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.

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Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment

22nd Sun Ord time, 9-3-17

Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm: 63:2-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Our readings today could easily be titled: The Four Steps of Attitude Adjustment. Let me explain what I mean.  We start with The Prophet Jeremiah in our first reading.  This is step one. Like most of us when we are compelled to do something we don’t want to do, Jeremiah is whining.  He blames God; he says he was “duped”/ “seduced”/ “misled”.  Jeremiah wants God to know that he is doing this job as a prophet against his will.  He is frightened by the threats made against him.  He is tired of being ridiculed.  He himself thinks the message God has given him to share with the people is a message of violence; he is disguised with himself for delivering the message.

So why does he continue to be a prophet for God? Jeremiah has tried to stop.  He promised himself he would stop.  But then the message “becomes like a fire burning in my heart”; he says he cannot hold the words in, he feels weak and out of control. The way Jeremiah describes his situation is almost like compulsive behavior or addiction; he is full of negativity and resistance.

The next situation, step two, starts off well. We look at is the apostle Simon Peter in the Gospel.  Peter has just been given the name of “Peter”, or the solid, stone foundation for the Church.  Peter is given the keys to heaven, and great authority; it seems impressive.  But then, in just a few moments, it goes from ideal to awful.  Jesus begins to talk about suffering and being killed.  What had sounded glorious has turned grisly.

Peter is so full of himself that he tries to set Jesus straight; he says Jesus is wrong, mistaken.  Surely the Son of God will not allow himself to be victimized by the chief priests, of all people! Peter had been thinking that he was strong enough to stand in his own power, but that illusion is swept away.  Jesus calls him the Devil.  Ouch!!  Jesus persists, saying that Peter must expect to take up his cross!!  Had Peter signed up for crucifixion??  He would lose his life? OMG!

Step 3 starts off badly, with our Psalmist saying, “my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water.” He clearly is not in control of his situation, either.  He sounds like a guy in real trouble.  But he is actually seeking greater power than himself.  Suddenly it changes; everything changes.  He looks into the temple and sees a vision of the power and glory of God.  He sees kindness so intense it is a greater good than life itself.

Praise for God comes out of his mouth without thinking – he blesses God, lifts up his hands in worship and calls out for God.  He is no longer hungry or thirsty – he feels as if he is at the richest and most abundant of banquets, where every possible desire for food and drink will be satisfied.  He feels sheltered; he clings to God as a steady and reliable force for his life and is filled with joy.

Finally, we read from St. Paul, who has already suffered a stoning and beatings for teaching the Good News of Jesus.  He does not even consider his own strength or power.  He offers instead the “mercies of God.”  He tells us the attitude of success is one of offering our self to God, like a living sacrifice, and offering worship to God.  Paul adds that we do not need to behave like the people around us, but rather our attitude needs to tune into God, changing and renewing us, enabling us to know the will of God.  Then we will understand what really is good and pleasing to God.  Instead of trying to control a situation, or bend a situation to our desires and benefit, we should choose to be molded into a new direction, a different understanding, where we can begin to understand how to be loving and just and true.

RECAP

Jeremiah wanted life to be easy and pleasant. He just wants to fit in, have some buddies, and go with the flow. He is very conflicted; God is cramping his style.

Peter is a good man. Power and authority also sound good to him, but only if he’s on the winning side.  He loves Jesus; but he’s hoping for maybe a little upward mobility?  He wants God to defeat the Roman army and take charge.

Next our Psalm writer is looking for God, even in the midst of thirst and hunger. He goes to the temple, and finds a spirit of glory and kindness.  Without one bite of food, he feels filled and satisfied.  Without any power of his own, he feels safe and joyful with God.

Last is Paul, who can open himself fully to God’s plan, and wants to conform to God’s ways; he is ready, and urges us, to commit – body, soul, and mind.

This is not a process that necessarily comes from intelligence, maturity, experience or background.  It is not a program where you just follow 4 easy steps. It is a gift of the Spirit which we can choose to nurture and follow.  For each person, the path is unique; ironically blissful and demanding at the same time.  Yes, the retirement plan is outstanding, but living the Godly life is unexpectedly and deeply rewarding.

My friends, keep up the good work.

Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Lessons from Creation

15th Sunday Ord Time, 7-16-17 Isaiah 55: 10-11, Ps 65, 10-14, Romans8:18-23, Matt13: 1-23

 

I first read today’s scriptures sitting at my desk, which overlooks a beautiful green open space, with trees and wild flowers, and chirping birds. It felt like heaven was close by.

Our 1st reading is from the 55th chapter of Isaiah.  I find these readings to have much more meaning if I read the whole chapter.  You might label this chapter “an invitation to grace”. God starts by offering water to the thirsty. Then God offers food to the hungry, those with no money to buy food, those facing starvation. Plentiful, rich food is offered, food which satisfies.  Next God says, “Come to me, that you may have life.”  The symbolism has faded away and we have arrived at the heart of the message.  Come to God for the food of mercy, for God is always ready to forgive. Isaiah says, “Like the heavens are far above the earth, so are God’s ways above our ways.”

We understand about rain freely coming down from the sky to water the earth; mercy rains on us in the same way. Anyone who has seen a drought understands the life-giving impact of rain, changing dried clumps of earth into a growing field and producing the crops that give food. In the creation story, God’s Word was the source of earth and sky and sea. Now God’s Word comes to us, comes to us like rain and gives us life. God’s wisdom grows in our hearts.

Our Psalm is a very similar message; it begins with praise and thanksgiving for God’s mercy. We are overcome by our human failures; it is God who pardons them. It is God who set the mountains in place.  God sends the rain, makes the crops grow; God fills the meadows with flowers. We can do none of those things.

Many of us now are so removed from agriculture and food production that we can easily forget about all this. In our Gospel, Jesus taught people who lived fully at the mercy of the rain and the fields and the flocks. But like us, somehow they managed to hear but not listen and look but not see. They too refused to change, to listen to God’s Word, or to be healed with God’s wisdom.

Jesus described some people as the dry, hard packed dirt of a busy road, where the seed of God’s Word fell. The seed could not break thru to put down roots and grow, and the birds came and ate the seeds.

Other people were described as thin soil on rocky ground, where the seed sprouted but had too little nourishment to flourish. Such people have nothing to ground their lives; they pay any attention only to the crisis of the day. Still other people are described as thorny ground; they are worried about things they cannot control, and put all their efforts into gaining wealth and power, crowding out the seeds of virtue and wisdom. But those who treasure God’s Word, they are like good soil, will grow a large crop of blessings and have a full harvest of eternal life.  It’s a beautiful parable of possibility and choice.

St. Paul takes a different approach to the images of creation.  His goal is to instill hope in us.  He acknowledges that suffering is part of this life.  He speaks to those who are disheartened and discouraged.  He tells us that the worst suffering is a small price to pay for the glory of eternal life.  He understands failure, and shares our frustration with our inability to be the strong and faithful people we want to be.

Creation was put under human control by God, and therefore it fell from glory along with Adam & Eve when evil entered the world. Paul uses expressions like “subjected to futility, and “slavery to decay” to describe creation now.  But the entire creation, Paul wrote, has been groaning as if in the labor pains of “childbirth”.  We have the Holy Spirit as a “down payment” on our redemption, so we, along with creation, also groan as we wait for our final adoption as children of God.  The Spirit, too, Paul adds two verses later, “intercedes (for us) with inexpressible groanings.”  Paul makes our universe sound like a giant Labor & Delivery Unit!  Suffering, he says, is not a threat to our salvation, but a sign that “birth” is close at hand.  Our second birth, our “delivery” as believers comes in the form of resurrection.

This is a reminder that we live in a time of “already”, since Christ has already come. At the same time, we live in the time of “not yet” as we still await the return of Christ.  In 2nd Peter, we find this: “With the Lord 1 day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like 1 day. The Lord does not delay, but he is patient, not wishing that any should perish.”

So we found four lessons in creation; what do we do with them?

1. God rains down mercy and grace on us all.  With these two gifts, God will create new and eternal lives for us.  Since mercy is forgiveness, we must make amends then move on.  Grace is generosity and love for all, creating new paths after failure.  We accept grace and mercy; we offer grace and mercy to each other.

  1. God created a beautiful and fruitful world for us. God does what we can’t, and we should praise God for his goodness and the abundance he gives us. So, let’s take time to marvel in God’s power and the mysteries of nature. Take time to be thankful.
  2. We can be blind and deaf to God’s goodness. We must choose if we will receive that abundant goodness. The Word of God has immeasurable power in our lives, transforming power, available to all who nurture that Word which God sows freely. Bible study (reading God’s word), prayer (talking with God) and meditation (listening to God) change us.
  3. Hope and comfort is found in all that God created. Suffering and a sense of futility will pass. The Spirit is with us, and we will soon enough know the glorious freedom of being children of God. So, focus on what is right and good.  Spend your time on things that are positive, generous and loving.  Seek out God.

It occurred to me that if each day, we took time to focus on these 4 lessons, our lives would become more righteous. That isn’t just something that Saints do, but something that we all can  do.  It simply means that we develop a right and good relationship with God.  We become more closely aligned with God and our lives look and feel like we reflect God’s ways.  Let me challenge you with this: try for the next week to take a few moments at the beginning and end of each day to review these 4 lessons, and really act them out.  See what happens.