THIRTIETH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 25 October 2020

WHOEVER LOVES MEETS GOD

Solitude, silence, and asceticism are needed to create a climate conducive to contemplation, the “inner life” and an encounter with God. However, they will be signs of disorder if they distance us from people, if they lead to the neglect of those among whom we live. The contrast between love for people and the worship of God is founded on pagan myths and not derived from the Gospel.

A friend of humankind, Prometheus, had taught them numbers, letters, the art of domesticating animals, agriculture, navigation, and metalwork. He ascended to Olympus to steal fire from the gods and bring it to the people below. For this, Zeus had him chained to a rock in the Caucasus and ordered a vulture to eternally rend his flesh. This is how the lord of the gods poured out his grudge against the man who, having benefited people, had antagonized the gods.

Nothing is more contrary to the biblical message than Prometheus’ fate because any promotion, any human growth realizes God’s plan for humankind. “So let us love one another since he loved us first. If you say, ‘I love God’, while you hate your brother or sister, you are a liar. How can you love God whom you do not see if you do not love your brother or sister who you see? We have received from him this commandment: let those who love God also love their brothers and sisters” (1 Jn 4:19-21). With reason, from a biblical perspective, Prometheus has been called “a man after God’s own heart.” In fact, the Lord has taught his people “that a righteous person must love his human fellows” (Wis 12:19).

To internalize the message, we repeat:

“Who does not love his brother whom he sees cannot love God whom he does not see?”

Subtitles

First Reading: Exodus 22:20-26

In ancient times there were no embassies to protect citizens residing abroad. Those who, because of war, natural disasters or work, were forced to abandon their land, their own tribe or clan, often experienced oppression, injustice, and wrongdoings. To abuse foreigners, to subject them to heavy and humiliating work, to reduce them to slavery was, in many nations, the usual practice. None of this was in vogue in Israel, where the law severely prohibited injustices against these helpless people. In the Old Testament, God often warns: “Do not oppress the stranger” (Ex 23:9). The passage mentioned in today’s reading also adds to the motivation: “Love the stranger then, because you yourselves were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Dt 10:17-19).

The Israelites felt deeply united with foreigners because, over the centuries, they repeatedly had ​​the dramatic experience of exile. Their profession of faith begins with a fact: “My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down into Egypt to find refuge there” (Dt 26:5).

The recommendation of the reading “not to wrong or oppress a stranger” is the result of a complaint of discrimination arising from those belonging to a different race, ethnic group or even different social group. Then it continues: “You shall not harm the widow or the orphan…” (vv. 21-23).

 Again, we are faced with unprotected persons: the wife without a husband and children without parents easily become victims of abuse. In their defense, God stands up as the “father of orphans and protector of widows” (Ps 68:6), who “protects the stranger, sustains the widow and the orphan” (Ps 146:9).

How does one take care of these people? First of all, giving his people provisions such as this: “When you harvest the wheat in your fields, if you drop a sheaf, do not return to pick it up, but let it be there for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. When you harvest your olives, do not go back to beat the trees another time, what is left shall be for the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. When you gather the grapes in your vineyard, do not return to look for what has been left. This will be the share of the foreigner, the orphan, and the widow. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt” (Dt 24:19-21).

About this rule, the rabbis observed: all the other commandments were given by the Almighty because you knowingly observe them, but this is a precept that we fulfill unconsciously. Letting the farmer forget something, the Lord feeds the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. 

To abuse these helpless people is to provoke the wrath of God. Applying the principle of ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,’ He promises to let the culprits die by the sword, making their wives widows and their children orphans (v. 23).

 The choice of the sacred author to ascribe to the Lord the practice of the law of retaliation is extremely bold. The image, however, is effective: it serves to inculcate the idea that the God of Israel is not like the pagan gods who rejoice at the scent of incense and are placated by burnt offerings. He is the avenger (to be clear—it is just an image!) of the poor and the oppressed. “Oppression of the weak—the sages of Israel say—insults their creator” (Pro 14:31).

The reading continues with the prohibition of lending at interest (v. 24). The Hebrew word that we translate as ‘interest’ is néshek, which literally means bite. It is easy to understand why the Lord—who defends the cause of the afflicted, and the rights of the poor (Ps 140:11)—repeatedly and harshly condemns any loan of money or goods for a fee. “If your brother becomes poor and is unable to support himself, help him. Help this stranger or this guest that he may live with you. Do not take interest from him, but fear your God, so that your brother may live among you. Do not give him your silver at interest nor your food for gain. I am Yahweh, your God, who brought you out of Egypt” (Lev 25:35-38).

Finally, the last case is moving: The poor man who, in order not to starve, is forced to hand over his cloak in pledge (v. 25). It was a sleeveless cloak with rounded edges that was stuck over his head. The poor man carried it with him everywhere, as the only covering. God states that, before evening, it is to be returned to him, without any conditions. Otherwise, he would have nothing to wrap himself with when he goes to bed. If deprived of his cloak, during the night, the poor would groan because of the cold. I—says the Lord—would listen to his moan, would lend ear to his request for help and would intervene in his favor, for I am gracious.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10

The birth and development of the community of Thessalonica confirm that the power of God is present and operates, through the preaching of the Gospel (1Thes 1:5ab). Then Paul declares that his blameless life, that of Silas and Timothy gave an important testimony in favor of the authenticity of the Gospel message (v. 5c).

The Thessalonians became imitators of the three apostles and shared their courage and steadfastness in the face of attacks by the forces of evil. They also, in turn, became models for the churches in Macedonia and Achaia (vv. 6-7).

At this point, Paul gets carried away with joy and enthusiasm, and in hyperbolic form, expresses his deep appreciation for the community of Thessalonica: “The faith you have in God has become news in so many places that we need say no more about it” (v. 8).

The last part of the passage (vv. 9-10) describes the conversion of Christians at Thessalonica. They were pagans, who had rendered worship to inert and false idols. Now they have turned away from evil and have approached the one true God and Giver of life. Having chosen to follow Christ, they need not fear the future judgment that the Lord will pronounce on them. It will certainly be favorable, as it is now to the apostle.

Gospel: Matthew 22:34-40

The rabbis of Jesus’ time, in studying the Bible, had come to discover 613 commandments, 365 (such as days of the year) of which were negative, i.e., forbidden actions, and 248 (like the limbs of the human body) were positive, namely, works to be done. The women were required to observe only the negative precepts. Poor “catechists”! Explaining a commandment per day, it would take almost two years to teach them all. In the end, the earlier ones would certainly have been forgotten. If it was hard to learn them, imagine how complicated it was to observe them; to avoid sins was virtually impossible. The common folks were not able to learn the subtle distinctions and endless moral casuistry and were despised by the scribes: “Only these cursed people, who have no knowledge of the Law,” as referred to by Caiaphas (Jn 7:49).

Jesus considers this variety of rules a heavy yoke which oppresses and tires, takes the breath away and the joy of living (Mt 11:28). He warns the teachers of the law, “A curse is on you!You prepare unbearable burdens and load them on the people” (Lk 11:46).

One day, one of these scribes, perhaps a little affected, approaches Jesus in a hostile manner, and to tempt Him, he asks: “What is the great commandment in the law?” (v. 36). He means to say: all the 613 precepts are great and important and must be observed with the utmost care. They are a yoke, but “it is good for a man to bear the yoke from his youth” (Lm 3:27). How dare, then, call them “unbearable burdens,” perhaps you mean to cancel part of the law (Mt 5:17-20)?

Not all rabbis were so rigid. Many made a distinction between serious and light precepts. They also felt the need to make a summary, to find one that would unify them. The text they referred to was the famous Shema’ which every Israelite recited every day, morning and evening. Jesus Himself quotes: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all might” (Dt 6:5).  

There were also those who put the love of neighbor in the first place. It is said that one day Hillel—a famous rabbi who lived a few years before Christ—was asked to teach the whole Torah in the time that he could stand on one leg. Hillel replied: “What you do not like, don’t do to your neighbor! This is the whole Law; the rest is commentary.”

Philo, the Jewish philosopher and man of letters, a contemporary of Jesus, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt, felt that the whole law was summed up in the Ten Commandments and that this, in turn, could be summed up in love to God and neighbor. 

So was there no novelty in the response of Jesus?

Let us look at His words. The great commandment, the first, is the love of God that must involve three faculties: the heart, the soul, and the mind. 

God, first of all, is to be loved with an undivided heart (with all the heart). Today we speak of believers and atheists, but in biblical times this distinction would make no sense because atheists did not exist. Discrimination was between believers and idolaters, among those who loved the living and true God, and those who were entrusted to the dead and misleading gods. Today there are believers, people in the Church, who fulfill all religious practices, but at the same time worship their bank account, social position, honorary titles, career, power and their ambitions. They have indeed a “divided heart”; they do not love with all their heart, as Jesus claims.

 With all life (soul). The believer is required to have the willingness to sacrifice everything (money, interest, emotional ties, and rights), and even the courage to face martyrdom, while not failing in his/her faith. As it happens often, loving God and trusting him can lead to the need of making choices and heroic sacrifices. In this case, it is not permissible to resort to subterfuge and misinformation. Compromising solutions cannot be accepted for themselves, nor suggested to others.

With all your mind. Even the rational aspect is part of the love of God. Emotions cannot be the object of a commandment. It may instead be the requirement to employ all the intellect in search of the Lord and of His will. Anyone interested in futility, who spends more time with frivolous arguments, who gossips about celebrities rather than studies the Word of God, who ignores the theological and moral issues today, who does not undertake to investigate the reasons of his/her faith, is less involved in the love of God.

So far there is nothing new with regard to the Jewish faith, if not for the fact (essential for a Christian) that the discovery of God’s face and His will passes through the Revelation that comes from Christ and the love of God is the fruit of the gift of His Spirit.

After having stated what is the greatest commandment, Jesus adds that this is also the first. He makes this specification to introduce the second, which is like the first: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (v. 39), and here the more apparent novelties begin.

The qualification of “similar”—homoia in Greek—means equally largeequally important. It is equal to giving the same value to people as that of loving God. Only Jesus has placed the two commandments on the same level, giving both equal values.

In the above-mentioned response of Hillel, we certainly felt the call addressed by Jesus to His disciples: “So, do to others what you would that others do to you; there you have the Law and the Prophets” (Mt 7:12). We certainly noticed the difference: Jesus has positively turned (do …) the recommendation that Hillel negatively formulated (do not do …). The Master has been inspired by the reflections of the wisest among the rabbis to communicate the full light of His message.

With reference to the commandment of love of neighbor, He has also used the same procedure. He referred to a biblical text which the rabbis often quoted: “Do not seek revenge or nurture a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). He gave the precept a new perspective, a boundless dimension. For the Israelite “neighbor” meant the children of his people. Jesus is for every person, even the enemy (Mt 5:43-48).

The concluding statement: “The whole Law and the Prophets are founded on these two commandments”(v. 40), must be interpreted, therefore, bearing in mind similar expressions used by the rabbis. These two commandments are the point of reference for any rule. They should be taken as criteria for evaluating every precept. All laws are good if they are an expression of love. They should be rejected if they oppose it because they are a hindrance to the good of the people.

There remains one final point to clarify: the relationship between love of God and love of neighbor.

We note that in the authors of the New Testament, there is a progressive tendency to unify the two commandments. Mark, the first of the Evangelists, speaks of the first and of the second commandment. After him, Matthew retakes the same expression but adds: the second is similar, that is, equal to the first. Luke does not mention a first and a second commandment but combines them into one (Lk 10:25-28). John records the words of Jesus who speaks of only one commandment: “Now I give you a new commandment: Love one another! Just as I have loved you, you also must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35).

Later, and throughout the rest of the New Testament, there is no emphasis on two commandments, but only on one, love of people. “For the whole law—Paul reminds us—is summed up in this sentence: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal 5:14). Writing to the Romans, he recommends: “Do not be in debt to anyone. Let this be the only debt of one to another: Love. The one who loves his brother or his neighbor fulfilled the law. For the commandments, do not commit adultery, do not kill, do not covet and whatever else are summarized in this one: You will love your neighbor as yourself. Love cannot do the neighbor any harm; so love fulfills the whole Law” (Rom 13:8-10).

 We know what it means to love others, even though it is not always easy to determine how this love can be made concrete. But how do we love God?

If one continues to keep the two commandments separated, one runs the risk of putting God and the neighbor in competition and of thinking that they contend for the human heart, his time, thoughts, and interests. In such a situation, that which is given to one is removed from the other. Loving God means not subtracting something from any one in order to give it to God. The pagan gods were the ones who had created people to be served by them through offerings, sacrifices, and prostrations. The God of Jesus has never asked anything for Himself. He puts Himself at the service of people, even to bending down to wash his feet and asks us to do the same: “If such has been the love of God—John says—we too must love one another” (1Jn 4:11).

Loving this God means to assimilate His feelings towards people; it means to love the orphan, the widow, and the stranger, as God loves and protects them.

The connection between the two commandments had been noted by various rabbis. Someone, however, has also realized the reason why they support one another. It is a sublime reason we make our own: the love for people is still love turned to God because it is directed to His image (Gen 1:27).

READ:  The religious authorities in Jesus’ time took turns trying to test and trap Jesus so as to dispose of him.  This time, they ask him a religious question regarding the law that has political implications which they might use against him.  But Jesus answered them with a principle that is equally valid be it in the religious or civil sphere.  The Law of Love is the foundation of divine and human laws.

PRAY:  Love and justice should mark all our actions.  Let us pray for wisdom and prudence to balance both.

REFLECT:  Jesus sticks to the truth no matter what.  It may offend the religious and civil authorities, but the truth can withstand any form of scrutiny.  The more the opponents of Jesus waylay him with traps, the more he unmasks their hypocrisy by the truth that he brings.  No wonder they had to kill him.  In this world, the truth will always and forever be lonely.

ACT:  A cowardly or an indifferent life is hardly a life worth living.  Today, let us decide to make a stand for the truth and act on it accordingly.  Let us commit to stop even the little injustices that are done to others

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TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 18 October 2020

ENGAGED IN THE WORLD, BUT NOT OF THE WORLD

Subtitles

A human being does not live alone. One is part of a civilized society and should establish collaborative relationships with others. From the need to organize for the sake of coexistence, comes the need to determine the rights and duties to give to institutions, and to set ways and forms to contribute to the common good. It is not easy to determine what is right: Diverse interests come into play; various objectives to achieve are envisaged. There are those who claim favors, demand privileges, and inevitable tensions arise.

            To further complicate the problem, there are relations between the state system and religious institutions with their principles, norms, customs, traditions, and indispensable claims. Many, feeling subjectsof two competing powers—which often intrude each other, exchanging mutual accusations of pitch invasions—have their conscience torn. To resolve the conflict, there are those who choose fanatical and fundamentalistpositions and attempt to impose their convictions; while there are those who renounce a confrontation from which they fear coming out defeated, would only place them on the margins. 

In the famous Letter to Diognetus, composed around the middle of the second century A.D., wise and timelessprinciples are suggested: “Christians neither by country, nor language, nor customs are distinguished from other people. Living in Greece and other barbarian cities, as it happened, each one must adapt oneself to the customs of the place, in clothing, food, and rest. They witness to a way of wonderful and undoubtedly paradoxical social life. They live in their homeland, but as strangers; they participate in everything as citizensand detached from all things as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland isforeign. They marry like everyone else and have children, but do not throw newborn babies. They share their meals, but not the bed. They dwell in the land, but they have their citizenship in heaven. They obey theestablished laws and their way of life surpasses the laws. To put it short, as the soul is in the body, so areChristians in the world” (Letter to Diognetus, The Manners of the Christians V, VI, 1). 

To internalize the message, we repeat: 

Christians shine as lights in the world: exemplary citizens, consistent with their beliefs, respecting those of others.” 

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1,4-6

For the last thirty years, the Israelites were in Babylon when a prophet arose among them. He remainedanonymous but, by the oracles that his disciples have collected and entered in the book of Isaiah, his eminent personality shines through. He was a poet, one of the finest that Israel ever had, a sensitive man, educated and attentive to the social and political upheavals involving his people. A brilliant theologian, he was able to discern the plan of the salvation of God beyond what others thought were simple events, alliances, diplomatic intrigues, military campaigns.

            In today’s passage, he reveals what the Lord is about to do on behalf of his people: Babylon, the bloody, the damned, is powerful, but not for long, because a new star arose in the horizon. He is the Persian king Cyrus, the skillful leader, who, with a series of victorious expeditions conquers and subjects all thekingdoms of Asia Minor and the Orient, one after the other. He finally directs against Babylon, where he meets no resistance and enters triumphantly. As the undisputed ruler of the world, he issues an edict in which hepresents himself as the savior of the oppressed, the defender of the weak, and the pious man God uses to accomplish his plans. He orders the release of all the exiled. If they so desire, they can return to the land of their fathers, practice their religion, or rather, he himself wants to contribute to the reconstruction of places of worship destroyed by the soldiers of Babylon (Ezr 1:1-4).

            After this historical introduction, it is easy to understand today’s reading, where the Lord, through the mouth of this prophet, presents Cyrus as the Chosen One: I have taken you by the right hand to subdue nations before you, to open the gateways before you so that they will be closed no more” (v. 1). Then, as it happens in the oracles of the enthronement of a king (Ps 2:10), God speaks directly to the new sovereign: I have called you by your name, and given you your mission, although you do not know me” (vv. 4-5).

            God gave a unique title to Cyrus: anointed. (In Hebrew, mashiah, from which the word “Messiah” is derived; from its Greek translation, Christos, we have the title “Christ.” Applied to kings, “anointed” originally referred only to those of Israel, but it is here given to Cyrus because he is the agent of the Lord.) The Lord has given him more: “My shepherd and he goes to fulfill my will” (Is 44:28); “He will rebuild my city. He will send my exiles home.” He whom “I spurred for justice” and before him “I will level all ways” (Is 45:13). These expressions almost suppose that Cyrus is deemed by the prophet as the awaited savior, the Messiah, the king who reigns from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Ps 72:8).

He was not. He was merely the instrument of the Lord to liberate the people from the bondage of Babylon, and—this is the surprise—he completed this work of salvation without knowing it. Note the insistenceon this fact: “Although you do not know me … even if you do not know me” (vv. 4,5). The confirmation comes from the famous Cylinder of Cyrus, where the stunning victories of this king are not attributed to the Lord, butto the protection of the god Marduk. “Marduk casts his eyes on all the countries looking for one who will governwith integrity. He spoke the name of Cyrus so that he may dominate the world. Marduk, the great god, was pleased with him and sat beside him, as a true friend.” Cyrus was believed to be the elect of the god of the Babylonians. He was instead led by the hand of Israel’s God, the one God, the one Lord, “and there is no other” (v. 6).

            The prophet’s words are an invitation to watch the events and history of the world through new eyes: people and nations are stirred, are driven by interests and passions, have outbursts of generosity and selfish withdrawals, but the Lord leads them and everything to enter into his plan of salvation. Even the atheists and unbelievers often have given ​​and continue to give an important contribution to the purification of faith and religion and of human liberation, without knowing they were involved in the projects of God.

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b

Today and for the next four Sundays, passages of the First Letter to the Thessalonians will be read.

Thessalonica was a rich, commercial metropolis that stood in the inner part of the Gulf of Thessaloniki. It was named after the sister of Alexander the Great, wife of the general Cassander, founder of the city. It was protected by massive walls which, starting from the sea, surrounding the hill on which stood the Acropolis. The geographer Strabo describes it as “populous, carefree and open to all novelties, both good and bad.” Like allport cities, it was not a model of morality: prostitutes, vagrants, idle people, charlatans roamed the street, but it was also inhabited by honest and hardworking people.

Paul arrived there in 50 A.D. and, as was his custom, he announced Christ first of all to the Jews who gathered in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. The results were rather disappointing; few believed his preaching. He had greater success when he preached to the Gentiles who adhered to faith in considerable numbers, among them also quite a few noble women (Acts 17:1-9). 

After a few weeks, a turmoil caused by the Jews forced him to abandon the city hastily, before beingable to explain to his disciples the central themes of faith; hence the belief that he had left behind a ratherfragile community.

Even the successive stages of his journey were marked by difficulties and failures. At the Areopagus inAthens, he tried the approach with the intellectuals of Greece, but the experience was disappointing: “Whenthey heard Paul speak of a resurrection from death, some made fun of him, while others said, ‘We must hear you on this topic some other time.’ But some joined him and became believers” (Acts 17:32-34). 

From Athens, he came to Corinth, the city with two harbors, known around the world for the dissolute life of its inhabitants and therefore seemingly less suitable soil for the seed of the Gospel. Paul was discouraged, and he decided to talk about Christ in the synagogue only on Saturdays and spent the rest of the week on his own profession as a manufacturer of tents (Acts 18:1-4).

One day Silas and Timothy, companions of apostolic labors, came to Thessalonica. They brought back amazing and unexpected news. The Thessalonian community had developed, grown lush and had become a model of faith and practice of fraternal charity. They faced persecution, harassment, and the intimidation of non-believers. They enjoyed the esteem of the pagans for the integral life that the baptized were leading. Allretained a nostalgic remembrance of Paul. They were immensely grateful to him because through him theyhad been introduced to the faith and consigned to Christ. They were eagerly awaiting his visit.

Startled, almost in disbelief, Paul had been listening to his friends. He took courage and decided to fully devote himself again to the proclamation of the Gospel (Acts 18:5). Still excited, he wrote, also in the name ofSilas and Timothy, a letter to the Thessalonians. 

That’s how the first book of the New Testament was born. We are in the year 51 A.D. In the first fiveverses taken from today’s reading, Paul confesses the joy he feels every time he thinks of the Christians in Thessalonica. In fact, he has heard that their community is well-grounded in faith, in hope and in charity (v. 3). 

These three virtues are characterized and linked. The work of faith, first of all: the Thessalonians didn’t limit themselves to accepting and repeating some abstract formulas but have translated their faith into concrete actions, in diligent charity, in verifiable actions by all.

Their hope is unwavering; it is not diminishing in the face of any difficulty and trial, not even before the danger of losing their lives. 

In the spiritual progress made ​​by the community of Thessalonica, Paul sees the work of God and the power of the Spirit. He was discouraged because he had found his weakness but now rejoices, verifying howGod manages to carry through his works.


Gospel: Matthew 22:15-21

The passage’s final sentence is one of the most famous, but also the most enigmatic. It is not easy to establish the meaning, so it is not always mentioned apropos. It is sometimes used by those in power to ask the Church hierarchy not to meddle in political affairs. Other times these are the ones reminding the rulers toassert its right to defend and proclaim the values ​​that flow from the Gospel. It was used, however, by those who supported the papal hierocracy and advocated the caesaropapism against those who defended thesecular state. They also dreamt of subjecting the state to the religious power by sacralizing the institutions andjustifying the temporal power of the Church. Someone, more simply, uses it as an invitation to give everyone what they deserve.

To understand the phrase, there is a need to place it in the context of the dialogue from where it came from. 

The Emperor of Rome demanded of each of his subjects an annual monetary payment to the treasury. Those  who had attained the age of fourteen (man), twelve (woman) and up to sixty-five years were obliged to pay. It was the tributum capitis or testatico for which the heinous censuses were done often provoking popular uprisings (Lk 2:1-5; Acts 5:37). Counting the people who belonged to God was equivalent, for the pious Israelite, to shielding one from the authority of the Lord and to enslaving one to a human power. For this reason, after the census, David felt his heart beat and said, “I have sinned greatly in what I have done; I have acted foolishly” (2 S 24:10). 

One day the Pharisees, accompanied by supporters of Herod, present themselves to Jesus. In a veryrespectful way, having recognized his love for the truth and his rejection of compromise, ask him a tricky question: “Master, we know that you are an honest man and truly teach God’s way. You are not influenced by others nor are you afraid of anyone. So tell us what you think: is it against the Law to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” (vv. 16-17). 

This alliance between the Pharisees and Herodians is strange. They first thought it impious to supportthe Roman occupation; the latter were instead supporters of Herod Antipas, the puppet with no personality, dominated by Emperor Tiberius, and they were collaborators. We find them allied against Jesus because heannoyed both. He was loyal and refused all forms of hypocrisy.

Their question is worded in such a way as to make it impossible for any loophole: If one is against the payment of taxes, he could be denounced to the Roman authorities as a subversive. (In fact, according to Lk 23:2, before Pilate they accused him of inciting the people not to pay taxes to Caesar). If he is in favor, he attracts the antipathy of the people who hate the Roman colonizers.

All taxes are reluctantly paid anywhere but, to make the tribute odious, a religious cause was added in Palestine. The money required had on one side a representation of the Emperor of Rome and the inscription: “Tiberius Caesar, august son of the divine Augustus” and on the back the title “Supreme Pontiff” with the image of a seated woman, a symbol of peace, perhaps Livia, the mother of Tiberius. In 1960 about thirty pieces of these coins were found on Mount Carmel. 

It is known that the Israelites disliked human images, prohibited by their law. Using the money of Tiberius meant to give one’s consent to a form of idolatry. Jesus is aware of the pitfalls that they have laid for him. He does not avoid the question. As he usually does, he skillfully leads the interlocutors at the root of the problem.

He wants them first to show him the money. They naively reach out under the tunic where they usuallyhide the money (clothes at that time had no pockets) and they present it to him. They do not realize that Jesusis playing with them: first, he asks for the money. It means that he does not possess it (for he does not even have a stone to lay his head; Mt 8:20), and if they pull it out, it means that they use it without any problem. They receive it for their services, and with it, they buy the products at the market. What’s more, the disputetakes place in the precincts of the temple (Mt 21:23), and in the holy place, and they do not bother to profane itby showing that image. They have scruples only when they have to pay taxes.

After looking at the money Jesus asks, “Whose image is this?” “Caesar’s,” they say. “So—he concludes—give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s” (v. 21). 

The first message that Jesus wants to give is clear. It is a moral duty as well as civil to contribute to the common good with the payment of tribute. There is no reason that justifies tax evasion or theft of state assets. Whatever the policy and economic choice of the government, the disciple of Christ is called to be an honest and exemplary citizen. He is actively engaged in building a just society and shuns the subterfuge. He makespolitical choices that favor the weakest, not those that safeguard their own interests.

Writing to the Romans, Paul restates in more explicit terms the directive of the Master. We are at the beginning of Nero’s reign—the Emperor is in his twenties and for three years he initially governs in a lenientand moderate way. Here’s what the apostle recommends to the Christians in the capital: Let everyone be subject to no authority that does not come from God, and the offices have been established by God. Whoever, therefore, resists authority goes against a decree of God and those who resist deserve to be condemned. It is necessary to obey not through fear but as a matter of conscience. In the same way, you must pay taxes and the collectors are God’s officials. Pay to all what is due them, to whomever you owe contributions, make a contribution; to whom taxes are due, pay taxes; to whom respect is due, give respect” (Rom 13:1-7). 

Jesus’ answer, however, is not limited to state the duty to contribute to the common good with the payment of taxes. He adds: “Give to God what is God’s.”

The verb he uses more precisely means “to return.” Looking to the present, therefore, he says, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and return to God what is God’s.” They are not only holding back the money that should be handed over to the emperor, but they also seized illegally and unjustly, a property ofGod. They must give it back right away because he claims it; it is his.

Tertullian already in 200 A.D. realized that he was the person that was handed back to God. Creating him, in fact, he had said: Let us make man in our image, to our likeness. So God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him” (Gen 1:26-27). 

If the coin had to be “returned” to Caesar because on it was stamped the face of his master, the person must be “returned” to God. The human being is the only creature on whom the face of God is imprinted. He is sacred and no one can take him as his own. Those who make them their own (enslave, oppress, exploit, dominate, and use them, as an object) should immediately return him to his Lord.

READ:    The hostility between Jesus and the religious authorities built up day-by-day.  Because of this, the Pharisees plotted with the Herodians on how to trap Jesus.  They tried to trip him with a question that will either implicate Jesus on religious grounds or if not, on political grounds.  Jesus sidestepped the trap with a clever reply.

ACT:  To be just, we have to do just acts.  Let us start by working for justice not just advocating it.

REFLECT:  If one were to settle the question as to whom our lives belong, one must look at the engraved image in our souls – whose would it be? Caesar’s or God’s who has shaped, known, and called us even before we were born?  Let us give to God what belongs to God – our very lives.

PRAY: Let us ask that justice will reign in our land starting with ourselves and our community.  Let us pray for a true sense of belongingness to God and his Kingdom.

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TWENTY-EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 11 October 2020

INVITED TO DANCE WITH GOD

Subtitles

The Kingdom of God is the central theme of Jesus’ preaching. He begins his public life by announcing: “The Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk 1:15). Then, using many parables, he gradually reveals “the mysteries” (Mt 13). That one of the last hour workers (Mt 20:1-16) is certainly the most puzzling. Jesus told it toemphasize both the gratuitousness of the call and the commitment required of one who enters the Kingdom of God. It cannot be denied that it is tiring to remain faithful to Christ. But if being a disciple involves considerable efforts, how could the grievances of the workers hired at six in the morning and paid like those who arrived at five in the evening not be considered justified?

If you set the relationship with God in terms of a not equally remunerated work, if the award received inheaven is not proportionate to the accumulated merit, then one may think that he who sets foot in the kingdomof heaven at the last moment, who is lucky enough to “die in the grace of God” after he “had enjoyed life” away from him, is blessed.

This is the mentality that creates the careless (one who is indifferent to the calls to faith), the latecomer(who compromises in doing good as late as possible), the unruly (who keeps the commandments under stressand fear of hell), and the shabby (the baptized person who continues to act as a semi-pagan). Only he who understands that the Kingdom of God is a feast, a banquet, decidedly enters without delay, because he does not want to miss even a moment of joy that is offered to him. 

Voice Over

To internalize the message, we repeat: 

Standing on the threshold of your house, O Lord, give more joy than to dwell in the palaces of the wicked.” 

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-10a

In ancient times only important people could afford a great banquet. Kings organized them often for political reasons: inviting those with whom they wanted to form alliances or to strengthen bonds of friendship. The banquets celebrating certain recurrences or victory over enemies were particularly sumptuous (cf. Est 1:1-8; Dn 5).

In today’s reading, the prophet presents himself as the herald of a sensational announcement. Not a rulerof this world but God will give a banquet, of which he lists the menu: rich food, all kinds of tasty meats, fine and choice wines (v. 6) … stuff to overload the imagination of the poor people of Israel, who used to eat only once a day and not always. 

Even the rabbis are delighted to quibble about the courses offered in this banquet. Starting from the factthat the Bible is reminiscent of a sea monster called Leviathan, who was killed by God and given as meat to the people who lived in the wilderness” (Ps 74:14), they concluded that the main food of the righteous will be the meat of this mythical fish. It is for this reason that in Israel, even today, at the Friday evening dinner, whenthe Sabbath begins, it is customary to eat fish, to remind all pious people of the heavenly banquet that awaits them.

Who will be the guests? — the eager listeners anxiously asked. All the peoples of the earth, without exception, is the answer. All of them will be called to the same table. The people who hated each other before, who committed violence, who struggled to subjugate the land and the goods, will rejoice together. 

Not only will they eat. They will witness extraordinary events and unheard facts will happen. The Lord willdrop the veil, he will destroy the pall cast over the people (v. 7) and everyone will be able to contemplate him, seated at the table next to them. Then he will destroy death forever and will wipe away the tears from all cheeks and eyes …” (v. 8). 

The prophet was not so naive as to think that one day biological death would no longer exist; rather he announced the demise of what is human death and defeat: life without meaning or ideals, the mockery of failure and pain, hunger, disease, exclusion. Anything that is “non-life” will be eliminated, “for Yahweh has spoken” (v. 8). In no other text of the Old Testament are found so extraordinary promises. 

The banquet, of course, will be enlivened by music, songs, and dances. The reading concludes with the text of a hymn seemed composed to be rendered by the participants in chorus: This is our God. We have waited for him to save us, let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For on this mountain the hand of Yahweh rests” (vv. 9-10).

The prophet alludes to the Messianic times but did not realize the extent of the promises that, in the nameof God, he was doing. He never imagined that one day the Lord would indeed destroy death forever. Paul, enlightened by the events of Easter, instead, will understand it. He will write to the Corinthians: “When our perishable being puts on imperishable life, when our mortal being puts on immortality, the words of Scripture will be fulfilled: Death has been swallowed up by victory” (1 Cor 15:54).

The seer of the Apocalypse will understand that, at the appearance of the new heavens and the new earth, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4) as Isaiah had predicted.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:12-14,19-20

With today’s passage, the Letter to the Philippians concludes. A few, moving lines, from which profound feelings of friendship that binds Paul to that Christian community transpire. The apostle recalls first of all the hardships, privations, the opposition that he endured for the sake of the Gospel: “I know what it is to be in want and what is to have plenty. I am trained for both: to be hungry or satisfied, to have much or little” (v. 12).

He is imprisoned in Ephesus, not for common crimes, but for having served Christ. There he received the gifts sent to him by the Philippians. Paul is an austere man and is accustomed to a hard life, persecution, and starvation. However, in front of their generous gesture, he is moved and says: thank you for doing right in sharing my trials (v. 14). 

Whoever risks his life for the sake of the Gospel remains a person, with all the emotions and feelings. He is hurt by the ingratitudes, but rejoices in the expressions of esteem and affection. Above all, he who has given up everything for the sake of the Kingdom, to form one’s own family, feels deeply this need for friendship. Whoever appreciates the message of salvation that he proclaims, must in some way manifests his gratitude. 

At the end of the letter, Paul ensures that God loves and protects his envoys and will superabundantly reward the gestures of generosity done to them (v. 19). 

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

In Jesus’ time, the Gan Eden—Garden of Eden—was fabled among the people where the righteous would enjoy every happiness. In the light of Isaiah’s well-known prophecy that we found in the First Reading, it isimagined as a sumptuous banquet where “wine stored in the cluster of the six days of creation” would be served as the beverage. It is represented as a place where there would be no need to spread aromas andperfumes, because “a wind from the north and from the south blowing between the aromatic plants of GanEden would spread their fragrance everywhere.”

The rabbis continued with promises of even greater joy. They asked: “Can a guest prepare a banquet fortravelers, without sitting at the table with them? Can a groom prepare a banquet for the guests, without sittingnext to them?” Their answer was: “In the afterlife, the Holy One, may He be blessed, will have a dance for the righteous in Gan Eden and will sit in their midst, and each will point to him saying: behold, he is our God, as we expected him, we will enjoy his salvation.”

It is against this cultural background that the parable proposed to us today is projected. We immediately notice that the perspective of the Kingdom of God preached by Jesus, however, is considerably different from that of the rabbis. They announced a Gan Eden prepared for the afterlife, the banquet of the Kingdom of Godwhich Jesus speaks is laden in the here and now. It is the new condition wherein he who welcomes the gift of his Spirit, who believes in his proposal of joy, who trusts his beatitudes, enters. 

In the whole parable, the atmosphere is one of joy and celebration, but there are also two unexpected, dramatic moments: in the center, there is a city in flames, and in the epilogue, a victim is thrown out into the darkness. We will try to grasp the meaning even of these two scenes, but we begin first to identify the characters.

The wedding feast is the biblical image of the encounter of love between the Lord and Israel. In the parable, the bridegroom is Jesus, he is the Son, and the bride is the whole of humanity which, although presenting many unattractive aspects (hate, war, injustice, tears of the innocent and so on) is madly loved by God.

The banquet is the happiness of the Messianic era. Whoever accepts the proposal of the Gospel and enters into the Kingdom of God experiences the most authentic and deep joy. In the Bible, the Kingdom of Godis not compared to a chapel where everyone prays devoutly and attentively. It is not imagined as a convent where one doesn’t hear the slightest noise, where nobody disturbs the meditation and ecstasy of others, but it is a banquet, where people meet, eat, and drink their fill and talk as they party. 

In the First Reading, the prophet promised that God would organize a banquet to celebrate the victory over death. Easter is the time of God’s triumph and is also the day on which the indissoluble marriages between Christ and humanity are celebrated. From then on, they no longer sense the sadness, mistrust, and despair; all deaths were won; all the graves were opened wide.

The servants who have the task of taking the call are divided into three groups. The first two are theprophets of the Old Testament, until John the Baptist. They have carried out the task of preparing Israel to welcome Jesus, the bridegroom. They have not been successful. The third group indicates the apostles and all of us; the results obtained by them are much better. 

The first invitees did not come to the party; they didn’t have the heart to abandon their interests, the field, and business (v. 5). They did not need a banquet; they felt satiated, believed that they already have what is needed for a life without problems. They represent the spiritual leaders of Israel, satisfied with the given religious structure that offered them security before all and before God.

Those who are not aware of their poverty, who do not hunger and thirst for a new world, will never enter theKingdom of God. They will adapt to the meanness with which they usually live. Only the poor are able to understand the gratuitousness of God’s love.

The guests, gathered along the streets and squares, are people of the whole world. It is no coincidencethat, in the original text, the good and the bad are not spoken about—as is instead shown in our translation (v. 10)—but of the bad and the good, without distinction. In fact, it gives priority to those who do not have merits.It’s a subtle way of alluding to the complete gratuitousness of God’s love and the fact that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly” (Rom 5:6).

The presence of good and evil in the Church is a theme taken up again by Matthew. One who enters into the Kingdom of God does not immediately become perfect. He brings with him all his miseries, weaknesses,and moral infirmity. The people of God are made up of those who are bad and good. It is a field where they continue to grow with the wheat and tares, or a sea where a net brings together all sorts of fish.

It is an invitation to cultivate an understanding of human weakness and to keep the doors open to all in our communities. The poor, the marginalized, those who feel rejected in the Church must find a place where they feel accepted, understood and valued. 

Before moving on to the second part of the passage, the detail of the city on fire (v. 7) should be clarified. It was certainly introduced to Matthew in the parable told by Jesus. In fact, the verse interrupts the story and if one takes it off, the story would flow more logically. It is difficult to imagine a banquet that begins, then, in the middle, it makes war, and in the end the dishes are still there ready on the table and the guests were still kept waiting.

The evangelist wanted to make a theological reading of the destruction of Jerusalem, which has already occurred when he wrote his Gospel. The early Christians considered this tragic event as a punishment from God for the rejection of the Messiah by Israel. 

We are faced with an interpretation that strikes our sensibility. We know that God is not responsible for the disasters caused by our nonsensical behavior. It is quite an archaic way to express themselves. It is derived from the language of the Old Testament where they are often called chastisements of God which in reality are the consequences of sin. Here, for example, as Isaiah explains the disasters which Israel met: “For they have rejected the law of Yahweh Sabaoth and scorned the word of the Holy One of Israel. Therefore, the Lord, his wrath burning against his people, raises his hand against them and strikes them down” (Is 5:24-25). It would not be a fidelity to the sacred text, but foolish fundamentalism, repeating these expressions today that, in our culture, have a completely different meaning. It is, therefore, necessary to transpose and reformulate the image to make it understandable to our contemporaries.

Here’s how the message could be proposed today. The one who rejects the Lord’s pressing invitations to take part in the banquet of the Kingdom of God, condemns himself to destruction, will see his life reduced to ashes, and all that he built will not be noticed as it ends like fuming waste. (1 Cor 3:13). 

As always though, God uses even the disasters caused by sin to bring forward a project of goodness. Helets them realize what his plan of salvation is. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the rejection of the Messiah by Israel have, in fact, facilitated the entry of the Gentiles into the Church. “You did not belong to the community of Israel; the covenants of God and his promises were not for you; you had no hope and were without God in this world” (Eph 2:12). They now can rightfully sit as guests at the banquet. The conclusion is as simple as touching: And the room was full” (v. 10). Not one is missing; all the children are gathered around the table of the Father; the party can begin.

The curtain could fall on this sweet and charming scene. Instead, here the parable continues with an episode that seems to ruin everything. The king enters the room, browses at the guests and gets angry with avictim who did not wear the proper attire. He treats him with unprecedented harshness, even unjustified,considering the venial sin (vv. 11-13). Those who joined the joyful feast cannot but be stunned. How do youexplain that?

It soon becomes evident that this part of the story is disconnected from the previous one. It does not agree with what has been said. Why wonder that there is someone without a wedding dress if the people were gathered on the street, in the fields, on the squares? It would be more surprising finding one wearing a gala attire. But what is out of place is the split personality of the sovereign. He acts like a schizophrenic: at first, he is generous and kind to the most unfortunate, then, suddenly, he gets upset, becomes terrible, even cruel.

The explanation is quite simple. The second part of the parable is not the continuation of the first. It is a new parable that is isolated and interpreted without reference to the previous one. 

The theme that the evangelist wants to focus on is the possibility, even for those who have accepted the invitation to enter into the Kingdom of God, to turn away from the logic of the Gospel. They risk failure as those who declined the invitation.

The new life of the Christian is often compared in the New Testament to a new dress, worn on the day of baptism. It is not enough to have received the sacrament; one needs to assume the appropriate behavior. One cannot present oneself with the rags of old life: adultery, dishonesty, disloyalty and moral debauchery. One cannot be content to put a new patch on the old garment but needs to completely change the kit. It must set life on the altogether new values. 

As for the punishment inflicted on the guest without a wedding attire, it should be noted, above all, that thisrough way of expressing oneself is typical of Matthew. Only he often uses the expression “thrown out into extreme darkness” (Mt 8:12; 23:30) and “where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Mt 13:42-50; 23:30; 24:51 …). The other evangelists do not use such language. 

Matthew writes to the Jews who are used to be encouraged and reprimanded by their preachers with thesestrong expressions. These images are linked to the time and culture of the people of Israel. This fact should bekept in mind to avoid having an absurd and even blasphemous image of God, a God without heart and withoutmercy.

The purpose of the evangelist is to remind Christians—of his and our communities—of the seriousness of which they assume and carry out their baptismal commitments. 

The last sentence: “Many (i.e., “all”) are called, but few are chosen” (v. 14) is not related to any of the two parables that precede it. In them, the elect is many (almost all) and few are refused (only one). 

We are faced with a saying that Jesus spoke in a different context. Matthew has inserted it here to shakewith an affirmation the lethargy and apathy of some Christians of his community. It is often interpreted as an indication of the limited number of those who will enter paradise. However, here Jesus is not speaking of heaven, but of the Kingdom of God, the new world in which one enters by adhering to his challenging proposal of life. All are invited, but few have the courage to take the decisive step. The majority hesitates, dithers, and slackens. They are uncertain, not entirely convinced, that inside they will find a laden table. It’s faltering to give up the security that comes from what they already have. Jesus warns against the risk of losing valuable time. One could arrive late when others are already having their cake or their fruit.

READ:  Jesus elaborates on the gratuitous banquet with the imagery of a wedding reception.  The invited guests did not come preferring to attend instead to their own affairs.  Some even did violence to the servants sent by the king and killed them.  In anger, the king retaliated and having annihilated the ungrateful invited guests, he sent his servants once again to invite anyone who cared to come.  But one had to be in festal garments when entering or risk the chance of being thrown out of the banquet hall.

PRAY:  Today might be a good day to say a prayer of thanks to God who befriended us.  Let us also pray for all people in the world to accept the invitation to the Kingdom.

REFLECT:  The invitation to the banquet of the Kingdom is freely offered to all.  Everyone is invited.  However, not everyone accepts it.  And those who accept must play by the rules of the Kingdom.  That is why the one without the wedding garment is thrown out.  Sometimes we have an erroneous understanding of God’s mercy – that he forgives everything and therefore, everything goes.  It doesn’t.

ACT:  What qualities should we develop in order to be more effective in the mission entrusted to us.  Let us do something good to someone today as an act of gratitude to God.  

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TWENTY-SEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – 4 OCTOBER 2020

CHRIST: THE STONE THAT SHATTERS OUR IDOLS

SUBTITLES

The last verse of Psalm 137—the famous song of exiles—is always carefully ignored. After the poignantreminder of the tears of the exiles along the rivers of Babylon, the poet, addressing the bloody city, exclaims:“Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps 137:9). The concluding verse of today’s Gospel raises an embarrassment. It is not carried in the lectionary text. Referring to Christ—the stone which the builders rejected—the evangelist comments: “Whoever falls on this stone, he will be broken to pieces; on whomever this stone falls, he will be ground to dust” (Mt 21:44). 

These images are disconcerting. They suddenly illumine each other if one catches their reference to the scene described in the book of Daniel: a stone—not driven by human hands—comes off from the top and hits a colossal, beautiful looking but a terrible statue that collapses and falls apart (Dn 2:31​-35). It’s the idol that, in his foolishness, man himself built and from its slavery, he can no longer free himself. It is the unjust, corrupt and inhuman society the person created and of which he remains a victim. 

It’s the idol that, in his foolishness, man himself built and from its slavery, he can no longer free himself. It is the unjust, corrupt and inhuman society the person created and of which he remains a victim. 

Christ and his Gospel are “the stone” hurled by God against this monstrous structure. They are “the stone” that shatters the logic of this world, the tricks, the cunning and above all the foolish images people made for themselves of God. The stone is intended to shatter the plans of the wicked and smash their children. The wicked will not have offspring, will remain without posterity, and no future because God will vanish all doers of iniquity. This is the good news. 

The great of this world—the builders of the new “Tower of Babel”—discard this stone because it does not fittheir plans, it messes up their dreams, destroys their kingdoms. They tried to eliminate it, but God chose it asthe rock of salvation. Whoever puts it as the foundation of his life will not be disappointed. 

VOICE OVER

To internalize the message, we repeat: 

“We are the Lord’s vineyard, which fruits can we offer him?” 

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

“In the last days …nations will not raise sword against nation…one will sit in peace and freedom under a fig tree or a vine of his own and none shall make them afraid” (Mic 4:1-4). With this lovely bucolic image, Micahdescribes the peaceful and happy life every Israelite sought. The vineyard was a symbol of peace, family union, joy, and feast. The beloved of the Song of Songs dreamed of running between the rows, hand in hand with her beloved in a cool spring morning: “Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the buds have opened and the pomegranates have blossomed. There I will give you my love” (Song 7:13). The bride of the man blessed by God is like a vine, will bear fruits in your home” (Ps 128:3).

In this cultural context, in which the vineyard is associated with the call to love, the poem proposed to us today is born. It is rightly counted among the masterpieces of the world’s literature. It describes the passion ofa farmer for his vineyard, a yearning affection, like that of a lover for the woman of his life. At home, on the street, with friends, he speaks of no one but her. 

The poet imagines himself to be the friend of this “bridegroom” and says: My beloved had a vineyard on afertile hillside …” (v. 1). An excellent vineyard, grapes purchased from abroad, chosen strains favored among thousands. It had been planted on a sunny slope, the ideal place to get those clusters that already in July are tinged with violet, a grape’s sign of exquisite flavor and a harbinger of a good and strong wine. The land was freed of thorns, weeds and stones, gathered at the edge of the field. They made ​​up the wall and the tower ofprotection against thieves and wild beasts. 

No care, no concern, no effort had been spared. The tenderness of the beloved transpires even by the insistence with which he keeps repeating the expression ‘my vineyard’: Now inhabitants of Jerusalem, judge between me and my vineyard. What was more there to do that I have not done for my vineyard? Now I will let you know what I am going to do with my vineyard” (vv. 3-5).

At this point, the reader is anxious to know the result of the story. What will the lavishly cared for vineyard produce? In the second stanza (vv. 3-4) the dramatic surprise of the peasant is told: He is expecting a yield of excellent grapes, instead, it yields only wild, bitter, inedible grapes (v. 4). As in the betrayed and disappointed lover’s heart, love turns into disappointment, resentment, and anger. The farmer decides to inflict a terriblepunishment to his vineyard: he will break down the wall, will let the wayfarers enter to trample on it, wild animals to devastate it, the brambles and briers to invade it until she chokes. He will neither prune nor hoe it. He will command the clouds not to send the beneficial rain and dew on it (vv. 5-6).

The last verse (v. 7) explains the meaning of the image: the vineyard is Israel; she is the choice and precious vine that God has acquired in Egypt. The prophet Hosea, a few years before, had said: “Israel was a spreading vine, rich in fruit” (Hos 10:1). 

The author of Psalm 80 develops the details of the removal of the “stones”—the people who occupiedPalestine before the arrival of the Israelites—a detail that is only hinted at in our poem: You had a vine you brought from Egypt. You drove the nations out to plant it in their land. On the ground that you cleared it took root and filled the land” (Ps 80:9-10). 

The tower of protection was the dynasty of David.

Israel responded with infidelity and rebellion to a lot of love. The fruits (the good and sweet grape) that the Lord was waiting for were faithfulness to the covenant, social justice, help to the poor, the orphan, and the widow. What did he find? Instead he found cries of the oppressed and exploited people, lies in courts, hatred, bloodshed, a religion of processions, pilgrimages to the temple, and rites which did not correspond to the conversion of the heart.

In the original text, there is a curious play on words: justice and righteousness (that God expected of his people) are terms similar to bloodshed and cries of the oppressed (which is what Israel produces). Who hears them pronounced may even confuse them (mishpat = righteousness and mishpah = bloodshed; tzedakah =justice and tze’aqah = cries of the oppressed). At first sight, the wild grape may seem good, but only in appearance. 

In the allegory of the vineyard there are two opposing attitudes: that of God who manifests a concrete love(he prepares the soil, plants choicest vines, protects it with a tower, digs a wine press) and the people who, neglecting justice, is satisfied with exterior rites and devout prayers (cf. Is 1:11-17). 

The severe denunciation of Isaiah is presented again to the Christians of today. The danger of the illusionof being right with God because they are flawless in the execution of religious practices is incumbent upon them.

Because of her infidelity, Israel has gone to meet national disaster. It was invaded by foreign peoples(Assyrians, Babylonians…) who devastated the vineyard of the Lord” and reduced Jerusalem to a hut in a melon field” (Is 1:8). This destruction is the symbol of sterility of one who ignores, mistakes, neglects the attention and kindness that God has for him.

Second Reading: Philippians 4:6-9

In the reading’s first verses (vv. 6-7), Paul says that nothing can destroy the peace and joy of a Christian. Nothing can distress him if he remains united to God in prayer.

In the second part (v. 8) a list of human virtues that Christians are encouraged to cultivate in their lives is presented. It is about the quality and behaviors that are appreciated by everyone, everywhere—what makesone nice, lovely, honored, and respected, must be practiced by every Christian. One cannot claim to be a disciple of Christ if one is not loyal, honest, integral, and respectable. 

Without fear of contradiction, Paul, putting aside false modesty, dares to stand as a model of these behaviors (v. 9). His recommendation is an invitation to Christians of today to grow sweet, friendly, respectful traits before everyone, especially to non-believers. 


Gospel: Matthew 21:33-43

As the prophet Isaiah, Jesus also uses the image of the vineyard to describe the work of God and person’s response. However, the scene is quite different. The personages change: in the foreground, God and the vineyard that produces bitter and inedible grapes are not there but there is the owner, God, and his dependents, identified as the high priests and the spiritual guides of the people to whom the parable is directed (Mt 21:23). Then the vineyard is not sterile; it seems to bear fruit, but these are not delivered. Finally, the conclusion is different: there is no abandonment, devastation of the vineyard, but a new beginning, an intervention of salvation, a replacement of the inept workers.

We come to the parable. A master plants a vineyard, with a hedge around it, digs a mill there, builds a tower, entrusts it to tenants and goes. 

When the time of harvest arrived, he sent his servants to collect the produce, but here’s the surprise: the farmers do not want to deliver the benefits. The first hypothesis one thinks is that they want to keep the produce for themselves. There is another possibility, perhaps more likely, they have no fruit to present. They may not have worked. They may have spent time in carousing and drunkenness or have worked badly.

Some of them began to make fun of the master’s envoys, then the insults, beatings and finally the killing ofsome servants. The landlord does not give up; he loves his vineyard too much. Then he sends other servantsmore numerous than the first, but even these have no luck. As a final attempt, he sends his son, but theworkers in the vineyard hunt him out and kill him. They are convinced of being able to be masters of the field that has been entrusted to them.

As in the First Reading, all the details of the Gospel story have a symbolic meaning.

The master is the Lord who has lavished so much care and expressed an immense love for his people (v. 33). The hedge is the Torah, the law that God has revealed to his people, to protect it from enemies, that is, from the proposals of senseless life that would lead it to ruin. The tenants are the chiefs, religious and political leaders, whose task is to place the people in ideal conditions to produce the fruits that the owner expects. The fruits are identified by the First Reading. They are the works of love for the neighbor and social justice.

The two groups of envoys are the prophets who, before and after the exile, were sent, always more numerous, to warn Israel to be faithful to the covenant. That’s how God expresses himself by the mouth ofJeremiah: “From the time I brought their forebears out of Egypt until this day I have continually sent them my servants, the prophets, but this stiff-necked people did not listen. They paid no attention and were worse than their forebears” (Jer 7:25-26). The fate of these men was dramatic: beatings, stoning (2 Chr 24:21), fetters and chains (Jer 20:2), death by the sword (Jer 26:23). They should not expect anything else: they were the mouthpiece of God and of his wisdom, too far from the absurd and unacceptable thoughts of men. That is whythe tenants want to take possession of the field, claim to manage the “vineyard” by themselves. They represent those who want to do without God and consider His gifts good to be appropriated. 

The son is Jesus.

The time of harvest is the time of God’s judgment that—this must be kept in mind—should not be understood as the “day of reckoning,” but as an intervention of salvation. Let me explain. At the end of the parable, Jesus involves his audience and asks their opinion on what behavior to suggest to the owner. They convincingly respond: “The master will bring those evil men to an evil end” (v. 41).

This severe image is the result of the effervescent oriental fantasy that—as we have repeatedly pointed out—is pleased to paint pictures with strong colors.

But Jesus follows a different logic. Instead of approving the words of threat and destruction handed down by his hearers (v. 41), he suggests the action of God. The Lord will not react by destroying evil and not evenpretending that evil was not committed. This remains, it cannot be reset. God intervenes to make it serve the good, making it yield a masterpiece of salvation. You may remember what Joseph said to his brothers who had sold him to the Egyptians: You intended to do me harm but God intended to turn it to good to bring about what is happening today—the survival of many people” (Gen 50:20).

The verses 39, 42-43 form the central part of the parable describing the death and resurrection of Jesus.The leaders of the people take the Son and throw him out of the vineyard. This is what happened to Jesus. Hewas deemed a blasphemer, impure and for this, he was brought out of the city walls and was executed. But God, in raising him, glorified him and made him Lord, the cornerstone of a new building. 

The end result of the intervention of the master is the delivery of the vineyard to other workers who will make it produce fruits. This is not about the master’s annoyed reaction, but his gesture of love and salvation. Not even the rejection and murder of his son can make him an enemy of humanity.

In narrating this parable, the evangelist Matthew certainly thought of the infidelity of the leaders of his people and their rejection of the Messiah of God. But not only to them; he also thought of his community and the entire world: every person is a vine-grower from which the Lord expects delivery of the fruits.

The happy news which concludes the Gospel (v. 43) is that, despite all the refusals of people, in the end,God always finds the way to achieve his purpose and to obtain the good fruit he wants.

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FEAST OF THE ARCHANGELS – 29 SEPTEMBER 2020

MICHAEL, GABRIEL, AND RAPHAEL

Angel: anyone who is a mediator of God’s tenderness.

In the collective imagination, the angel has a well-defined character and those who paint him must adhere to certain pre-established canons. An angel with hippy traits, tail, tattoo on his arm and jeans would have little chance of being accepted, not only by the more traditionalist parish priests but also by the less bigoted faithful. The angel has to radiate a bright light, has wings, flowing hair and the soft features, but still male because no angel has a woman’s name. Painting an angel with shoes would be the grossest error a painter would commit: an angel flies, not walk.

To us heirs of the Enlightenment and positivist culture, this ethereal figure appears more than a real being, a naive, archaic pre-modern legacy; a regression to the world of childhood fairy tales where gnomes, fairies, and elves enter the scene. In the era of science and technology, faith in angels would seem destined to a rapid decline. However, here it is re-emerging and fashionable again. Surveys show that 60% of Italians are convinced to be assisted by a guardian angel, 50% say they talk to him and 6% calls for their protection from accidents. 

“You are an angel!” We all have heard this compliment at least once: from a friend to whom we have given a hand at a difficult time; from an office colleague, delighted in seeing us react to an offense with a smile and calm words, by a married couple we helped to reconcile; by a wife to whom we brought coffee in bed caressing her as she sipped it. 

“You are an angel.” Is it just a figure of speech, an image, a metaphor? No, it is a reality—today’s readings tell us.

The angel was born to fill a distance. The Hebrew word mal’ak comes from the root la’ak that means to send and is attributed to anyone who is sent to convey a message, gather information or take a specific action in the name of an agent. The Bible does not make any distinction between people’s envoys and God’s. Anyone who goes between people or between distant communities or between God and people is called mal’ak—angel.

Even when the sacred text gives a name to the messengers of God, it is difficult to determine whether it points to real characters, to spirits who assumed human forms, or if one uses an image, a personification to describe the ineffable experience of divine intervention in people’s favor.

The feast of the archangels is an invitation for us to turn around and to recognize the angels who are at our side. They do not move with wings, but guide with caution; they are serene and kind even when the traffic is not flowing. They do not wear a bright robe, but the sari of Mother Teresa, the gown of the doctor, the worker’s suit or jeans of a young priest of the Oratory. And if they do not have shoes it is because they removed them to offer them to the poor.

To internalize the message, we will repeat:

“Lordthat I may be your angel.”

First reading: Daniel 7:9-10,13-14

This reading has already been commented on in the feast of the Transfiguration (you can refer to it to have a more detailed explanation of the text). Today, it is resumed because in v. 10 it speaks of the heavenly court: “A river of fire sprang forth and flowed before him. Thousands upon thousands served him and a countless multitude stood before him. Those in the tribunal took their seats and opened their book.”

In ancient times God was imagined as a great ruler who had his dwelling in heaven, in a palatial home located above the clouds. It was believed that, like all the glorious Eastern kings, he, too, was surrounded by bodyguards. The fearful and reverent servants prostrate in adoration before him. They sang his praises, attentive to his desires, promptly execute his commands and ready to fight his enemies.

Israel has shared these convictions with the neighboring peoples. She attributed various names to the divine beings who are at the Lord’s side. She called them “the saints” (Ps 89: 6; Dan 4:10), “sons of God” (Job 1:6; 2:1), “angels, mighty executors of his commands … his hosts, his ministers” (Ps 103:20), and has even called them “gods” (Ps 8:6).

To some of these most prominent celestial figures, specific names were given—Raphael, Gabriel, Michael—and were also entrusted a particular task.

In the book of Tobit, the guardian angel appears for the first time. By the Lord’s will, he guards over people entrusted to him (Tb 3:17; 12:17-20). Raphael is in charge of accompanying Tobias along his journey. He frees Sara of the demons and places her in a position to be a happy bride. Then he cures the elderly Tobit from blindness and, at the end of the story, reveals his identity: “I am Raphael, one of the seven holy angels who represent the prayers of holy people and who stand before the glory of God” (Tob 12:15).

There are other two archangels spoken of in the book of Daniel. Gabriel is the interpreter of visions. He announces the imminent end of the world of wickedness and the beginning of the new times (Dn 8:15-16; 9:21-27). It is he who, in the Gospel of Luke, was commissioned to announce to Mary that she was chosen to become the mother of the Savior (Lk 1:26-38).

Michael is the guardian angel of God’s people (Dan 10:21; 12:1) and the symbol of the forces of good fighting against evil. This mysterious and dramatic conflict is described in the book of Daniel (10:12-21) and in Revelation (Rev 12:7-12).

Why these names?

Michael means, “Who is like God?” It is a question that on this feast is addressed to each of us and the answer is obvious: “No one!” There is none that can equal the Lord. In the Bible, the call of God often recurs: “I am the Lord, there is no other savior but me” (Is 43:11; Hos 13:4); and Israel has experienced it. Every time she abandoned her God and put her trust in other gods, she decreed her own destruction, fell into slavery, was deported in exile, and saw her land devastated.

This is what is happening today to those who prostrate themselves in adoration before the idols—the bank balance, success, power—convinced that they will give them more than what the Lord is able to grant. They will be disappointed.

“No one is like God.” Michael is a reminder, a warning against the danger of worshiping the things of this world. Even the most sacred institutions like the family, the church community, political or religious authorities are not God. They should be given their right value; they must be valued but woe to attribute to them an honor, a cult, a veneration that belong only to God. We would render them a disservice; we would deprive them of their nature. “No one is God”—is Michael’s message on today’s feast.

Raphael means “God cares.” With this name, we are reminded of another truth of our faith: the God in whom we believe is the one who comes close to those who are sick, and heals him.

The disease that causes suffering and prevents one to live is not just physical. There are moral diseases, situations of spiritual weakness, painful and humiliating injuries and wounds of the soul, that take away the joy and sometimes even the will to live.

Man desperately seeks healing and he cannot find a way to break free from what oppresses him, he is discouraged, resigns or swears at the inscrutable fate.

Today’s feast reminds us that there is no disease that God cannot and does not want to heal; for him, there are no unrecoverable situations. Faced with the infirmity of his people his heart of a doctor is moved and he intervenes: “Why cry out now that you are hurt? Do you cry for your hurt? I will restore you to health and heal your wounds” (Jer 30:15-17). The psalmist assures: “He forgives all your sins and heals all your sickness;” “He heals their broken hearts and binds up their wounds” (Ps 103:3; 147:3).

Gabriel means “God is my strength.” It is the third message of this feast. Every person is called to serve a mission in the world, yet the most common experience is that of impotence, inability to carry it out. There are parents who fear they will not be able to establish a good relationship with their children; pastors who say they are unable to solve the problems of their communities; spouses who do not mend their disagreements and heal their tensions; the sick who do not have the strength to endure their condition; we all feel weak and fragile in the face of the Lord’s call.

Today’s feast wants to inspire courage in those who fear being overwhelmed by evil, reminding them that man never commits himself alone, beside him there is always God. 

After reflecting on the message that comes from the names of the archangels, we also want to grasp the meaning of the functions they perform. The Bible testifies that God does not act in favor of the man directly, but through intermediaries. And these are called “angels.”

The Lord said to the people of Israel who are about to leave Egypt: “See, I am sending an Angel before you to keep you safe on the way and bring you to the place I have made ready. Be on your guard in his presence and listen to him, do not resist him…” (Ex 23:20-23). Who is this “angel” sent by the Lord? He is not an invisible spirit, but Moses, a man of flesh and blood. He is the angel in charge of freeing the people.

Even in the New Testament, we find the same image of the angel. Mark presents the Baptist as the “angel” sent before the Lord to prepare his way (Mk 1:2). Anyone who lets himself be the intermediary of God’s saving work is his “angel.”

Today’s feast is an invitation to recognize “the angels of the Lord” who are at our side. Anyone who helps us on the path of good, whoever announces his word is “an angel of the Lord.” In our turn, we are called to be “angels of the Lord” for our brothers and sisters. We are when we help them to break free from the slavery of idols (and we can make them understand that “no one is like God”), when we cure their ills (and through us “God heals them”), when we help them in times of difficulty (and so they can make the experience of the “power of God”).


Gospel: John 1:47-51

Neither Michael nor Raphael is mentioned in the Gospels. Only Gabriel is remembered in the annunciation to Zechariah and to Mary (Lk 1:19-26). This is why the liturgy has chosen a passage that mentions the “angels of God” in general. It is just a suggestion, but it is valuable. The dialogue between Jesus and Nathanael is part of the story of the first disciples’ calling.

The evangelist John relates that one day the Baptist was along the Jordan with two of his disciples. He fixed his sight on Jesus who was passing by and said: “Behold the Lamb of God.” The two disciples hearing him say so, left him to follow the young rabbi from Nazareth (Jn 1:35-39). One of them was Andrew who found his brother Simon. He immediately spoke with enthusiasm of the encounter with Jesus and brought Simon to him.

The next day Philip was involved in the group. He encountered Nathanael and told him of the sensational experience: “We have found the one that Moses wrote about in the Law, and the prophets as well: he is Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”

Skeptic, Nathanael exclaimed: “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip answered, “Come and see” (Jn 1:40-46).

Our passage begins at this point. Jesus saw Nathanael coming to him, he said of him: “Here comes an Israelite, a true one; there is nothing false in him” (v. 47).

Nathanael is presented as the righteous man of whom the Psalms spoke: the one who “has clean hands and pure heart” (Ps 24:4) and “in whose spirit is found no deceit” (Ps 32:2).

Although influenced by the mentality of his people and by the religious traditions inherited from his ancestors, he offered no obstacles. He is loyal, is ready to question his beliefs and be open to the newness of God. The words of Jesus capture him by surprise. He realizes to be in front of someone who can read his heart.

The evangelist John often emphasizes this knowledge that Jesus has of man’s heart: “He had no need of evidence about anyone, for he himself knew what there was in each one” (Jn 2:25).

The expression “You were under the fig tree and I saw you” is rather enigmatic. Probably it alludes to an image used by the prophet Hosea (Hos 9:10) presenting Israel as a fig tree. God saw this tree (Israel) grow lush and put the first fruits; he expected them to ripen. However, the people, betraying his expectations, abandoned herself to apostasy and became abominable.

Nathanael is an authentic Israelite, the tasty fruit that popped up among the branches of Israel. He belongs to that part of the people who remained faithful. He is ready to receive the revelation of the Messiah and in fact immediately recognizes Jesus as “the Son of God,” as the long-awaited descendant of David, as “the king of Israel.”

And so we come to the images of the “open skies” and “angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

In the Old Testament, there is a story in which the most revolutionary intuition in the history of the religions of antiquity is referred to. It is the dream of Jacob: “A ladder stood on the earth with its top reaching to the heaven and on it were the angels of God going up and coming down. Jacob woke from this dream and said: ‘It is nothing less than a House of God. It is the Gate to Heaven’” (Gen 28:10-17).

The gods of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Ugarit permanently resided in heaven and on earth were represented by statues, steles, memorial stones, animals and sacred trees. In their eyes, man remained a distant and insignificant being, created to offer them sacrifices, and was often victim to their whims.

The God of Israel was completely different: he did not want to be represented by images because he communicated directly with man. Aware of this truth, the pious Israelite exclaimed emotionally: “For in truth, is there a nation as great as ours, whose gods are as near to it as the Lord, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” (Dt 4:7).

The God of Israel wanted sky and earth closely united. The ladder planted on the ground and leaning against the sky is the sign of the bond between God and man and the possibility of permanent exchange between the two worlds.

Man can convey to the Lord his call, and the Lord may come down to visit man on earth. God and man do not live isolated; indeed, they cannot live one without the other. Since he created man, the Lord cannot be happy alone. 

Who are the angels going up and down the ladder? They would have remained wrapped in mystery if Jesus had not spoken of them. To Nathanael, the true Israelite in whom there was no guile, he revealed: “Truly, I say to you, you will see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man” (Jn 1:51).

The reference was to the dream of Jacob, but with one change: the ladder was gone, replaced by a new character, the Son of Man, Jesus himself.

Now we understand: he is the ladder that God has sent down to us and that allows us to climb up to heaven (Jn 3:13). He is the only mediator between heaven and earth (1 Tim 2:4).

Who the angels are also becomes clear: they are all those that are on the ladder that is Christ and that, united to him, they bring the divine in the world, and people to God.

These angels that bridge the gap between God and man, when they burst into our lives, they are never soft and sweet. They disturb and provoke disturbances because their mission is to change the hearts and tune them with the projects and dreams of God.

It is not difficult to recognize them when they pass us by, when they take us by the hand. They have the appearance of the only angel of God—Christ. They have his own look and his concern for the poor, his attention for the hungry, his message of hope for those who did wrong, his passion for justice and peace, his words of forgiveness, his announcement of a Father God who is only love.

Paul, who has spent his life proclaiming Christ, was conscious of being one of these angels sent from heaven. In writing to the Galatians he said: “You received me as an angel of God” (Gal 4:14).

The word of God that has been proposed in this celebration wants to remind everyone that every true disciple of Christ is an angel for his brothers and sisters.

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