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Breath of the Spirit

Pastoral, Liturgical, Teaching, and Social Justice Moments brought to you by DignityUSA.

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The Apostle is obviously much more concerned with passing on an example than with passing on a collection of dogmas. He expects his communities to imitate him, not just listen to him.


Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 4:6-9
Matthew 21:33-43

Today’s first reading shows us that the image of Israel as Yahweh’s vineyard goes back at least 2,700 years, to the ministry of First-Isaiah. Yet it also shows us that Yahweh’s problem with the lack of produce from that vineyard also goes back at least that far. “(Yahweh) looked for the crop of grapes, but what it yielded was wild grapes.  . . . He looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed! For justice, but hark, the outcry!” Why go to all the trouble to plant and cultivate a vineyard when it produces nothing but frustration?

Matthew’s Jesus blames the problem on those who are “sharecropping” the vineyard, an obvious reference to the community’s leaders. They’ve basically stolen God’s property, refusing not only to turn over the produce, but even killing those who demanded an accounting of it.

Our gospel pericope is obviously an early Christian allegory. Though its roots most probably go back to the historical Jesus’ ministry, some of the “slots” have been filled in (for instance, the murder of the owner’s son) by the reflections of second and third generation Christians. But it’s important to see that the gospel Jesus isn’t rejecting Judaism in favor of Christianity, he’s simply saying the Jewish followers of his reform would make better leaders of God’s community. Or better, they should make better leaders.

As we’ll see later in this particular gospel, Matthew’s Jesus only criticizes Jewish leaders because the evangelist sees the same behavior in leaders of Christian communities. It’s a gentler way of confronting them than by attacking them head on. Matthew wants his readers to ask, “We’d never do that . . . would we?” Of course, the answer is, “Yes! You’re already starting to do it.”

Leadership in Christian communities has always been a problem. It contains the same pitfalls all leadership faces, especially the temptation for the leader to become more important than those he or she leads. But as Mark’s Jesus reminds – and warns - his followers in chapter 10, “That shall never happen among you.” Flying in the face of popular culture, among other things Christian leaders are not to be served; they’re to serve. Very difficult to pull this off when people are constantly fawning over you. Maybe one way to avoid such a pitfall is to give up your plush medieval palace apartment and actually rent two small rooms in a Vatican City guesthouse. Or. . . . every morning you can read and think about Paul’s advice to the Philippians which we find in today’s second reading.

“Keep on doing,” Paul insists, “what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.”

The Apostle is obviously much more concerned with passing on an example than with passing on a collection of dogmas. He expects his communities to imitate him, not just listen to him. If he can’t demonstrate how this new-fangled faith makes a difference in how he lives his life, then it’s not going to make a difference in their lives either. That’s why in his letters he so often tells people to live the way he’s living.

I’ve been disturbed by recent articles probing into the dilemma Pope Francis faces in choosing new bishops. It seems he has no problem finding priests who are dogmatically “safe;” they’re all over the place. But he frequently can’t surface priests who are committed to imitating both his servant, biblical approach to leadership and his simple lifestyle. Such characteristics seem to be rare commodities among the present younger clergy.

Perhaps Matthew should have been more direct in condemning bad Christian leadership. His gentler, indirect approach doesn’t seem to have worked.

I presume Pope Francis would agree.


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