Thursday, October 19, 2017

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Readings: Is 45:1,4-6; 1 Thess 1:1-5; Mt 22:15-21

Repaying to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God is the punch line that sums up the message of this Sunday. Taxation was controversial at the time of Jesus because the ruling government was a Roman colonial invader. Moreover, taxes had to be paid with an imperial denarius. That coin had an image of Tiberius Caesar on one side, and on the other side there was an image of the female goddess of Rome. Such images were considered idolatry according to Jewish Law. Even more sensitive were the words under Caesar’s image, “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus.” Any debate on taxation was therefore delicate as it could be even today. The readings of this Sunday touch on the delicate relationship between Church and state; between Christian commitment to God and loyalty to one’s country. A good example of this is what we hear in the first reading from the prophet Isaiah. The context is that the Jews are in exile in Babylon. The Lord then speaks through Isaiah to Cyrus, King of Persia (modern Iran), who conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. The King then allowed the Jews to return to their homeland in 537 B.C. He also gave state money from the royal treasury for the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. The Jews quickly hailed King Cyrus II as the “anointed” in terms of being used by God to conquer the Babylonians. The first reading therefore reveals that at times, God may even use civil initiative to accomplish his own purpose. Isaiah uses the example of King Cyrus to illustrate this point. Isaiah shows that the king was ultimately subject to the hand of God in delivering Israel from the bondage of exile in Babylon, and restoring them to their homeland.

In the Gospel, Jesus is in the Temple. The Pharisees have plotted to trick him into saying something that would be treason against the Romans. So they send some spies, the Herodians, who had maintained loyalty to king Herod, and therefore supported the payment of taxes to the Roman Emperor. The question is carefully crafted to solicit a positive or negative answer. Jesus knows the malice and hypocrisy of his questioners. In fact they are carrying coins bearing Caesar’s name and image. Jesus’ reply leads his opponents to entrap themselves. “Whose image is this and whose inscription?” “Caesar’s”, they replied. Then comes Jesus’ punch line. “Then, repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” The response of Jesus has many implications for the Church today. Jesus does not commit himself to either side. Similarly the Church must never take sides, but has the stewardship role of guiding the faithful through formation, to know their rights, in order to fulfill their civic duties as informed loyal citizens, who are committed to God alone. So what message do we take home this Sunday? 1) Jesus does not commit himself to either side of the debate, for he is committed only to the Father. Similarly, we too his disciples and stewards are committed to God alone. 2) As Christians we must be truthful and honest in all matters of civil life. 3) The readings challenge us to be good stewards by giving to God what belongs to God because all our being and all we have is from God.

©2017 John S. Mbinda

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Twenty Eighth Sunday Ordinary Time Year A

Readings: Is 25:6-10; Phil 4:12-14,19-20; Mt 22:1-14

Commitment to God’s invitation sums up best the message of this Sunday. The readings speak about the Kingdom of heaven, compared to an invitation to a wedding banquet. All three readings clearly highlight a stewardship theme of our God who cares and provides for his people. The first reading from the Prophet Isaiah offers one of the most beautiful images of this Kingdom. Isaiah uses very clear graphic description of the great banquet that the Lord will prepare for his people. There will be good food and fine wines; there will be neither mourning nor death for the Lord will destroy death forever. “The Lord will wipe away the tears from every face”. There will be exultation and rejoicing, because the lord “has saved us”. This is all placed in the future. Paul in the Second Reading speaks indirectly of the same feast provided by the Lord for his people. Paul had learned to be content with whatever God provided generously. He had learned the secret of being well fed, referring to spiritual food. As a faithful steward, Paul found strength in the Lord Jesus. The response to what God generously provides for his people, for Paul and for us of today is expressed in Psalm 23. The psalm is clearly song of thanksgiving to the Lord and a prelude to the Eucharist we celebrate.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells the Parable of the Wedding Feast. The banquet is now ready and the king sends his servants twice to invite the guests, but those invited are too busy to accept the invitation because they are too selfish with their free time. Their business is so important that they snob a royal invitation. The negative response to that invitation is tantamount to rebellion and disloyalty. We are told that the king dispatches troops to destroy those murderers and their city. But the king does not give up. He makes a final invitation to everyone his servants can find, an allusion to God's universal invitation to salvation. In the banquet hall, an image of the Church, everyone has a place - "the bad and the good". You and I have accepted God’s invitation to come to the wedding banquet, namely the Eucharistic celebration. However, there is one main requirement. All must wear their best in order to share the meal in the royal banquet. The garments are provided freely through the Sacraments, particularly the Sacrament of reconciliation. God invites us out of a free act of generosity. The message may be summed up in three points. 1) The parable in the Gospel is a challenge to commit ourselves to God’s invitation to be the best version of ourselves. The question is, are we too busy doing stuff that do not matter instead of responding positively to God’s invitation? 2) The good news is that God never gives up even when we say no. God sends out his messengers with another invitation. All are welcome to God’s Banquet of the Lamb at which there is free lunch. The only condition is to wear the wedding garment of grace provided freely through the sacraments. 3) We are challenged to commit ourselves to God’s invitation or to reject it; to give time to God or to pretend we own time! We can also go to the banquet hall and decline to wear the garment provided freely through the sacrament of reconciliation. The choice is mine; the choice is yours!

©2017 John S. Mbinda

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Twenty Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time Year A

Readings: Is 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Mat 21:33-43

Inclusion, exclusion, lust and failure to produce fruit are the key words that help us to focus on the message of this Sunday. The readings focus our attention on the Mystery of the Church as the vineyard of the Lord. In the Gospel, Jesus gives us another vineyard parable. In contrast to the past two Sundays the parable has a terrible and a violent character. On the one level we can say the parable has been fulfilled in Jesus' passion and death on the Cross, but on another level it actually applies to every generation of Christians including our own. Jesus prophesies the rise of servants who will rebel against the vineyard owner (God himself) and attempt to take it over by force for their own purposes. In the first reading we listen to the song of Isaiah about a friend who had a vineyard. Isaiah uses poetic imagination to describe God’s disappointment with his vineyard, which is his Chosen People, Israel. Psalm 80 confirms this interpretation: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” Instead of yielding the expected good grapes, Israel has yielded only sour grapes. Therefore, God no longer protected the vineyard. The Northern Kingdom of Israel fell in 722 BC about twenty years after Isaiah began his ministry. The southern kingdoms also fell after two centuries. The message of Isaiah is that the Lord looks for faithfulness to his Covenant, but only finds infidelity and betrayal. We can hardly listen to the prophesy of Isaiah without thinking about what is happening in many nations in the world today: rejection of Christian values, corruption in high places and partisan politics of deception for selfish reasons, leading to politically motivated economic crisis. On the Church level, we are reminded of what happens when those who serve take ministry as a personal possession or territory, thereby blocking even the owner from entering into the territory!

The similarity between the Gospel and the first reading is quite striking. Jesus builds the parable of the vineyard around the vineyard song of Isaiah. The parable begins with inclusion and ends with exclusion and replacement because of infidelity, treason and failure to produce fruit. It is a powerful message from Jesus on the consequences of infidelity and betrayal. Just as in the case of the prophecy of Isaiah, one cannot read the Gospel of this Sunday without thinking of the root causes of the complicated economic and financial crisis currently facing the world today. The parable focuses on greed, reckless ambition, betrayal of public trust and incredible mismanagement. This crisis provides an opportunity to examine our own lives as Christians on how we are carrying out the trust placed upon us by Christ.  By virtue of our Baptism we have been called by the Lord to be the new workers in the vineyard, namely the Church. We are expected to produce fruit at the proper time. To help us produce fruit, the Lord in his great kindness sends us teachers and prophets, who challenge and lead us to repent and so accept his gift of forgiveness. The message in the Gospel is clear. Today as in the past, the prophesy of Jesus in relation to the Church is fulfilled. There is no shortage of betrayers, corrupt officials and disloyal workers in the vineyard in God’s name! So what message do we take home? 1) Greed, scheming for quick profits and deception, were at the root cause of the betrayal and breach of trust by the tenants in the Gospel. The readings therefore invite us once more to become God’s faithful tenants of his vineyard. 2) We are challenged to change our perspectives on life and faith issues. Rather than focusing on selfish gains, we need to focus more on doing things that benefit others as well. 3) On the civil society and Church levels, when institutional organs fail to produce the expected results, that calls for taking the “vineyard” away from those in power; it calls for reforms, for change and transformation at all levels of Church and society. Now is the opportune moment.

©2017 John S Mbinda

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Twenty Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time Year A

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

Transforming people one at a time is at the heart of God’s plan for the world.  The readings proclaim God’s mercy that leads us to radical conversion. The gospel of this Sunday focuses our attention on God’s invitation to the kingdom and our response to that proclamation of God’s mercy. There is an amazing story about Michael, a creedal Catholic from Philadelphia. While in Junior High, Michael’s mom got sick and died and Michael was so mad with God that he drifted away from Church. The company he kept led him to slide further away from God. Twenty years later, he saw an ad about “Catholics Returning Home” and when he called the office, he was right away connected to a parish. When Michael called the number, the pastor answered and invited him to come over, and so the journey back home began with that invitation and his positive response. Michael was led into the sacrament of reconciliation where he rediscovered the good news of God’s mercy and compassion. What struck Michael most was that he was accepted just as he was without any questions. Michael was led into an encounter with Christ that further led him into a radical conversion to follow Jesus Christ.

I tell this story because Jesus in the parable of the two sons in the Gospel of this Sunday proclaims the good news of radical conversion. We notice that the father takes the initiative to invite his two sons. Even after saying “no” like the first son, God in his great mercy gives us a chance to say “yes”. The parable of the two sons is addressed to the chief priests and religious elders who had just challenged the identity of Jesus as the Messiah and so rejected God’s invitation to the kingdom. The purpose of the parable is to let the religious leaders judge themselves on the grounds of which son did the father’s will. Their own judgement is that they are like the second son who says “yes” and then refused to go into the vineyard. Jesus then takes the parable to a new level by contrasting these religious leaders to tax collectors and prostitutes who had said “no”, but on encountering Jesus were now radically converted and became faithful followers of Jesus.

The message is quite clear. Jesus invites us all to discipleship; to stewardship that requires a radical conversion to enter into a deeper relationship with him in such a way that we share his vision, mission and purpose.  We are here because we have encountered Jesus who called us and who is now challenging us further into radical conversion. Like the first son, God does not reject us even when we say “no”. He gives us a chance to say yes. Like the story of Michael, our life’s journey draws us at times into embracing the invitation for radical conversion. May our hearts be open to God’s grace that transforms us into saying “yes”, to being good stewards of God’s gifts of time, talent and treasure.

©2017 John S. Mbinda

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Readings: Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-24,27; Mt 20:1-16

All welcome to God’s Kingdom; where new comers belong; where the last are first and the excluded are included; because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. God’s standards are not our standards. The readings of this Sunday especially the Gospel invite us to reflect on God’s generous love, mercy and justice for all people without exception. As human beings, we find it extremely difficult to understand the mystery of God’s generosity. Our God is a God of surprises, at times contradicting our human expectations. Throughout the Old and New Testaments justice is a very central theme. But what do we understand by justice and what do the Scriptures tells us about it? In the First Reading from Isaiah we discover a surprising difference between our human understanding on justice and God’s justice. We hear that God offers salvation and forgiveness sorely out of generosity.  Indeed, the prophet Isaiah calls us to make some adjustment in our ways of thinking, because God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor are God’s ways our ways. Psalm 145 highlights God’s justice. “The Lord is just in all his ways.” By human standards, it appears strange and foolish that God loves all human beings equally, no matter what their social status, color or creed may be. That is God’s standard that will be applied at the end of times. It is important to notice that from this Sunday to the end of the liturgical year we shift from previous Sundays themes of the demands of discipleship to the end of time themes of Christ’s coming, God’s last judgement and final reward (the wage at the end of the day’s work).

In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable that compares the kingdom of heaven to a generous landowner who hires workers at different hours throughout the day for his vineyard.  At the end of the day, the landowner pays them all a day’s wage as agreed. Jesus cleverly puts this twist in the parable in order to show us the sharp contrast between God’s justice and human justice; between God’s ways and our ways. The parable is not about fair or unfair compensation. Regarding this parable the great nineteenth century thinker, Blessed John Henry Newman, said, "This was the sole question, whether they had worked in the vineyard. First they must be in the vineyard, then they must work in it; these were the two things. So will it be with us after death. When we come into God's presence, we shall be asked two things, whether we were in the Church, and whether we worked in the Church. Everything else is worthless." What matters at the end of the day is not whether those not hired and unwanted got into the vineyard. The point being made is that God rewards us equally in the end. We are the workers who arrive at God’s vineyard (the Church) at different times of God’s day. Some stand outside the vineyard for whatever reason perhaps with a feeling of not being wanted. Others may be simply turned off from involvement in Church life. Some of us may probably know of people who worked in the Church, then at some point for some reason left. We may also know people who embraced Christ at the final hour. I once heard about a man who rejected the Catholic faith all his life, but as he was dying his wife handed him a small crucifix. In front of his family, he lifted the crucifix to his lips and gently kissed it. It must have taken tremendous humility to make that gesture. The parable also contains an urgent question about the unemployed outside the vineyard, asking them the question: “why do you stand here idle all day?” That question applies to many of our alienated Catholics and particularly many young people whom the Lord is inviting back to his vineyard, ready to embrace them with his compassion and forgiveness. No matter how many times I may have failed; no matter how late in life I come to find Jesus, I am always assured of God’s warm welcome, of God’s goodness and salvation. Unlike us humans, God does not make comparisons between our lives and those of others.  He rewards us according to the way we respond to His call and live out the Grace He gives each of us. What message do we take home this Sunday? 1) The First reading reveals God’s universal generosity in the way God rewards equally all who respond to his call for repentance; 2) The Gospel parable cautions those who might think they are advantaged because they were born Catholic or because they think they spent more time in Church with Jesus; 3) The Gospel speaks of new-comers (the last to arrive), assuring them of God’s grace and that they too belong. Hence, “the last will be first, and the first will be last”, but all will be paid according to God’s justice founded on God’s mercy and compassion.

©2017 John S. Mbinda