointed,” the same title given to Jewish Kings. In this case, Cyrus unknowingly to himself, was doing the work of God by letting the Israelites return home and even reconstruct their temple. So the ruler who is doing God’s will has legitimate authority, but God is the source. In the gospel, the Pharisees and Herodians were actually setting a trap in their friendly approach and seemingly simple question. It required either a yes or no with either answer having dire consequences of turning believers against Him or committing treason against the empire.29 sun3 But Jesus doesn’t answer the question really as it was put to Him. In fact he left two unanswered questions, that then and through the centuries remain for each generation to answer. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar(or the state, the good of humanity). It has led to a whole history of rich versus poor, of demands for human rights, of demands for the end of slavery and all other movements even to our present time. Humanity’s fallen nature has not always made us a people with our best foot forward, but hopefully we are trying and learning what it means to be a Christian and a lover of God and all that it asks us to do. It is an ongoing task, learning and developing as a people, as a world responsible to our creator. We are all called to be open and discerning of the Holy Spirit who leads the way for all. Truly we will be complete only when we are one with God, in this life, and in the next.

Homily- October 8, 2017- the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

27 sun 4Well it seems we are back into vineyards and the business of grapes for another week. Of course Israel was an agricultural nation and grapes were important if they were to have wine for their tables. Remember too Jesus said I am the Vine you are the Branches and my Father is the vine dresser. So these parables have a sense of importance, but we have to be careful to realize they have at times been heavily allegorized and possibly stretched beyond their original intent. Keep in mind that Jesus or the early church never accused or blamed the Jewish people for Christ’s death.27 sun2

A farmer in Israel as elsewhere lived off the land. They would trade and barter for the necessities they needed for farming, livestock, food and taxes and tithes and other necessities of life. In essence, a landowning farmer would be left with about 20% of his crop to look out for his family. A tenant farmer as we see in the gospel, could really not expect much more, but was obligated to pay the landowner. Now, typically, the tenants were the leaders of the people. Their lifestyle, accountability, leadership all become questionable and a need for change is seen and brought about. It these writings it would mean at the time that the leadership was passed on from the chief priests, etc to the new Judaeo-Christian Church.

To move forward through the centuries, we see the message of Jesus has been constant, and his church remains. It has looked to be different in one time or another, but like old testament times, repentance, change and renewal was always something the Holy Spirit has maintained and has kept Christ alive to the world. Our message today, is that good leadership must listen and work together with the people of God. History has proven that in all areas of spirituality the Spirit breathes where he wills. It is for the rest of us to discern the Spirit and not disparage the messenger.27 sun

In the intellectual sphere, the remarkable achievements of learning and science has advanced the world and also challenged us to clean up the mistakes we have made. If God our ultimate landowner asked for an accounting today, What would we say?

God Looks for Justice and Sees Bloodshed

27th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-8-17.

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm: 80: 9-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:4-9; Matthew 21:33-43

Have you ever listened to the Gospel on Sunday morning and, inside your head, thought: “Not this one again.”  We all have favorite scripture readings, and those we don’t like so much.  Just the raw violence and disregard for life in this Gospel bothers me. Maybe it will help to start with the Old Testament reading.

The reading from Isaiah, of course is “The Classic Vineyard Passage of the Bible”. It is Isaiah scolding and beside himself with frustration. The people who had a covenant with God, God’s chosen ones, just weren’t keeping their end of the deal, and the future would go very badly for them if they didn’t shape up.   God had proclaimed the people of Judah as “His Cherished Plant”, but when God looked for justice, God saw bloodshed instead, Isaiah says. They were not living as God would have them live. When God looked for righteousness in the land, God instead heard an outcry from those who had been abused and oppressed and cast aside. The people were not living spiritual or moral lives. As the verses following Isaiah’s vineyard parable make clear, the prophet had witnessed violence and drunkenness along with bribery to cover lies and cheating the innocent.

God have given them everything they needed, God had given them fertile land, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines, built a watch tower, and hewed out the wine press. He had protected it with a hedge. So, God will allow it to dry up, and be overgrown with the thorns of sin.

We have to make a big jump over to the Gospel. It was Tuesday of Holy Week. Sunday, Jesus had processed into Jerusalem as the crowd waved palm branches to welcome him. He had cleaned the merchants out of the Temple who were overcharging the people and thrown out the money-changers who cheated the people. Those merchants and money-changers had bribed the temple authorities to be in a part of the Temple where they should not have been. Now, we find Jesus teaching the people, to their delight. And the chief priests and the elders came up to him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Their question was just the usual game, where they planned to mock him, and deny that his authority was from God. Instead of playing their game, he told them 3 parables. The first was the two sons, whose father had asked them to work in his vineyard, which we read last week. Next he told them the parable we read today. The third parable we will read next week.

Jesus has in mind the way the nation has violently rejected the prophets God has sent to them. He updates the parable with the violence practiced by those who do not obey God’s ways. In Jesus’ rendition of the Vineyard Passage, the servants of the landowner are beaten, killed and stoned. Even the son of the landowner will be killed by the tenants in a senseless attempt to get control of the property. Jesus senses the mood of the city and the leaders; he knows that he, the son of the land-creator, will be killed by these tenants in three days.

It’s time for a new update to the vineyard story. This week 58 people were killed by a man who had carefully planned to kill -not individuals who had harmed him somehow – rather he chose to kill at random. I cannot begin to imagine the cost of the medical care alone. But worse, people will be imprisoned in fear, and their minds will replay endlessly the terror of that night. Hundreds more have lost limbs, will be in pain and disabled for the rest of their lives, will have to undergo countless hours of surgeries and medical procedures to be able to just move, to talk, or to eat. Their bones and bodily organs have been irreparably shattered by high powered bullets. Children have lost parents, parents are mourning children. Lives have not only been lost but ruined, for no purpose, no gain, and no apparent reason.

Before the 1960’s the 2nd amendment to the US constitution was not interpreted as pertaining to the use of weapons by citizens without need for them for food or protection.  Certainly, our founding fathers did not have, or even image, the use of automatic or semi-automatic weapons to kill innocent people enjoying music.

Yet, here we are, in a time and place where the only limit on the amount of ammunition you can buy is how much money you have. Mass shootings are now a part of the fabric of America.  Since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the US has seen 1,518 acts of gun violence in which at least four people were wounded or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.  That’s nearly one mass shooting a day for the 1,754 days since that slaughter of the Connecticut children and teachers.  The crimes claimed the lives of 1,715 people and wounded more than 6,000 others – and Congress has not enacted any significant new gun legislation.  I repeatedly hear – but have not seen the numbers and names -that the majority of American voters want new gun control laws, but the gun lobby is funding election campaigns, and only the candidates who turn their backs on the issue of guns get the money.

I have been told that the church should not be involved in political issues. Is “Thou shall not kill” a political issue? If so, then I am out of line. If not, then we must make some changes, for the vineyard is all shot up, there is blood everywhere, and the thorns are so thick that there can be no more wine of joy.

Curiously, 3 years ago, I preached my last homily at St Charles of Brazil Parish. It was the week of the parable of the    two sons being asked by their father to work in his vineyard, which we read last week. I updated that parable this way: The father said his son named Australia, “Go to work in the vineyard of social action.”  And the son replied,   “No, I don’t want to.  It is hard and contentious work.  People will be angry and argumentative.  It costs money.”  But the son named Australia saw blood on the ground, and he went to work. Agreement came and lives were saved.

The father said to his son named America, “Go to work in the vineyard of social action.”  And this son said, “Yes, I am tired of all these tears and empty school desks.”  But it was hard and contentious work.  People were angry and argumentative.  And the son named America went home, and sat down to watch “Dancing with the Stars” to help him forget.  Who did his father’s will?

So the vineyard story has not changed, at least for the better. Our memory of the covenant/ our relationship with God remains weak.  The thieves, the murderers, the liars, the cheaters, and the ones who bribe their way through the world, have not changed.  Evil seems to be thriving.  Darkness reigns, it would seem.  The future will go very badly – unless we hear the messages of Isaiah, Jesus, and God and take action.