The last verse of Psalm 137—the famous song of exile—is always carefully ignored. After the poignant reminder of the tears of the deportees 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 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 man 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, cunning and above all the foolish images men made for themselves of God. The stone is intended to shatter the plans of the wicked and smash their children. The wicked will have no offsprings, 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 fit their plans, it messes up their dreams, destroys their kingdoms. They tried to eliminate it but God chose it as the rock of salvation. Whoever puts it as foundation of his life will not be disappointed.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “We are the Lord’s vineyard, which fruits can we offer him?”
There are people who answer yes without having understood. There are also sincere people who say no because they are not convinced and want to understand better. Their ‘no’ is just a polite way to ask for explanation and to say that they want to see things more clearly. Whoever immediately answers ‘yes’ to God perhaps does not realize who he is, what he thinks and proposes.
Whoever produces is appreciated in our society. The old, the sick, the disabled are respected, loved, helped, but are often felt as a burden. The perception of their value and the preciousness of their contribution to making our world more humane is not immediate. We reward the efficient and the capable. We esteem those who are able to succeed by themselves and we remunerate those who work. God instead starts from the last, is interested of the last, privileges and rewards the last. Freely.
The parable of last Sunday has shocked us and perhaps, during the week, we reflected on the inconsistency of the master’s behavior. He pays the last hour workers as the first ones. It is difficult to give up the religion of merits and believe in gratuitous love of God. Today’s reading seems to respond to our objections: “You say Yahweh’s way is not just! Why Israel, is my position wrong? Is it not rather that yours is wrong?” (v. 25).
Saying yes to God means giving up one’s own thoughts and accepting his. He does not look for the satiated, but those who are hungry to fill them of his possessions (Lk 1:53). He does not appreciate the powerful who sit on thrones, but lowers himself to raise the lowly (Lk 1:52). He does not reward the righteous for their own merits, but makes himself companion of the weak and introduces the tax collectors and prostitutes first in the kingdom. Only those who recognize themselves as last, sinners and in need of his help will experience the joy of being saved.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “The Lord teaches his ways to the humble, the poor and the sinners.”
“God awards according to merits”
is the epitaph on the tomb of love
The terms Eucharist and charisma are known. They are derived from the Greek word charis which means benevolence, free gift, a gift that gives joy and makes one happy.
We feel a great satisfaction when we are given the diploma of graduation, after so much work and sleepless nights. However, a simple flower given to us by a loved one in the moment in which he declares his love awakens an immense joy.
The gift produces a unique emotion because it is a sign that someone thinks and loves us, as well as, tenderly pronounces our name.
The introduction of the criteria of retributive justice, the accountability, rewards and punishments, threats and flatteries, recording of merits and transgressions in our relationship with God is a diabolic deformation of faith. The rabbis had cataloged persons into four categories: the just, if they observe all the law; the wicked, if infractions prevail in them; the mediocres, if merits and faults are equivalent; the repentants, if they ask forgiveness of their sins. With the principle: “Reward is given only for good work,” they decreed the end of love relationship.
The dialogue between God and man is established only where there is a free encounter, free gift, unconditional reciprocal love. The one who loves claims nothing and expects nothing but to see the loved one smile and rejoice.
In the line of the prophets, the best among the rabbis said to the Lord: “Your salvation is manifested in this: you are merciful to those who have no treasure of good works.” “What you’ve done is grace, because in our hands there were no good works.” Jesus made this righteousness of God his own.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “I thank you, Lord, because you welcome and love me just as I am.”
The cross is the symbol by which Christians express their faith. However, for three centuries, they have intentionally done without it. They recognized each other in other symbols—the anchor, fish, bread, dove, shepherd—but were reluctant to depict the cross. It evoked the infamous death of their Master, death reserved for slaves and robbers, and was one of the reasons for which they were ridiculed by the pagans.
Around 180 AD, the polemicist Celsus—who knew the mythological stories well in which the gods always looked beautiful and clothed in splendor—objected to Christians: “If the spirit of God was incarnated in a man, he must at least excel in beauty, strength, majesty, voice and eloquence among all other bodies. Jesus instead had nothing more than the others. An overworked wanderer, seen stunned, disoriented, traveling the country in the midst of publicans and sailors of ill repute. We know how he ended, we know the defection of his friends, condemnation, torture, outrages, the sufferings of his torture … and that cry that fell from the scaffold as he breathes his last.”
The graffito found in the Palatine school is famous. The pages destined to serve in the imperial court were educated in the Palatine school. This graffito dates back to 200 AD. It depicts a young man in the act of worshiping a crucified man with the head of an ass. The inscription reads: “Alexamenos worships his God.” An obvious caricature of Christian worship, probably made by a slave who intended to mock a colleague who converted to the new faith.
“We proclaim crucified Messiah. For the Jews, what a great scandal! And for the Greeks, what nonsense!”—wrote Paul (1 Cor 1:23). But the Christians were reluctant to translate this truth into a symbol.
A precise date marks the transition to the worship of the Cross on September 14, 335 AD, the day when a huge crowd of pilgrims flocked from all over the world in Jerusalem. It celebrated the feast of the dedication of the basilica built by Constantine on the holy sepulcher’s site. On the rock of Calvary, the emperor had placed a beautiful jeweled cross to mark the place of Christ’s sacrifice.
From that day on the cross became the Christian symbol par excellence. Manufacturing it with the most precious metals began. It was embedded with pearls, appeared everywhere on churches, on banners, on the helmet of the prince, on coins …
Throughout the centuries, unfortunately, from an emblem of love and a sign of rejection of all violence, at times it was converted into a banner to impose by force the political rights of God. It was often reduced to an amulet, necklace, superstitious gesture.
Today’s feast wants to remind us of the true meaning of the cross.
For seventeen centuries the Christian communities love this symbol but they do not idolize it. They are aware that it is not the showing of the crosses that makes a society Christian but the life of Christians “crucified” and persecuted because they refuse to idolize money and power and they become peacemakers.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “May, whoever meets a Christian, always see in him the Crucified willing to offer life.”