28th Sunday on Ordinary Time
The first part of the Book of Isaiah provides this weekend’s first reading at Mass.
Understanding the cultural, social, political and economic context surrounding the composition of biblical texts always helps to capture their meaning.
As a general rule, times rarely were good for the chosen people. Now and then, better times, however, would come.
In good days or bad, as a general rule, the prophets saw little religious fervor for which they could rejoice, and invariably the prophets saw this absence of devotion to God as the root of trouble in the world. It was not the result of divine revenge.
So, the prophets urged the people always to be true to God and suspicious of paganism.
When this writing was written, times were not all that bad, but dark clouds lay on the horizon. The people, generally speaking, were lukewarm in honoring God, and Isaiah loudly protested that their lapse in religion invited their doom.
Isaiah also insists that if the people are faithful to God, all will be right. Peace and security will reign. Prosperity will prevail. The holy city of Jerusalem, God’s city, and the royal capital, will be seen throughout the world as the center of a great nation.
The second reading is from the Epistle to the Philippians. This passage from Philippians was written while Paul was in prison. On several occasions that are recorded in Acts or in the Pauline epistles, Paul was imprisoned, having been arrested for preaching the Gospel, rebuking the establishment or simply disturbing the peace.
Being jailed, humiliated and abused were Paul’s plight. Nevertheless, he said that his faith in God never lessened, nor did his commitment to proclaiming the Gospel. Nothing else mattered, not even his comfort or personal well-being. God gave Christ to the world. Paul felt that he had to extend this gift far and wide.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the last reading. The reading is a parable, with three parts.
In the first part, a “king,” who represents God, invites guests to a wedding banquet for his son. These people reject the invitation. The king invites guests again. Again, the invitation is ignored. Then, in the second part, the king invites outcasts and strangers to the feast. They come. In the third part, however, the king sees a guest at the banquet improperly dressed. He orders this guest to be thrown out.
The king’s servants represent the prophets. The prospective guests who spurn the invitation represent the people of Israel. The outcasts and strangers represent the aliens and the sinful.
The message is that God’s mercy extends to everyone. Even so, God drags no one into the kingdom of heaven. Even repentant sinners must reform to be worthy of heaven.
These readings call us to several basic facts. The first is that God never fails in mercy. He does not disavow the promise, spoken long ago through the prophets, and then finally by Christ, to guide people to everlasting life by revealing to them the laws of righteousness and by strengthening their resolve to be good.
The second fact is simple, and constant throughout history, but hard for humans to accept. The fact is that humans sin. The effects of original sin weaken humans, distorts their perceptions, renders them myopic and afraid. Instead of turning to God for security, they exaggerate their own powers.
Conversion requires a frank realization of the need for God. He alone shows the way. He alone provides strength. He alone is the reward.
In this realization, humans come to the same firm conviction that drove St. Paul. Nothing matters other than to be with God. Everything other than God is fickle and impermanent, leading not to joy but ultimately to grief and despair.
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