26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Ezekiel is the source of this weekend’s first reading. Ezekiel is regarded as one of the three greatest prophets of ancient Israel, the others being Jeremiah and Isaiah.
Second only to the Exodus, the defining moment in the history of ancient Israel was the period of captivity of Hebrews in Babylon, the capital of the then powerful Babylonian Empire, a city located in what today is Iraq. The Exile occurred in the sixth century B.C.
For the Hebrew people, it was a heartbreaking time. Where was God, the protector? It is easy to imagine these angry and even cynical questions.
Ezekiel turned the tables, confronting the people with their own sinfulness. Where is their devotion to God? How faithful have they been in being God’s people? No one realistically could have argued that there had been no sin. Who deserted whom? What then about “fairness”? Has God been unfair?
For the second reading, the Church offers us this weekend a reading from the Epistle to the Philippians.
Many early Christians were Jews, at least by birth. Many of these Jews had been pious in their religious practice, well versed in Judaism. Many other early Christians were from pagan backgrounds. As a result, often in the first Christian communities, persons of both traditions lived side by side.
Quite likely, such was the case in Philippi. Jewish symbols and references appeared, as Jews lived there. However, the city in no sense was Jewish. It was thoroughly pagan, an important military base in the Roman Empire, situated in what now is Greece.
So, the Epistle was written to reinforce the Christians’ commitment to the Lord and challenge them to withstand paganism, all the while taking account at times of deep ethnic differences.
Christ is the only answer for all, the epistle insists. Philippians literally soars in its testimony to Christ, the Lord, the Savior. Scholars think that this weekend’s reading, fully consistent with this characteristic, actually was an ancient hymn, sung by early Christians in their worship. It is one of the most magnificent acclamations in the New Testament.
St. Matthew’s Gospel is the source of the third reading. Again, as has occurred in readings earlier in this period of the year, Jesus dialogues with, and indeed confronts, at times not so subtly, the priests and elders, leaders of the prevailing religious establishment.
These leaders occupied a particularly important place in the society, because religion was a favorite topic for everyone at the time. Jesus built on this interest but also as often as not ran counter to the generally accepted authorities.
He uses a parable to make the point. God is the father in the parable. The vineyard represents the people of Israel, borrowing a well-known image from the prophets. Scholars suggest several possibilities regarding the sons, but one suggestion is that the first son represents Israel, the other son represents gentiles and sinners.
God is constant, but the mere happenstance of being the first son guarantees nothing. Instead, actual devotion to God, and obedience to God’s law, are critical. Reward, or salvation, goes to the genuinely faithful.
The readings this weekend very much are in the stream of readings heard during the weekends of late summer and now early fall. The Church is calling us to discipleship. In this call, the Church paints no false picture. It minimizes nothing. Sin disrupts our relationship with God. We cannot ignore our sinfulness.
Still, the last word need not be of guilt and hopelessness. We need not forsake hope. If we are as loyal as the second son in Matthew’s story, as wholehearted in our love for Jesus as is exclaimed in the hymn in Philippians, then God will forgive us and welcome us to everlasting life.
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