Let me ask you something. Actually several somethings.
What do you think salvation means?
What is the point of salvation?
Are we “saved” simply to go to heaven when we die?
What does the “kingdom of heaven” refer to?
These are all questions that are brought to my mind when I look at this week’s readings. I must admit that I had not really thought a lot about all this until just a few years ago. I began to read Holy Scriptures and the Church Fathers together and some things immediately became clear to me.
It became clear to me that I had no idea what Jesus meant by a lot of what He said. It also became clear than my hermeneutic (the way I interpret Holy Scripture) was very different than the way the Fathers did. I had been trained to use historical critical methodology whereas the Fathers seemed to be much more “spiritual” and typological in their interpretation of Holy Scripture.
So I began to look at Holy Scripture a little differently. Specifically, I began to read Holy Scripture in a Christological way. Right about now you’re probably wondering what I’m talking about so let me get into these texts a bit.
I was told as a boy growing up in the home of a pastor that the point of being “saved” was to go to heaven. While that sounds really good, I have to say that does not square at all with what Holy Scriptures seem to give us. Rather than messages of “we’re going to heaven when we die,” the Bible seems to indicate that something even more radical will happen.
God will come here.
Look at our OT text for today: Isaiah 25:6-10. I’m going to be working from the KJV and Douay-Rheims today. Read that text slowly and look for the images it conjures in your mind. First, there is an image of a great feast; “a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lee, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.”
This is a great feast of great abundance. This is the good stuff, as the saying goes. We see this image somewhere else, don’t we? We see it in the Gospel reading today but we see it again in the Apostle John’s Apocalypse (Revelation) chapters 19-21. But we’ll come back to that.
Keep reading the Isaiah text. The prophet tells us that the Lord of hosts will destroy the “veil” that covers all people, indicating that there is something that is covering us, blinding us to reality. He will swallow up death, He will wipe away tears, He will take away the “rebuke” of the people. Verse 9 tells us that He will “save us” and that, on this “mountain” we will “be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” In verse 10 he tells us that “the hand of the Lord shall rest in this mountain (Douay-Rheims).”
Look at these images. These are images of wholeness, abundance and peace that are all linked with salvation.
Looks a little different than “we’re gonna get outta here and go to heaven.” Looks and sounds way better to me!
Now let’s consider our Gospel reading: Matthew 22:1-14. Here we have Jesus doing what He does and giving us a parable to explain things. Look at this text and the imagery we see. What jumps out? The word marriage or wedding is used eight times in both the KJV and Douay-Rheims. What imagery does this convey to us? It’s kind of echoing our Isaiah text in imagery. When we attend a wedding, the food is usually abundant and good, right? The wine (or other drinks) are typically flowing, people are dancing, laughing. It is a place and time of great joy! Jesus is telling us that this is what the Kingdom is like. This is what salvation is like!
The King Himself has set the banquet…and for what reason? The Son is getting married! Once again, this hearkens us to Revelation 19-21 and the marriage supper of the Lamb. And this wedding feast, these nuptials are open to all.
Look at the text. Some were invited but they chose not to go. Some who chose not to go also chose to murder the servants that invited them (the prophets). So what does the King say? “Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid them to the marriage.” (KJV) All are invited to the marriage feast of the Son!
But just because you are invited doesn’t mean you can just “come as you are.” We see the stern warning in verses 11-14. Dress appropriately. What does that mean?
St. Augustine, and other Fathers, took this wedding garment to be charity. What does that mean? It means that our wedding garment is how we have lived our lives according to the virtues given to us by grace as we have obeyed the commands of God. Yes, you are welcome to the feast out of a free gift of grace, but you must be clothed in the garments given to us by living a virtuous life. When the King comes, you better be dressed appropriately.
St. John Chrysostom puts it this way,
“To enter with unclean garments, is to depart out of this life in the guilt of sin. For those are no less guilty of manifesting a contempt for the Deity, who presume to sit down in the filth of an unclean conscience, than those who neglected to answer the invitations of the Almighty. He is said to be silent, because having nothing to advance in his own defence, he remains self-condemned, and is hurried away to torments; the horrors of which words can never express.”
Let’s go back to our questions we started with. What do we think salvation means? What is the point of salvation?
King David tells us what salvation means. He tells us what the point of salvation is in our Psalm reading/chant today. Psalm 23 tells us,
“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Brothers and sisters, what a gift we’ve been given! Look at our readings today and see what God has given us.
He has given us all we need in the Son; we have no other wants.
He gives us the peace of green pastures and still waters in His love.
He restores our soul and leads us in the paths of righteousness.
He calms our fears by granting us the presence of His Spirit.
He prepares for us a feast of good things that we will partake of both now and finally at His great marriage supper when our cup will overflow and His love will dwell with us forever.
He will dwell with us, in His world, His house, forever and we shall have the goodness and mercy of God the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit forever and ever, world without end!
Thanks be to God!
Education is a good thing. Theological education is a really good thing. But I gotta be honest. I think that, sometimes, too much theological education can be damaging. Here’s what I mean by that.
Those of us who have studied theology extensively tend to be very academic in our approach to biblical texts. Or maybe it’s just me. But an overemphasis on the academic study of Holy Scripture can, I think, also cause us not to see some really beautiful things in the Scriptures or even make our faith more about reason than the staggering beauty of who God is and what He has done in and through the Son.
I say all that to say that this week’s readings, for me, became too academic initially. I began to study these texts to prepare this weekly blog. I was meditating on these texts, trying to find that thing that I could pull out of the texts to blow theological minds. I was, frankly, becoming frustrated and this was feeling like a dry exercise.
And then, thanks be to God, the Spirit opened my heart to see one thing in these readings.
I have been on a really emotional journey recently. As I have converted to the Catholic Church, I have experienced a range of emotions. And I have been grateful for the experiences! I had begun to feel numb and like I was just going through the motions. But recently, I was reading and listening to a podcast about St. Augustine.
And my heart was awakened in a wonderful way. Part of the brilliance, in my opinion, of St. Augustine was his ability to be so very emotive about the heart and its love for beauty and how that draws us to God, who is Himself beautiful and the source of all beauty.
And that’s what I see in this week’s readings.
Beauty that aches with meaning. Beauty that causes my heart to soar and weep simultaneously.
Let me explain and maybe you’ll see it as well.
Let me just say from the jump that there a many references to bearing fruit in this week’s readings. We can have that conversation if you want. I think every serious reader of Holy Scripture and every serious Christian will agree that our lives should bear the fruits of repentance (thank you, St. John the Baptist). We need to bear fruit in keeping with our profession of Jesus as the crucified and raised Messiah.
But I want us to focus on something else, aside from our obligation to bear fruit.
I want us to focus on the imagery we see in our readings.
Look at Isaiah 5:1-7. I love how the ESV translates this (vs 1-4),
“Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.
And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
why did it yield wild grapes?”
Look at this verbiage! Let me sing for my beloved…immediately we are shown the tenderness of this text. My beloved is not something you just call everyone but is a tender expression of love. And consider how the Beloved One cares for this vineyard. It sits on a fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones. He planted it with the choicest of vines, built a watchtower in it to protect it and hewed out a wine vat so that the fruit of the vineyard would be joy and gladness to the hearts of men!
Consider the loving care of the One who planted the vineyard and praise the planter for His mercy and loving care!
Look at the Psalm reading/chant for today, Psalm 80:9,12,13-16,19-20.
Here we see that the vineyard is a people. Now the loving care of the Isaiah text comes into focus. Now we see even more the tenderness of the care of the Beloved One who owns and plants the vineyard, who has transplanted it from a place of darkness and slavery to a place of freedom and plenty!
Our gospel text today is from St. Matthew’s gospel, chapter 21:33-43.
Jesus takes the Isaiah text and applies it directly to Himself (if you’ve ever wondered how to interpret OT texts in light of Jesus, read this parable). Again we see that all the activity of planting the vineyard and caring for it is at the behest of the landowner. The vines didn’t plant themselves. Rather, the owner (God the Father) in his benevolence has given life. He has chosen to plant the vines and care for them. He has sent servants (prophets) to do His bidding but the tenants that God gave the vineyard to (the people of Israel…and us) abused them. They failed to comply with the messengers sent by God.
So then, joy of all joys, mystery of mysteries, beauty of all beauty, the landowner (God) sent His Son. Did they, do we welcome the Son? Have we given Him his just dues, the respect and honor He deserves? Or have we, like the tenants of the parable, thrown Him out of a vineyard that wasn’t even ours and murdered him?
Oh Church, we need to see not only the great sadness of our texts today but the great joy and beauty as well!
In His great mercy, our Father has given us all we could dare to dream or ask for. He has given us the very vineyard of His love and care for us. He has given us the wine of salvation to drink freely of! He has cared for us, His vineyard; He has given us all that we have. And He has sent His Son for our redemption! How can we not see and taste and feel this great joy granted to us by our kind Father who has sent for us His Son, so that we may again be the fruitful vineyard of the One who planted?
Let us rejoice in the beautiful and sacrificial love of our Father who has given us the Son!
Thanks be to God!