Big Bucks and a Great Big Job

33rd Sunday Ordinary time 11-19-17

Proverbs 31:10-13; 19-20, 30-31, Ps: 128:1-5; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6;

Matthew 25:14-30

We begin our Gospel reading with the verse immediately after where we left off last week after the parable about the ten young women waiting for a bridegroom. 5 women ran out of oil for their lamps. While they were away buying oil, the bridegroom came and locked them out of the wedding celebration. They failed to be prepared.

As Fr. Joe told us, this parable was not about weddings, but about the last days, the end times, the 2nd coming of Jesus. And the lamps are not about oil or energizer bunny batteries, but about being prepared for the inevitable judgment that is part of the end times. We’re more apt to say something like, “Get your lights on”, meaning to understand what needs to be done, and to make sure our faith and our behavior line up. We are talking about being tuned into God (prayer), staying tight with our faith (worship), and using the life teaching app Jesus left us (the Bible).

So we must again look at today’s Gospel and interpret it through the lens of last days and end times. This is again not about money, or interest rates. The Greek talanton was a huge monetary unit of silver coinage worth about the same as the lifetime earnings of a Palestinian laborer. Parables often use exaggeration to make the lesson more obvious, but the fact that the first servant was given 5 talantons should tip you off right away that whatever we are talking about is of great value, perhaps even something that cannot be bought or sold. Also notice the master is entrusting his property to the servants, very valuable property. The master is taking great risk and his high expectations are clear.

The other important piece is the setting of this parable. This takes place after Palm Sunday. It is two days before Passover. Judas is about to begin his negotiations with the Chief priests to betray Jesus. This is Jesus’ last major teaching to his followers. He has already told them that he will be crucified. He, like the master in the parable, is going away, for a long time. What valuable property is Jesus entrusting to his disciples? He’s given them the message of the kingdom. What a privilege it must have been to hear it from Jesus, yet it also was a great responsibility. Those who hear it are accountable for continuing to share the message as Jesus gave it to them. It is a message that makes any amount of money seem insignificant, and the expectation is enormous.

So what does Jesus give each one of us? Breath, life itself, forgiveness, love, mercy, grace, unselfish love; companionship, the bread of life and the cup of salvation, free will, birds, flowers, our food growing in the fields, and the riches of the earth! We could continue to add to the list all day. And what does he ask us, his servants, to do? Well, we are to be responsible for the church, for living and sharing the Good News we have heard. We are to join together in community, encouraging one another and embracing the needy, the hopeless, the sick, and those imprisoned in bad choices. We are to “handle these accounts” for him until he returns. It is a huge responsibility, even more than those large sums of money. The servants who doubled the master’s money were praised. The master says, “Well done, my good and faithful servant…Come share your master’s joy.”

What will earn us praise? What is it like to be responsible for the church? Jesus is not suggesting the church should remain as it was. Pope John XXIII said: “We are not on earth to guard a museum, but to cultivate a flourishing garden of life.” The apostles knew that the church was not to be buried in a “safe” place.
That sounds like what the 3rd servant did, who just kept the money he was given safe. It did not grow. He did it alone, without going to any bankers or fellow servants to guide him. He just, well, did nothing; life as usual. But his response to the master gives him away. He says he knew his master’s expectations and he was afraid. Given the master’s reaction to the other 2 servants, I have to question if he really knew his master at all.

He reminds me of people I meet. They say they know what Jesus taught, that they understand the expectations of love and generosity, yet somehow they remain unmotivated to be productive or get help changing their life, and they continue on, disobeying the master, somehow thinking that handing back the money would be enough. Did your math teacher give you a passing grade when you had not learned anything? Does the mortgage get paid when you have not earned anything? No; and there are consequences. The 3rd servant found this out. He lost his job and his home, and suffered in remorse. He was bound by fear of loss, and loss was the result.

But we just talked about St. Paul’s 2nd missionary journey; that demonstrated that Paul was often not safe, worked hard sometimes for little gain, but always rebounded to move on and share the Good News of Jesus and the resurrection. He taught the scriptures unceasingly, he created faith communities all over Asia Minor, and his letters created a network of Christians. He took enormous risks, with no regrets. He wrote, “Let us not grow weary of doing good, for at the proper time, we shall reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal 6:9)

Are you willing to take risks for the Gospel, or are you paralyzed by fear? If you were a leader in the Church, what kind of risks would you take to insure growth of the faithful? Let those questions perk in your mind, for we will come back to them another day. The intent of this parable is to urge us to be faithful in our obedience to the Gospel until Jesus returns. The idea of stewardship derives its importance from the importance of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom. The parable’s harsh ending of judgment and punishment is not necessarily a realistic description of divine judgment, but it serves to warn us and shock us into thoughtfully considering how we invest ourselves in the growth of the Kingdom.

Stay tuned: next week will be the last Sunday of the church year, and Jesus will finish his “last days” homily, which includes more specifics of his expectations and how to meet them.

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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.

God Looks for Justice and Sees Bloodshed

27th Sunday Ordinary time, 10-8-17.

Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm: 80: 9-16, 19-20; Philippians 4:4-9; Matthew 21:33-43

Have you ever listened to the Gospel on Sunday morning and, inside your head, thought: “Not this one again.”  We all have favorite scripture readings, and those we don’t like so much.  Just the raw violence and disregard for life in this Gospel bothers me. Maybe it will help to start with the Old Testament reading.

The reading from Isaiah, of course is “The Classic Vineyard Passage of the Bible”. It is Isaiah scolding and beside himself with frustration. The people who had a covenant with God, God’s chosen ones, just weren’t keeping their end of the deal, and the future would go very badly for them if they didn’t shape up.   God had proclaimed the people of Judah as “His Cherished Plant”, but when God looked for justice, God saw bloodshed instead, Isaiah says. They were not living as God would have them live. When God looked for righteousness in the land, God instead heard an outcry from those who had been abused and oppressed and cast aside. The people were not living spiritual or moral lives. As the verses following Isaiah’s vineyard parable make clear, the prophet had witnessed violence and drunkenness along with bribery to cover lies and cheating the innocent.

God have given them everything they needed, God had given them fertile land, cleared it of stones, planted the choicest vines, built a watch tower, and hewed out the wine press. He had protected it with a hedge. So, God will allow it to dry up, and be overgrown with the thorns of sin.

We have to make a big jump over to the Gospel. It was Tuesday of Holy Week. Sunday, Jesus had processed into Jerusalem as the crowd waved palm branches to welcome him. He had cleaned the merchants out of the Temple who were overcharging the people and thrown out the money-changers who cheated the people. Those merchants and money-changers had bribed the temple authorities to be in a part of the Temple where they should not have been. Now, we find Jesus teaching the people, to their delight. And the chief priests and the elders came up to him and asked, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” Their question was just the usual game, where they planned to mock him, and deny that his authority was from God. Instead of playing their game, he told them 3 parables. The first was the two sons, whose father had asked them to work in his vineyard, which we read last week. Next he told them the parable we read today. The third parable we will read next week.

Jesus has in mind the way the nation has violently rejected the prophets God has sent to them. He updates the parable with the violence practiced by those who do not obey God’s ways. In Jesus’ rendition of the Vineyard Passage, the servants of the landowner are beaten, killed and stoned. Even the son of the landowner will be killed by the tenants in a senseless attempt to get control of the property. Jesus senses the mood of the city and the leaders; he knows that he, the son of the land-creator, will be killed by these tenants in three days.

It’s time for a new update to the vineyard story. This week 58 people were killed by a man who had carefully planned to kill -not individuals who had harmed him somehow – rather he chose to kill at random. I cannot begin to imagine the cost of the medical care alone. But worse, people will be imprisoned in fear, and their minds will replay endlessly the terror of that night. Hundreds more have lost limbs, will be in pain and disabled for the rest of their lives, will have to undergo countless hours of surgeries and medical procedures to be able to just move, to talk, or to eat. Their bones and bodily organs have been irreparably shattered by high powered bullets. Children have lost parents, parents are mourning children. Lives have not only been lost but ruined, for no purpose, no gain, and no apparent reason.

Before the 1960’s the 2nd amendment to the US constitution was not interpreted as pertaining to the use of weapons by citizens without need for them for food or protection.  Certainly, our founding fathers did not have, or even image, the use of automatic or semi-automatic weapons to kill innocent people enjoying music.

Yet, here we are, in a time and place where the only limit on the amount of ammunition you can buy is how much money you have. Mass shootings are now a part of the fabric of America.  Since the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the US has seen 1,518 acts of gun violence in which at least four people were wounded or killed, according to the Gun Violence Archive website.  That’s nearly one mass shooting a day for the 1,754 days since that slaughter of the Connecticut children and teachers.  The crimes claimed the lives of 1,715 people and wounded more than 6,000 others – and Congress has not enacted any significant new gun legislation.  I repeatedly hear – but have not seen the numbers and names -that the majority of American voters want new gun control laws, but the gun lobby is funding election campaigns, and only the candidates who turn their backs on the issue of guns get the money.

I have been told that the church should not be involved in political issues. Is “Thou shall not kill” a political issue? If so, then I am out of line. If not, then we must make some changes, for the vineyard is all shot up, there is blood everywhere, and the thorns are so thick that there can be no more wine of joy.

Curiously, 3 years ago, I preached my last homily at St Charles of Brazil Parish. It was the week of the parable of the    two sons being asked by their father to work in his vineyard, which we read last week. I updated that parable this way: The father said his son named Australia, “Go to work in the vineyard of social action.”  And the son replied,   “No, I don’t want to.  It is hard and contentious work.  People will be angry and argumentative.  It costs money.”  But the son named Australia saw blood on the ground, and he went to work. Agreement came and lives were saved.

The father said to his son named America, “Go to work in the vineyard of social action.”  And this son said, “Yes, I am tired of all these tears and empty school desks.”  But it was hard and contentious work.  People were angry and argumentative.  And the son named America went home, and sat down to watch “Dancing with the Stars” to help him forget.  Who did his father’s will?

So the vineyard story has not changed, at least for the better. Our memory of the covenant/ our relationship with God remains weak.  The thieves, the murderers, the liars, the cheaters, and the ones who bribe their way through the world, have not changed.  Evil seems to be thriving.  Darkness reigns, it would seem.  The future will go very badly – unless we hear the messages of Isaiah, Jesus, and God and take action.

Forgiveness – What it is and What it isn’t

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 9-17-17                                                                                   Sirach 27:30-28:7, Ps 103:1-12, Romans 14:7-9, Matthew 18: 21-35

We use the word “forgiveness” at every single Mass. Let’s spend a few minutes talking about what forgiveness is, and is not.

Let’s start with what forgiveness is not. Forgiveness is not forgetting, like Christians are a group of people with voluntary memory loss.  Forgiveness is not reconciliation.  To reconcile means to establish a friendship or shared understanding of something; to come to agreement.  Forgiveness is not condoning.  When we condone an act, we simply overlook it without protest.  Likewise, forgiveness is not dismissing.  When a court case is dismissed, the legal action is withdrawn and nothing else is done.  Forgiveness is not some vague sort of tolerance.  Tolerance is when we allow or respect something as permissible.  Finally, forgiveness is not pardoning.  When the governor pardons someone in jail, he releases them without further punishment, he excuses their crime.

Most of us, including myself, would have used one or more of these words to define “forgiveness.” But we would have been wrong.  Forgiveness is not about excuses or overlooking or tolerating or withdrawing.  One dictionary definition I like is “to renounce anger or resentment against.”  It is a decision to not carry negative emotion against something some one else did.  It is not a judgment but rather a decision about our own behavior.  It is not something we create, but something we learn from the Spirit of God. Our relationship with God shows us that we can be loved even when we are at our worst.  This discovery is so enormous that we want to pass it on to others.

For starters, forgiveness is gift from God; it is an act of faith.  Two very familiar scriptures might help.  First, is Matthew 18:22, when Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive a brother and, I suspect, tries to appear generous by suggesting 7 times.  Jesus responds, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”  Please understand that the number “7” is the number for complete or finished, or even perfect.  That’s why creation in Genesis is a “7” day event.  Peter thinks if he forgave seven times, it would be perfect.  Jesus tells him that he must multiply his answer by 10, and then add another 7 for even more perfect.  What?  It means infinite, limitless, endless. That must have taken the wind out of Peter’s sail, as it does mine.  Incidentally, that 77 is a direct quote, using the exact same Greek phrase, from Genesis 4: 24, and is referring to limits on revenge against Cain for the murder of his brother.  Jesus is talking about unlimited forgiveness- of a terrible crime. This is what brings peace to our families, our communities, and our world.

The other familiar scripture is the Our Father, Matthew 6: 14-15. “If you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.”   It sends a chill up my spine every time I say it.  It’s very clear.  Can we say, “Of course we are forgiven; Christ’s death on the cross forgave my sins,” and still not forgive others?  There are many Bible verses that respond very clearly to that.  One is Colossians 3: 12-13, “Put on, then, as God’s chosen ones, holy & beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,  bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you must do also.”

Forgiveness is one of the most powerful actions a Christian can perform.  The only thing harder than forgiveness – is to not forgive.   To not forgive is like carrying a brick around with you, every day, always, everywhere.   To forgive is to set a prisoner free, and then find out that the prisoner is not someone else, but yourself.  And to not forgive tends to grow into something even more ugly.  If we are angry and hold a grudge against one person, we are likely to begin to generalize that anger to other people.  Ethnic hatred and racism, for example, are often based in anger against one individual or event.

We may say we will “try” to forgive people.  Here I need to quote a famous movie character, Yoda, in Star Wars.  Yoda said, “Try not! Do or do not! There is no try!”  When we try, we leave open an expectation of possible failure; better to decide to do.  Forgiveness is not wimpy; instead it tends to be an attribute of strength and confidence.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until we have something to forgive.”   It might be well to look at forgiveness as purposeful commitment or a jouney.  A therapist, when writing about forgiveness, suggested that forgiveness is a long-term plan, and may require a wait 10 or more years before the other party is willing to respond.   He urges people to continue to make regular contract for however long it takes.

The tragedy of the 2006 Amish schoolhouse shooting in Pennsylvania will always be with me. When a man entered a schoolhouse and killed 5 little girls, the Amish families not only offered forgiveness but also food, help and friendship to the shooter’s wife and children.  They did it because they knew the Gospel, not to look good.  They had a firm commitment to obey the Word of God, knowing that, despite the pain and trauma in their lives, it was the right thing to do, and it was that choice that would restore love and peace.  It was a powerful witness to the world.  We also have that choice available to us.

So we can boldly say, “I will show Christ’s love by forgiving those who do not even ask for forgiveness. I will leave fairness and justice in God’s hands.  I will forgive others just as the Lord forgave me.  Today I will give myself the gift of forgiveness. ”  Is there someone I need to forgive?