Mass readings for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Isaiah 5.1-7 Psalm 80.8, 11-19 Philippians 4.6-9 Matthew 21.33-43
In today’s gospel Jesus is pushing the leadership in Jerusalem. The elders, that is the nobility, and the chief priests who are also part of the political leadership can’t be missing the message. These are words of judgment against them: they are the wicked tenants who’ve beaten and killed those who have come from God; and Jesus sees them as beyond correction knowing they will continue to do this—and, indeed they do. These are the men who will conspire, with seeming success, to destroy him through public trial and humiliating execution by crucifixion.
I’ve mentioned before that Christianity at its most authentic is a revolutionary faith. Whether that is a revolution that overthrows corrupt power, or revolution through reform which in timely fashion displaces those at the top who are falling into corruption, forgetting or denying God’s word and substituting their own ideas in their guidance of the community; it is a religious ethos that is uniquely suspicious of power—and that is power exercised by groups and individuals, within nations and within families. It is a constant calling to account those in authority and a recalling of all of us to righteousness in every generation. As Catholics, we see this in our annual liturgical cycle: its times of contemplation of the incarnation in Advent, and repentance for sin in Lent.
Now, this is something the powers of the world don’t like because for them this makes it difficult to establish their dynasties, be they in the world of corporate business, in the realm of politics, in the labour movement, in professional associations, in the Church, and so on. Not all dynasties are familial: that is parent to child, although we still get some of that. In our time, it is the perpetuating of a worldview, an ideology, of establishing a regime in which the central actors aspire to be perpetually memorialized as the heroes and heroines of the revolution, as the saviours of the nation, or the visionaries of industry, education, etc. That is, they put their stamp on history so as to be remembered and celebrated by those who gratefully inherit the world they made.
But what if we, the people, in the overwhelming majority, don’t like the world they are making? What if what we see emerging is no paradise at all, but rather a stultifying new order that keeps those on top right where they are, and relegates the rest of us to serfdom, or worse. That for whatever security is provided, the cost is our souls; and likely even our bodies as we cease to enjoy the dignity of God’s children, becoming instead foot soldiers in someone else’s war, be that literally, or something we are told is the “moral equivalent of war” – to be cannon fodder in a cause that does not improve our lives, does not realize our true vocations as men and women, as families, as people meant to grow beyond scrounging a living to aspiring to holiness, the joy of an eternal life starting now.
The prophet Isaiah makes that very clear in our first reading: the metaphor is that of Israel as vineyard, the people are the planting that is to be a fruitful vine, and the leaders are to tend that vine. The tending of it comes in the form of justice and the nurture of righteousness, but instead, as we read, Isaiah sees bloodshed and hears the cry of the people. And there he is, warning the king, the court, even the priests of the Jerusalem Temple, all of whom were increasingly indulgent of foreign gods, the gods of the Assyrians in particular because they were the dominant imperial power of the time. And we read in the scriptures of kings such as Ahaz (who ruled at the time of Isaiah) sacrificing to Moloch; and Moloch is associated with child sacrifice. Now there is some debate as to whether there ever was extensive blood sacrifice of children, or if some of these sacrifices were symbolic; a dedicating of children to this foreign god in a manner like baptism, but one didn’t pass the baby through water, but instead through the flames of an open fire. Whatever, was going on, later Israelites would look back on what was happening, at that altar of Moloch that was set up in the Valley of Gehenna and shudder at their remembrance of it. How bad was it? Well, Gehenna became their word for “hell” the place of eternal punishment, and Moloch a byword for evil directed at children.
The leadership of Isaiah’s day; and the elders and high priests who Jesus centuries later preached to, were both engaged in political and religious programs they thought to be for the benefit of the nation. How an outsider might look at it, however we might evaluate it two thousand and more years on, in those moments in history, they thought themselves to be the good guys. Now, these good guys certainly thought they deserved some compensation for their good work, that they ought to occupy the upper strata of society; they knew with certainty that they were the best, the smartest, wisest of their people, and a divinely-chosen ruling class. They could never imagine they were wrong. They knew best.
But they could also imagine themselves being overthrown, they could imagine rebellion against them from below, they could imagine removal, exile or worse from above by the imperial powers of their day, formerly the Assyrians, latterly the Romans; and we ask, who would that be today in our now global order?
And so, opposition wasn’t just a matter of disagreement; it was an existential threat—to oppose them really was to threaten them personally. Because they identified their personal interests with those of the nation, any threat to them was a threat made against all, “Pull us down from the seats of power, and the destruction of the people will soon follow.” And that’s why they fought against the prophets, against Christ then, and against the Truth today.
And you know, they were to a degree correct. Ancient Judah and Jerusalem, as Isaiah prophesied, fell not long after his death, and the Babylonian captivity began. As the Church began its life in the hundred years after the Resurrection, Judea had two disastrous revolts with the Romans obliterating Jerusalem, slaughtering a good portion of the Judean people, and scattering those who were left throughout the world. In both those instances, however, had the prophet been heeded, had the gospel been received, there would have been that return to righteousness, that badly needed repentance and reconciliation between rulers and ruled, and between all the people and God. In Jesus’ day, opposition was silenced, jailed, and the pressure of growing discontent built until it exploded; and instead of the gospel governing their actions, it was the zealots and their call to violent revolt that guided the people.
Now those advocating for the current revolution in moral values and our fundamental understanding of what a human being is, for the unproven theories that are now affecting every institution, what our children are taught, how public services are offered to us, what the content of our entertainment is, it’s all justified as being a social transformation to a more compassionate society. The stated aim is to end suffering experienced by real people. And so, one can react in sympathy, as I do. But I also respond with caution, careful about what is done that cannot be easily reversed, or indeed, cannot be undone, mindful of how misplaced compassion has adversely affected individuals and communities already.
Yet, to ask if this revolution will accomplish what it intends is to be accused of bigotry, to question if this will actually make things worse brings charges of hatred, and to point out the rising levels of individual suffering and social unrest is a “thought crime”. Like latter-day Isaiahs, more and more people point out what media cannot hide no matter how they spin it: there is bloodshed, and the cry of the people grows worse. Anxiety and psychological fragility among young people runs rampant, young adults are discouraged about their prospects, violent crime and homelessness increases, suspicion and hostility grows between ethnic communities, and so on.
As a priest and minister of the gospel, I propose the teachings of Christ; the Apostolic tradition, which far from being a deposit of superstition, is the rational foundation of our civilization; and while we might from time to time pull down what’s been built, we’ve always begun again on this solid foundation, building on rock, not on the shifting sands of human ideas of kindness.
That we have this faith to fall back on, this tradition to draw on, this teaching to guide, this word to inspire is something we should be thankful for. Jesus, is the incarnation of all this, he challenges the powers that be, two thousand years ago and today. For his truth we give thanks today, and every time we gather around his table.