The empty God

To make sense of the gospel today, you need to see what has been happening earlier in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel. At the beginning of the chapter Jesus and his disciples have made their triumphant entry into Jerusalem on the day that we now call Palm Sunday. He then proceeded to cleanse the temple, driving out the money changers and sellers. It is at this point that he is confronted by the scribes and chief priests who ask by whose authority this country-bumpkin from Galilee is acting like this?

Jesus, as the good unoffical Rabbi, responds by putting a question to them about John the baptist’s authority – from God or man? When they refuse to answer he then tells the story that is the Gospel today. Closely related to this passage is the utterly sublime hymn that forms the major part of our second reading today, taken from the letter of St Paul to the church in Philippi. The hymn called the Carmen Christi, is usually considered to pre-date the letter and thus is the earliest declaration of the church to this question of the authority of Jesus to act like this – ‘his state was divine.’

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Recorded at SJV, 8.30am (9’23”)

At the end of Mass, it was announced that Bishop Peter has appointed me as assistant priest to the parish of St Paul’s Camden (Fr Michael Williams is the parish priest). Camden is the largest parish in NSW and the Diocese, and is growing rapidly with many young families. I will live in the presbytery in Camden; Fr Michael lives in Narellan. The appointment will take effect on 6 October 2011. At this stage there is no priest available to take my place here in the Lumen Christi Pastoral Region.

First and last

The parable that Jesus tells today, from the beginning of Matthew 20, about a landowner hiring workers for his vineyard throughout the day – some who begin work at 6am and work for 12 hours for the agreed standard wage, and then various other groups who are employed at 9am, 12pm, 3pm and 5pm – is probably not your favourite – nor even in the top ten of the 40 parables that Jesus told. Many people find this parable annoying and unfair – particularly people who have been actively involved in the church for a long time!

Strangely, when it comes time to make payment, the owner calls the latest arrivals first and begins by paying them the standard rate – not for an hour’s work, but for 12 hours work. Of course, those who had worked longer therefore expected that they would receive a more generous rate of pay – instead they only get what they agreed to in the first place. No matter how much the owner protests that he is not being unfair – he is paying what they had agreed to work for – the parable goes against our deeply ingrained sense of fairness and justice – a sense that even the youngest of children are able to know. To demonstrate this, just try setting unequal portions of icecream before a group of children, or cakes that are different sizes!
So how do we make sense of this parable?

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Recorded at SJV, 8.30am (9’29”)

Breathing and forgiveness

On this tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, it is providential that the Church offers the profound reflection that Jesus offers to Peter in response to his question ‘how often must I forgive?’ The answer that Jesus gives to Peter’s already generous question – as many as seven times, when the standard Rabbinic answer at that time was three times – is stunning.

Whether we interpret the Greek text (ἕως ἑβδομηκοντάκις ἑπτά) to mean seventy-seven or seventy-times-seven, the point of this declaration and the parable that follows is clear – in the way of the kingdom of heaven, there can be no limit to the number of times that we forgive. Yet learning how to live like this – especially in the face of the world that we live in – requires a profound understanding of the nature of forgiveness.

Perhaps it is a bit like learning to breathe again?

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Recorded at SJV, 8.30am (8’54”)
Sunday 24, Year A. Matthew 18:21-35.

The way of forgiveness

Sometimes we might imagine that scripture is full of good advice and nice parables that are of quaint historical interest to those kind of people, but it is of little practical use to the rest of us living somewhere in the early twenty-first century. Today’s passage from Matthew 18 should provide a necessary antedote to any such ideas! This compelling passage provides clear and deeply practical counsel about how to deal with any dispute that may arise within the Christian community. How different our world would look now if we had the courage to embrace this as a way of life!

The first thing to note is that Jesus realises that disputes will happen – a Christian community is full of saints-in-the-making – not people who are already holy and who have everything all together. Members of the body will sin and make mistakes. And we need to learn to deal with this. But dealing with it does not mean ignoring it or pretending that nothing happened in the first place. Forgiveness does not mean saying that it doesn’t matter. Sin does matter. Anything that breaks the unity of the body does matter, because it is serious.

When there are disputes, when someone has done something that breaks the communion of the body, then we need to resolve this, to ensure that the concern of the Father – that not even one of these little ones should be lost – is fulfilled. We are rarely told in the pages of Scripture what the will of God is – so when we are told so clearly, we need to sit up and take notice!

So when a dispute happens – when someone has done something that is against the teachings of Jesus and the spirit of the kingdom of heaven, then we have in Matthew 18 a four-stage process to follow. One of the great tragedies of Christian history is that this clear process has so rarely been followed, and leaders and others have been too quick to jump to stage four and neglect the first three stages.

So first we need to ask for the courage to confront our brother or sister in love with the concern that we have. Note – take it directly to the person. Not your friend down the road, or to talk about it at work, to write about it on your blog, or on Twitter or Facebook; not call your local radio station and discuss it with the shock-jock or write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper. No, go in love to the person and share your concerns. If they listen – you have won back your brother or sister into the communion of the church. If not, and only then, take it to stage two.

Here Jesus invites us to seek the wisdom of others in the church – take it to one or two others, who can listen to both sides of the questions – who may be able to offer other insights and discern with both of you a way forward. If the person does not see a way through to reconciliation here, then you should take it to stage three – involving the wider body of the church. Note, there are only two cases where the word for church – ekklesia (the called out ones – the community that have been called from the world, into new life together with God) is used in the four Gospels – here and in Matthew 16, which we had two Sunday’s ago. For Matthew and Jesus, their idea of the church community is probably much smaller and more intimate and way less institutional than our usual idea. The church community were those that you shared life with, and were able to know the essential details of the whole situation. They don’t have in mind nameless and faceless bereaucrats on the other side of the world!

If there is still failure to win back the one who is breaking communion with the church after this three-stage process has been thoroughly undertaken – then, and only then – should the fourth stage be contemplated – which is to treat the person as a pagan or a tax collector. We must note, of course, that we find this passage in the Gospel of Matthew, the one who is called by Jesus in chapter 9, and who is a tax collector himself. He knows very well that the way that Jesus treats tax collectors is with great kindness and compassion – he eats with them, forgives them and shares life with them. A great model for true excommunication!

What would our church look like if we applied this passage with great courage and compassion?

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Recorded at SJV, 8.30am (12’20”)

The power of kindness

I just had the most extraordinary conversation with a random man who turned up at the front door of the presbytery here at St John Vianney. He was quite distressed and wanted to share his story. About 30 years ago he had been mixing with the wrong kind of people, who taught him how to swindle clergy for money – which they used to buy alcohol of course. He told of the various stories that they made up – an aunt had died in Albury or Armidale and an uncle was able to drive him to the funeral, but as a pensioner he needed help with money for petrol, etc. (The stories are still much the same today!) (more…)