This week we jump from the end of Mark’s gospel to the beginning. The idea of “waiting” is still present, but we are introduced to John the Baptist. His message is to repent and prepare. He baptises as a sign of forgiveness. In doing so, he adds a new word to our Advent as we repent and prepare. That word is change. It is a word that most don’t like to hear or do. Mostly, we are all set in our ways and pretty much satisfied with whom we are. In the comfort we feel, sometimes we forget that we can hurt others by what we do or say. It is easy to say repent and get ready for Christ’s coming, but do we really step back and take a close honest look at who we are. Jesus came at a time there was turmoil and disillusionment in the Jewish community. Many had wandered off from the teaching of the prophets, the priest, the temple and yearned for communing with God. John was an intriguing figure and they accepted him as a prophet or even maybe the promised Messiah. He was the attraction of his time drawing people from everywhere. His message was clear, repent, change, and wait for the one to come. I have always wondered why we use John in the desert preparing the people for Jesus’ ministry in preparing for Christmas. Yet, the liturgical year uses his message of repent and change at the beginning every year to prepare ourselves by calling on us in our season of wait to repent and change. Christ is certainly coming, first symbolically at Christmas, but also most assuredly to each of us in the future either near or far.
I think today’s gospel is one of the most familiar to all of us. Again a Pharisee scholar sets out to trap Jesus with what he thinks is a trick question. Jesus is ready for him and answers that Love is the greatest commandment. To love God with our whole heart, soul and mind and the second is to love your neighbor as yourself. It means that within our self we give all we are to God and what it means to belong to him. It is the means and purpose for which we live. And in living, we must love others as we love ourselves. This or more properly these commands are no small matter. I think that for the most part whether consciously or not all of us look out for ourselves or love ourselves very much beyond just the point of self-preparation. As children we learn to love from our parents and others as we grow older. However, you expand our circle of love is something we must learn and be willing to do as part of our faith and love of God. To reach out and accept others as God has done for us is not always easy in this world in which we find Good and evil present as we go forth. But loving our neighbor also mean being ready to forgive just as God does. Love is not always easy as I am sure married couples will tell you. No one except God is perfect, and even a loving couple has their moments of disagreements. Yet in any loving relationship, the giving of the whole self makes possible the resolution and coming together after conflicts.
We know that the greatest act of giving of self was Christ’s death on the Cross. In one-act, for all time, he brought God’s mercy and forgiveness to all and made possible for all of humanity to be united to him forever. This is the chief and only reason for giving ourselves body and soul and it will bring us to him forever.
One thing we must first remind ourselves of today is that the gospel has nothing to do with our concept or idea of separation of church and state. The question involved was a question of authority and God as the ultimate power. The first reading is interesting because Cyrus was not a Jew but the Persian Ruler. Isaiah refers to him as “God’s anointed,” the same title given to Jewish Kings. In this case, Cyrus unknowingly to himself, was doing the work of God by letting the Israelites return home and even reconstruct their temple. So the ruler who is doing God’s will has legitimate authority, but God is the source. In the gospel, the Pharisees and Herodians were actually setting a trap in their friendly approach and seemingly simple question. It required either a yes or no with either answer having dire consequences of turning believers against Him or committing treason against the empire. But Jesus doesn’t answer the question really as it was put to Him. In fact he left two unanswered questions, that then and through the centuries remain for each generation to answer. What belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar(or the state, the good of humanity). It has led to a whole history of rich versus poor, of demands for human rights, of demands for the end of slavery and all other movements even to our present time. Humanity’s fallen nature has not always made us a people with our best foot forward, but hopefully we are trying and learning what it means to be a Christian and a lover of God and all that it asks us to do. It is an ongoing task, learning and developing as a people, as a world responsible to our creator. We are all called to be open and discerning of the Holy Spirit who leads the way for all. Truly we will be complete only when we are one with God, in this life, and in the next.
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.
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.