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 overtook the Promised Land militarily, ending the two Hebrew independent kingdoms. Many survivors were taken to Babylon.
Occurring in the sixth century B.C., it 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.
During this time, Ezekiel wrote. He responded to the fury and despair of the people. The prophet turned the tables by confronting the people with their own sinfulness. He asked where is their devotion to God? How faithful had they been in being God’s people? No one could realistically argue 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, in practice, or at least by birth. Many Jews, such as Paul himself, had been pious in their religion, determined 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 a 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 an ancient hymn, sung by early Christians when they met for the Eucharist.
St. Matthew’s Gospel furnishes the third reading. It recalls an encounter between Jesus and priests and elders. Since religion was everyone’s favorite topic at the time, even priests and persons learned in Judaism were 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 follow the stream of readings heard during the weekends of late summer and now early fall. The Church is calling us to discipleship – genuine discipleship.
We hear this call realizing that we are sinners. Our sin shames us, cunningly convincing us that we are strangers in God’s kingdom. We feel overwhelmed, trapped by our weakness created by our deliberate estrangement from God.
Anyone can repent. Our voluntary sinfulness has crippled us, but it cannot be allowed to remove from us hope in the power of God’s mercy.
The answer is simple. Turn to God. Ask forgiveness. God will help us. Christian history is glorious in its stories of repentance and forgiveness.
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, we personally can write another chapter in that history.
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