The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

Reflection & Dialogue: Facing the future with vision and response to vision

The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Isaiah 55:6-9). My thoughts are not your thoughts.

In general this chapter 55 of the book of Isaiah is regarded as the closing section of a collection of visionary and exhortatory poems in Second Isaiah, in which closure is put to the great vision of the future of God’s people presented by this prophet to Israel in Babylon or immediately afterwards. But in a matter of faith, as in one of politics, a vision is not sufficient in itself. There must be cooperation on the people’s part, and in a matter of relation with God there must also be appropriate repentance, if required. In the first part of this chapter, in verses immediately preceding today’s reading, God had invited his people, as Wisdom earlier had done, to come to him and buy food and drink without price. This earlier section was used as reading in the Eighteenth Sunday of this Year, and received a simple explanation in the Internet site for that Sunday. Today’s reading continues that same message. In Isaiah’s vision God has in mind a new creation, a new world, for his people, and humanity, but a pure, clean, heart is required to ascertain and understand God and his ways. This helps us to understand the invitation to the people to repent, to seek the Lord, to call on him, to return to him, who is rich in mercy and abundant in pardon. Here again there is stress that in this relation with God we are in the presence of mystery. His thoughts and ways are far above the human. His plans for his people, his thoughts and his ways, can be ascertained only through faith, and as appropriate, repentance, with a pure heart.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 144[145]). The Lord is close to all who call him.

Second Reading (Philippians 1:20-24, 27). Life to me is Christ.

In the Sunday liturgy the readings from the Letter to the Romans have ended, and today we commence readings from the Letter to the Philippians, to be continued for four Sundays. The city of Philippi, in northern Greece, was a Roman colony. In his missionary journey Paul visited the city in 49 or 50 AD, and had to suffer much from the Roman magistrates due to false accusations. He founded the Church there, and a very close bond of friendship was created between him and that Christian community. It was the only Church from which he accepted financial aid to cover his expenses. He wrote this letter to the Church while imprisoned elsewhere for the sake of the Gospel, probably at Ephesus, not knowing whether the outcome of his detention would be death or release. In a sense he did not care. Either death or release to further activity would give glory to God. This situation comes across clearly in this letter, especially in today’s reading from it. Paul would like to die, and be with Christ, but on the other hand life on earth could still serve his missionary work, especially at Philippi. He admits he does not know which of the two to choose. The reading ends with an exhortation from Paul to the Philippian Christians to lead a life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.

The Gospel (Matthew 20:1-16). Why be envious because I am generous?

This parable is clear and easily understood, and one in which Jesus wishes to convey clearly one of the aspects of the kingdom of God. It is about a landowner, more specifically the owner of s vineyard. He goes out early in the morning, about 6 a.m., to hire workmen, and agrees with them to give them a day’s wages, that is one denarius. They have no permanent wage contract. He goes out again about 9 a.m., at midday, at 3 p.m. and about 5 p.m. (or as time was reckoned at that period, reproduced in the lectionary, at the third, sixth, ninth and eleventh hours), sees people unemployed and sends them into his vineyard, promising them a fair wage. At the end of the day he has them all paid the same amount, one denarius, which leads to grumbling on the part of those who worked long hours. The high point of the parable is in the landowner’s reply: He has done no one any wrong. It was all de to his generosity. The message of this in this parable on the kingdom of God is that that the kingdom of God is not won through human effort. It comes as free gift of God.

Jesus’ parables are often directed against stated persons or classes. No such mention of any group is found in this parable. It may have been directed against the Pharisees or persons of their persuasion, although they are not mentioned. But the parable suits any age, and fits well with the teaching of Paul, and the Christian Church, on justification through faith, and not by the works of the law.

The situation envisaged in this parable would not be quite in keeping with the principles of modern-day trades unions, but it originated in another era, featuring the owner of a vineyard who took pity on unemployed and gave them each some work and an equal day’s wage. The parable is not concerned with economic theory, but with an aspect of the kingdom of God, and of God’s mercy towards all.

  1. Reflection & Dialogue: Facing the future with vision and response to vision

In today’s liturgical readings we have material for reflection on how to bring vision and response to this vision together in the age in which we live and as we face the future. It is easy to yield to the temptation to indulge in abstract thought, for instance yearning for the return of the spirit of some bygone age, be it of a former generation, of Vatican II or such like, the vision that that generation or that Council had. We have seen in today’s first reading the need to pass beyond vision to the taking of steps for its implementation. God had his vision for his people which he conveyed through the prophet who spoke in that first reading. It is well to remember that we have a vision for every age, a vision which God has for us, a vision that is God himself. But we may repeat that a divine vision is useless without the will on the part of humans to cooperate in its realization. One should beware of getting lost in abstractions.

One central message of all today’s readings is the reality of God’s presence with us, but at the same time a call to realize that he is the God of Glory with his divine vision for us, for our present and our future, reminding us at the same time that his thoughts and ways are not necessarily our thoughts and ways, and calling on us to answer his call to live present reality and face the future with the humility and sense of repentance that will make the divine vision a reality. As for Paul, so for all believers, Christ should be everything for the life of his followers. This is a central truth to be stressed. We should never forget the vision of the good News of the Gospel, a vision not always in agreement with a current philosophy or view of existence. Faith is a free call from God, one to be accepted with humility and the sense of repentance arising from human frailty. Believer faces the future with confidence, since the God who has given them their vision of life here and beyond in the first place is always with them to make response to this and to work to have it become a reality in their lives.

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