Fr. Scott Lewis is an associate professor of New Testament at Regis College, a founding member of the Toronto School of Theology.

He is a past president of the Canadian Catholic Biblical Association.

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oc. 16 (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6; Psalm 96; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-221)

Absolutely anyone on the face of the Earth can be called by God to be God’s instrument. We would like to think that the call would always go to one who is like us — one who believes, speaks and worships as we do. But this is definitely not the case, for God has His own purposes and a few surprises for us.

Take the case of Cyrus the Persian. He is not an Israelite nor does he know the God of Israel. Not only that, he is the king of the Persian nation. But he is called the Lord’s anointed — mosiach or messiah — a status usually reserved for King David and his successors. The people of Israel had been led away into exile in Babylon in 586 BC. Now some 50 years later, the Babylonians got a taste of their own medicine when they were conquered by the Persians. But the Jewish prophets looked upon this upstart king as the instrument of God. Cyrus of course would have been oblivious to all of that — he was definitely not in the loop. But events would bear out the prediction. Following an enlightened policy he allowed the Jews who so wished to return to the land of Israel and he gave them a fair amount of autonomy and support.

We are all instruments in one way or another for God’s kind purposes but often God uses us without consulting us. We cannot pass judgment on the worth of our own life for we may have played an important but anonymous role in God’s plan. Likewise, we cannot judge the life of another for they too have served God’s purposes. And we cannot reject the good that others say and do simply because they do not fit into our understanding of things or because they don’t bear the correct label. Amidst the dreadful messiness of our world God’s Spirit never sleeps but is always silently at work. 

The correct response on our part is what Paul praises the community at Thessalonica for — to labour on in faith, hope and love. Paul is moved to constant thanksgiving for them even though their lives were probably not noteworthy in the eyes of others. They have been chosen to receive God’s power and Spirit. But to be chosen does not mean that others are rejected — just that the chosen one is singled out for particular mission and service.

Jesus would be a hard man to trap on the witness stand or in front of a camera for the evening news. He never allows Himself to be backed into a corner or forced into an “either/or” response but manages to turn the tables on His interrogators. After a bit of insincere (and wasted) flattery, they ask Jesus whether it is permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not. It is a no-win question: if He says yes, then He is a traitor to His nation; if He says no, then a rebel against Rome. Either way, He loses and they win. Instead He asks them for a coin — a denarius — and then asks them whose image is on it. When they reply “Caesar,” He gives His famous answer: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God.

This passage has little to do with church-state relations although centuries later it would be enlisted for that purpose. On one level, Jesus dodged a lethal question. But He is also as wise as the serpent He advised us to be. Those who clearly understood the Kingdom of God that Jesus had been preaching would have smiled quietly to themselves. The Kingdom describes God’s direct, immediate and total rule over all the Earth and its peoples with justice and compassion. Everything belongs to God so by all means give to God what belongs to Him. And what is left over for Caesar and all the other earthly powers that claim divine rights intended only for God? Absolutely nothing.

When we give back to God what rightfully belongs to God there is no room for possessiveness, exploitation, ruthless competition or inequality. All that we have — including our very lives — belong solely to God.

Give to God what rightfully belongs to God and the world will be made whole again.

We must earn our way into the kingdom

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28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 9 (Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 23; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14)

Isaiah’s vision of God’s banquet is a gourmet and wine connoisseur’s delight: rich foods and the very best, well-aged wine and all of this in abundance. God is not stingy but generous beyond imagining. God’s kingdom is always cast in terms of a banquet and this is a theme that will continue through the New Testament. 

But food and drink is not the main focus of the vision. The feast will take place on the mountain of the Lord — an echo of the covenant at Sinai but also in the ancient world a place where humans and gods meet. But of even greater importance is the fact that it is intended for all peoples — this is not a feast for the in-crowd or elect. Already a new universal understanding of God has dawned. But the blessings far exceed a fine meal. God is going to remove the dark and heavy burden that oppresses all peoples — death and the accompanying dread and fear. Added to that is the wiping away of tears and the end of suffering — in other words, everything that people have yearned for since the beginning of time.

Justice, compassion make a better world

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27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 2 (Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43)

The prophets of Israel were never easy on the nation — especially the political and religious authorities. Using parables, metaphors, violent language and strange symbolic behaviour they attempted to shock the nation out of its self-delusion and back onto the path of God. They rarely softened or tailored their message and they had a harsh but on-target expression for those who did: false prophets. Today we might call such prophecy “tough love” — there are times when nothing else will suffice.

In this parable Isaiah sings to the beloved, God, of a treasured vineyard and its loving owner. He details the loving care that the owner took for the vineyard and the many ways he provided for it, sparing nothing. He asked only that the vineyard produce a good harvest of grapes. Imagine his shock and anger when the vineyard only produced wild grapes. Wild grapes are rather destructive, unruly and bitter. In the Bible they often symbolize wickedness. The parable then delivers the terrible news: the owner intends to withdraw all the care and protection that had been provided. The vineyard will be destroyed and laid waste. Isaiah then explains that the vineyard is the house of Israel and the plantings the people of Judah. And the reason for the destruction? The owner only expected justice but all he received was bloodshed and injustice.

Our actions speak louder than words

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 25 (Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2:1-11; Matthew 21:28-32)

I’m not responsible. The devil made me do it. Society, my background and upbringing or my genetic makeup is responsible. And besides, it’s unfair. God is unfair — and maybe God doesn’t even exist.

People have always had a barrage of excuses to explain their lapses, errors and failures, but accepting responsibility is especially difficult in our own time. We have dreamed up new and creative ways of evading responsibility. Ezekiel prophesied in a time of great turmoil and suffering — the exile of the Israelites during the sixth century BC. People were asking themselves the usual question after a great catastrophe: why? This passage is embedded in a long chapter (well worth reading) that discusses a change in Israel’s theological understanding precipitated by the experience of exile in Babylon. The traditional understanding of sin and punishment held that Israel was judged collectively — the sin of one was the sin of all. Punishment could be transmitted from generation to generation. But it was made clear that from now on everyone would be responsible for his or her own sin — no collective or transmitted punishment. Those who live an upright life will be blessed while those who turn away from God’s ways for a life of injustice and sin will suffer accordingly.

Rejoice at God’s generosity, kindness

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25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 18 (Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16)

An ancient Greek philosopher once observed wryly that if horses could draw they would draw gods that looked like horses. Or put another way — God created humans in God’s image and humans returned the favour.

The God that we believe we worship is often something of our own creation or projection, looking and acting suspiciously like us. But through the prophets God reminds us very forcefully that God is utterly unlike humans. God’s “ways of thinking” and God’s ways are not merely an extension of our own but of a completely different order. How often we hear from people what God wants, thinks, likes or will do in the immediate future. This is more often than not a projection of the speaker’s prejudices and opinions and those of the group to which he or she belongs. Isaiah urges people to seek God while He is still near so that they can encounter this totally other God.

Forgiveness a way of life

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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 11 (Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35)

Forgiveness is what we hope for and expect when we have done wrong but are often reluctant to grant to others. But today’s readings are definitely in the “hard sayings” categories for they lay down the law: forgiveness is not optional or something that would be nice but fundamental. Unwillingness to forgive is responsible for much of the world’s fear and violence. It imprisons us with those we hate.

Many people naively believe that all of the teachings of Jesus were utterly new and never before heard. Actually, most of His teachings are either paralleled in or derived from Jewish tradition. Forgiveness is a case in point — much of what we see in the reading from Sirach is reflected in the Gospel of Matthew. Sirach insists that forgiveness is a package deal — if we expect forgiveness from God we must be willing to extend forgiveness to others. Harboring grudges and desiring revenge is not dignified with psycho-babble but called what it is: sin. A constant remembrance of the shortness of our life, as well as the commandments and the covenant with God, should be enough to dampen anger. We all stand before God — we all have fallen short of His glory — and we all need and hope for mercy and forgiveness. Hatred, anger and the desire for revenge never accomplish anything positive but merely sow the seeds of further conflict and violence. With wonderful divine irony the readings for this Sunday, all having to do with forgiveness, fall on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 horror.

We are the agents of our own destiny

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23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Sept. 4 (Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)

Mind your own business! That is our usual reaction to someone who scolds, nags or reproves us for our behaviour — and in most cases it is the proper response. There are many people who enjoy their self-appointed role as executive director of other people’s lives but are rather lax in managing their own.

But this passage from Ezekiel refers to something entirely different. Ezekiel has been appointed by God as a sentinel or watchman for all of Israel. His job is to warn of potential danger or disaster and to turn people back to God’s ways. He is the conscience of the nation. Ezekiel writes this in exile — the temple had been destroyed in 587 BC and the people were doing a lot of soul-searching. The language seems jarring and violent but it represents the worldview and religious mindset of a culture 2,500 years ago. The people would have seen God’s actions in everything, even the nation’s destruction. And the cause of disaster was always human sin and the divine sanction that followed.

Today we would be very reluctant to speak of someone dying for their sins, especially when it is implied that this death is at the hand of God. And we would not blame a nation for being the victim of aggression — the nations that were invaded by the Axis powers in the Second World War were not being “punished” for their sins. But God still raises up men and women to act as sentinels — to warn us when we stray from the path of divine principles and enter the spiritual wilderness of selfishness, violence and fear. The warning is not to avert divine punishment but the consequences of our actions — and let there be no doubt, there are always consequences. We are certainly responsible for our own lives and actions but let us not harden our hearts to the advice and warnings of men and women of principle and integrity or the loving guidance of trusted family and friends. The life we save may be our own or that of our community or nation.

Don’t conform to the world

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Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 28 (Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 63; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27)

Most of the biblical prophets were less than thrilled with their calling from God and Jeremiah was probably the most reluctant of the lot. Upon being called he offered a barrage of excuses, but God was unmoved. A call is a call, and if it is from God the necessary strength and inspiration will be given.

Jeremiah had a particularly difficult assignment: he was to prophesy to the nation about the Assyrian and then the Babylonian threat with a ringing call to repentance and rejection of idolatry. But his exhortations and warnings fell on deaf ears. Those in power were surrounded by professional court prophets whose specialty was telling the rulers what they wanted to hear. This is a danger for all who are in positions of power and authority. Their message usually consisted of soothing reassurances that all was well and nothing more was needed to ensure the safety of the nation. No one had time or patience for Jeremiah’s apparent doom and gloom predictions. He would suffer a lifetime of ridicule, rejection, physical abuse, imprisonment and even an attempt on his life. He lived to see his terrible predictions come to pass as the temple and city were destroyed.

Authority must be exercised with justice, integrity

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Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 21 (Isaiah 22:15, 19-23; Psalm 138; Romans 11:33-36; Matthew 16:13-20)

People and institutions do not readily or easily relax their steely grip on power. Like this shadowy figure Shebna they come to believe that they have a right to office and position and that power once given is eternal. Shebna was denounced by Isaiah for arrogance, pride, court intrigue and engaging in power politics to counter the Assyrian threat.

Those addicted to power have not yet learned the lesson that our friend Shebna is about to learn: all legitimate authority is from God but it is conditional. The condition is that it be exercised with justice, integrity and mercy and that it always be above reproach. If it is not, God can and often will raise another person or group to power. We have seen this played out in our own lifetimes: dictators sent packing, brutal regimes brought low and corrupt officials disgraced. No one is exempt or immune — this applies equally to the political, economic and religious spheres. And when an institution, political or religious, fails to live up to God’s expectations it too must suffer and be purified. The key is accountability, not only to the people but to God. All power or authority is given for service to humanity and the common good and is not an innate or unlimited right. In this passage power was transferred to David and his descendants but they all fell short of God’s expectations, sometimes egregiously so and with catastrophic consequences.

There are no favourites in heaven

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Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 14 (Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Psalm 67; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28)

Who are God’s favourites? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Human beings have always had a distressing tendency to want to possess or control God, making God the champion or protector of an ethnic group, nation, class or religion. People have difficulty imagining God blessing those considered to be enemies or undesirables. And yet the “distressing” message is repeated often in Scripture: God does not play favourites and God is there for all people.

Often it is the encounter with people and groups who are different that acts as a catalyst for rethinking images of God. Those Israelites who went into exile in Babylon had to live among (and at the mercy of) an alien people with very different views of the divine. Although they struggled against this environment they also were affected by it and began to broaden their theology and their image of God. In Third Isaiah (chapters 55-61), which was written at the end of the exile, we begin to see a more universal understanding of God. In this passage an image of a holy mountain and temple in which all the peoples of the Earth are welcome makes a startling appearance. Israel’s God can be everyone’s God — right conduct, desire and worship is the only entrance requirement.

In God, all is possible

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Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Aug. 7 (1 Kings 19:9, 11-13; Psalm 85; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:22-33)

What would we expect to see if it were announced that the Lord was going to pass by? Nurtured on many of the stories from the Old Testament and years of Hollywood biblical epics, we would be waiting from a spectacular display of power and energy. That was most likely Elijah’s expectation, and sometimes that is how we expect to find the presence of God in our lives — with lots of flair and excitement. When that is not forthcoming it is easy to slip into pessimism and negativity, thinking that God has abandoned us or that God plays favourites.

Elijah witnessed a parade of flashy and powerful earthquakes, wind and fire. But guess what — God was not in any of these. God is not to be identified with natural phenomena — God is much more than that. God is quiet, unobtrusive and subtle; God is non-violent. The Hebrew word is translated in different ways — a murmuring sound, a still small voice, a gentle whispering breeze, and here in this translation “sheer silence.” The “correct” translation can be left to the scholars. They all say fairly much the same thing: quiet, gentleness, stillness, something just beyond our conscious awareness like a dream struggling to be remembered. When Elijah experienced this he covered his face for he knew that he was in the presence of the Holy One.