Twenty-fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, year A, September 20, 2020
Isaiah speaks two sentences of his own words, followed by two sentences of God's own words. For a discouraged people who did not believe they could be forgiven and enjoy renewal, God has a contradictory message.
Writing to a mature community of his good friends, Saint Paul ponders whether he should welcome death. For an interesting reason, he decides "Not yet."
Jesus tells another parable that defies what we would call common sense, because he is speaking about God's ways.
A Theological Reflection: That God's ways are not ours is a most difficult lesson; when we religious people forget that, skeptics rightly mock us for creating God in our own image. Isaiah is doing the quintessentially prophetic thing here when he reminds us that God doesn't think the way we do. In today's gospel, Matthew 20:1-16a, we get another vexing dose of the same truth. The Isaiah passage prepares us for that, if such preparation is possible, but it stands beautifully on its own, too.
The Historical Situation: As Lector's Notes often note, because the Lectionary so often cites this prophet, indeed this chapter, these were encouraging words for very discouraged people. Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah record prophecies spoken at the end of the Babylonian captivity of the people of Judah, when they were returning from enslavement far away, to a devastated homeland. The words were meant to give them hope and to keep them from losing faith in God. The whole chapter 55 promises both material and, like today's passage, spiritual relief. Convinced that their sins had led to their punishment by exile, the people need to be reminded, nay convinced, that God is capable of mercy and inclined once again to show it. New beginnings are possible at every level.
Proclaiming It: First, note that there are two voices speaking in succession. The prophet utters the first two sentences. If the historical and theological assertions above are correct, the prophet's audience must have thought his message too good to be true. So he must have spoken emphatically and persuasively. Imitate him.
But the last two sentences are the very words of the Lord. As a mortal speaking them, you should sound awed. That's a different tone of voice than the one recommended for the prophet's words. If you let the words awe you in quiet prayer over them, you may sound so.
Another Theological Reflection: Yet the two halves of the reading are intimately united. The latter makes the former possible. That is, sinners are not inclined to believe God is merciful. In their thoughts, God is as vengeful as they and everyone else. But conversion of heart is possible, only because God's ways are so unlike our ways. Make those great contrasts heard in your intonation of these sentences.
The Historical Situation: Beginning today and continuing three more Sundays, we skim through Saint Paul's letter (really three letters) to his dear friends in Philippi. They had received the gospel from Paul eagerly, and supported him on his further missionary travels. He is very grateful. This is mature Pauline thought for a mature community, expressed in unusually personal terms. (The letter deserves a more thorough reading; the liturgical calendar doesn't encourage this, but that shouldn't keep you from reading the whole short Letter to the Philippians.)
Today's passage is most intimate. Paul is trying to decide whether to prefer death (he was in prison, possibly facing execution) or life. There's hardly a more important choice in any of our lives.
Proclaiming It: Study the text carefully so you know his reasons for preferring death and for preferring life. Know which sentences come down on which side of the debate. When you read this to the congregation, try to make his anguish apparent in your voice.
Saint Paul in Prison (detail), Rembrandt, 1627, housed in the Staatsgallerie of Stuttgart, Germany. See details and a larger version at the Gallerie's website.
This page updated July 18, 2020