“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts” says the Lord in the first reading. Which is such good news when I’m having a bad day and my thoughts are all over the place!
This truth is so central to getting our heads around this gospel today. Our deeply ingrained sense of justice kicks in, and when we hear that the workers who only had to work for the last hour of the day are paid the same as the ones who have laboured under the hot sun for the whole day – we are outraged. Where is the sense of justice in that? We are not surprised that the a ll-day workers would grumble and complain.
But Jesus is telling us something about the Kingdom of heaven and not so much about social justice and labour conditions. He is telling us something about what God is like by telling us this parable. And he has already told us that the kingdom is all about reversals – the first will be last and the last will be first.
The workers who were called last told the master that they weren’t working all day – simply because no one hired them. I think some of us know what that’s like – being the ones that get overlooked, that no one wants. Ouch.
Most likely Jesus was also thinking about people like us – those who are trying to do the right thing and follow the Lord. He is giving a warning to the disciples who were following him then, and we who are trying to follow him now.
God is by nature generous. But what we receive from God is not like a wage – it is not a reward for the work that we have done. We are not in a contract with God – although many of us grew up thinking we were! No, God is in a covenant with us. He promises us everything – and is always faithful to his promises.
+ Jesus, help us to receive your generous love and your goodness as a free gift. Help us also to join you in the marketplace as you look to welcome all those who have been overlooked and ignored by the world. Amen.
Sunday 25, Year A.
** I am currently away on Sabbatical leave; podcasts have been prepared for most weeks ahead; please pray for me over the months ahead! **
Peter asks a very valid question today: “How many times must I forgive a sister or brother (who has not even necessarily repented or asked for forgiveness) – as many as seven times?” He points to the reality that forgiving someone is not easy. It is one thing to forgive a person who asks for mercy; it is quite another to forgive even when they don’t deserve it. Perhaps Peter is alluding to the first time the topic of vengeance and revenge is spoken of in the bible – with Lamech (a descendent of Cain) who boasts to his wives (already a bad sign) about the spiralling out of control of this cycle of violence and the perpetuation of the myth of redemptive violence:
Then Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to my voice;
O wives of Lamech, hear my words.
I have killed a man for wounding me,
Even a young man for injuring me.
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech will be avenged
seventy and seven times. Genesis 4:23-24
In answer to this, Jesus says: no, not seven times, but “hebdomekontakis hepta” times – which can equally be translated as 77 times or 70 x 7 times. Which doesn’t mean that we should start keeping track and we are let off the hook once we are able to forgive someone 490 times (which would be for each individual offence anyway). The story that Jesus tells next highlights the limitless quality of mercy. Two servants owe money. The first servant owes the equivalent of $10,000,000,000 to the king; the second servant owes the first servant the equivalent of $20,000 (using the rate of a daily labourer as $200). Even though after pleading the first servant is forgiven this huge sum of money, he does not learn the lesson of mercy and does not let go of the need to seek revenge. So when the second servant pleads to him in exactly the same words as he uses, he is not moved to mercy. And as a result he must face the consequences until he does.
Sunday 24, Year A.
** I leave this week for sabbatical leave, travelling first to Brisbane to take part in Ignite Conference, before travelling to Boston to take part in a thirty-day Ignatian silent retreat at the Campion Renewal Center, before going to Jerusalem to take part in the sabbatical program at Tantur Center, returning to Australia for the Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney in December. **
When you are in the middle of a fight – what do you do?
Every day we see the results of not doing forgiveness and reconciliation well. On the world scale, it is the continuing threat of terrorism, wars, suicide bombs, ISIS, etc and on a more personal scale, it is seen in broken marriages and other relationships, rifts in ministries and churches, shattered families and divisions in neighbourhoods.
Usually, we just pretend that it isn’t an issue, which means that even as Christians we don’t face the facts, and swallow our pride. Instead, we paper over the obvious cracks and carry on as if everything is normal. Some of us just avoid the other person or make sure the topic doesn’t come up in conversation or in posts on our walls.
If someone has been aggressive, dishonest, bullying, or offensive to us, then we need to confront the real evil that has occurred. True reconciliation won’t happen if we pretend that nothing happened. Forgiveness is required when it did happen, and it did matter. The solution is to deal with it and desire to love and accept each other again anyway.
Forgiveness is always crucial, but often we misunderstand what forgiveness actually is. Forgiveness is more than a feeling, or a moment, and it is not about pretending something never happened. “Forgive and forget” is not a Christian message. Rather, forgiveness is often a process, a flow that we need to be part of. You may forgive someone and decide that they are such a toxic presence, that for your own health and safety they cannot be in your life. But even in this instance, forgiveness is still crucial, because forgiveness is first and foremost an attitude of your own heart. It has much less to do with others than we commonly think.
The solution that Jesus offers us is both severely practical and ruthlessly idealistic – a fantastic combination. The sequence he recommends here is vital. Firstly, go and see the person, one on one. This needs courage, prayer and humility. The other person may well respond with a counter-accusation, and there may be truth in it which you need to recognise. There are always two sides to a story, but it certainly isn’t always the case that both sides are equally to blame. If this works, it really is a wonderful thing. As Jesus says, “you have won that person back.” Even more, when you have had that courageous conversation with them, an even closer and stronger bond is often formed.
Sometimes this doesn’t work and, after further thought and prayer you know that the wrong still remains to be settled, we move to the second stage. Jesus here tells us to “take one or two others and go back again.” They should be mature enough to be honest with both of you, even if it might make everything super awkward.
If your witnesses acknowledge that you are in the right, but the other person fails to see it or do anything about it, then you can ramp it up to stage three. This final act is to take it to the church. In the time of Jesus and the early church, this would have meant little groups of his followers meeting together, praying the way he taught them, reminding each other of what he taught and trying to be faithful to this. Above all these communities were small-scale, local assemblies of God’s renewed people.
Stage Three introduces the really hard part of this teaching. We are told that if a person still refuses to accept the church’s decision, then you should treat them as “a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” At one level, this means just continuing to love them with a fierce love. Remember, Matthew who gave his name to this gospel was himself a corrupt tax collector – but the fierce love of Jesus broke through and called him into life.
But at another level it is also clear that Jesus is telling us that if there is real evil involved, and the person just refuses to face the problem, then they have already broken the communion. There can be no reconciliation until the problem is squarely faced. This does not mean that forgiveness has failed, but that sometimes we need to accept the truth that behaviours and attitudes have consequences which cannot be resolved except through change. If someone has injured me, and they do not change their attitudes or behaviours, they cannot be truly repentant. Even if I continue to pray for them, and forgive them from my heart, reconciliation and continued relationship may be impossible.
Yet Jesus also promises us that his presence will still be with us. We will not be left on our own through all of this. Where only two or three are gathered, Jesus promises that he will be there with us. If we take this teaching seriously, there are going to be struggles and great costs – but also such joy and wonder.
+ Jesus, when relationships go south, help us to have the courage to face them squarely in your love, and continue along the path of mercy.
Just before our Gospel today, Jesus asked the disciples who the people and then who they said he was. Simon Peter, speaking on behalf of the other disciples, declared that Jesus is not just another prophet like the crowds say he is – Jesus is the true, anointed King of Israel, and the Son of the living God.
Jesus clearly has the support of the crowds – he has after all been giving them food when they were hungry, teaching them with kindness and authority and healing their diseases and sicknesses. So the natural next move for Jesus and his many followers, should be to march on Jerusalem, picking up more supporters along the way, and then with the element of surprise – launch an attack on the temple so that Jesus could be installed as the true King.
Instead today we discover that the way to the Kingdom of Jesus will be the exact opposite of this supposed wisdom. It is going to involve suffering and death. We also see an important truth about Jesus – his death occurred as part of God’s plan of salvation. It was not a meaningless accident of history and Jesus is a willing and knowing partner in this divine plan.
Just as St Peter found it difficult to understand why Jesus had to suffer and die, so also many in and around the church today still find this part of the Gospel message very difficult to swallow. The Christian life is the polar opposite of the egocentric culture that we live in. But when Jesus calls us to deny ourselves this does not mean that we should just give up more things – because that will only make us empty! The point of denying ourselves is to make room for Jesus – to allow him to be our true centre.
We are called to make a confession of faith in Jesus as the Messiah and as God’s once-and-for-all act of salvation and revelation. But this confession can only happen within the context of a community of disciples.
Unfortunately, you really cannot explain in advance what the meaning and cost of discipleship will be. The only way to learn how to be a disciple is through beginning to journey along the way.
+ Jesus, we know that in every generation there are always some who are prepared to take you seriously. Help us to make the decision today to be one of them.
Sunday 22A – Matthew 16:21-27