Moving Mercy – part 4 – two books

“A man had two sons. So begins one of the most moving and beautiful stories that Jesus told – Luke 15. We have often called this parable “The Prodigal Son” but that removes some of the richness – because all three characters are essential to this story – the prodigal son, the waiting father and the elder brother all add so much to the richness and beauty of this encounter with brokenness, mercy and grace. Reflecting on this story provides us with a beautiful illustration of the rich Jewish understanding of “T’Shuvah!” – the God who created us good, to share in his life through walking along the ways of the Lord – but acknowledges that we often wander away from the path. Always and forever, the Lord invites us to come on home and join in the feast. Unfortunately we are too often the older brother in this story and continue to slave away in service of a mean and stingy God. This is brought out in another story that Jesus tells in Matthew 18 – this time its the story of a king and two servants, one who owes a massive sum to the king and the other who owes the first slave a smaller sum. The king forgives the first, but the first is not able to learn from this grace and mercy and extend it to the one who owes him.

The God of the Broken continues to invite us to come on home and join in the feast with the fatted calf.

Recorded at St Paul’s, Vigil Mass.
Sunday 4, Season of Lent, Year C.

A tradition of life

washinghandsI am sure you have had the experience of telling a joke where the execution and timing have been rather good – and yet one or more of your friends in the group that surrounds you just don’t get the point. Perhaps you have also had the similar experience of hearing a joke and while other roar with laughter you just don’t get it. At all. Now, someone could attempt to explain what the significance of some key word or missing concept that prevents you or others from understanding why the joke is so funny – but that is far from ideal. We seem to have a very similar situation in the Gospel today – although not nearly so funny as that well executed joke.

The fact that Mark takes so much time to clue his audience into the scene, providing ample additional explanatory notes and asides to them and us, is the main reason that we know that the people that Mark was writing this Gospel to were not Jewish. A Jewish audience would not need to know that they have a bit of a thing – an obsession some might say – with washing hands, dishes and pots. They knew this from their very earliest days. It was just one of those things that you did as a Jew. We might not even think twice about the good and sensible advice of ensuring your hands are clean before eating – surely our mothers told us this many times when we came into the table from playing in the backyard with the dog – but this was not commonly practiced in the ancient world. You only have to travel to other continents to realise that the obsession that we have about food preparation and handling are not quite shared with the same level of passion.

But when Jesus was asked this question about hand washing, he turns the question around to be something about human tradition. Which we will miss the full impact of if we only read the oddly shortened version of this Gospel that is presented by the Lectionary today (both Catholic and Common) which omits some key verses that remind us of the tendency to subvert scripture by human traditions – so make sure you read all twenty-three verses together like I did at Mass today. It doesn’t take long for Jesus to take this discussion about human traditions into explosive new territory.

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Recorded at St Columbkille’s Church, Corrimal (my final Sunday in this parish)
Sunday 22, Year B. Mark 7:1-23

Sharing Talents

A GiftThe parable of the talents has a number of unusual qualities. Unlike most of the parables, which seem to be aimed at farmers and fishers and other country folk, this parable is aimed at people who are familiar with the workings of a market economy. So while it was good, prudent and standard Jewish practice to bury treasure in a field to safeguard it, within the market-based understanding that operates in this parable’s worldview, all that results in this practice is the diminution of the market value of the item – in this case a single measure of money called a talent, equivalent to 15 years of wages of a labourer (4500 denarii). This is a rare parable because it praises the risk-taking activities of the first two traders who both manage to double their master’s investment. The problem is that this pro-capitalist reading also tends to leave us wondering if the Christian life is simply going to culminate in a great test that will measure how great a return on the Lord’s investment we have managed to make as the basis of our salvation. Such a reading tends to move in the direction of a heresy called Pelagianism that imagines that we are essentially responsible for our own salvation. As a more careful reading of this parable demonstrates – which is confirmed by the rest of the gospels and the Christian scriptures – the God that we worship is a generous and gracious God who freely offers us all that we need and more. We cannot claim to truly possess anything that we can offer – since all is based on what we have received directly from the Lord. (All that we can claim any credit for is our own sin!) What we can offer in return are acts of thanksgiving and service that flow out of our experience of salvation.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 5.30pm (11min 5sec)

Weddings, feasts and garments

wedding_dawid+haAnother strange parable in a series of strange parables. The parable that Jesus tells about a king throwing a huge wedding feast takes on a strange form in the Gospel of Matthew – especially when it has the additions that are unique in this gospel – namely the king taking the time out in the middle of the wedding feast (with all of this abundant food already sitting there on the tables) to go off and wage war against those who failed to come to the banquet – and then the four verse addition that is not found in Luke’s version of this parable (but is found in the Gospel of Thomas) about the king throwing out a wedding guest who had come in off the street because he was not wearing a wedding gown. Both elements are quite bizarre and many have struggled to make sense of them over the years. As in the previous two parables in this three-parable set directed very pointedly against the religious leaders of Israel after Jesus has made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem only a few days before he is arrested and tried by these same leaders – it seems that Jesus needs to speak very loudly and directly to these leaders because they are just not getting it. They don’t understand how tense the political situation has become and how much is at risk if they continue to lead Israel down the same path of violence and rebellion. God in Jesus continues to call his people back inside the wedding celebration. He longs for us to celebrate with him and especially to be ready to party with him in the banquet at the conclusion of all things.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 8am (12 min)
Sunday 28, Year A. Matthew 22:1-14

The homily from Dawid and Ha Wojcik’s wedding is also available here.

A vineyard must be fruitful

camino1One of the things about spending the first half of September walking 320km across Spain was that it forced you to slow right down. Literally. Now that I’m home again, it can be tempting to revert back to the usual pace of life and fill every spare moment with the usual distractions. But at least for those 14 days our world was filled with much simpler things. Like walking. And feeling pain. And being hot. And thirsty. And hungry. And tired. And then towards the end of the journey, once we had arrived in Galicia – wet. Very wet in fact. But when you take a whole day to walk from one small village to another – the distance that you will probably cover in your car in 15-20 minutes – you tend to notice so much more of the landscape as it unfolds around you. You notice the dirt. And the waterways. The crops and the fruit. You especially notice any fruit that is hanging over the path of the Camino itself – especially if it looks ripe and accessible and to not be in someone’s property. All of this stuff begins to matter. Which also means that the parables that Jesus tells about vineyards and fences and fruit begin to jump out a lot more from the page. Especially because we were walking during late summer, which is just before most of the crops would be harvested and the fields were full of fruit and anticipation.

The vineyard was one of the favourite images that the prophets and psalmists used to describe the relationship of the people of God with the Lord. He wanted us to share in his bounty and his goodness and for us to enjoy a rich and full life. But when it came time for the harvest, he did expect for us to remember that we were the worker tenants and not the owners of the vineyard. The fruit belongs to him – not to us. He is looking for partners in his beautiful work of renewing creation. If the current tenants are not worthy of this challenge, then he will take away the vineyard from our control and give it to others who will return the blessings back to the Lord in worship, and acts of compassion, justice, love and grace. A huge and challenging parable.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (8’29”)
Sunday 27, Year A, Season of the Year
Matthew 21:33-43

Pursuing Wisdom

Malnazar-SolomonWriting-GoogleArtProjectKing Solomon whose reign is normally dated from around 970/960 BCE to 930/920 BCE is best known for being extremely wise, extraordinarily wealthy and as a supremely powerful monarch. He is also described as a great lover, with the legendary harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. He was probably also very busy 😉

He is listed as the tenth of seventeen sons of King David in 2 Samuel 3, born to Bathsheba as her second son; or in 1 Chronicles 3 he is listed as the tenth son of nineteen sons, being born to Bathshua as her fourth son. He was said to reign for forty years – like his father David – or the equivalent of a single generation. He is still young when he becomes King and has not yet reached adulthood, after a bitter dispute with his other brothers; David is still alive during the first few years of his reign, but he grows increasingly fragile and perhaps even senile. It is in the fourth year of his new reign that Solomon lays the foundation stone of the temple – which his father David had wanted to build but the Lord had not allowed this. When the temple begins, 480 years have passed since the Exodus from slavery in Egypt. The temple construction takes seven years, and the building of the rest of the citadel and palace takes another thirteen years so that the project is completed 500 years after the Exodus. Most of these dates should be understood as symbolic which is the reason that the dating of Solomon is so difficult.

When we meet him today in 1 Kings 3, he is still in his youth. The burden of becoming King is weighing heavily upon him. He is deeply aware of his own sin – and as the fruit of the adulterous union between David and Bathsheba, he is also aware of the consequences of sin in his beloved father. So when the Lord appears to him in a dream while he is at the northern shrine of Gibeon and offers him whatever he would ask, Solomon to his credit first acknowledges his frailty and need – yet still requests a heart wise and shrewd.

Solomon probably wrote some of the Proverbs (just as his father David had composed a good number of the Psalms) but the remainder of both books would only achieve final form many centuries later. Other books are ascribed to him – Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon (or Canticle, or Songs) and Wisdom of Solomon – but these were all written likewise centuries later. His wisdom comprises three kinds – administrative, encyclopedic and aphorisms and riddles. Although his prayer for wisdom is answered, in his maturity he fails to live from within the blessing of this promise and allows his heart to be led astray, especially because of the influence of so many of his foreign wives and the worship of their gods.

Today we bring to a close the thirteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel which is jam-packed with parables and their explanations with these three short parables drawn from ordinary life. The chapter lies at the very centre of this Gospel, and it seems that we are being invited to be the scribes who draw out of our storeroom things both new and old. The new things are this brand new and magnificent vision that the kingdom of heaven is bringing; the old things are the wisdom of the centuries and the witness of the people of Israel and her stories and hopes. The way of the Gospel is about planting the new deep down within the old and allowing the ancient wisdom to come to fresh and exciting expressions in the new.

The shape of this gospel is meant to remind the careful reader of the first five books of the Bible – the Torah, or the Books of Moses; but the content of this gospel is new and explosive. There is a decision that has to be made urgently. It was fashionable then as it remains fashionable now to imagine that there were many pearls or many treasures that you could collect in the various religions that are on offer; no, says Jesus – there is only one pearl and one treasure which is the Gospel of the kingdom of God which Jesus was declaring and living out.

Besides all this Jesus declares that the world is not just going around in circles – but it has a clear direction and is heading in a straight line towards its goal in the final judgement. It continues to move towards that glorious day when God will remake the whole world in truth and justice.

These parables continue to challenge us to both understand them and to place them into action as the wise scribes that we are urged to be. We are called in our thinking, speaking and living to be firmly rooted in the old and also the bearers of the fresh new work that God is doing. Today we are invited to carefully reflect upon our lives to make sure that the fruit of our lives is both old and new.

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Recorded at St Mary’s, Leppington 8am (10’09”)
Sunday 17, Year A

Violent darnel

wheat-fieldMost Australians awoke on Friday morning to the devastating news of the destruction of Malaysian Flight MH17 after being shot down by rebel forces in the Ukraine with the loss of 298 lives, including 37 Australian residents and citizens and some medical professionals who were heading to Australia to attend an AIDS conference in Melbourne. In the midst of the incomprehensible grief and numb confusion was a basic question – how can God allow this kind of senseless violence to continue. In the meantime, the atrocities committed in the continuing military action by Israel in the Gaza Palestinian territory had led to the deaths of more than 270 civilians. Where was God?

Once the question is asked an immediate reply is called for – where would the limit of this divine action be? How evil does the act have to be before God would sweep in to issue his divine judgement and punishment? Should every evil thought or intention within my heart be immediately judged and punished? The three parables by Jesus that we have in Matthew 13 today all begin to address this question: God is acting, but the overall call in the midst of history is for the need for patience. God has already acted in a complete and massive way in the death and resurrection of Jesus, but the outworking of this victory will only be complete at the final judgement.

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Recorded at St Paul’s, 10am (6’55”)

Sunday 16, Year A Gospel: Matthew 13:24-43

Jesus put another parable before the crowds, ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everybody was asleep his enemy came, sowed darnel all among the wheat, and made off. When the new wheat sprouted and ripened, the darnel appeared as well. The owner’s servants went to him and said, “Sir, was it not good seed that you sowed in your field? If so, where does the darnel come from?” “Some enemy has done this” he answered. And the servants said, “Do you want us to go and weed it out?” But he said, “No, because when you weed out the darnel you might pull up the wheat with it. Let them both grow till the harvest; and at harvest time I shall say to the reapers: First collect the darnel and tie it in bundles to be burnt, then gather the wheat into my barn.”’
He put another parable before them, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the biggest shrub of all and becomes a tree so that the birds of the air come and shelter in its branches.’
He told them another parable, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like the yeast a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour till it was leavened all through.’
In all this Jesus spoke to the crowds in parables; indeed, he would never speak to them except in parables. This was to fulfil the prophecy:

I will speak to you in parables
and expound things hidden since the foundation of the world.

Then, leaving the crowds, he went to the house; and his disciples came to him and said, ‘Explain the parable about the darnel in the field to us.’ He said in reply, ‘The sower of the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world; the good seed is the subjects of the kingdom; the darnel, the subjects of the evil one; the enemy who sowed them, the devil; the harvest is the end of the world; the reapers are the angels. Well then, just as the darnel is gathered up and burnt in the fire, so it will be at the end of time. The Son of Man will send his angels and they will gather out of his kingdom all things that provoke offences and all who do evil, and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth. Then the virtuous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Listen, anyone who has ears!’

Come to the wedding

In this final parable in the trilogy of parables that Jesus addresses to the scribes and elders of the people after his triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Jesus draws on the image of the wedding banquet that Isaiah uses as a reminder that God has been inviting his people to share in the fullness of life with him as his Son and the bride (the Church) are united in the covenant of marriage. Just as many ignored or refused the invitation in the time of Jesus, so also many still refuse to come to the feast, or if they come, they fail to allow the hospitality of the Lord to impact upon them to change into the new life garments of justice, grace, mercy, love and peace.

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Recorded at St Paul’s Camden, 10am (6’50”)
Isaiah 25:6-14; Matthew 22:1-14

The fruit of creation

The parable in today’s Gospel from Matthew 21 continues directly from the parable last week (and leads naturally into the final parable of judgement in this trilogy, which we will have next Sunday) and again is addressed to the chief priests and elders gathered in the temple forecourt, while the crowd looks on, on the Monday of Holy Week. The listeners would have immediately thought of the similar parable from Isaiah 5 (our first reading) or Psalm 79(80) which tell the history of the people of God through the allegory of a vineyard. The parable is entirely poignant – especially given the setting and timing and drives home the reality of the pending passion of Jesus. The parable provides the church with an opportunity for a sobering reflection upon our own lives and the call of the Lord to bear good fruit as the tenants of the vineyard.

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Recorded at SJV, 7’30” (the final weekend in the parish)

What do we want from God?

Although we know many things about the life of King Solomon, we do not know how old he was when he came to the throne of Israel, to succeed his father David. Solomon is the tenth of David’s sons, and as I Kings opens, he is described as not yet being an adult. So it is to a young and vulnerable Solomon , who doesn’t “know how to go out or to go in” that the Lord appears in our first reading today, when He says “Ask what I shall give you.” This kind of question occurs with some regularity across the pages of the scriptures and throughout Christian history: it seems that God wants to see what it is that we desire. How would we answer this question? What is our treasure hidden in a field? What is our pearl of great price?

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Recorded at St John Vianney Church, Mass with Disciples of Jesus Community (7’36”)
Sunday 17, Year A. I Kings 3:5-14; Matthew 13:44-46