When the eighth-century prophet Isaiah had a harsh truth to communicate to his contemporaries, he wrapped his message in a ballad -- a love song that told of God's love and Israel's repeated infidelity. He warned of judgment and well-deserved punishment, but he sang of these realities, and thereby created an opening in the hearts of those who might otherwise have turned a deaf ear.
Similarly, when Jesus and the Matthean evangelist wanted to gain the attention of their listeners, they couched their message in the words of a parable, holding up to them, as if in a mirror, the evils they were perpetrating. Like Isaiah's song, the parable provided a ready medium for delivering an unpopular truth.
|Twenty-seventh Sunday in
Isaiah's ballad and Jesus' parable are stories, and stories have been a vitally important aspect of the human experience from the very beginning. As William J. Bausch has noted, stories define our humanity, lend identity to tribes and nations, ask our questions, pose our problems, cut us down to size and dangle mystery before our eyes (Touching the Heart, Twenty-Third Publications, 2009). Moreover, the stories that constitute the sacred Scriptures offer us experiences of God and of our ancestors in the faith. These experiences enlighten and challenge; they have many levels, and are capable of evoking various yet equally valuable meanings in different times, places and circumstances.
Homilists can lead their listeners to a different place and frame of mind and spirit if they tell their stories well and honestly. John Shea has said, "We tell stories not to educate or indoctrinate but to illuminate and to coax the reader or listener into another world in the hope that, when they emerge from it, they do so with an enchanted view of the possibilities in their lives" (Stories of God, Liguori Pub., 1996).
"Instead of the analyzing so dear to our digital hearts, they simply told stories," Bausch says of our ancestors in the faith. They related their experiences of God rather than defining God or speculating endlessly about the divine mystery, and we are blessed to continue to hear and share in them, all the while treasuring and telling our own experiences to one another.
At times, homilists depart from the story, favoring a different type of narrative to appeal to the praying assembly. For example, a radio homilist once shared his personal discouragement with his radio congregation: "Religion is a messy, untidy place where we try to join together two realities which don't fit easily," he said. "This world and the kingdom, your prayer life and your sex life, retreats and rosaries with your utility bills, your see-through soul with the sauce and sausages you had for breakfast. My father was a tailor who stitched different cloths together. I try to stitch different cloths together but I'll never be as successful. After all, how can you run an organization when you ought to give all you have to the poor? How do you chair meetings when everyone has to follow their conscience yet are bound by a majority vote? After a lifetime as a minister, you've impressed a few adolescents or some who are vulnerable because they're in hospital or in love ... we don't succeed in making others pious -- they just make us nasty."
Listeners to this broadcast were not being led into a world of hope.
Despite whatever discouragement or anger he may have felt, Isaiah sang his ballad with the hope of leading his people toward the repentance necessary for preserving their relationship with God. He could have used his words to bludgeon his listeners into feeling remorse (and at times he did). He could have given expression to his own frustrations, but he chose to sing a love song.
Through the Gospel parable, Jesus and Matthew similarly encouraged their contemporaries to create a welcome for Jesus and his message rather than to reject God's plan for them.
In today's second reading, Paul also chose to be positive and encouraging. Fully cognizant of the struggle inherent in being Christian but also aware that his words would carry considerable weight among his beloved Philippians, Paul advised them to forego anxiety in favor of prayer and petition. Think about whatever is true, honorable, just, lovely, etc., urged Paul.
So uplifting were his words and ideas that they still have the power to speak to our hearts, give us hope and lead us toward God. Thank God for Isaiah, Paul and Matthew; thank God for the story of our salvation.
[Patricia Sánchez holds a master's degree in literature and religion of the Bible from a joint degree program at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York.]