Tag Archives: parable

3 December 2017: First Sunday of Advent

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2-7   Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19   1 Cor 1:3-9   Mk 13:33-37

Advent: looking forward by looking back

Purple_banner_sm Happy new liturgical year! This Sunday marks the start of a new liturgical year and a new season. The year’s Sunday gospel readings change from Matthew to Mark; the season’s color is now Advent’s purple. In Advent, the Lectionary readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to look back to God’s promises and to look forward to their fulfillment.

In the first reading from Isaiah, the returned exiles lament what they find: the Temple burned and Jerusalem in ruins. In striking language, Isaiah asks that God “tear open the heavens and come down” to be with the people again, and through “awesome deeds” restore Jerusalem to its former glory. The Lectionary editors chose this passage to show us that God has fulfilled this request, “tearing open heaven and coming down” in Jesus’ incarnation.

In the second reading from the first letter to the Corinth ekklesia, Paul opens with greetings and thanksgiving for the believing community. He previews a few issues he will cover, including charismatic gifts, unity, and fellowship meals. Paul sets the Corinthian’s gifts in an eschatological context. Despite the Corinthians’ present knowledge, they are still waiting for the Lord “to be revealed.” Here Paul describes the paradox of the “already” and the “not yet:” the Corinthians already have particular gifts they need to build up the believing community, but these gifts will not be fully known or understood until Jesus’ return–the not yet. Advent reminds us that Jesus is with us now in word and sacrament, but we will know him fully only when he comes again in the parousia.

In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to watch and to stay awake; he summarizes promise and fulfillment in the parable of the doorkeeper.

  • The instructions. As part of his end-time teachings, Jesus admonishes disciples to be watchful and to be alert because no one knows when “the time will come.”
  • The parable. This parable is similar to the parable of the talents we heard a few weeks ago. A man going on an indeterminate trip tells his slaves to continue their work and commands the doorkeeper to watch for his return. The master will judge the slaves when he returns.
  • The meaning. Jesus intends this parable not just for first-century disciples, but for all disciples (“What I say to you, I say to all.”). His command–“Be vigilant!”–warns disciples to remain watchful for his promised return. When he fulfills his promise, the Lord will judge each disciple on how well he or she has lived as his disciple. There is no room for complacency in Christian life.

The Advent readings invite RCIA participants and the whole believing community to look back to God’s promises and forward to their fulfillment. God fulfilled Isaiah’s request to “tear open the heavens and come down” through Jesus’ incarnation. Paul tells us God has already given us the gifts we need to live as disciples, although we can’t yet fully understand or appreciate them. Jesus warns us to watch for his promised return by fulfilling our discipleship daily. Advent is a time of waiting for Jesus’ coming at Christmas and watching for Jesus’ coming again. How are we using our time?

—Terence Sherlock

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19 November 2017: Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Prv 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31   Ps 128:1-2, 3, 4-5   1 Thes 5:1-6   Mt 25:14-30

Kingdom come

Green_banner_sm On this final Sunday of Ordinary time, the readings’ themes focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings outline again what God requires of disciples who wish to enter the kingdom.

The first reading, from the book of Wisdom, presents an ideal woman serving her family and community. This woman is also Wisdom personified; a person’s reward for seeking Wisdom is a worthy spouse and children, a great household, and renown in the community. The Lectionary editors chose this reading because it mentions “receiving a reward for labors,” which echoes the gospel’s theme.

The second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonian ekklesia, contains Paul’s response to concerns about the “time and season” of Jesus’ return. Seeking to calm the community he founded, Paul points out that no one knows when the end is coming. As children of the light and of the day, they shouldn’t worry about the coming judgement. Rather, they should rejoice, because the parousia marks their day of salvation. They need only to stay alert and awake.

Matthew’s gospel continues Jesus’ eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the talents. Matthew has adapted Jesus’ parable to emphasize its end-time themes.

  • The master’s charge. A man who is going on a long journey entrusts three slaves with varying amounts of money. He expects them to manage what they’ve been given.
  • The slaves’ actions. In the master’s absence, the first and second slaves work and trade the master’s money and double its value. The third slave, out of fear, buries the money he had been given, doing nothing.
  • The surprise. When the master returns, he demands an accounting. The master is pleased with the first two slaves’ work and results and invites them “to share in his joy.” Unsurprisingly, the master calls the third slave “useless” because he did nothing with his master’s money. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised that the master not only punishes the third slave, but disowns him (like the bridegroom disowned his teenage cousins in last week’s gospel). The master has the useless slave thrown into the outer darkness, where he is no longer a slave, but a non-person. The “outer darkness” is Matthew’s codeword for “denied entrance to God’s kingdom.” Matthew’s hearers understand that Jesus holds his disciples to a high standard: they must live the gospel to enter God’s kingdom.

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to examine God’s entry requirements for the kingdom. The first reading highlights actions. The second reading focuses on watchfulness. The gospel describes the consequences of discipleship. At the parousia, disciples will be called to account for what they have done with the good news God entrusted to them. Only those who grow the gospel by their words and actions will enter the kingdom. Are we faithful and productive stewards who promote and live Jesus’ message? Or are our choices and actions ruled by our own fear or laziness?

—Terence Sherlock

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12 November 2017: Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Wis 6:12-16   Ps 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8   1 Thes 4:13-18   Mt 25:1-13

The wisdom of watchful waiting

Green_banner_sm As we near the end of Ordinary time and this liturgical year, the Sunday readings become eschatological: they focus on the end times and Jesus’ second coming. This week’s readings ask us how prepared we are to meet Jesus.

In the first reading, the Wisdom author writes to encourage the Jews in Egypt during a time of suffering and oppression (70-50 BC). This Wisdom passage has an eschatological theme: wisdom is unfading (v 12) and those who find wisdom reign as kings forever (v 21). The Lectionary editors chose this reading because of its similarity to themes in today’s gospel of wisdom, waiting, and the messiah’s coming.

In the second reading, Paul clarifies his teaching about the parousia (Christ’s return at the end of time). In this early period (30s-70s AD), the believing community expected Jesus to return within their lifetimes. Some Thessalonica community members have died; their friends and relatives worry that these “fallen-asleep ones” will miss the Lord’s return. Paul reassures them that Jesus’ own resurrection is his promise to all believers of their personal resurrections.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presents his fifth and final discourse, his eschatological sermon (Mt 24:1-25:46), which includes the parable of the ten virgins. Jesus sets a scene that all his hearers would recognize–a wedding celebration at a bridegroom’s home.

  • First-century wedding culture. The groom and his friends have gone across the village or to a nearby village to bring the bride and her friends back to his home. The returning wedding party wanders through every village street and alley so everyone can see and cheer them as they pass. The ten virgins, the groom’s unmarried teenage relatives, wait for the meandering parade to return, so they can escort them into the groom’s home. Bored by waiting, the teenagers fall asleep.
  • The crisis. When the wedding party finally nears the groom’s home, the waiting guests call out. Awakened, the teenage lamp keepers immediately trim their lamps. The delay has depleted their lamps’ oil. Some teenagers brought extra oil; others did not. The ones without oil beg the ones with extra oil to share. The ones with oil refuse, worried there won’t be enough oil for all the lamps to last until the wedding party actually arrives. The ones without oil rush off to find oil. Meanwhile, the bridegroom returns with the wedding party, and all present go into the feast, locking the door after them.
  • The parable’s surprise. The five unprepared teenagers return with their now-full lamps and bang on the bridegroom’s door to be let in. They hear the bridegroom’s voice through the door saying, “I don’t know you.” In the middle east, family is everything. Jesus’ hearers would ask: Why would the bridegroom disown his relatives and bar them from his wedding feast?

The readings invite RCIA participants and the believing community to think about who will enter God’s kingdom. The first reading highlights our need for wisdom. Paul emphasizes our need for faith. The gospel parable tells us we must be thoughtful and prepared. We are the lamp-holding teenagers waiting for the bridegroom’s return. Do we think that baptism guarantees entry to the kingdom? Do our words and actions mark us as part of Jesus’ family? How are we preparing for the bridegroom’s coming?

—Terence Sherlock

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15 October 2017: Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 25:6-10a   Ps 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, 6   Phil 4:12-14, 19-20   Mt 22:1-14

A king and his problem party guests

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite us to think about invitations, banquets, and worthiness.

The first reading from the prophet Isaiah comforts the Jewish people in exile in Babylon. Isaiah tells the captives that God has a plan to destroy Judah’s enemies and save God’s poor. God will then host a victory banquet for all in Jerusalem. This banquet is the eschatological (end-time) feast that represents God’s universal invitation to salvation. Christian hearers recognize in Isaiah’s prophecy Jesus’ description of God’s kingdom repeated in today’s gospel.

In the second reading’s letter to the Philippi believing community, Paul thanks the Philippians for their gifts and support while he is in prison. Paul prays that “God will supply whatever you need,” just as the Philippians have met Paul’s needs. His closing doxology (“to God be glory forever”) asks God’s blessing on the Philippians.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus directs another allegorical parable to the chief priests and elders, using elements from Isaiah’s banquet story (first reading). The allegory has the following parts:

  • The first parable/allegory (v 2-9). Hebrew scripture uses king as an image for God, and the wedding feast as an image of the end-time messianic banquet. In Matthew’s allegory, the invited ones are the Jewish religious leaders whom the prophets (the king’s slaves) invited to God’s kingdom. Some invitees shame the king by begging off with poor excuses not to attend, but other invitees challenge the king’s honor by killing his slaves. The shamed king responds in anger, saying that those who shamed him were not worthy of his feast. The king tells his slaves to go out into the public gathering places and invite whomever you find. In the allegory, these new invitees are from “all nations.”
  • The second parable/allegory (v 10-13). The slaves gathered everyone they found, both bad and good, and brought them to the feast. (Like the parable of the dragnet [Mt 13:47-48], the kingdom gathers together the good and the bad. Sorting comes later.) When the king reviews the invitees, he finds one not properly dressed for the feast. The king judges that invitee not worthy, and orders him bound and thrown out of the feast. The allegory’s outside darkness is a place outside God’s kingdom.
  • The saying/interpretation (v 14). “Many are called/invited, but few chosen/elected.” Matthew concludes the allegory by reminding his community that they have been called/invited in the place of the others, but if they fail to live up to the invitation (wear the wedding garment) they will face the same consequences as the religious leaders.

In today’s readings RCIA participants and the believing community are challenged to examine their invitation and response to the banquet. Salvation requires more than accepting the invitation. We must also be worthily dressed to be among the chosen. That is, faith brings our invitation, but we must show continued righteousness as well. Jesus defines such righteousness in his sermon on the mount and other teachings. Do we think baptism alone will get us into God’s eschatological feast? Do we wear our garment–our words and actions–daily? Would the king judge us worthy of his son’s feast?

—Terence Sherlock

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8 October 2017: Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Is 5:1-7   Ps 80:9, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20   Phil 4:6-9   Mt 21:33-43

 

A vineyard owner and his problem tenants

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite us to think about the responsibilities of stewardship.

In the first reading, Isaiah tells an allegorical story about a vineyard owner. Although he carefully develops his vineyard and plants good grapes, only wild grapes grow. Because his grapes fail, the owner chooses to tear down his vineyard. Isaiah explains the owner is God, and the grapes are the people of Judah. God will punish the people because they failed in their stewardship to keep God’s covenant. Jesus tells a similar allegorical parable in today’s gospel.

In the second reading, Paul concludes his letter to the Philippi ekklesia. Many scripture scholars believe this letter is a composite of two or three letters. If so, v 6-7 end one letter and v 8-9 end a different letter. Paul closes the first letter with a request that the Philippians not to be anxious, but rather to bring their requests to God in prayer. Paul closes the other letter with an exhortation that the Philippians model their lives on Christ as Paul does, referencing Christ’s example from last week’s christological hymn (Phil 2:6-11).

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus directs an allegorical parable to the chief priests and elders, using elements from Isaiah’s vineyard parable (first reading). The story has the following parts:

  • The parable/allegory. Echoing Isaiah’s parable, Jesus describes a landowner (God) who creates a vineyard (the chosen people). In Jesus’ story, the owner leases the vineyard to tenants (the religious leaders). At the harvest, the owner sends his servants (the prophets) to collect his share. The tenants beat, kill, and stone his servants. The owner responds by sending more servants; the tenants treat these servants in the same way. Finally the owner sends his son (Jesus), whom the tenants throw out of the vineyard and kill.
  • Jesus’ question and the religious leaders’ answer. Jesus ends his parable by asking the chief priests and elders, “What do you think the owner will do to the tenants?” The religious leaders implicate themselves when they answer: “He’ll kill the evil tenants and lease the vineyard to others who will produce fruit.” Jesus presses his point by quoting Ps 118 about the stone (Jesus) rejected by the builders (the religious authorities) becoming the cornerstone or capstone (his resurrection).
  • Jesus’ interpretation. In case the religious leaders didn’t understand the allegory, Jesus tells them bluntly that God’s kingdom will be taken from them and given to people (more faithful stewards) who will produce fruit.

RCIA participants and the believing community are challenged in today’s readings to consider their stewardship. Although we may not think of ourselves as religious leaders, we have stewardship responsibilities to ourselves, our children, our spouses, our neighbors, and our world. We are responsible for hearing and acting on God’s instructions and remaining in covenant with God, and bringing others into loving relationships. Are we faithful tenants and stewards? Do we listen when God speaks to us through Word and sacrament? Do we act out of love for God and our neighbor?

—Terence Sherlock

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1 October 2017: Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
  Ez 18:25-28   Ps 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14   Phil 2:1-11   Mt 21:28-32

A father and his problem children

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings ask us what it takes to change our minds.

In the first reading the prophet Ezekiel emphasizes individual responsibility and accountability for our actions. Those who turn away from lawlessness and turn toward good will live; those who do not turn back from lawlessness will suffer eternal death. Jesus’ parable in today’s gospel teaches that God’s invitation requires a response, and that each is accountable for his or her choice and its consequences.

In the second reading Paul writes to the Philippi ekklesia to encourage them to stand firm in one spirit and to model their behavior on Christ’s life. He quotes from an early liturgical hymn: Christ humbled himself, emptying out his divinity to become fully human. He was obedient to God’s saving mission, even to his death. God exalted Christ, proclaiming him messiah and Lord. Paul suggests that the Philippians humbly love one another, empty their own interests, and embrace Christ’s obedience.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus directs a parable to the chief priests and elders about a man who asks his two problem children to work in the family vineyard.

  • The first child. The first child says “no,” but, later, regrets his answer and goes to the vineyard. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised by the first child’s no response. Children were culturally and religiously expected to honor parents by complying with their requests. Jesus tells us that “afterwards” or “later” the first child “changed his mind.” Matthew uses the Greek word μεταμέλλομαι (meh-tah-MEHL-loh-mah-ee), which means “to regret” or “to wish a choice could be undone.” Realizing his answer was wrong, the first child acts to correct it.
  • The second child. The second child says “yes, sir” but does not go. Jesus’ hearers would have been even more surprised by the second child’s action (or inaction). Although the second child’s yes would have restored the hearers’ religious and cultural expectations, his inaction undermines their expectations. Although this child respectfully addresses his father as “sir,” he willfully ignores his duties: “he did not go.”
  • Which one did the father’s will? The religious leaders answer “the first child.” By their answer, the religious leaders condemn themselves. Jesus constructs the parable using the religious leaders’ own language (the “vineyard” as the people of Israel) and metaphors (God as “father,” Israel as “children of God”). The religious leaders admit that they have failed to work in the vineyard. John’s preaching had given them time to change their minds, but they refused. The tax collectors and prostitutes who have changed their minds enter the kingdom, while the religious leaders do not.

RCIA participants and the believing community find hope in today’s readings. Ezekiel proclaims God’s desire that we turn away from evil and turn back to God’s ways. Jesus’ parable teaches that wrong choices are not permanent. Anyone can change his mind, do what is right, and enter God’s kingdom. Redemption is available to all. What keeps us from working in the vineyard? Pride? Anger? Fear? Human respect? What keeps us from changing our minds?

—Terence Sherlock

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30 July 2017: Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12  Ps 119:57, 72, 76-77, 127-128, 129-130  Rom 8:28-30  Mt 13:44-52

 

Parables about choices in discipleship

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings focus on God’s kingdom and our discipleship.

In the first reading from the book of Kings, Solomon asks God for wisdom, rather than riches or a long life. Wisdom (knowledge of God) should be valued above all else; the parables in today’s gospel depict the kingdom as a treasure beyond value.

In his letter to the Roman ekklesia, Paul describes God’s plan and care for a believer’s salvation. This passage has a complicated history; words like “predestined” and “justified” are sometimes freighted with meanings Paul didn’t intend. Paul’s point is simply that all things unfold according to God’s plan (God’s foreknowing). God designs (predestines) all humans to be able to be like (conformed to) Christ. God calls all to salvation through Christ. Those who accept God’s call, God “makes right” with God (justifies). Those who are “right with God,” God also allows to share now and in the future in the effects of Christ’s resurrection (glorifies). This is good news for disciples!

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus concludes teaching the crowds and disciples in parables. Jesus presents the kingdom as a hidden treasure, a merchant seeking pearls, and a dragnet. Jesus also directs a parable about a house-master to his disciples. In these parables, Jesus overturns his hearers’ expectations about how disciples come to God’s kingdom, who can enter, and how disciples understand and teach the kingdom.

  • A hidden treasure. Jesus’ hearers would expect that something as important as the kingdom to be visible and obvious. Instead, Jesus tells them it is hidden. The surprise is that the treasure is found by chance. The parable invites the hearers to imagine finding such a treasure and how they would react.
  • A merchant seeking pearls. Jesus’ hearers would expect that the kingdom would be easy to acquire. Instead, Jesus describes the merchant as actively seeking. The surprise is the way in which the merchant changes when he finds a unique pearl. Jesus says he sells everything he had; he is no longer a pearl merchant. The parable invites the hearers to imagine what would cause them to completely change their lives.
  • A dragnet. Jesus’ hearers would expect the kingdom to be exclusive, limited to holy people or to people with special knowledge. The surprise is that the kingdom gathers in everyone, the good and the bad together. Only when the net is full do the fishermen pull it in and sort its contents. The parable invites the hearers to think about a kingdom that is open to all, and their place in such a kingdom.
  • A house-master. Jesus directs this parable to his disciples who now know how to interpret parables. The disciples would expect the house-master to bring out only what is new. The surprise is the house-master brings out both new and old treasures. The parable invites disciples to think about the value of the Torah as well as Jesus’ new teachings in presenting the good news.

Today’s readings ask the believing community to consider how disciples discover the kingdom (by accident or by searching), who enters the kingdom, and how disciples understand God’s law. How we find the kingdom and find ourselves included isn’t important. It is our words and actions, rooted in God’s law, that make us disciples. Have we hidden our treasure or traded it away, or do we bring it out and share it?

—Terence Sherlock

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23 July 2017: Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Wis 12:13, 16-19  Ps 86:5-6, 9-10, 15-16  Rom 8:26-27  Mt 13:24-43

Parables about the unexpected and surprising kingdom

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings focus on God’s nature and God’s kingdom.

In the first reading from the book of Wisdom, the author considers the paradox of balancing divine mercy with divine power: “Your mastery of all things makes you lenient to all (v 16),” “Though mighty, you judge with clemency (v 18).” The Lectionary editors chose this reading to compliment the kingdom’s descriptions in the gospel parables.

In his letter to the Roman ekklesia, Paul addresses the Spirit’s role in completing our prayer. Human prayer is sometimes imperfect in how we praise God or what we ask for. The Spirit comes to our aid to help us form our praise, petitions, and thanks, and present them to God. Paul anticipates John’s description of the Spirit as our paraclete.

In Matthew’s gospel Jesus continues teaching  in parables. Jesus presents the crowds and the disciples with three images of the kingdom of the heavens: a field of wheat and weeds, a mustard seed, and leaven. In these parables, Jesus overturns his hearers’ expectations about how God’s kingdom comes, how the kingdom is revealed, and who can enter. This reflection focuses on the most complex image, the wheat and weeds.

First-century feuding parties would often ruin each other’s crops. The practice was so common that a Roman law forbade sabotaging wheat fields with darnel, a poisonous plant that resembles wheat in its early growth. Jesus’ hearers would be surprised by the householder’s decision to wait until the harvest to separate the wheat from the weeds. In their honor/shame culture, they would expect that someone outwitted and shamed by his enemy would hide or remove the evidence of shame. The householder instead outwits (and shames) his enemy. By waiting, the householder saves his wheat crop, and gets the added benefit of using the weeds to fuel his oven.

This parable warns disciples about human judgement. The kingdom, which is already here, contains both the good and the bad. Disciples may too quickly label someone a “sinner” and judge that person excluded from the kingdom. But God alone judges the worthy and unworthy (see the first reading). A disciple’s work is to preach the kingdom and to encourage conversion (metanoia).

Today’s readings ask the believing community to consider how God’s kingdom comes, is recognized, and is encountered and lived. The mustard seed parable tells us the kingdom starts small, but grows large enough to encompass the whole world. The leaven parable tells us that the kingdom starts as a hidden thing, but becomes visible as it changes the world. The wheat-and-weeds parable reminds us that, although we have a role in bringing God’s kingdom, God alone, who is both just and merciful, chooses who will enter. As disciples, are we growing the kingdom by our words and actions? Do we reveal the kingdom daily by our example? Do we invite everyone to the kingdom without judgement or preference?

—Terence Sherlock

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16 July 2017: Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
 Is 55:10-11  Ps 65:10, 11, 12-13, 14  Rom 8:18-23  Mt 13:1-23

Disciples: seeds and sowers

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings focus on Jesus’ parable of the sower.

In the first reading, Isaiah reminds the people of the creative power of God’s word. The prophet poetically compares the power of God’s rain and snow to the power of God’s word. Both change the world and enable humans to thrive; both return to God only after they fulfill their work. Christians hear this reading as a prefiguring of Jesus as God’s Word and the power of the parables to deliver God’s message (see today’s gospel).

In his letter to the Roman ekklesia, Paul describes the believing community waiting now in the hope of God’s coming glory (the parousia). Paul links the created world’s destiny to the future glory that belongs to the believing community. All creation shares now in the corruption Adam’s disobedience caused; in the future, it will share in redemption’s benefits and the glory that comes from God’s ultimate liberation (Rom 8:19-22). Believers enjoy the firstfruits (the Spirit) now as a guarantee of the future liberation of their bodies from the influence of the rebellious old self (Rom 8:23).

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells the crowds and the disciples the parable of the sower. A parable contains something that surprises the hearer to make him or her think. In this parable, the successful yield is the surprise: in Jesus’ time, a typical grain yield might be four- to eight-fold. A yield of thirty-, sixty-, or a hundred-fold would astound Jesus’ hearers and lead them to wonder who the sower is and what kind of seed this could be.

  • The sower. Jesus’ audience would know that Hebrew scripture presents God as a sower (Is 55:10-11; Jer 31:27-28). They would hear the parable simply as a message of God’s care and abundance (see the first reading).
  • The seed. Those who really understand the parable–who have ears to hear–would perceive Jesus as offering God’s powerful and transforming word, and that God’s word requires their response. That is, the seed is really about becoming Jesus’ disciples. Jesus explains how people fail as disciples (they don’t understand the message, they are not committed, they give in to competing priorities). He also describes the results of successful disciples (increasing God’s kingdom by thirty-, sixty-, or a hundred-fold).

Today’s readings ask the believing community to listen to God’s word. God’s word is the seed sown within us, full of power and potential to transform if we respond. We have many excuses about why we don’t allow God’s word in: it’s too hard, I’m distracted, I’m too busy. For those who hear God’s word and choose discipleship, God’s superabundance becomes evident in their lives. Like the sower in the parable, both Jesus and his disciples encounter failures and successes in their ministry, but ultimately success will outweigh the failures. As disciples, do we have ears to hear, or only excuses to offer? As disciples, what kind of soil do we provide for God’s seed?

—Terence Sherlock

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23 October 2016: Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary time

Reading 1 Response Reading 2 Gospel
Sir 35:12-14, 16-18 Ps 34:2-3, 17-18, 19, 23 2 Tm 4:6-8, 16-18 Lk 18:9-14

Prayer: considering the mystery of God’s grace

Green_banner_sm During Ordinary time the Lectionary invites RCIA participants and the believing community to hear and to reflect on Jesus’ stories and teachings from his everyday ministry. This week’s readings invite us to think about our prayers and God’s grace.

In the first reading from his wisdom book, Sirach tells us that God is “a God of justice who knows no favorites.” All prayer reaches God, and God does not delay in responding. God’s justice (and God’s corresponding mercy) is at the heart of today’s gospel.

In the second reading from the second letter to Timothy, the author uses a liturgical prayer image familiar to both Jews and Greeks: the pouring of a libation (offering) to God or the gods. The author, speaking as Paul, imagines his blood poured out in sacrifice as an act of worship. God awards all who “keep faith” the crown of righteousness.

Today’s gospel reading is the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector, which is challenging for two reasons: (1) two interpretations surround the parable, and (2) Jesus’ interpretation can be translated three ways. The gospel consists of the following parts:

  • The parable (v 10-13). Jesus tells his disciples another parable about prayer, continuing last week’s theme. The Pharisee is a meticulous keeper of Mosaic law; the tax collector is an untrustworthy collaborator. Jesus’ first-century hearers would recognize these characters as stereotypes: the super-pious good person, and the cheating, Roman-collaborating bad person. Both go to the Temple to pray at the daily atonement service. Their prayers and attitudes are very different.
  • The first interpretation (v 9). Luke interprets the parable before he tells it. He says Jesus addresses the parable to those who believe they can do without God.
  • The second interpretation (v 14a) and saying (v 14b). Jesus interprets the parable after he tells it. Jesus’ interpretation turns on which person went home justified. The Greek word παρά (pah-RAH) can mean a position (“along with”), a causality (“because of”), or a non-correspondence (“rather than”). The possible translations are:
    1. The tax collector went home justified rather than the Pharisee [the Lectionary version]. Jesus’ audience would be surprised to hear that God rejects the Pharisee’s prayer but accepts the tax collector’s prayer. While they could understand God rejecting the tax collector because of his work, they would not understand God rejecting the Pharisee-his life is exemplary, even if his prayer is less so.
    2. The tax collector went home justified along with the Pharisee. Jesus’ audience would be more shocked to hear that God accepts the prayers of both men. This translation challenges Jesus’ hearers to realize that God gives grace to all. God decides whom to grace, even if we don’t think God is being “fair.”
    3. The tax collector went home justified because of the Pharisee. Jesus’ audience would be most shocked to hear that God accepts the prayer of the tax collector because of the prayer (and actions) of the Pharisee. This translation challenges Jesus’ hearers to understand that we are all involved in each other’s salvation. We do not “stand alone” or “stand apart;” our actions–good and bad–affect everyone else. God’s gives grace to all, and God’s grace acts on us all, through our interactions with each other.

Scripture scholars call the “whoever exalts himself…” saying a “floating statement” because it appears in several places (Lk 14:11, Lk 18:14, Mt 23:12); it is not uniquely associated with this interpretation.

A possible meaning: The parable presents two flawed humans: the Pharisee more than fulfills the Law but does not need or ask for God’s mercy. The tax collector asks for God’s mercy but does not show a need to live differently. The parable’s meaning is purposely ambiguous, forcing us to decide its meaning. If we hear “only the tax collector went home justified,” the parable is about intent of humans’ flawed prayers (something only God can judge). If we hear “they both went home justified,” the parable is about God’s graciousness rather than humans’ flawed prayers. If we hear “the tax collector went home justified because of the Pharisee,” the parable is about God’s graciousness to the community rather than individual humans’ flawed prayers.

Today’s readings ask RCIA participants and the believing community to examine our prayers. Do our prayers express our need for God? Do we pray with or apart from the rest of the believing community? Do we recognize God’s grace and mercy that comes to us through others? Do we pray for ourselves, or for God’s grace?

—Terence Sherlock

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