A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for October, 2011

What Belongs to God and to Caesar

Julius Caesar, obverse; Victory on hand of Ven...

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     If  you have ever seen a presidential debate, you are familiar with the “compliment-zinger” phenomenon.  One of the speakers will say something nice about the other, with the intention of disarming him.  This is the “compliment.”  Then the next line quite likely asks for an answer that usually implies the opposite of the compliment.  This is the “zinger.”

     In today’s Gospel (29th Suunday in Ordinary Time:  Matthew 22: 15-21), we note a similar “compliment-zinger” situation.  The Pharisees, through their followers, tell Jesus “We know that you are a truthful man…”  The compliment.  Then comes the zinger.  “…is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”  If Jesus had said “no,” this reply could be seen as the beginning of a revolution.  The folks in general were tired of Roman occupation and were ready to respond to revolutionary calls. If Jesus had said “yes,” he would have made many of the local people unhappy.  Besides, the gospel tells us clearly that the Pharisees wanted to entrap Jesus.

     Jesus was able to see through this charade, so he answered the question in terms of a teachable moment.  He demonstrated the reply by asking to see the coin of trubute. Then he asked, “Whose image and inscription are these?”  The obvious answer was “Caesar’s.”  Then came the reply.  “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”  What did he mean?

     Above all, Jesus made a distinction between what is owed to Caesar and what is owed to God.  The Pharisees never asked about God, but God was in Jesus’ reply.  Why?  Because Jesus wanted the people to know that God was important in people’s lives and the people needed to know that. 

     Whatever pertains to maintaining a proper society is the property of Caesar (the State), even taxation.  But everything else belongs to God, especially our motivation for treating other people with justice, compassion, forgiveness and understanding.  Divine law is more important than human law especially when there is doubt. 

     Remember the situation of Jesus healing the man with the withered hand?  It was the Sabbath, and the law stated that there was to be no healing on the Sabbath.   (Mark 3:1-6; Matthew 12:9-14; Luke 6:6-11).  Jesus, however, cured the sick man, and even put into perspective the relationship between divine law and human law.  “…The sabbath was make for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  (Mark 2: 27).

     So, one of the things we can learn from this reading is to remember that we must make a distinction between what is proper to give Caesar and proper what to give God.  Whatever giving that is based on a moral value system belongs to God, even if it exists in politics, especially in the way we treat one another.

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Our choices have effects

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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     Seriously, how often have we given thought to the consequences of the choices we have made?  Possibly the questions we ask  are “Did I make the right choice?”  “Was anyone else affected by my decisions?”  “Did I get someone out of or into trouble?” 

     Today’s Gospel is about choices (28th Sunday in Ordinary Time:  Matthew 22:1-14).  And the gospel is told in the form of a parable, which means that we find in it a great deal of symbolism.

     At least, four things happened which indicated that choices were involved. 

 (1)-The king chose to have a banquet for his son.  In addition to being an occasion for a joyful family gathering, the biblical banquet sometimes referred to the “end time.”  I suspect that what we have in this gospel reading is an attempt to answer the question “How does one prepare for the final judgement?”  The answer could well be that of making the correct choices throughout one’s life.

(2)-The king sent out his servants to those invited to come to the banquet.  It turns out that the invited guests chose not to come, but instead gave feeble excuses.

(3)-After having been refused by the invited guests the first time, the king thought that by sharing the menu with them they might come.  So, he sent his servants this time describing what the invited guests would eat.  The invited guests again chose not to come and some of them behaved badly. 

(4)-Finally, the king gave word to his servants to go to the highways and byways and invite anybody they could.  All the outsiders (uninvited guests) would be welcomed.  Thus, they chose to come to the banquet. 

     However, among the outsiders asked to come in, an individual without a “wedding garment” was thrown out.  This seems quite puzzling.  What was the “wedding garment,”  the lack of which caused him to be ejected?  Remember that this wedding banquet was possibly a reference to the end time, and therfore the moment of final judgement.  The lack of wearing the “wedding garment” may well have been the choice of the individual not to be ready for the final judgement.

     Presumably, the other guests were wearing the wedding garment (had made the choice to follow Jesus’ example in treating others), and this individual had not.  The fact that he was immediately thrown out and cast “…into the darkness where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” suggests that this lack of wearing the “wedding garment” (negative mode of behavior toward others) would justify this action.  He chose not to wear the garment, and the appropriate consequences followed.

     In terms of relating to the parable, we are the “invited” (those baptized) who are daily choosing whether or not to come to the banquet (final judgement).  Sometimes, the invited will choose not to come.  Then the “uninvited”  (sinners) are asked to come.   Whether we wear the “wedding garment” (motive for treating others) or not is our ultimate choice.  And whatever our choice, there will be effects.

Where did I go wrong?

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     Over the years, one frequent question I received was the mother asking me, concerning her misbehaving son, “Where did I go wrong?”  She was, of course, blaming herself for the wrong choices her son had made.  I would often reply, “What about free will?”  People make free choices thus assuming the blame in spite of what their mothers had told them.   Mothers have expectations and the current reality often turns out to be quite different. 

    ” Expectations” and “reality” seem to be the focus of today’s first reading (27th Sunday in Ordinary Time:  Isaiah: 5:1-7).  In the reading, the “expectations” were very high.  The vines were planted in fertile soil; the choicest plants would be used; and a worktower was constructed to protect the vineyard from outside  interference.  Witb all these expectations, what could possibly go wrong?

     In truth, the “reality” did not meet the expectations.  Inedible grapes grew.  Needless to say, the vineyard owner was disappointed.  So, he cursed the crop.  The fields would not  be plowed nor the plants pruned; no rain would fall.

     The text tells us that the vineyard represented Israel.  Israel had not met the expectations of the Sinai covenant which demanded responsibility to and for others.  Curiously, the Hebrew text conveys the idea a bit more strongly by utilizing a play on words.  The translation reads, “…he expected justice, but saw bloodshedrighteousness, but heard a cry.”  (Isaiah 5:7)  (1)-justice= mishpat; bloodshed=mispah; (2)-righteousness=sedaqah; hear a cry=tseaqah.

     This reading can have meaning for us by underscoring the fact that  the reality should equal the expectation.  What is expected of us, as true disciples of Jesus, is that we behave toward others as he did, namely, with justice, compassion, forgiveness, and understanding.  The reality should correspond to the expectations.  A major obstacle would be that there is no correspondece.  It would thus be a matter of choice.  What would be the motivating factor that regulates my choice? 

     Such motivation would be the total incorporation of Jesus’ moral value system of treating others with compassion and understanding.  Only then can there be a correspondence between “expectations” and “reality,”  and if  I do something wrong it is because I chose to do so.

When “No” can mean “Yes”

     I’m sure almost everyone has experienced this.  That is, the difficulty with ambiguity.  Who hasn’t experienced ambiguity either as a speaker or as one spoken to?  People often say “no” when they really mean “yes.”   Or they say “yes” when they really mean  “no.”  Confusing, isn’t it?  How can we really know what is going on?

     The word “ambiguity” really means being  of two minds at the same time–positive and negative.  But it seems to me that the concept of ambiguity  basically has to take two things into account before we can really understand.  They are: reflection and belief. 

      “Reflection” means that we are thinking something about the situation.  How will my action affect other people?  Quite likely, the answer will depend on the choice.  “Belief” has to do with motivation.  Believing in something gives a good reason for action.  Above all, belief-action is based on my moral value system that is supposed to aid me in my decision.

    In today’s Gospel (26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Matthew 21:28-32) Jesus presents the case of two sons.  The first says “no” that he will not help his father in the vineyard, but later changes his mind and does help.  Perhaps in that interim period before the mind change,  the young man had a chance to “reflect” that quite possibly other workers might be adversly affected by his negative behavior.  Quite likely, his “belief” (operative moral value system of the Decalogue and the Sinai covenant) motivated him to change his mind.  So, his “no” became a “yes” because of his reflection and belief system.

     The second son said “yes” to he father’s request, but soon changed his mind and the “yes” became a “no.”  Perhaps the “reflection” was more about his needs, rather than  the needs of the others.   And his “belief” system no doubt purported that he was more selfish than not.  So in this situation the “yes” became a “no.”

     In frequent situations, we often find ourselves within the context of ambiguity.  Sometimes we make promises that we can’t (or won’t) fulfill.  How does the person asking the favor feel?  What kind of impression do we give?  We would do well to examine our “reflection” process and think of the good for the other before giving our answer.   This reflective process would have to be bolstered by our “belief” system of  the Decalogue and the life and actions of Jesus. 

     Before we say “yes” or “no”  to a favor asked of us,  it is often a good idea  to be seriously reflective on the possible outcome.  That thinking process is to be supported by the belief that our moral value system is based on helping others.  Most likely, when people expect a “no,” they will be happily surprised to hear a “yes.”

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