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.

Finding your sufficient creed

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Several years ago, a friend of mine made a very un-Hollywood type of marriage proposal to his fiancé: He was in his mid-40s and had suffered a number of disillusioning heartbreaks, some of which, by his own admission, were his own fault, the result of feelings shifting unexpectedly on his part.

Now, in mid-life, struggling not to be disillusioned and cynical about love and romance, he met a woman whom he deeply respected, much admired and with whom he felt he would like to build a life. But, unsure of himself, he was humble in his proposal.

Sharing some personal mini-creeds

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We are all familiar with the Nicene and the Apostles’ creeds, the two great faith summaries that anchor our faith. Without them, eventually we would drift off the path and lose our way. Creeds anchor us.

But the great creeds are like huge rivers that need smaller tributaries to bring their waters into various places. Thus, we also need mini-creeds, short, pithy truth statements that anchor us morally and spiritually. We all, no doubt, have our own favourite mini-creeds. Here are some of mine:

o “Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic.” Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada, in a letter to the people of Canada, just before dying of cancer.

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.

Christ as cosmic

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Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in one of his dialogues with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome, was once asked: “What are you trying to do?” His answer was something to this effect: I’m trying to write a Christology that is large enough to include the full Christ because Christ isn’t just a divine Saviour sent to save people; Christ is also a structure within the physical universe, a path of salvation for the Earth itself.

Perhaps the most neglected part of our understanding of Christ, though clearly taught in Scripture, is the concept that the mystery of Christ is larger than what we see visibly in the life of Jesus and in the life of the historical Christian churches. Christ is already part of physical creation itself and is integral to that creation. We see this expressed in the Epistle to the Colossians. The author writes: “He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation, for in Him all things were created in heaven and on Earth; everything visible and everything invisible ... all things were created through Him and for Him. He exists before all things and in Him all things hold together ...”   

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.

Feeding off sacred fire

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“See the wise and wicked ones, who feed upon life’s sacred fire.” That’s a lyric from a song by Gordon Lightfoot that tries to interpret the struggle going on in the heart of the  mythical hero, Don Quixote. Goodness separates him from the world, even as he understands that wickedness has the same source.

And there’s perplexing irony in this, both the wise and wicked, saints and sinners, feed off the same, sacred source. The same energy that fuels the dedicated selflessness of the saint who dies for the poor fires the irresponsible acting-out of the movie star who proudly boasts of thousands of sexual conquests. Both feed off the same energy which, in the end, is sacred. But it’s easy to misinterpret this.

For example, one of the major criticisms made of religion is that it too frequently uses God to justify war and violence. We commonly see terrible violence being fueled by faith and religion, as is the case with extreme Islam today. But Christianity is hardly exempt. In the Crusades and the Inquisition we have our own history of violence in God’s name and there is more violence than we have the courage to admit still being done today by Christians who draw both their motivation and their energy from their faith. We can protest that, in these cases, the energy is misguided, perverted or usurped for self-interest, but the point remains the same. It’s still sacred energy, even if perverted.

Embraced by a fast-food angel

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We wanted late-night refreshment. A lengthy search uncovered one place open, a fast-food restaurant with golden arches. We thought we’d just be getting beverages; we also got a glimpse of the eternal. Serving customers was a young woman and man. As we imbibed our tea, she said loudly enough that we could hear clearly: “It’s not that God doesn’t talk to people. It’s that we’re always feeding the flesh. So the flesh gets big, and the spirit gets small and can’t hear God speaking.”   

Why doesn’t God speak to people? Or if He does, why so obscurely? Has God been speaking in ways I haven’t been hearing? Perhaps the young woman knew that the opposition between flesh and spirit is not dualistic. It’s not that body is bad and soul is good; this idea has always been considered heretical. Rather, it’s “spirit” in the sense of all that belongs to God and leads us to God; “flesh” in the sense of what drags us down, away from 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.