Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Book of Ezekiel provides this weekend’s first reading. Pivotal in Jewish history was the time spent by Hebrew captives, and by their descendants, in Babylon, the capital of the then-powerful Babylonian Empire. This empire had overtaken the Promised Land militarily, in the process forever ending the two Hebrew independent kingdoms. Many survivors were taken to Babylon.
Occurring in the sixth century B.C., this is called the Exile. For the Hebrew people, the Exile was a heartbreaking time. They were so far from their homeland. The Exile seemed as if it would last forever. Indeed, it lasted for four generations. Quite likely many Jews fell away from the traditional religion of their ancestors.
These people were like people in any other time. Religion seemed for many to have failed. God had failed them.
Ezekiel wrote during this time. He had to respond to the fury and despair of the people. The prophet turns 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?
The Epistle to the Philippians is the source of the second reading. Many early Christians were Jews, at least by birth. Many of these Jews, such as Paul himself, had been pious in their religious practice, well versed in Judaism. Many other early Christians were from pagan backgrounds. In many Christian communities, persons of both these traditions lived side by side.
Such was the case in Philippi. Jewish symbols and references appear in the epistle, but the city in no sense was Jewish. Jews were there, but Philippi was thoroughly pagan, an important military base in the Roman Empire, situated in what now is Greece.
Considering that Christians were in the minority, the epistle had to reinforce their commitment to the Lord and challenge them to withstand paganism.
This epistle magnificently proclaims Christ, the Lord, the Savior. This weekend’s reading is an example. Scholars think that this passage was actually an ancient hymn, sung by early Christians when they met for worship.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the third reading. It recalls an encounter between Jesus and the priests and elders. Since religion was a favorite topic for everyone at the time, even priests and persons learned in Judaism would have been interested in what Jesus said.
God is the father in the parable. The vineyard represents the people of Israel, God’s own, God’s chosen, 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.
The second son, not the heir, is true to God. Gentiles and sinners, represented by the second son, can hope for salvation. No one is beyond God’s love. Every sinner can repent.
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.
We all hear this call realizing that we are sinners. Our sin shames us, convincing us that we are strangers in God’s kingdom.
We feel overwhelmed, trapped by our weakness in a state of sin and estrangement from God. Still, we can repent. We first must recognize that our voluntary sinfulness has crippled us, maybe set us on a course toward ruin.
Then, humbly, we can turn to God. We must ask forgiveness. God will help us.
If we are as contrite as the second son in Matthew’s story, as wholehearted in our love for Jesus as is shown in the hymn in Philippians, then God will forgive us and welcome us to everlasting life.
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