Lectionary commentary: twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary time, year A

READINGS

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 55:6-9

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 145:2-3. 8-9. 17-18. R/. v. 18

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 1:20-24. 27

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 20:1-16

 

Every time we open our Bible, every time we reflect on the readings in our Lectionary, we are confronted with a question:

What kind of God is in here trying to get out?

Every page confronts us with an identity crisis. Jews and Christians cannot be sure who they are unless they are clear who God is, the God into whose care they commit all that they are and all that they hope to be. Not that any of us can know everything there is to know about God. But our holy books are always concerned with God and with what God does in our world. When we approach God in our prayer we do well to know as deeply as we can who it is to whom we open our hearts and into whose hands we commit our hopes and fears.

To come to the God we know, love, and serve, the God we meet in our Bible, demands an act of faith. Unless we are familiar with the languages in which our holy books were written, we place our faith in the competence of scholars who translate ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words into the language we speak and understand. Those who hear the God’s holy words in modern English have faith that our modern words say in our time what the ancient words said in their time. Today’s readings provide us with opportunities to reflect on the identity of the God that is set before us in each of the lessons proclaimed to us today. We hope that what we hear and read accurately reflect what ancient writers wrote in times long past and in cultures we scarcely understand.

 

A reading from the prophet Isaiah, 55:6-9

Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord,
that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

The word of the Lord.

The reading from Isaiah speaks of God,

who has compassion
who abundantly pardons.

God is near. God’s mercy is near. God’s compassion is to hand. God’s pardon is readily available. God is the one who has compassion especially on the wicked. Only God can cope with sin. Sin must be acknowledged in order that our true self is placed before God in our prayer for mercy and forgiveness.

God is near enough to be aware of human wickedness and near enough to transform the wicked heart. Whatever plans and stratagems humanity may devise, God will not be denied. Reading into Isaiah further on from today’s lesson we learn that as sure as the rain falls and snow covers the ground, as sure as the seed sprouts and bread is baked,

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

Isaiah 55:11

The purpose of transforming the wicked is to create something new under the sun:

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace.

Isaiah 55:12

What is the endgame? What does God seek by putting mercy and compassion at the top of the heavenly agenda? Read, reflect, pray and rejoice in what God seeks. Let the poetry embrace your mind and heart:

For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall make a name for the Lord,
an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

 

Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 145:2-3. 8-9. 17-18. R/. v. 18

R/. The Lord is near to all who call on him.

I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised,
and his greatness is unsearchable. R/.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made. R/.

The Lord is righteous in all his ways
and kind in all his works.
The Lord is near to all who call on him,
to all who call on him in truth. R/.

Two psalms tie for first place as the most quoted to supply a Responsorial Psalm in our Lectionary. Psalm 118 and Psalm 145 are each offered to us on nine Sundays. Both are psalms that offer praise to the Lord though Psalm 145 is the only psalm in the Bible that has a title proclaiming it to be a song of praise:

דָוִדלְ תְּהִלָּה
Tehilah.Of David.
A SON OF PRAISE.OF DAVID.

The plural of tehilah is tehilim, and this is the title given to the whole collection of psalms in the Hebrew Bible: Songs of Praise. No matter what the content of a psalm, even if it begins with“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, it is a song of praise. For to turn to God even in a prayer of reproach is to acknowledge that God is the Lord of your life and that recognition is itself a prayer of praise.

Like a number of psalms, Psalm 145 is an alphabetical psalm, every verse beginning with a letter of the alphabet in order. So verse 1 begins with the Hebrew aleph and goes through the 22 letters of the alphabet down to end with the last verse beginning with tau (t), the last letter of the alphabet. We are used to this kind of inclusive prayer: as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. No matter what happens between the A and Z of our lives, from God’s point of view, each of us is an act of praise. We are always embraced by God’s steadfast love. As verse 8 declares,

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
and his mercy is over all that he has made.

Notice the key to it all:over all that he has made. Nobody is excluded. Every human being is embraced by the Lord who is,

gracious

merciful

slow to anger

abounding in steadfast love

good to all

—and in case you missed it,

whose mercy is over all that he has made.

No one and nothing is beyond the reach of God’s mercy. In the very first chapter of the Bible, the great creation rhapsody opens with a resounding declaration:

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:1

It ends with,

And God saw everything that he had made,
and behold,
it was very good.

Genesis 1:31

To repeat, Psalm 145, a song of praise, ends with,

his mercy is over all that he has made.

 

A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, 1:20-24. 27

Christ will be honoured in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account.

Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ.

The word of the Lord.

Lydia, a worshipper of God

To understand Paul’s letter to Christians in Philippi, it is best to start with Lydia. She was a native of the city of Thyatira, inland and northeast of Ephesus and noted for its textile industries. Someone in that city discovered that purple dye could be made from the madder root (which is reddish/purple in colour), much cheaper than extracting it from expensive shellfish (murex). A woman named Lydia took up the trade and prospered enough to go north to the Roman colonial city of Philippi in Macedonia. It was outside this city that Mark Antony and Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) defeated Brutus and those who had murdered Julius Caesar. When he became emperor Augustus turned Philippi into a Roman colony and used it to settle retired soldiers who had fought alongside him in his campaigns. These veterans did not have to pay any taxes and were free to engage in trade and to own property. As Roman citizens these ex-soldiers ruled the roost and Philippi was more Roman than Greek. The city was founded and named after Philip II, the Macedonian father of Alexander the Great. There were enormous deposits of gold in the region.

Lydia came to this city and prospered. She was a Gentile woman who was attracted to Jewish faith and joined a prayer group of women who met outside the city on the Sabbath. This would suggest that there was no synagogue in the city and that would indicate a very small Jewish presence in the region.

A vision urged Paul to go to go to Macedonia and thus he left Asia Minor and travelled to Europe. St. Luke tells the story:

So, setting sail from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city some days. And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshipper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul. And after she was baptised, and her household as well, she urged us, saying, “If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come to my house and stay.” And she prevailed upon us.

Acts 16:11-15

That is how the home of Lydia became (as far as we know) the first house-church on European soil. Of course there were Jewish Christians in Rome before the little group of women in Philippi became a church. But we do not have a detailed account of any such to match the story of Lydia. The first Christian that we know by name to be baptised on European soil was a woman named Lydia, a seller of upmarket and very exclusive purple attire.

Lydia is one of a number of wealthy women who facilitated St. Paul in his missionary activities. These women not only provided places for meeting but as independent women were probably leaders of those who gathered in their homes for breaking the word and sharing the bread.

 

The letter

There are many unanswered questions hanging in the air when we come to read Paul’s Letter to a tiny Christian community in the city of Philippi. We can be certain that Paul wrote the letter. While Rome, or Caesarea (on the Palestine coast) are proposed as the place from which the apostle wrote, Ephesus is the most likely place of origin. Most likely Paul wrote from prison in that city. It is probable that the letter was written around 55 A.D. Some scholars suggest that the jumping around from one issue another in the letter as we have it indicates that two or three original letters were cobbled together by someone after Paul’s time. However, while admitting there is confusion, most agree that we have the original letter penned by Saint Paul. These matters need not interfere with our reading of the letter. However, such issues ought to remind those who read and pray the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament that we do not know everything.

 

...with affection...

There is no understanding of this letter unless hearers and readers realise how much Paul loved the brothers and sisters brought to Jesus in the busy city of Philippi. Every prayer of his has a place for them. He holds them in his heart, remembering them with deep affection, even as he suffers in prison. His imprisonment has only confirmed the truth of the gospel and his concern for the little church of Christians he founded in his first excursion into Europe.

 

The future

Though he is in prison and his future is in the hands of others, Paul’s hope and expectations are rooted elsewhere. His faith is not in jailers. It is in “your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:19). His salvation is certain. It is the Spirit of Christ Jesus that will be glorified Paul is brought Paul safely home. So whether death is imminent or he will go on living in his earthly vocation, either way God will be glorified.

Whether he lives or dies, Paul’s resolve is to serve. In life and in death, he belongs to God. After a life dedicated to God, he is ready for death. But if there is more to be done, that, too, will be required of him. Staying alive means his service to his beloved Philippians has not be ended. Together they will continue to rejoice in Christ Jesus.

Notice that Paul’s determination to face whatever comes is strengthened in the knowledge that he is ever in the prayers of the little community he founded. Paul found Lydia and her companions while they were at prayer. Now their prayer gives Paul the strength to face whatever comes.

What stands out in Paul’s very personal reflection is his longing to be called to God after years of proclaiming the gospel of God. From Jerusalem to Damascus to Antioch, to Ephesus, and then into Europe, he laboured to proclaim the gospel of God. Yet his love for the little church, his first in Europe, overcame his longing to be called home.

While chapter 3 of Paul’s letter turns to darker matters plaguing Philippian Christians, it is impossible to miss the deep affection the great apostle had for Lydia and the women in her prayer group as, indeed, for all his brothers and sisters in Greece’s first experience of the love of our Lord Jesus Christ.

 

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 20:1-16

Jesus said to his disciples:
…the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire labourers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the labourers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, ‘You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you. ’ So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, ‘Why do you stand here idle all day? ’ They said to him, ‘Because no one has hired us. ’ He said to them, ‘You go into the vineyard too. ’ And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the labourers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first. ’ And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius. And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat. ’ But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity? ’ So the last will be first, and the first last.

The Gospel of the Lord.

The tradition in lectionaries over the ages is to begin a reading from a Gospel with what is called in Latin an “incipit” (“it begins …”). The function of an “incipit” is to locate the reading so that readers and hearers get their bearings, as it were. So today the reading taken from the Gospel of Matthew gives an introduction to locate it in the ministry of Jesus:

Jesus said to his disciples …

That is helpful. But it is also misleading, as “incipits” often are. For the context is not vague. Yes, Jesus spoke the parable that follows to his disciples but that information does not do justice to the context. Of course neither the Lectionary nor the preacher can spend time putting the parable into its true context. But to understand the parable as it is situated in the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, context is everything.

 

Eternal life

The episode ending with the parable begins with a man who had great possessions and a question:

Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?

Matthew 19:16

To enter into life, Jesus assures the man, the traditional commandments must be observed. The man is relieved since he has observed all of these. Yet he is anxious. Is there anything else that must be done?The reply of Jesus is totally unexpected:

If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.

Matthew 19:21

The man who came to Jesus is in the last line of the story revealed as a young man. When he heard what Jesus had to say“he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Readers of Matthew will recall words of Jesus spoken on the mountain:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

As usual in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus then turned to his learners, pupils, apprentices, (for that is what the word “disciple” means), and explains how difficult it is for rich people “to enter the kingdom of heaven”. That phrase means “to do on earth what God demands”. Remember our great prayer, the Lord’s Prayer:

Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

A very memorable sentence sums up the matter:

… it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

Matthew 19:24

It is the response of Jesus to his encounter with the rich young man that leads into the parable and it is the parable that explains the words Jesus “said to his disciples”.

 

Kingdom and master

The kingdom of heaven, we need to remind ourselves, is not a place, not a time, not the rule of an unconcerned monarch in the skies. It is, as we pray, the will of God being done on earth precisely as God intended when “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

The parable works at several levels. First, Matthew is addressing the factions that were dangerously close to destroying the churches in Antioch. Differences between conservative Jewish Christians and liberal Gentile Christians—with middle-of-the-road opinions in between—threatened the unity of Christian witness in that great city. [1]

Consider the disunity among Philippian Christians and imagine how they might have read between the lines of Matthew’s version of the parable told by Jesus. In the parable those who were first hired and bore the heat of the day are the first Jews to join the Jesus movement and who demanded that pagans who wished to join them adopt all Jewish ways. The in-betweens are those who stood idle all day until they got the call. The latecomers are the Gentiles who claimed that they must not be shackled with circumcision or food restrictions, or anything that smacked of quaint and out-of-date customs. Matthew is pointing to the warring parties that what matters is the will of God that all live in peace. A negotiated settlement is what Jesus demands but it is God who determines the terms of agreement.

Consider these words of Jesus spoken on the mountain:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

Now consider this, words from the same Jesus on the same mountain:

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgement. ’But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother or sister will be liable to judgement; whoever insults his brother or sister will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.

Matthew 5:21-22

Matthew is demanding compromise. He is insisting that reflection and prayer, must be at the heart of reconciliation. How do you balance You have heard that it was said with But I say to you … ?

The controversy was tearing the gospel of God to pieces in Antioch. The solution, Matthew is saying, is to look to the Master. Look to God. Look to doing on earth what God demands. However God’s standard, as outlined by Jesus is very exacting:

You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Matthew 5:48

Not for nothing is Matthew’s Gospel full of praying. Twenty times or more he advises that praying maps out the path to peace.

Jesus gave the parable to disciples who needed to understand the ways of God. However, Matthew’s account also insists on peace among conflicting Christians in Antioch. The Holy Spirit has adopted his words as a gospel for all down the ages who seek to walk the way of Jesus. Every generation of Christians must pray that the old and the new be sifted in the cauldron of prayer so that peace prevails in the household of God.

The Bible, Hebrew Scripture and Christian New Testament, was not written for us. But Jewish and Christian communities, guided by the Holy Spirit, came to see these writings as a perpetual source of divine guidance. They speak about the past. They guide us in the ways of God in our present circumstances, and they point us to the future. For the future belongs to God and the word of God marks the milestones to that future and determines our direction in order that we come safely home.

There is one ancient and absolute divine command that must govern when differences threaten the unity of the churches (and thus the Church) as they make their way to where all are called. It is the basic essential if we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. It is a command that Jesus himself prescribed for warring factions:

Love you enemies.

 

Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.

 

[1] I use the terms “conservative” and “liberal” here to indicate the extreme views threatening the unity of Antioch’s Christians.