28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year: A
Is 25.6-10a; Phil 4.12-14, 19-20; Mt 22.1-14
Lower your Bucket- Taste and See
More than a century ago, a great sailing ship was stranded off the coast of South America. Week after week the ship lay there in the still waters with not a hint of a breeze. The captain was desperate; the crew was dying of thirst. And then, on the far horizon, a steamship appeared, heading directly toward them. As it drew near, the captain called out, "We need water! Give us water!" The steamship replied, "Lower your buckets where you are." The captain was furious at this cavalier response but called out again, "Please, give us water." But the steamer gave the same reply, "Lower your buckets where you are!" And with that they sailed away! The captain was beside himself with anger and despair, and he went below. But a little later, when no one was looking, a yeoman lowered a bucket into the sea and then tasted what he brought up. It was perfectly sweet, fresh water! For you see, the ship was just out of sight of the mouth of the Amazon. And for all those weeks they had been sitting right on top of all the fresh water they needed! What we are really seeking is already inside us, waiting to be discovered, waiting to be embraced, the Holy Spirit of God who has been living within us from the moment of our Baptism. The Holy Spirit is saying to us at this very moment, "Lower your buckets where you are. Taste and see!" from deep in our heart. The Kingdom of God is right there.
Both this week and last week we heard Jesus reach out to the religious leaders of his time with an almost desperate voice, a desperate love. He saw where they were headed (he sees where some of us are headed). He knew how much they were entrenched in their sin and he longed to call them to conversion.
He loved them (sometimes you yell the most at the kid you love the most). Last week the religious leaders of his time were represented as the unfaithful tenants in God’s vineyard.
They were the ones who refused to listen to the prophets and even killed the Son. This week the religious leaders they were the invited guests to the wedding banquet. It was the custom of the time to send runners out with invitations informing the invited that there would be a wedding feast soon and to get prepared. When the meal was ready the runners would return to bring back the guests.
The western Catholic Church Tradition is not an apocalyptic tradition, but our prayers and scripture texts still very often make use of apocalyptic language (i.e., language describing the end of the world as punishment for evil-doers and as a time of vindication for committed Christians). Apocalyptic language originally served the purpose of consoling and encouraging ancient Jewish believers when the Assyrian Empire laid siege to the northern Kingdom of Israel in the late 8th Century BC. Apocalyptic language was used again when the southern Kingdom of Judah came under assault in the late 7th and early 6th Centuries by the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar II. Thereafter, major catastrophic Jewish societal crises saw apocalyptic language come into use by the likes of the prophets Jeremiah, Ezekiel, 4th Isaiah, and Daniel. Sometimes the apocalyptic voice announced good news and hope. Today’s text is just such a hope-filled passage, from what is called the Apocalypse of (4th) Isaiah which is likely a 5th or 4th Century BC insertion into 1st Isaiah’s work, appearing as chapter 25. This text was written during the Persian era (539 to 325 BC). The prophet used the image of Mount Zion, on which Jerusalem rests and which served as the Jewish center of the world. The top of Mount Zion was also therefore the vantage point from which to see through “the web that is woven over all nations,” i.e., to spiritually and metaphorically “see past” human death to a consoling afterlife. This passage is among the earliest of Old Testament texts which hint at or even assert that there is life after earthly death. Never before had that belief been an important theme for ancient Judaism. Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah and not even 1st Isaiah had proposed an afterlife as an important component or motivating factor of faith in the God of Israel.
Indeed, we might have expected Moses to have mentioned such belief since he was born in Egypt and raised in the very household of a pharaoh. The Egyptian culture believed strongly in the idea of an afterlife as is evidenced by the pyramids and other tomb structures and their associated inscriptions, art, and artefacts. But, Judaism seems to have taken no notice until this 4th contributor to Isaiah (hence, our name for this anonymous hand, “4th Isaiah”). This text is a frequently chosen Old Testament text at Catholic funeral liturgies. It is the most primitive ancestor of theological speculation which eventually articulated faith in what Jesus labeled “the Kingdom of God,” in “resurrection from the dead,” and in “everlasting life.” This is a profoundly important message which was a significant theological platform for the very Gospel Message announced by Jesus of Nazareth. It would be, after all, in Jerusalem and on that very Mount Zion, that Jesus would suffer, die, and rise, thereby introducing a new, improved and expanded covenant to succeed that of Moses. And, this new covenant would be made open to all peoples and to all nations. This new covenant would come to be an offer of universal salvation, wisdom, justice, and peace. Even death would not impede this salvation. Death would be destroyed and reduced to a merely ordinary place in the process of life; it would no longer be seen to be the permanent end or annihilation of life.
The Kingdom of God
The early Christians embraced the hope of the Gospel Message most firmly and transmitted that hope by use of Jesus’ metaphorical images of “the kingdom of God.” The mystery of God’s Kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus in the Gospel texts was always described metaphorically precisely because it described a Mysterious Reality, beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Today’s Gospel parable is a kingdom parable. It asserts for those who claim to have faith in the God of Israel that their cooperation with that kingdom is important. They must behave appropriately as citizens of Heaven already, here and now in this life. It was to the chief priests and elders that Jesus addressed this parable. They were the noble citizens of Judaism of the early 1st Christian Century, and the others in Judaism assumed that they knew how to effectively cooperate with God. The parable hints, however, that merely the status of being invited and even admitted (admitted in and dressed up in a wedding garment) is not the same as full, conscious, and active participation. Being there is insufficient.
Jesus’ different View
Engaging the mystery of God’s Kingdom is much more important however imperfectly because remember Jesus’ references to the fact that “prostitutes and tax collectors” enter God’s Kingdom ahead of the Jewish leaders!). Perhaps we must reconsider with some self-criticism how easily we Christian believers can become passive and merely status conscious, while at the same time effectively “opting out” of active and committed Christian fellowship and life.
The cultural Catholics who (passively!) attend Mass only on Christmas and Easter, or even those who attend more frequently out of fear of the punishment of “mortal sin for missing Mass” – these indeed manage to take up space in the liturgical assembly without actively belonging. The parable used the metaphor of donning a wedding garment for the idea of participation in the feast. I hesitate to make passivity of membership a sufficient cause for eternal exclusion from God’s Kingdom (which, indeed, some in the Church have sometimes asserted!), but I will put forth that those who attend Mass for merely cultural reasons, or out of fear, genuinely miss the point of the very Gospel of Christ and of the profound wisdom, peace, fellowship, joy, and justice that comes to the committed, intelligent, and balanced participating Christian.
In our Times
Even in the modern society in which we live, in which so much is mere superficiality, people still like “dressing up” for occasions like weddings. They attend the wedding joyfully and enthusiastically partly because they understand something of what a wedding is about. Thus, might it be at Sunday liturgy. People would be there more appropriately if they genuinely understood that this was the weekly Gospel thanksgiving feast at which the baptized fellowship, hear God’s Word boldly and powerfully proclaimed, by which they are edified, and through which they give thanks to God for life, love, and faith. It is fully a festival occasion which ought to draw in, lift up, console, and challenge all who claim Christ and his Gospel!
We hear today for the final time from the imprisoned St. Paul in his message to the Philippians. He expressed his gratitude to them for the kindnesses they had shown him. He placed their kindness in the larger context of his life which had included everything from great blessings to great burdens. It was just such an attitude of gratitude that allowed his Gospel conviction and confidence that God’s Grace supplied a sufficiency for all believers in all circumstances. Paul had embraced the Cross of Christ, which became in early Christianity a metaphor for embracing reality in the fullest, most intelligent, and most prayerful manner. Paul had even been thankful for the sufferings that had come his way in life. His gratitude was without bounds.
With hope in life even beyond human death, and with the knowledge that we too have indeed been invited and called to God’s Kingdom. If this is the case can we not make gratitude and kindness to God and to each other the public and private hallmark of our Gospel lives?! We are invited every day to live in God’s Kingdom because every day offers us many opportunities to experience God in His Kingdom here on earth. The Kingdom is right here. Just lower the buckets of our soul and tasted it. It does not cost us much. Just open our hearts to God’s grace and we are in His Kingdom enjoying the fruits of the Holy Spirit.