100% God

29th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-22-17. Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Palm 96:1-10; 1Thessalonians 1:1-5b; Matthew 22: 15-21

 

We start today with Cyrus. To help us understand this, and indeed all our readings today, we need to know who Cyrus was, what he did, and why Isaiah gives such glowing praise to him.

Here’s some history: Babylon came into prominence in ancient history about 1,830 years before the birth of Christ.  But the Babylon we read about in the Bible is mostly the Babylonian armies of Nebuchadnezzar. In 586 BC they captured and destroyed Jerusalem, taking all the treasures from the Temple, killing many of the people, and taking most of the remaining population as captives to exile in Babylon.  The military tactics of Babylon were to take everything of value and kill and burn everything else. They ruled over other nations by destroying the population centers, the culture, and the very way of life of their victims.  This is why the Bible uses Babylon as a symbol and synonym for evil.

But what goes around comes around, and brutal Babylon fell to Cyrus, the Persian king, in 540 BC.  Cyrus had an entirely different style from Nebuchadnezzar. He would negotiate with nations before he used force. In the end, he ruled most of Europe and Asia, and created the largest Empire in history.  Cyrus respected the customs and religions of the lands he conquered and is still recognized for his achievements in human rights, politics, and military strategy. He established a government which –listen to this!-worked to the advantage and profit of its subjects; and he repatriated the people to their original homelands, even decreeing that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt.  Cyrus is the only non-Jew to be called “the anointed one”, the same title given to Israel’s kings, because he restored the Jewish Nation.  His behavior, and by extension, his image is forever a part of Jewish history.  But God is still God, and the only God.

The truth is that Cyrus acted more like God than many of Israel’s kings. The people of Ancient Israel were to understand that their true King was indeed God, not the man who sat on the throne.  Our Psalm then, is an enthronement Psalm, which was to be sung at the annual feast where the king took his throne to symbolize God’s kingship over the people.

Moving on to the Gospel, it is important to start by saying that Jesus does not pull off a “smooth dodge” to a difficult question, but rather roughly confronts his challengers. They were immediately stripped of their pretense and proven to be hypocrites. Jesus won round one by the fact that they were carrying and handed him a Roman coin which proclaimed Caesar to be divine and had an image of him (considered by Jews to be a sinful and idolatrous “graven image”).

Secondly, is this about a 40/60 or 30/70 split between God and Caesar? No! Even the question of what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar is meaningless.  We have missed Jesus’ point if we try to sort our lives into two piles: one for God and one for the Caesar-type God-want-to-be’s.  For we were created in God’s image.  If the image of Caesar on the coin means the coin belongs to Caesar and recognizes Caesar as head of the Roman Empire, then if we bear the image of God, who do we belong to?  Who rules over our lives?  God, of course, 100%. God ruled over Caesar and all human leaders, even the Pharisees and the Herodians.  Jesus won round two when he sent a clear message of shame to them by revealing their question as a denial of God’s role in their lives.  They were resisting what they themselves taught as God’s message and they were not acting as God has taught them.

Finally, Jesus is not talking about a division between church and state.   That is a modern American concept, and would be unheard of in Judea in Jesus’ day.  It’s not about paying taxes.  That was just the cover story of the challengers. This is a confrontation regarding the teachings and authority of Jesus, and over the last few weeks we have read a total of 5 confrontations where Jesus has used increasingly strongly worded and pointed parables to shame those who challenged him into seeing their errors.  We have heard the laborers in the vineyard, the two sons in the vineyard, the landowner whose tenants killed his son, the wedding feast, and now the coin question.  In Matthew’s Gospel, all these stories are told during Holy Week.  It is as if Jesus is pulling out all the stops to help his challengers understand, and instead they become more entrenched, angrier, and increasingly determined to silence him.

The saddest paradox of this exchange is that these Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and Herodians, have Jesus standing in front of them. This is what ultimately reveals their blindness to God. It’s painful to read about the stubbornness of those men.  It’s even more painful to have people we care about in our lives who will not change their response to God.  It’s especially painful to find those hidden places in our own lives that do not reflect Christ’s love, his prayers and teaching, his generosity and patience, and his sacrifice for us.  To live our lives in God’s image, we can look to Christ.

But St. Paul had found, in Thessalonica, people who had chosen to look to Christ.  Paul leaves us more hopeful as we read what he wrote to them, “We give thanks to God always for all of you, calling to mind your work of faith and labor of love and endurance in hope.”  The Gospel, Paul says, “…did not come to you in word alone, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with much conviction.”  And so, we are encouraged to seek the Gospel in Word and in Power and with much conviction, with the help of the Holy Spirit, who stands ready, day and night, to bring us a constantly deeper understanding of God, allowing us to live in God’s image.

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Unity in Community

26th Sunday Ordinary Time 10-1-17

Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm: 25:4-9;  Philippians 2:1-11 (a must read before you continue);  Matthew 21:28-32

 

We usually focus on the Gospel reading, but last Sunday we started a 4-week reading from Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi.  This is one of his more straightforward letters, with fewer complex sentences and less dense theology. Indeed, this is a beautiful passage.   In fact, this is one of his letters written from jail.  It’s probably fair to say that when people are confined, contrary to their own wishes, without knowing what the future will bring, they become introspective, and begin the process of identifying their real priorities and deeply held beliefs.  Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote “Letters from Birmingham Jail”, and Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote letters and poems, both of which are good examples of this.

 

Paul is writing to encourage the Philippians. There are some growing divisions in their community.  Some outside people have come to them in attempt to weaken the message of God’s love and move them toward harsh legalism and bondage to law instead.  It is a time when they need to remain strong in their faith, and not be intimidated by opponents. Paul stresses the themes of Joy (in prayer, in work, in the Gospel, and in suffering).  He also stresses fellowship with each other (unmarred by selfishness or pride), and in the Good News of Christ.

 

So he begins by a series of rhetorical questions, reminding the Philippians of the privileges and duties of a Christian, of the life they are to live as Christians, and the strength they have found in the life of Christ and in their own lives as a Christian community.

  1. Did you find encouragement in Christ himself?
  2. Have you found comfort in the blessings of love and given that love to others without reserve or discrimination?
  3. Have you come together in One Spirit, the Holy Spirit, and found a unity unlike any other?
  4. What has it been like to experience the tenderness and compassion of God and has it made you reach out to others with deep-seated and sincere affection and sympathy?
  5. Can you fill me with joy to hear of your harmony and loving cooperation?

 

Then he offers advice to keep them strong and on the right track.

  1. Selfishness, inflated egos, personal ambition, and pride destroy unity.
  2. Regard others as more important than yourself; look for those strengths and gifts that other people have and be aware of your own weaknesses, failures and limitations.
  3. Make a habit of thinking and speaking of the needs and interests of others as well as your own. Your thoughts and attitudes are the basis of your speech and action.

 

So where do these virtues come from? Who modeled them for us?  Christ, of course!  But it goes deeper than that.  Christ established a pattern of humiliation – glorification.  What I mean is, Christ’s humiliation began before his birth, as he chose to come to earth not as an all-powerful, all-knowing God, that people would fall on their knees in front of him, but as a vulnerable human child of poor parents, threatened by King Herod, forced to flee for his very life, and destined to grow and mature slowly, doing manual labor.  Then he was a wandering preacher, outside of the centers of power and prestige, with no home, sometimes hungry and often misunderstood.  He endured the press and demands of the crowds, the neediness of the sick, and abuse and a death sentence by religious and political leaders.  Finally, he suffered the stigma of torture and death as a criminal.  Yet he was raised from the dead and ascended into the Glory of eternal life. That is a pattern which is nearly too much for us to imagine, much less imitate.  Yet as we become one with Christ and God in the unity of the Holy Spirit, it is the pattern with which Christians are brought into community and communion by their incorporation into Christ and their life in him.  The in-dwelling of the Holy Spirit can enable us and give us strength to do what is right, if we desire to listen and be changed.

 

St. Paul is inescapably direct when he says: In the name of the encouragement you owe me in Christ, in the name of the solace that love can give, of fellowship in spirit, compassion, and pity, I beg you, make my joy complete by your unanimity, possessing the one love, united in spirit and ideals. Never act out of rivalries or conceit; rather, be humble – think of others as superior to yourselves, each of you looking to others’ interests rather than your own. Your attitude must be Christ’s attitude.

 

But that is the very attitude we resist. We live on rivalry, we cherish our conceit. Our rarest concern is the other’s good—unless it is hard won through demanding relationships of covenant and trust. Yet, I do not think Paul is talking against honest dialogue, where differences are discussed and reconciled to the good of all.  Paul would not be one who would demand rigid allegiance to a human law or regulation or tradition.  Remember, he was formerly a Pharisee and spend his early life studying the Jewish laws.  That study would have included many debates and heartfelt differences of opinion.   In fact, I think he would expect broad participation in community decision making, including prayer and thoughtful study of scripture and empathy with human needs and human errors.  But he would be opposed to contentious and rowdy yelling matches, where parties demand their own way for the sake of pride.

 

So Paul offers us this hymn to give us a way to internalize this lesson. It is likely the most quoted and memorized portion of this letter, with short rhythmic lines in two parts.  In the first three verses (6-8), Christ is the subject of every verb.  In the last three verses (9-11), God is the subject of every verb.   Paul has added “even death on a cross”, which breaks the rhythm to add emphasis for the completeness of Christ’s humiliation and also added “to the glory of God the Father” to add to the fullness of Christ’s glory.  Notice that the name “Lord” reveals the true nature of Jesus, and the phrase “Jesus Christ is Lord” is an early Christian acclamation, identifying the divinity of Christ.  Finally, every knee shall bend in homage to Christ and everyone shall recognize him as Divine on all levels, “those in heaven, and on earth and under the earth.”

 

Paul adds his own summary in the verses immediately following, which are not part of our missal reading. He says, “So then, my beloved,…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  For God is the one who, for his good purpose, works in you both to desire and to work… hold onto to the word of life, so that my boast for the day of Christ may be that I did not… labor in vain.”   Let us, too, be in Christ, and so that we will not labor in vain.

 

Justice and Jealousy

25th Sunday Ordinary time, 9-24-17: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm: 144: 2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a

Justice and Jealousy

Our Lectionary has been playing tricks on us. Last week we read from Chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel, and now today we have leaped ahead to Chapter 20. Unfortunately, the part we skipped explains why Jesus tells us today’s parable!

But we have some clues. The first reading from Isaiah says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”  Likewise the Psalm says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful… the Lord is good to all and compassionate toward all his works.  The Lord is just in all his ways and holy in all his works.” Also in our Gospel, Jesus begins by saying, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a landowner…”  Most of the “kingdom” parables use ordinary events and ordinary people to show us that God’s kingdom is NOT ordinary!

So let’s leap back to chapter 19 and find the disciples trying to keep children away from Jesus, but he declares, “The kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” Such as who?  The humble, the powerless, the ones with no “purchasing power”.  Then the rich young man comes and asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. He is told to give away his riches and come with Jesus.  Then there is the infamous Camel and the eye of the needle teaching.  Jesus says it is hard for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God; but for God, all things are possible.  Many people have struggled with that one!  But doesn’t God offer grace and mercy to ALL people?

Next, Peter asks what reward the apostles will receive for leaving everything and following Jesus. Then Jesus tells this parable of “The Workers in the Vineyard.”  Afterwards, John and James’ mother asks for her sons to be seated at Jesus’ right and left in the kingdom. (She was apparently too busy preparing her request to listen to the parable.)  This results in Jesus teaching about the reversal of kingdom values; those who follow Jesus are to be servants.  The underlying message this entire section of Matthew’s Gospel is that kingdom values are the opposite of this world’s values.  More specifically, the parable is directed against envy, greed, boasting, or any kind of ranking among Jesus’ followers.   Said another way, the last sentence of the reading – the first shall be last and the last shall be first – indicates that human perceptions on ranking are without meaning and will be turned upside down in the kingdom.

On to the parable! Our parable has 4 parts. First, the landowner goes out five times and hires workers.  Second, the landowner pays the workers.  Third, we hear the complaint of unjust wages.  Fourth, we hear the defense of goodness (someone is confused if we must defend goodness). God is the landowner; the workers are the disciples – and all of us. Most humans have at least occasional bouts of bad attitude, envy, desire for special treatment and rewards, which mark them as “above the crowd”.

The apostles, for example, are put out to give mere children access to Jesus, when their unrestricted access to the Famous Teacher marks them as unique. The rich young ruler is unwilling to give up his wealth, which marks him as a person of status and privilege.  Peter wants to make sure that there will be compensation for leaving the comforts of home and his life as a seafood entrepreneur.  Finally, John and James’ mother probably had high hopes for her offspring, and needed to ensure this gig with a wandering rabbi would lead to the rank that was due to such outstanding sons.  Surely God would recognize their superiority!  (She should meet my grandkids.) Someplace here we each find the reasons we buy lottery tickets, enter Publisher’s Clearinghouse contest, and do all the crazy other things we do to “get ahead (of others).”  But while this parable is about the goodness of God, it is not contrasting works and grace, or achievement levels, and is not about God’s extreme generosity.  All the workers receive the usual daily wage, although some worked longer.  But the wage is “the usual”, it is not generous – barely enough for food for the day – and the landowner is, if anything, charitable rather than generous, just trying to see that all have something to eat.

The parable does show that God’s treatment /judgment of people isn’t based on human rankings or human standards of justice. What causes the workers hired first to complain is the comparison of their hourly wages with that of the later hires.  In their eyes, justice is that which gives no one else an advantage; they define justice from a self-centered point of view. Do we define injustice as what happens to our disadvantage, and what is right as what happens to our advantage?  The first hired workers complain, of course, because they are jealous.  Jesus told the rich young ruler, “If you wish to be perfect… sell what you have and give to the poor, then you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”  Is giving to the poor one sign of God’s goodness?

For Jesus, to talk about reward is a way to talk about what pleases God and assure us that following Christ is not fruitless. Clearly, this parable is not theology about reward. In contrast, the disciples were into calculating reward and seeking privilege.  The workers who were hired first thought they would receive more….in comparison to others.  The parable breaks through our ideas of reward and perceptions of what is “right”.  Besides, this parable is not about human effort and salvation.  Rather, just as no one should begrudge a good man who gives to the poor, so no one should begrudge God’s goodness and mercy as if God’s rewards were limited to strict calculation.  Envy and displeasure at someone else’s success is contrary to the kingdom.  Jealousy and all thoughts of ranking or privilege must be jettisoned.

“Justice is enormously important…but it should be redefined…too often we dress up as justice what is in reality jealousy, or use justice as a weapon to limit generosity. It certainly is not to be defined by self-centered interests, but requires positive action seeking the good for all persons, especially the needy.  True justice… seeks mercy and ways to express love.  If the parable is about the goodness of God, then it asks that we give up envy and calculation of reward and, rather, both embrace and imitate God’s goodness.  That means that we give up the quest to be first, knowing that God’s standards are different, that what appears to be first will be last.”*

Stories with Intent, A comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, by Klyne R. Snodgrass, 2008, Eerdmans Publishing Company, pgs 378-379.  This quote and many of the ideas found here are from this excellent book.

Homily, September 24, 2017- the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

25sun1As the son of a union business agent, I kind of view the parable of today’s gospel with a prejudiced eye. Having grown up with the concept of a fair and living wage, and a just hour by hour accounting of a laborer or a truck driver, the story of the parable seems to violate concepts of justice and rights of the working person. These hard-fought rights brought forth labor unions and economic growth in the last century. But, and it is a big but, the parable was spoken centuries ago, in the Judaic countryside in a culture and 25sun2time far removed from us. It was not meant to be an economic lesson, but a description of what the Kingdom of God was like and perhaps how he acted. In that time, an employer invited workers to work and terms were negotiated as to what would be paid.

In this story, the householder chooses to pay all the workers the same, whether they worked all day or just one hour. Red flags, sirens, etc. all arise as we listen. It is not fair, the men should be paid by the hour and not all the same. Yet, we forget they agreed to what was fair. What call does anyone have to ask or demand more than what was fair. 25sun4The translation we have says the householder was “generous,” but a careful look at the original say more like the householder paid out of his “goodness.” And there we find the whole point of what the kingdom of heaven is. It is there out of God’s goodness and He treats all the same. The kingdom is not a reward or something earned but where God has invited us to be. We are all equal and God doesn’t play favorites of one over another.

We are all called to his kingdom, some with years and years of faith and love, others answering for lesser time. Yet, from the infant who died in childbirth to the martyrs of the many centuries to the exalted saints we honor in the church, God welcomes and treats each as his own and each with all his love. Yes, we need to labor as we are called to the vineyard.

Homily, September 17, 2017- the 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

24sun5Forgiveness is something we all encounter at one time or another in both directions, giving and receiving. This was an important part of Jesus ministry and is subject of one of his sacraments. If we know and realize that love is an important part of relationships and of our relationship with God, we can hopefully realize the importance of forgiveness. To quickly understand, let us look at a married couple in love. It is inevitable in living that two people living together are going to have disagreements and arguments as a normal course of living. 24sun4But truly, living out their lives involves give and take and forgiving slights and differences, even large ones. Forgiveness is not a one time thing, but an integral part of life and love and relationships. Forgiveness looks to the future and has its own way of putting behind what was the dispute. To say, “I’ll forgive but never forget,” is not Christian and certainly not what we ourselves ask when we ask forgiveness. I ask 24sun3where would we be if God himself said he would not forget? Yet the words of the sacrament are “I absolve you of all your sins.” His love is unconditional and so should ours be.

Each of us knows the weakness and failure that sometimes only we know and the many times we ask for forgiveness for our actions. This access to forgiveness we seek, is something we should be prepared to give and share to those who in any way need our forgiveness as we live our daily lives.