Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard, Johann Christian Brandt, 1769, Akademie der bildenden Künste, Vienna
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the First Reading
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 20, 2020
Since Easter we have been examining the Second Readings for Sunday Mass: starting with the First Letter of Peter and then Paul’s Letter to the Romans. We return this week to the First Reading for Mass, which as usual, will be from the First Testament: today Isaiah 55:6-9. For a better understanding however we will need to begin with 55:1.
The church uses Isaiah many times during the year. Grasping Jesus’ mission is impossible without an appreciation of the message of Isaiah. It might be better to say messages because as we have seen so many times before there were three people who used the name Isaiah and although they shared much in common, we can discern differences in emphasis and indeed development. Today is certainly one of those times.
Isaiah 55 is written by “Second Isaiah.” He wrote at the end of the exile in Babylon. This was the deportation of Jewish leaders from Judea to Babylon to serve in the Empire’s civil service. It occurred in several waves (597-586 BC) and produced great writings by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In 538 BC, Babylon was conquered by the Assyrian emperor Cyrus who offered the Jews the opportunity to return to Jerusalem to act as his colonial administration. Isaiah reflects both the propaganda to get people to take up the invitation but also encouragement to those who went.
He is a very cunning writer.
This chapter begins with a rather surprising if common image: a sidewalk entrepreneur selling water. This was a desert and keeping hydrated was imperative. Just as there are people on roadways today selling water so there was then.
All you who are thirsty,(Is 55:1a)
come to the water
This would have gotten the people’s attention. Isaiah then builds on this with:
You who have no money,(Is 55:1b)
come, receive grain and eat
Obviously, something else is going on here. From water to food but then to an invitation to a banquet:
Heed me, and you shall eat well,(Is 55:2)
you shall delight in rich fare
The banquet in their own land was a common First Testament theme:
For the LORD, your God, is bringing you into a good country,(Dt 8:7–10)
a land with streams of water, with springs and fountains
welling up in the hills and valleys,
a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees
and pomegranates, of olive trees and of honey,
a land where you can eat bread without stint and
where you will lack nothing,
a land whose stones contain iron and
in whose hills you can mine copper.
But when you have eaten your fill,
you must bless the LORD, your God,
for the good country he has given you
This Banquet feeds not only by food but by wisdom:
Come to me heedfully,(Is 55:3)
listen, that you may have life
This too is a common theme, again looking at Deuteronomy:
One does not live by bread alone(Dt 8:3)
but by every word that comes
from the mouth of God
Sharing a meal reflects a covenant – a relationship with God – and Isaiah next reveals:
I will renew with you the everlasting covenant,(Is 55:3)
the benefits assured to David
This is where we see a real development, eternal or everlasting covenant is used often in the First Testament to acknowledge the covenant with David. He was God’s anointed and God does not break his promises.
To use but one example from scripture:
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;(2 Sam 7:16)
your throne shall stand firm forever
Yet Isaiah tells the people:
As I made him a witness to the peoples,(Is 55:4–5)
a leader and commander of nations,
So shall you summon a nation you knew not,
and nations that knew you not shall run to you,
Because of the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel, who has glorified you
Compare this to the testimony of David:
You rescued me from the strife of my people;(2 Sa 22:44–46)
you made me head over nations.
A people I had not known became my slaves;
as soon as they heard me, they obeyed.
The foreigners fawned and cringed before me;
they staggered forth from their fortresses.
Isaiah is promising to the Jewish people or at least those who returned to Jerusalem that they will share the royal prerogatives of King David. The promises to him have been expanded to include them. This is unprecedented but is a valid development and reflects Isaiah’s theology
The Jews were saved from destruction at the hands of the Babylonians not only to restore true cultic worship at a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem but to literally save the world.
It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant,(Is 49:6)
to raise up the tribes of Jacob,
and restore the survivors of Israel;
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth
This brings us to this week’s passage. Only connection with the LORD will give the ability to live these new responsibilities.
Seek the LORD while he may be found,(Is 55:6-8)
call him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
and the wicked man his thoughts;
Let him turn to the LORD for mercy;
to our God, who is generous in forgiving
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD
These too are familiar thoughts of the First Testament. Indeed Isaiah 55 strikingly reflects Psalm 103. Note especially:
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,(Ps 103:8-11)
slow to anger, abounding in kindness.
God does not always rebuke,
nurses no lasting anger,
Has not dealt with us as our sins merit,
nor requited us as our deeds deserve.
As the heavens tower over the earth,
so God’s love towers over the faithful.
The Jews who accepted restoration needed to recognize that they existed to make the LORD better known throughout the world, to be that light to the nations. They were expected not to rely on the wisdom of the world but to accept the everlasting covenant from the God who revealed himself to Moses. So high was their calling that they would often fail and fall but the Lord is generous and always forgiving.
As we begin to rebuild post-COVID, let us recognize the same imperatives. There is much to be learned from the world, certainly in organization and technology, but the church is based on the covenant formed by the Sacrifice of the Mass, sacrifices of charity and the living word of God. We too will also fail but our generous and forgiving Lord has given us the sacrament of Penance and an assurance of Mercy.
Every day God trusts his people to be his presence in the world, for us to be that presence we must every day profess our trust in him.