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.

First Sunday of Advent (Year B) Nov. 27 (Isaiah 63:16-17; 64:1, 3-8; Psalm 80; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37)

Children often play hide-and-seek with adults in a rather amusing way. They cover their face with their hands and then squeal “You can’t see me!” People play a similar game with God but with a twist: “I can’t see you so you either aren’t there or don’t exist!”

The author of Isaiah’s passage is almost sick with yearning as he calls to mind the times in Israel’s past when God seemed so close and the manifestations of divine power so overwhelming. Now it seems that God has disappeared. The author’s cry of the heart resonates with people in all ages: If only you would tear open the heavens and come down! Come down and fix everything, come down and comfort us, come down and defeat our enemies. But God cannot be manipulated or summoned on demand.

Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers...

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Christ the King (Year A) Nov. 20 (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm 23; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46)

Why is the image of the shepherd used so often in the Bible as a metaphor for God? A shepherd never leaves the sheep — he or she is with them 24/7 — and their safety and well-being is the shepherd’s prime concern. That sounds a lot like God!

Be bold enough to take risks

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33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Nov. 13 (Proverbs 31:10-13, 16-18, 20, 26, 28-31; Psalm 128; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25:14-30)

A capable husband, who can find him? Perhaps this would have been the wording of a proverb penned by a woman. Its silence on the matter almost implies that the excellence of the husband is a given.

Wisdom, righteousness key to life

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32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Nov. 6 (Wisdom 6:12-16; Psalm 63; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13)

The encounter of two cultures can be a rich and rewarding experience, especially when both sides are receptive to each other. This was the case when the religion of the Jewish people met Greek culture and philosophy during the three centuries before the coming of Christ. Many Jewish scholars expressed the faith of the Hebrew Scriptures using the symbols and concepts of Greek philosophy. Although the author writes as King Solomon whose wisdom was legendary it was clearly written centuries after the king’s death.

Everyone is equal in the eyes of God

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31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 30 (Malachi 1:14-2:2, 8-10; Psalm 131; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 13; Matthew 23:1-12)

The prophets of Israel — the genuine prophets — were never afraid to speak truth to power. Malachi addressed the religious elite as a spokesman for God and called them to task for dereliction of duty. They were raised to their positions of authority to shepherd the people and to be spiritual guides. They were to keep the covenant with God pure. But human greed, selfishness and lust for power had all taken their toll.

Never forget the greatest commandment

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30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A) Oct. 23 (Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 18; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40)

The Golden Rule comes in many forms. God’s commandment to the people of Israel is very simple: remember when you were a slave in Egypt. Did you like being helpless and at the mercy of others? Did you like being oppressed and mistreated? No? Good, then don’t treat anyone else in that way. They are forbidden to oppress non-Israelite dwellers in the land.

All that we have belongs to God

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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.