From the Archives: Fr. Metzler’s Homilies

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homily: 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle B

“Here I Am; You Called Me?”

1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19    1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20     John 1:35-42

Nowadays we seem to be dissatisfied if we are considered ordinary. We seek to be the first or the best, or at least to belong to the group that is first or best. Yet most of us are really quite ordinary people living ordinary lives. Despite this, there need be nothing ordinary about being ordinary.

With this Sunday we enter the interlude between seasons. Christmas with its excitement and glitter is behind us, and the sober experience of Lent followed by the glory of Easter is in the future. This is Ordinary Time: we reflect on the very ordinary ways that God enters our lives, thus making them extraordinary.

The young boy Samuel was in the keeping of the old man Eli. This was a rather common situation, yet something extraordinary happened. Jesus’ appearance was so unremarkable that the Baptist had to point him out, and then something extraordinary happened. Perhaps what Paul describes is the most startling. Ordinary human beings are members of Christ; their bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.

In these three incidents, the extraordinary was not apparent. At first, both Samuel and Eli misunderstood the voice; Paul rebuked Christians who had lost sight of their dignity; initially the disciples of John saw nothing unusual in Jesus. These people were only aware of what was obvious.

We are not unlike these biblical people. We do not always look beneath the surface, so we often miss the extraordinary in what is ordinary. We do not hear the voice of God in the voices of others calling us to great things, to sacrifice ourselves for our children or give of ourselves to aging parents. We do not recognize Christ in the thoughtful people with whom we work, the honest people with whom we do business, the understanding people who help us in simple ways, the ordinary people with whom we live.

It takes only a little effort to attune our ears to hear the voice of God, to adjust our sight to recognize Christ in our midst. As members of Christ, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. This same Spirit urges us to reach out to others. What we accomplish may not be as impressive as what was accomplished by Samuel, or the first disciples of Jesus, or Paul. Results are up to God. All we have to be concerned about is that we recognize the call of God in the ordinary events of life and that we respond: “Here I am. You called me.”

                  (Dianne Bergant, professor of biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.)

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: Feast of the Epiphany, Cycle B

 “Another Way Home”

Isaiah 60:1-6    Ephesians 3:2-6     Matthew 2:1-12

How well we know the story of Epiphany and the wise men. Yes, we know what’s coming, after the wise men make their way to Bethlehem, find the child, are overwhelmed with joy, offer their gifts fit for a real king and pay him homage, and then, after being warned in a dream, return home by another way.

We’ve heard the story many times; we know what Herod will do with this knowledge. The story that tells us so graphically just what lives in the heart of evil men, what fear and insecurity, arrogance and a greed for power can do.

When Matthew told the story of the wise men, he placed it in this big picture so that whoever heard the story were able to connect with the ancient story of God’s marvelous work The whole story held together for them, it made sense, and they could see themselves within it.

Don’t we want to find ourselves in the story, too, to hear what happened so long ago, and to connect our own lives with it? We want to feel ourselves, strangers from a distant land and far-off time, kneeling with the wise ones from the East, in awe and joy for the gift of the Divine Child before us.

And we want to know how God is still at work in this world we live in now, how God is still speaking to us, today, as God spoke through the prophets, through dreams and angels and a bright, shining star, so long ago.

It’s deeply moving to hear of three foreigners traveling a long, hard way because they had an inkling — just an inkling — of something very important unfolding in a distant land. Something inside them must have been restless, or upset, or hungry for understanding.

With all their wisdom and learning, there was something they still needed to find or learn on their long trek. And what did they find but a poor family and a helpless child, in modest surroundings, lying in a teenage mother’s arms. To those in any way perceptive, this scene was not a wise man’s formula for future success. Yet, by grace, the magi had the faith to experience unbridled joy.

                 The rest of the story

These strangers from the East to our evangelist Matthew represent long-standing resistance to Western imperialism, very high ranking political-religious advisers to the rulers of the Median and Persian empires, which were roughly where the modern countries of Iran and Iraq are today.

Yes; ironically, today’s biblical story leads us to ponder the meaning of visitors from the very places we fear most right now. Imagine a visit to our local church by religious or political leaders from that same part of the world, from Iran or Afghanistan. But Matthew wants his audience to hear about the Good News of God’s universal and all-encompassing grace, even if they’re offended that such ‘objectionable’ people are included in the story.

What Matthew may be trying to convey, however, is a sneak preview: the Christ child who attracted these odd Magi to his cradle will later have the same magnetic effect on Samaritan adulterers, immoral prostitutes, greasy tax collectors on the take, despised Roman soldiers, and ostracized lepers. Matthew’s is a story, then, of God at work in the world–the good news, the gospel–these foreigners, these Gentiles, represent us, too, in a sense. Twenty-six chapters later, Matthew would tell of Jesus commanding his disciples to “Go, make disciples of all nations.” We are in this big picture, too, this tradition of hope rooted in the prophets and embodied by Jesus Christ himself.

       A story of God’s compassion

This beautiful story of seekers from the East so long ago, bearing extravagant gifts for a king and being overwhelmed with joy, is not just a nice little story that decorates our Nativity sets and Christmas cards. This little story is part of a larger story that holds within it the suffering of the world, whether in sudden and spectacular devastation by earthquake, hurricane, or tidal wave, in the slow motion violence of poverty, in the anguish of those engulfed by war and the quiet agony of those who live and breathe the poisoned air of hatred and neglect caused by human sinfulness, in the pain of illness and injury, and in the private, personal sorrows of the human heart.

Christ, the savior of humankind, is the great light that shines upon all peoples. Why were the very first to be called to worship the holy infant were the wise men from the East? Was it that the East stood in greater need of Christ because of the endless river of tears which is its history? I do not know.

What I do know is that the East, in its recent history, has been hammered on the anvil of extreme adversity, here forged and tempered for over a hundred years, in Syria, in Maynmar/Burma, in East Timor and Nepal. Precisely because of this, should not the East be able to offer up an even more refined gold when it worships Christ? Out of this pain and agony, should not the East be ready to bring forth even more fragrant frankincense and myrrh, the very symbols of suffering and pain?

The Magi follow a star, guided by God, looking to nature for signs and guidance. God would also provide direction through a dream. The world is full of ‘stars in the East’–events in nature, personal experience, and history that point toward the mystery of God.

So, what do we hear in this story? We hear that God has sent a gentle shepherd who will nevertheless upset the powers-that-have-been. We hear that the smallest things, like a newborn baby, can terrify the mighty, and bring them down. We learn that God’s reach of grace goes far beyond every obstacle within or without, and pushes us beyond them, too. We learn that a great light has dawned that draws all people and calls us to live our lives illuminated by its truth. That’s what the Epiphany season is about.

If the light has come, those who have been seated in darkness awaiting its arrival are exhorted to greet that light and the new age that it inaugurates by shining in order to reflect its glory in all the activities and relationships of everyday life…to be the light of the world. In W.H. Auden’s poem, “For the Time Being”, he says: “To discover how to be human now / is the reason we follow this star.”

And nothing will ever be the same. You don’t take the old road any longer. You unfold a new map, and discover another way home.

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: Feast of the Holy Family, Cycle B

” The Hopes of a Lifetime Fulfilled”

Genesis 15:1-6; 15:1-3    Hebrews 11:8, 11-12,17-19    Luke 2:22-40

Today’s gospel reading about the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple is most suitable for the feast of theHoly Family because it deals very gently with the difficult question of the relationship of young and old in families and in society generally.

Our first readings tell us of Abraham and Sarah, living in hope that God’s promises to them will be fulfilled. Only in their old age is a child born to them, and their hope brought to fulfillment.

In our Gospel story, the aged Simeon and Anna have been living for many years with scarcely any tangible sign of God’s concern for them, but they have not lost hope. We can well imagine Simeon’s joy as God reveals to him that this infant is in fact the long-awaited Savior. For he immediately resigns himself joyfully and trustingly to a future filled with the goodness of God’s promises. Anna too sees her patient piety rewarded by this sign of God’s response to her persistent prayers.

There are so many of us older people alive today. We need to reflect carefully upon the example offered to us by Simeon and Anna. We do not see in them any sign of resentment as they recognize that their places are being taken by energetic and often impatient younger men and women.

They are able to welcome this new and younger world because their prayerful attention to the Lord has established the utter trustworthiness of God’s promises of a future life beyond the weakness and the letting go in death.

There are few more remarkable signs of hope than that of older people whose eyes are still bright with the promise of better days in the ultimate future. In fact, the very act of taking an infant into one’s arms, as Simeon did, is a profound affirmation of one’s sure knowledge that God has given the victory to life.

The effect of this trust in life and in the future is to create an ideal environment for the nurturing of new life. In fact, today’s gospel tells us that, when Joseph and Mary welcomed the new world represented by their divine child, “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him”

In spite of all the elements of today’s world that are frightening, discouraging , and downright depressing, here are many signs of hope for old eyes for all who have looked for many years for a better world, a more sensitive church, a growing understanding among people of how respect for others and love for all can be signs of the coming completion of the kingdom.

All children have the right to be nurtured, day in and day out, with loving attention and trust, so that they too may acquire the freedom and wisdom needed for responsible living. We must reflect with great sadness on the tragedy of neglected children in our world. They receive so little psychological or spiritual support to enable them to “grow and become strong, filled with wisdom.”

And we need to be deeply grateful for those parents whose love and care prepare their children for a future that can be both serious and joyful. And their caring love gives hope to all of us with unsteady step and fading eyesight who have waited and longed for signs of a better world for tomorrow.

Our hope for the coming of the Kingdom has not been in vain. God is truly Faithful to His Promises.

(Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.)

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 2nd Sunday of Advent, Cycle B

“Our Christmas Wish – Be a Giver”

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 8-11     2 Peter 3: 8-14      Mark 1: 1-8

This second Sunday in Advent speaks to us of a promise kept: God’s promise of salvation, kept in the sending of Jesus. But it also speaks of our personal promise to God to accept this wonderful Gift of salvation. As we continue to journey through this season, we are preparing to keep it.

Today’s Gospel is the very beginning of the Gospel of Mark; First off, he tells us it’s “Good News”. And then he begins with the coming on to the scene of John the Baptist. John is a wild, ranting sort. But he says we must “prepare the way of the Lord”.

Mark dares to say that in a world that is broken and weary God is about to bring about a NEW CREATION where peace and harmony will prevail over pride and violence.

And this new beginning, which occurs at the coming of Jesus, even transcends the original creation in its scope and significance. God’s dream for a world of peace and justice had not been fulfilled – and even after the birth of Jesus it has not — and due entirely to the obstacles which WE have placed in its path. And so, as we begin the Season of Advent, we begin to prepare once again, properly for his coming.

Mark tells us that the career of John the Baptist was described already in the words of Isaiah, and he is also telling us that opening the road for the coming of the Lord and leveling the mountains, and filling the valleys, is still a major problem. We are still preventing the coming of the Lord by personally refusing to open ourselves to the radical implications of the message of Jesus.

The baptism of John was not a real baptism, of course. Baptism is dying with Christ and rising with him to New Life. And Jesus had not accomplished this as yet in John’s time. John’s baptism is called a baptism of repentance.

And it represents both a negative side and a positive one: the first is an expression of regret for having refused to accept fully in one’s life the implications of the coming of the Lord. And the other, the positive aspect is a declaration of personal readiness to make room in our lives for the Lord, however costly that may be.

The first implies a full and conscious acceptance of what Jesus teaches. That results in putting aside self-centeredness and beginning to be more loving and caring toward others. If that really happened, we would soon see what the new creation can be. Because as the Catholic writer G. K. Chesterton once said: “Christianity hasn’t failed; it hasn’t even been tried!”

One of the major ways in which we prevent the coming of the Lord is our fear that, if we don’t focus our attention primarily on our own interests, we will lose control of our lives and be pulled apart by the needs of others. We are afraid that, like Humpty Dumpty, if we don’t spend most of our time keeping ourselves intact, we’ll disintegrate.

But Jesus says that we have to become like that grain of wheat. It allows itself to be consumed, to die to itself in the earth, and so it becomes much more than it had ever previously been before. In the resurrection, God shows how all the pieces can be put back together and how a single, generous seed can yield   a wonderful harvest.

To accept to live the life, the Way of Jesus means to choose to commit yourself to live as unselfishly as one’s freedom permits. which usually means a lot more than we think is possible, and usually a lot more unselfishly than we are now. That’s why the custom of giving of presents at Christmas is a symbol of our willingness to be unselfish. It’s shy charities know that this is the time to send you all those appeals for contributions in the mail.

Unselfishness is the sign that we understand the message of Jesus. It doesn’t mean that we should become some kind of doormat; but it does mean that the needs of others should not be the last and least concern in our lives. In other words, it means to put our lives and our futures into the hands of a gracious God instead of thinking we had to put it all together ourselves, as we strive to make the love and gentleness of Jesus present in our world as our way of life.

All of this may sound like a life of endless giving to others and very little fun or happiness. But the only persons who affirm that are those who have not really tried to live by the model of Jesus. The fact is that those who really care about others are undoubtedly the happiest people on earth.

As we continue on our journey, listen to John the Baptist. He urges us to remove the roadblocks of fear and self-centeredness in our lives and thus assure ourselves of a truly joyous Advent and Christmas celebration.

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

“Who is ‘the Other’?”

Malachi 1:14a-2:2b, 8-10     1 Thessalonians 2:7b-9, 13    Matthew  23:1-12

Today’s readings are trying to tell us how to hear the Message preached to us, not just as weekly homilies, but in everyday life, as truly God’s word, and be transformed by it.

In the second reading, Paul is writing his first letter to the Thessalonians, to whom he had recently successfully preached the Word. He says to them in verse 13, “when you received the word of God that you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as what it really is, God’s word, which is also at work in you believers.” What, exactly, is this ‘Word’ that we receive, and that we carry to others?

I don’t think that what Paul means here is that the Thessalonians in some way took Paul, Silvanus and Timothy to be ‘gods’ ,nor that they believed the words spoken were not those of Paul, Silvanus and Timothy, but the voice of God speaking through them.

I believe that what the Thessalonians recognized was that the words spoken by Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy witnessed to the nature and activity of God, revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. To put it another way, they recognized the very presence of God in the act of proclamation. God is made known and becomes visible at the very point in time, the social circumstances, the physical space in which the speaker and the audience meet. In that moment, we become alert to God with us. The message that is proclaimed is a word that has its origin in the life-generating nature and activity of God.

This is also the way in which God becomes truly known — not in the abstract, but on the ground, in the midst of people’s lives.  The whole of our lives are lived in the presence of God, whatever our circumstances , because the power of God is at work in life-giving ways.

In the Gospel, Jesus confronts the Pharisees. They were religious leaders, whose authority lay in their ability to interpret Torah, or the Law of Moses. He acknowledges they “sit of the seat of Moses”, that is, have much reason to be respected,. But he insists, “…follow their words, what they say, not their deeds.” What they “say” when they cite the Scriptures is good, but Jesus and his followers do not accept their interpretation.

Clearly they are not telling people that Torah permits theft, murder, covetousness, or other such obviously immoral activities. Rather, the list here turns on issues of justice or status. They impose heavy burdens on others, requirements of such things as Sabbath observance and purity codes that become impossible for poor peasants or the urban poor to follow.

The detailed emphasis on following these laws was central to the teaching of the Pharisees, and not taking care to mitigate such things for people marginalized by their society added the burden of religious stigma to the burdens of poverty–disdain on top of suffering. ‘Rabbi’, ‘father’, and ‘teacher’ are specific titles to be shunned. They are all titles that carry both status and authority in the value system of the Empire. The vision and practice of an egalitarian community, with God and the Messiah as the only authorities to be accorded honor and obeisance, are hallmarks the early Christians wanted to share with the divine reign whose coming Jesus proclaimed.

Jesus affirmed that they should be servants; servant hood and humility were to characterize life in the Christian community. And Jesus made clear that one’s present action and attitudes about status and dominance would have consequences in God’s final judgment.

‘Father’ in particular was the term for the head of a household, whose total life-or-death authority mirrored the role of the emperor. To seek such roles and titles would be seen as desirable and in conformity with values about ‘pecking order’ in the Roman Empire, but those values should not prevail for Jesus’ followers.

We heirs of Jesus’ early followers adopted the very culturally more comfortable view that this text is opposed to. We have become the targets of what began as our own community’s rhetoric and trash-talk about those we consider ‘other’. A story from my own childhood too sadly reminds me of how it is ingrained, even from our earliest days.

My only excuse was that I was only 8 years old, a mill-town kid, and being the youngest of our neighborhood group of boys, I wanted to impress my friends. I did not know their name then, but I joined in the taunting of them when we were near their ramshackled house as we explored the nearby woods. After all, they were not one of us, they were not mill kids, and they were poor- as if mill kids could lay any claim to wealth. But today, after reflecting on these scriptures, for some reason, some unexpected reason, they are now very much with me; I now know their name, they were the ‘Other’.

On Sunday mornings they even dared to show up in church and so our taunting was silenced with only laughs and comments behind their back as they sat in Sunday School and in the pews during the service dressed in their tattered Sunday best. We watched them as we watched the pastor’s face to see if it would become as red and inflamed as the fire and brimstone sermon he always preached in his attempt to scare us into heaven.

Little did I know then, and unfortunately, neither the preacher or our Sunday School teachers let us know, that there in our midst, in our classroom and in the pews, the Gospel Truth was right before our eyes and all we could do was snicker, laugh, and talk behind their backs. I pray to God that now this memory that has been evoked by today’s reflections on these readings may NEVER leave me.

 

 

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

A142OT28_1_cf03_4cIsaiah 25:6-10   Philippians 4:12-20   Matthew 22:1-14

“I Cannot Come to the Banquet”

The parable of the wedding feast has all the ingredients of a good story. There is the ‘larger than life element’ – not one or two guests failed to turn up but every last one of them. Then there are those who put on airs getting their payback and the triumph of the ‘little people’ when their attitude of putting on airs was scoffed at by the people from the streets who took their place.

There is the humor of imagining what it must have been like when you comb the streets to fill the seats: some of them won’t know what fork to use, who must have found themselves sitting next to whom.

Finally there is the shock ending which brings one up short. In spite of the open door policy, someone is turned away.

So the king’s true colors come through! And then the parallels kick in: salvation is rejected by those groomed for it, but you don’t receive God’s grace just by default – it places upon you an obligation of some seriousness.

But, of course, it is not a story. It is a parable of how our seeking of the ultimate banquet of God will go if we are not careful. You can’t assume you will simply get there because you belong; and just because those won’t get there just because they think they have a lock on it, doesn’t mean that we will inherit it by default.

One of the most dangerous temptations for traditional Christians is an easy assumption that they have responded to God’s invitation and are now comfortably seated at the banquet table waiting for their final and inevitable reward. This temptation is so insidious because it really is based on the fact of faithful religious observance.

Our lovely wedding garment begins to look somewhat soiled and shabby, when we begin to probe our hidden prejudices. Most of us claim not to be prejudiced, of course, but It’s almost certain that such a claim is in fact the worst prejudice of all, because it means that we’re not even conscious of our biases. It’s much better to be aware of them so that we can at least try to correct our attitudes.

It’s just those traditional and confident Christian communities that are most likely to be burdened by racism and sexism. It’s so easy to forget that Jesus associated freely and lovingly with all kinds of people who were considered unworthy by the “upright” folks of his day. The Samaritan of today would probably be the gay and the transvestite person. Until recently, they were them true outcasts.

This reminds us that the true characteristics of followers of Jesus are love and tolerance and respect for others, regardless of their social status or perceived unworthiness.

This doesn’t at all imply that one should condone unseemly behavior. But we should spend at least as much time removing the log from our own eye as in searching for the speck in our neighbor’s eye. Pride is such an insidious spiritual virus that it can spoil even our best efforts. I find it helpful to consider that definition of pride which notes that it is not so much the tendency to think too much of oneself as it is to think too little of others. How we think of others, and how tolerant we are of their shortcomings, will tell us a lot about whether we think too highly of ourselves.

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

A139OT27_2_cf03_4c

Isaiah 5:1-7    Philippians 2:1-11    Matthew 21:33-43

Paul writes in Philippians 4:6-9: “Brothers and sisters: Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”

Paul, in his beautiful letter to the Church at Philippi, encourages Christians at all times to rejoice, regardless of the situation, and asks them in this passage today to throw their concerns upon God with “prayer and petition, with thanksgiving”. He encourages them to “have no anxiety at all” and to let the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding… guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus”.

Paul certainly had a right to express these feelings; as the Apostle commissioned by the Risen Lord, whose rock-solid faith was able to allow him to endure imprisonment, beatings, humiliation, and the loss of all things.

But, in second Corinthians, Paul speaks of being “under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” In 1 Thessalonians, Paul speaks twice of not being able to “bear” separation from the Thessalonians any longer. Paul, too, struggled with anxiety, especially for his Churches.

Indeed, some have made the intriguing suggestion that the “thorn in the flesh” which Paul says he was given, about which he writes in second Corinthians, might not be a physical illness at all, but anxiety itself. This is hard to prove, but it does point to the very real struggle Paul himself had with anxiety.

Anxiety in a religious context is a lack of dependence on God, or trust that God is on your side, that God is at work in us, that God cares for us.

What is the solution to this anxiety? What is Paul’s own prescription? In addition to prayer, Paul says to place oneself completely in God’s hands. And then, to focus on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things”. In other words, don’t short-change God by selfishness, discrimination toward others, dishonesty, or injustice. Our Gospel story today is a reminder about returning to the vine grower what is His due.

This doesn’t indicate that anxiety will never again strike Paul, but that he does have a prescription for how to deal with it when it does strike. It is sometimes easier to know the prescription, though, than to take it.

These past several months have had to have been among the most anxious times our parish has encountered financially for many years. Anxiety, especially my anxiety, rises to unbelievable levels at these times. Things even like prayer becomes harder to do.

Likewise, focusing on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable,” The peace that surpasses all understanding seems farther and farther away.

It is at times — and now in months, like these — that I am glad that Paul gave to us his own struggles, his own humanity, because it seems more possible, more likely, at a strictly human level, to want to try, one more time, the prescription he left to us, since he needed to use it himself. (John W. Martens © 2008 America Press Inc.)

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

“God is Looking for Gardeners Not Guards”

Ezekiel 18: 25-28    Philippians 2: 1-11    Matthew 21: 28-32

Gospel Summary

Today’s Gospel Jesus tells the story about the two sons and working in the vineyard after the chief priests and elders had asked him on what authority he taught.. In this parable, the vineyard stands for God’s people and the two sons represent those who are called to care for them.

The first son represents the established Judaism, which was in place when Jesus came. As often happens in such cases, the religious leaders of that time paid lip-service to the God of mystery but, when Jesus came in a way they had not expected, they were unable to accept the mysterious ways of God,

The second son stands for the “outsiders;’ including Gentiles, who had been accustomed to saying “No” to God but, having been chastened by their experience of sinfulness, responded positively to the challenge of Jesus. They were joined by the “tax collectors and prostitutes” who, though despised by the religious types of that time, were more humble and therefore more open to the message of Jesus. The point is that pride and smugness are far greater obstacles to true conversion than a sinful past ripe for repentance.

Life Implications

Most mainstream religions have developed elaborate rituals and clear moral guidelines to help their members to establish and maintain a good and fruitful relationship with God. This is a great guide and moral help, since it’s so easy to lose one’s balance in matters of religion.

All this becomes more a problem than a help, however, when one’s relationship with God is reduced primarily to observing rituals and keeping rules. This kind of behavior is readily encouraged by society. It is certainly much preferred to unruly and destructive actions. But ritualistic religious behavior can remain very superficial, focusing only on external observance and appearances rather than on deep and personal conversion. The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day certainly appeared more religious than the tax collectors and prostitutes. But their strict observance hid a deep and fatal flaw. It was self-righteous, expressed most often inrash judgment of others.

Obviously, Jesus is not suggesting that we despise ritual and disregard moral codes. But he wants us to not only say the right things (like the first son), but also to act in a way that benefits others (like the second son). This will happen only when we’re truly converted from selfish ways and become exemplary tolerant, compassionate and forgiving.

Most people are repelled by a religious observance that has no depth and is in fact accompanied by questionable behavior. But if they look more closely, they will see that there are also observant believers whose behavior is perfectly in harmony with their faith.

It’s easy to be scandalized if that is what you want. It is easy to be scandalized if you want to have an excuse for not being a truly moral person. The ideal is to faithfully observe rituals and rules and at the same time act like the kind of person called by those rules to moral observance. (Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.)

But there is another perspective from which this Gospel passage may be interpreted. The chief priests own authority in Israel, after all, had been given to them by God in the time of Moses and passed down through generations.  Jesus’ questioning of them comes as a challenge to that traditionally held authority. They are being challenged to confront the fact that they have refused to recognize messages and people sent by God in other ways than through their interpretations.

In the parable of the Two Sons, those leaders are put in the place of providing an answer that undermines their own authority and implicitly recognizes the establishment of a new one. The two groups represent the chief priest and elders have lost touch with both God and the people while those whom they have identified as outsiders are the very ones who are speaking and living the truth.

What does this have to do with us? We are living in the same dialogue; we are in a time when within our churches and across much of the Christian world we are being challenged with the question of authority. This is not a question of ecclesiastical authority or church structures for that matter, but a question where we can best hear and be embraced by, be liberated with, and be responsible to the God who created, redeemed and sanctified us. We may miss the challenge of this passage if we simply interpret it as a call to go out into the vineyard, to find the “outsiders” of our day – which we should rightly do — and fail to see its challenge to us as individuals in our communities of faith.

Shane Hipps in his excellent book, “Selling Water by the River”, has a wonderful quote that captures some of what is going on in this passage: “Some, in an effort to protect and preserve the gospel message, have become like the guards in a museum, fueled by fear that its treasures could be damaged or stolen if they are not vigilant in their watch. They’ve mistaken the good news for an ancient artifact that needs to be protected. But that is not its nature. This kingdom is a lot more like a tree. God is looking for gardeners, not guards. A guard is trained in a defensive stance of fear and suspicion. A gardener is motivated by love and creativity”

Perhaps this passage is challenging us to consider the ways we act as the second son, who said “Yes”, but did not go. After all these years we may be the ones who are confronted daily by fresh and sometimes strange voices who are calling for a kind of faithfulness that seems foreign to us. All around us we, inheritors of a rich history, can hear the voice of Jesus in a strange cadence that perks up our ears while at the same time causing us discomfort. We desire a faithful response to God’s call but wind up as guards in a museum protecting a treasure.

But there is also the possibility that we, as followers in the way of Jesus and as members of the church, may wind up like the first son; resisting the voice of God and refusing to follow, but eventually working as master gardeners in an ever-growing garden.

Are we in need of fresh eyes and changed hearts in order to be faithful to the God revealed to us in Jesus? Should it be a constant challenge for us to follow a person who regularly confronted calcified authorities in order to bring about new birth? Given the age of Christianity and its identification with so much of society in the western world, are we now in the position of the chief priests and elders? Have we become guards of an ancient treasure or are we gardeners growing both heirloom plants and sturdy hybrids, and adapting as the garden grows? (Mark Suriano)

 

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

Generous With God’s Gifts

Isaiah 55:6-11   Philippians 1:20-30    Matthew 20:1-16

The theme of the Gospel today is generosity – the generosity of the Lord who is hiring all. Jesus is painting a picture for us of a man who obviously isn’t hiring people because of what they can do for him, but because of what he can do for them.

Scripture scholars tell us that this Gospel was a warning to the Christians of Jewish ancestry. It is presenting a picture of the equal value between Jewish and Gentile believers. The gentiles enter the church later than the Jews but get equal treatment.

Old timers in the Church will have to admit to a tendency to think that we have some special standing with God that “newbies” do not have. It’s as if they believe there is a long period of building up seniority. The longer the seniority, the better is our standing with God. But it is not so, says Jesus.

You’ve heard of companies where the pecking order is measured by the nearness of the employees’ parking spaces to the front door. When someone leaves the company, other employees are begging for their parking space even if it is only three spaces closer to the door. We have an innate need to measure our place. We want to progressively be moving up from the cubicle, to a real office, to the office with a window, to the office on the corner, to the office nearest to the president’s. Leave people alone and they will come up with their own pecking order.

Johnny Carson tells a story about the time when, as the host of the Tonight Show, he made a joke about there being a toilet paper shortage in the city. The next day there really was a shortage because all the viewers who had watched his show ran out afterward and bought up extra toilet paper just in case. There was no trust in the fact that people, if they chose to work together, could ration out the toilet paper to make sure there would be enough for everyone. People panicked and grabbed not what they needed, but more than they needed, leaving others with nothing at all.

Heaven consists of a heartfelt desire for the good of others rather than our own good. If you are motivated primarily by a need to provide for yourself you won’t be very comfortable in “heaven”.

Be thankful you don’t get what you deserve. Yet, God is more generous to us than we deserve.

God is being merciful, not fair, and this parable is what mercy looks like. Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less. Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more!   “It is simply a fact that people regularly understand and appreciate God’s grace as applied to themselves, but they fear and resent seeing it applied to others. Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions is grace. Grace is always amazing grace.

Jesus himself is the best parable of the extravagantly generous God. He makes far too much wine at the wedding at Cana; far too much bread for the hungry crowd; he tells a story about forgiving a debt far too large ever to be paid; and he tells us to forgive, not seven times, but seventy times seven. And as the ultimate revelation of extravagant affection, he willingly gives up his life for us on a cross.

At communion, we are given a little bit of bread and just a sip of wine…our hungers are so deep. Yet in a strange new math, just that little bread and one sip is enough to feed us forever

The good news of the gospel is that we share the extravagantly generous Spirit of Jesus. Sometimes we too can act with extravagant generosity, beyond the rational rules of justice. God’s kingdom is meant to be a new order of grace. Isn’t there always something unexpected and wonderful about a gift of love, even a kind word? A gift is never earned in the way that a wage is earned, and expected.   (W. Metzler)

 

From the Archives of Fr. Metzler’s Homilies: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle A

“Seeking God’s Shalom: Reflections on Labor Day”

Jeremiah 20:7-20    Romans 12:1-2    Matthew 16:21-27

Labor Day celebrates the prophetic concern for justice for the hardworking, poor, and vulnerable. The celebration of Labor Day—a day of rest and respect—emerged out of conflict. First celebrated in 1882 by the Central Labor Union in Boston, “Labor Day” became a federal holiday in 1894 in response to the deaths of a number of workers during the Pullman Strike between labor unions and railroads. Sadly, government was pitted against the people as U.S. marshals and military forces were responsible for the deaths of striking workers. In response to this abuse of power, President Grover Cleveland made reconciliation with the labor movement a top national priority.

The labor movement, often in partnership with Christian leaders, went on to become the source of many of the benefits and rights that both blue and white collar employees hold dear today: vacations, holidays, workers compensation, days off, health insurance, disability, and collective bargaining. Although church leaders were often at the sidelines and even, in some cases, opposed workers’ rights, the Social Gospel movement affirmed the intersection of faith and social ethics and played a major role in securing justice for working people.

Labor Day is more than symbolic. It reflects the prophetic concern for justice for the hardworking, poor, and vulnerable. The prophetic writings and the gospel message consistently affirm the rights of laborers and the dispossessed in relationship to wealthy landowners and greedy business people. Economics matters in the biblical tradition.

What people eat and where they live is a spiritual as well as economic and political issue. Disparity of income and power is a recurring biblical concern: the widows, landless persons, and unemployed people matter to God. Just as God heard the cries of the oppressed Israelites, God hears the cries of the poor. Jesus’ ministry embraced rich and poor alike, but his most controversial acts involved his inclusion of outsiders, people at the margins of the religious, social, and economic worlds, as members of the realm of God, deserving care in this life as well as the next.

With the growing disparity between the wealthy and middle class—not to mention the poor—in the United States, Labor Day is an opportunity for the church to give thanks and recognize the importance of those who stand up for workers, as well as embrace the larger implications of this holiday. This is not a matter of class struggle, but the recognition of God’s Shalom in which property and wealth are ultimately a matter of spiritual stewardship rather than private ownership.

The scriptures do not oppose property ownership or wealth, but see them as part of God’s care for the whole earth. Despite the imperfections of governmental agencies, recent calls to disband the Environmental Protection Agency, eliminate regulations related to business practices and the environment, and radically restructure Medicare need to be examined closely in light of worker’s concerns by persons who seek to follow Jesus. The earth is God’s, the economy is a matter of justice, and care for the vulnerable is a moral and spiritual requirement.

Labor Day, then, offers us a reminder and challenge to affirm the value of work, seek healthy workplace environments, and support opportunities for entrepreneurial adventure in the context of a just social safety net. On Labor Day, we give thanks for those whose efforts have led to workers rights and care for the least of these. And we can make a commitment to seek justice for all workers and balance the need for profit making with care for our society’s most vulnerable members.   (Rev. Bruce Epperly)

1