The Lord said to him, “Although you cleanse the outside of the cup and the dish, inside you are filled with plunder and evil. You fools” (Lk 11:39).
Jesus’ harshest critiques were for acts of hypocrisy. He did so to show, in no uncertain terms, how dangerous this was, especially for religious leaders. These men were entrusted with the care of God’s people. They may have observed the proper rituals, spoke, and dressed to match the part but this all meant nothing if their hearts were hardened and they were closed to the will of God. Most of all, the danger was when they themselves became obstacles, stumbling blocks to those who sought God. Jesus indicting them as fools meant that they were bereft of the wisdom of God they projected to have.
A recent Pew study tracing religious affiliation from 2007 to 2014 found that approximately 56 million Americans identify themselves as following no religious affiliation. Some have labeled this group as the “Nones”. I am sure the context and nuance of why this trend is on the rise have many components, but I believe one ingredient is that many feel that they have witnessed unacceptable levels of hypocrisy which has turned them off to organized faith traditions. Our present crisis regarding the abuse of minors and cover-up within the Catholic Church by religious, priests, and bishops continue to support this trend. That the very leaders commissioned to bring the Good News, guide, and protect their flock have instead abused anyone is horrific and unconscionable.
In the depths of our very being, we seek and yearn for the transcendent, the infinite. We are spiritual seekers, yet, time and again, we experience suffering, injustice, and hypocrisy at the hands of the very ones who are our leaders in both the religious and political sphere. This is why Jesus convicted those who abused their positions because he knew the significant damage that they could inflict.
No one is perfect, our leaders or ourselves. We all fall short of the perfection of Christ, even those of us who seek and aspire to live by the Gospel. If we put anyone up on a pedestal they, sooner or later, are going to fall, and the higher up they go, the greater the fall. God is to hold the priority of place. One way we can sidestep this trap of hubris is by resisting the urge to project all is well and good, that we are fine when we are not. None of us are super men or women. If we think we can go it alone, we will fall sooner or later.
When we turn to Jesus in our weakness and our sin, we can experience his transformative power in our lives. To be vulnerable, to allow Jesus to shine his light into our inner darkness takes courage, but when we open all of our lives to him we will identify and be able to release our own “plunder and evil”. The Holy Spirit can also help us to trust one another with our weaknesses, faults, and shortcomings.
In assuming a posture of humility and openness, in reaching out for help, in entrusting ourselves to a core group of people will allow the unique gifts of others to come to the fore so we can empower one another while holding each other accountable at the same time. When we are transparent with our weaknesses and willing to accompany one another, we as Church can resist the temptation of hypocrisy and instead of driving people to the nearest exit, we can welcome people home.
Painting: Supper In the House of Simon, by Italian artist Moretto da Brescia (1150-1554)
While still more people gathered in the crowd, Jesus said to them, “This generation is an evil generation; it seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Lk 11:29).
To understand what Jesus means we need to understand the sign of Jonah. Jonah was sent by God to go to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, to call them to repent from their wicked ways. The Jews not only considered Nineveh to be a place of decadence, wickedness, and godlessness, but the military of Assyria had invaded Israel and eventually conquered the northern kingdom around 721 BC. We can understand Jonah’s initial refusal to follow God’s lead. Not only did he not want to go to Nineveh, but Jonah also did not want them to receive mercy. He wanted God to punish and destroy them. Those who have read the Book of Jonah, know that Jonah finally acquiesced, and within hours of his proclamation to the citizens, including the king, they repented and God showed them mercy.
Jesus draws a parallel between the people of Nineveh and his listeners. The people of Nineveh heard and repented to a reluctant messenger. The Ninevites, Gentiles, the sworn enemies of Israel, received God’s mercy when they repented. Now, in their midst was one greater than Jonah, the Son of God, and they were demanding of him a sign. The sign of Jonah was repentance. Jesus, from the beginning of his public ministry, preached the same: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel” (Mk 1:15).
We would do well to listen to Jesus’ message. Repentance is a foundational spiritual discipline. We are called to consistently examine our conscience and to come to accept that we live in a fallen world. This is not a pessimistic view. This is an awareness of the reality of our present condition.
By accepting that we live in a fallen world, that there is only so much that we can do by ourselves, we will begin to recognize that we do need a savior. The next step that we can make is to acknowledge that we need to repent and turn back to him who can save us. For apart from him, we can do nothing, yet with God, all things are possible.
St Mother Teresa recognized the need for Jesus and stressed this when she taught her novices that she was not interested in numbers and she was not interested in having a branch of social workers. She and those who followed Jesus were to be missionaries of God’s charity. They were to serve Jesus in the distressing disguise of the poor. To do so they participated in daily Mass for an hour so they could bring Jesus to those they encountered that day. After returning from their time of service they participated in adoration for an hour. Empowered and renewed by Jesus, blessed by his mercy and love, they could serve Jesus in those they met in the harshest of conditions.
The Gospel message today is clear. We are not so much to seek signs but to seek Jesus. By emptying ourselves of our preconceived notions and opening our hearts and minds to follow his lead and being conformed to his life, we can be about doing God’s work. As long as we stay connected to him, he will guide and give us the means to accomplish that which he sends us to do.
We empty ourselves by repenting from our own selfish pursuits and accepting the invitation of Jesus to be the center of our lives, the very source of our thoughts, words, and actions. “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather serve one another through love” (Galatians 5:13 ).
Photo: Cardinal Newman Chapel where I like to begin each day, looking at Jesus while he looks at me.
The Parable of the Wedding Feast (Mt 22:1-14) continues with a similar tone to The Parable of the Tenants presented last Sunday (Mt 21:33-43). An invitation is offered that is followed by rejection, death, and harsh judgment. We need to remember that these are parables, not specific historical accounts, in which Jesus is seeking to reveal something significant. Jesus would have also shaped this parable, as well as others, depending on the audience he was speaking to, a common practice in oral tradition. This can be a possible reason for the similarity and differences in the account of the same parable given in Luke (14:15-21).
Jesus often shared table fellowship with many, we see consistent evidence of this. Jesus also “used meal imagery to depict the eschatological banquet or final salvation” (Meier, 271). The imagery of the great wedding feast in this parable conveys to the listeners then and us reading today, that all are invited to participate in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus first sought to gather the scattered people, once united under King David as the twelve tribes Israel, yet there were those who rejected his invitation. They, as the chosen people of God, were to be a holy people, a faithful witness to the one God. Jesus sought to reignite their original purpose, yet there were those who refused and so he shared in this parable that others would be invited. Jesus’ invitation as a universal message echoes that of Isaiah: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Isaiah 25:6).
As with the Parable of the Tenants, Matthew emphasizes not only the rejection of the invitation, but includes the violent images of the abuse and death of the servants sent by the king, and the king’s punishment, by putting them to death and then the burning of their city. Some biblical scholars see this as a possible allusion to the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. Luke does not include the abuse of the messengers or the king’s punitive justice. Matthew was emphasizing that there will be accountability to the way in which one responds to the invitation. We do not know the time or the hour, so we must not delay in our decision. “In the concrete context of his ministry, at any given time Jesus would have spoken this parable to this or that group of his fellow Jews as a salutary warning not to ignore his urgent final message, lest they suffer the consequences on the last day… Decide now, or soon it will be too late and your place will be taken by another” (Meier, 272). This message was directed to all who heard it. Each person then and now needs to make a decision.
Jesus, the Son of God, in the humanity that he has assumed, in his willingness to give his life for us, opened up heaven for us. This act of love and grace is a free gift and we are invited to receive or reject it. Many of those who have said yes, have followed the same path to martyrdom by sharing the message they have received and lost their life and now wear the white robes at the great wedding feast in heaven.
The invitation has been given to us today. We may not all be asked to give our lives but we are called to give witness to our faith in the unique way God calls us to. Will we make excuses or say yes to this invitation?
The writer of the second letter to Timothy gives us encouragement that what we can depend on. We are to remember that Jesus Christ, who was raised from the dead assures us that, “If we have died with him, we shall also live with him; if we persevere, we shall also reign with him” (2 Timothy 2:11-12).
Photo: Enjoying JoAnn’s lasagna then. JoAnn is enjoying dinner at the heavenly banquet now!
Meier, John P. A Marginal Jew, vol 5, Probing the Authenticity of the Parables. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016.