Living the readings: The colors are changing

Christ wants us to be radiant in faith, hope, and love

In our part of the country, the leaves change into a myriad of autumn colors. There are oranges and reds and browns blown by the capricious wind over the green grass opening groves up to the blue sky resulting in thousands of color combinations.

People experience as many moods as there are color patterns. One thing is sure, however. Soon enough, the trees will lose their leaves as winter begins its snowy invasion.
The scripture readings for October match the weather. They are colorful, dynamic and forebode confrontation and wintry death. Appropriately, they center on Holy Week. All four Sunday Gospels are discourses delivered by Jesus after he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Jesus had arrived with a large enthusiastic crowd and proceeded to cleanse the temple. This caused all the civic and religious leaders to take notice and ask the Lord what this is all about.

The Church does a remarkably beautiful job this month with the Liturgy of the Word. The first readings give us the Old Testament background for each Sunday’s Gospel. The New Testament readings continue the progression from last month and give us two passages each from Philippians and Thessalonians. However, these passages can demonstrate how Jesus’ words were received by the early Church and put into practice.

So our method for October is to go Sunday by Sunday to explain Jesus’ gospel discourse, then give the Old Testament background and then the practical response that Paul teaches to his new Christian communities in Philippi and Thessalonica.

In the Gospel of the first Sunday of October, Jesus tells a parable about tenants in a vineyard. When you consider the background, you can tell it provoked a lot of hot discussion. Jesus used this story to name the issue between him and all those who thought they controlled Israel.

Jesus had entered Jerusalem and cleansed the temple with his crowd peacefully and enthusiastically brandishing palm leaves. But it looked menacing to every Jewish faction who considered themselves responsible for the governance of Israel.

Matthew identifies them as chief priests, Sadducees, Pharisees, and Herodians all coming out to challenge Jesus. Each thought they ran Israel. Jesus, quite aptly, put them into the category of “tenants.” If Israel belonged to God, then any de facto leadership would quite easily fit into that Old Testament concept. So, Jesus, in this first part of his Holy Week discourses, states what’s at stake in his confrontation with the “powers that be.”

What was at stake was the ownership of Israel. To whom does Israel belong? Some would realistically answer, Rome. Others would say that Moses put the Levitical priests in charge. Still others pointed to the development of Jewish history and claimed the Pharisees had been given the right to determine how the Mosaic Law was to be applied in daily life. Thus, they were in charge. The result was chaos.
Jesus wanted to clarify the matter. He took an allusion used by the Prophet Isaiah. Israel was a vineyard lent to tenant farmers. They did have rights to the vineyard; but they were not owners. God was. Where Jesus’ parable of the vineyard cuts to the heart is that the tenants all thought the land belonged to them.

So from their point of view, each would claim a right to kill anyone who disputed that “right.” In so thinking, they killed prophets and were about to put the Son of God to death. Jesus already had given them cause (in their own minds) when he cleansed the temple.

We can go to the first reading of the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time to look up Isaiah’s poem of the vineyard. You can imagine Jesus pointing to such landmarks as the tower of the temple as he related his description of the vineyard just as Isaiah did. Who’s in charge? Isaiah makes the point. The vineyard is Israel and the owner is the Lord of Hosts. With this issue so disputed, the result will inevitably be the destruction of Jerusalem.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians we look for the lesson the early Church gleaned from the words of Christ in the Gospel. It is quite simple, “the God of Peace will be with you.” That’s the bottom line. If you recognize that God is in charge then we can live in joy, totally avoiding anxiety.

The opponents of Jesus were good people who were anxious about who was in charge. The Philippians knew that God was in charge, so they experienced the joy and peace that Jesus wanted to give those he spoke to in the Gospel. He wants that for us, too.

On the 28th Sunday of Ordinary Time the Gospel passage is the Parable of the Wedding Feast. To understand parables you start by looking for items that don’t make common sense. The first exceptional item here is that the invited guests did not come to the wedding of the king’s son. If such an action happened in reality, that would, in effect, be an act of treason. The king is the person who guarantees each subject’s ownership of land. To deny the king’s wishes frees the king to confiscate his land.

So the parable was accurate in describing the king’s reaction to the snub. He considered those not coming to the royal wedding as rebels. The other “eye-opener” in the parable is the man who came without a wedding garment. He was thrown out into the darkness where there was only weeping and grinding of teeth.

Remember that the parable of the net is where the kingdom of God is a net where all sorts of fish and scrap ended up in the net. However, it was not until the boat got to shore that the contents were judged as good or bad. So it is after death that the judgment takes place. That man without the wedding garment goes to verify the other parables in which Jesus maintains that salvation is a matter of choice that we make now and that God makes after our life is completed.

The point Jesus makes for the people who confront him during the last week before his crucifixion is that they have a choice. He restates the issue at hand: it’s a matter of life or death. Jesus, like the king’s servants, offers them a joyful life here on earth and in heaven. All they need to do is recognize his Father as the God of Israel. Or, they could see only themselves as sovereign. That would be choosing death.
In the first reading, Isaiah describes what material joys there will be if his people accept the Lord as God. That is the same choice the people of Jesus should take. What Jesus was saying had been Jewish tradition from before the time of Isaiah. Jesus’ opponents should have known this.

Paul claims there is a secret that governs the way we should live. It is neither to live well fed or in hunger. The secret is to live in God’s strength. That is the way Paul and the Philippians lived. That is the way offered by Jesus to his opponents. They preferred to rebel.

On the third Sunday of October, the subject brought up is the tax to Caesar. Jesus had a clever way to answer the dilemma he was presented. But, that wasn’t the point. True, the case was settled when the Pharisee pulled a silver coin with the image of the Roman emperor on it. That was tantamount to idolatry. Carved images were against Jewish law.

At that point Jesus would have been considered the winner of the debate. But more than winning a silly argument was at stake. The real question was what does the Torah teach about ownership of the land of Israel? The Roman rule is quite clear. The emperor representing “Rome and the Roman People” owns the land. Using that coin to pay Roman taxes admits that the holder abides by Roman law and is, basically, a hypocrite. Jesus’ answer is different. God is in charge. He doesn’t even have such a coin on him.

The Old Testament reading presents some important background to this issue. At a critical moment in Jewish history, the population of Jerusalem and practically all of Judea lost their land to the Babylonians. Isaiah announces that God has sent Cyrus the Great of Persia to conquer Babylon and free the Jews.

Isaiah, in effect, tells Cyrus (a pagan who knows nothing of God) that God is using him for the sake of God’s people. The same could have been said of the Romans, who were being used by God to protect Israel and would soon be used to destroy Jerusalem as Jesus was predicting.

So then, how do Christians live in a world dominated by secular politics? Paul provides the answer in the second reading. Interestingly, this passage contains the very first words written in what we now call the New Testament. Scholars date this letter as written in early summer of 51 AD. It begins (as all of Paul’s epistles) with a thanksgiving. Paul thanks God for the Thessalonians’ “work of faith, labor in love and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.” If only the inhabitants of Jerusalem had the same mindset. Living by faith, hope and love (the theological virtues) transcends politics and world events. That was the first thought ever put into the New Testament!

The last Sunday of the month is the 30th Sunday of Ordinary time. As one would expect for the very last week of Jesus’ life, he was asked what the greatest commandment was. He responded there are two: to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus received no grief on that point. If only his opponents realized that same answer could have satisfied them on all the other points they raised. Jesus’ program was based on God’s infinite love for us and our need to return that love with hope and faith.

The Church takes us out of Isaiah all the way back to the Book of Exodus to find a passage that would fit Jesus’ answer on the greatest commandment. What we now call the Ten Commandments come at the beginning of Chapter 20 of Exodus. Today’s passage comes two chapters later. It is considered a code of kindness. The basic concept is that God is good and we need to be so as well. Jesus is not proclaiming anything radically different from what his opponents held. Only, Jesus was radically on the side of God’s love.

In that first chapter of the first book of the New Testament (chronologically), Paul adds two elements to Jesus’ radical love of God. They are power and Holy Spirit. He recalls how powerfully Christianity is spreading. It was not so much an intellectual movement. It was to be received not with insight as much as conviction. Paul congratulates the Thessalonians for their joy in serving the living God.
This conviction and joy can be ours. We need not be in a battle of ideas with Christ as Jesus’ opponents were up to his trials and execution. We can be like the Philippians and Thessalonians, filled with faith, hope and charity.

We can be like October, bright, colorful, loving and alive with Christ.

Father Brando is a retired priest of the Diocese of Knoxville.