Sunday, 28 September 2014

Yes, but...No, but...

Gospel Matthew 21:28-32
Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ 

‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

Probably worth mentioning that this passage come after the temporary joyfulness of the entry into Jerusalem and the fearsome table-turning in the Temple. 

By this time there is very little polite discourse left between Jesus and the chief priests. It is all blame and accusation as the religious leaders seek to find the right button to press to incite blasphemy or treason. Jesus responds with a quicker wit. Firing challenges at them wrapped in parable and judgement, baffling them with both law and expectation. The same weapons they used on the folk they were meant to care for. 

The very nature of their culture condemns the first son. 'I will not go'? To defy your father is against the Commandments. How many people sat outside the Temple condemned for a similar thing? His father has every right to punish him but, in not doing so, the son's heart is given time to consider. The decision to work in the vineyard comes from an inner acceptance of the work that needs to be done. 

The second son understands how to speak to his father. That he does not carry out the request is something he will answer for but only if he gets caught. In the meantime he can continue as a person of importance; a person to be obeyed. The ability to avoid the work of the vineyard becomes a skill all of it's own. 

The chief priests have this skill. Dressed in finery and saying all the right words they suggest a holiness and a dedication that is not echoed in the work they do for the People of God. They placate the Law with a veneer that reflects who they should be and hides what they are really like. 

The reputations of the tax collectors and prostitutes are scrubbed raw. Their 'no' to the Law might just as well be tattooed on their foreheads. But they are the ones sitting and talking with Jesus. They are the ones finding fellowship and dignity in the promise of a forgiving Father. They are the ones who will make up the Followers of the Way, being true to a teaching that puts Love first. 

In society it is easy to make your mark. To fulfill expectations; a good job, a good manner, passing Sunday mornings in a church full of people just like you. Saying 'Look, Father, I am here. Your Kingdom come. Your will be done. But not by me. I've done my bit.' 

In the meantime - not in church, people say they are not religious. Yet they knock on their neighbour's door with a plate of food; slow down to offer a lift; ring a relative living alone; drop a couple of pounds into the hands of a street person; lift a pram onto a bus and smile at the driver. 

Truth is, even in Jesus' time it's not that black and white. Of course it's not. But it's enough to make us think, to test our understanding of what it is to be our Father's children. If our words give life to our actions then let our 'yes' be 'yes'. 


Saturday, 20 September 2014

Pay the man

GospelMatthew 20:1-16 

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner going out at daybreak to hire workers for his vineyard. He made an agreement with the workers for one denarius a day, and sent them to his vineyard. Going out at about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the market place and said to them, “You go to my vineyard too and I will give you a fair wage.” So they went. At about the sixth hour and again at about the ninth hour, he went out and did the same. Then at about the eleventh hour he went out and found more men standing round, and he said to them, “Why have you been standing here idle all day?” “Because no one has hired us” they answered. He said to them, “You go into my vineyard too.” In the evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his bailiff, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last arrivals and ending with the first.” So those who were hired at about the eleventh hour came forward and received one denarius each. When the first came, they expected to get more, but they too received one denarius each. They took it, but grumbled at the landowner. “The men who came last” they said “have done only one hour, and you have treated them the same as us, though we have done a heavy day’s work in all the heat.” He answered one of them and said, “My friend, I am not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius? Take your earnings and go. I choose to pay the last comer as much as I pay you. Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be envious because I am generous?” Thus the last will be first, and the first, last.’

This is a difficult reading. Particularly difficult when we feel that we are the workers who have toiled through most of the day; by faith, by ministry, by vocation, by offering up lives that have asked too much of us.  

It is a strange truth that the parts of the Gospel that deal with this type of reckless and unreasonable generosity seem to bother us the most. Certainly form the basis for a heated debate and much shaking of heads; wondering at the injustice of it all. 

God is not just?  If this is what I think then maybe I should ask myself if I have earned even an hour's pay. For this parable is not just about generosity but hospitality. 

The landowner does not need the extra workers; with so many crowded into the market place with the dawning of the sun he will have chosen those who were fittest for the task. The work is proceeding so well the landowner can take a wander through the market place later in the morning. Maybe he had never imagined that some would be left behind and, after all, it wouldn't hurt to have the vines trimmed and tied just that bit earlier. 

Maybe later, it was a sense of curiosity. What happens to those who are not hired? A day without pay, a day without food, without repaying a debt or offering a sacrifice. And then later, the realisation that this may not be the first day these men have  waited. Worn thin, heads shrunken into shoulders blistered by the afternoon sun. Without the protection of the cloak they have pawned to the moneylender. A day of discovery for the landowner. 

At the end of the day, the landowner pays the latecomers first; acknowledging their apprehension with no contract to rely on. The complainers shriek of bitterness that forgets the security in which they started the day. 

Hospitality is not an option. The Old Testament warned the Jews to provide for the poor, the traveler and even the enemy. The landowner offers more that food and shelter. His employment offers a day of dignity for those who have waited so long. These men are workers; they can buy their own food and shelter now.  

I recognise many modern day parallels. People on the outskirts of society and community. The worker on a zero hour contract 'efficiently' employed only when necessary. The minimum wage earner struggling to live. The person faced with the downhearted walk to the foodbank. Those being questioned on the extent of their disability and ability to work. People looking at swollen rivers or desert dust where their own land used to be.

Jesus speaks about the haves and the have-nots. To treat others as we wish to be treated; to love our neighbour as ourselves; to look at people and not down on them.  To offer hospitality; to recognise grace; to be kingdom workers. 


Saturday, 13 September 2014

So loved the world

Sunday GospelJohn 3:13-17 

Jesus said to Nicodemus:

‘No one has gone up to heaven
except the one who came down from heaven,
the Son of Man who is in heaven;
and the Son of Man must be lifted up
as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,
so that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.
Yes, God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost
but may have eternal life.
For God sent his Son into the world
not to condemn the world,
but so that through him the world might be saved.’

Nicodemus comes to Jesus as a learned man of faith. He knows both scripture and the Law; he has lived his life by it; a teacher himself - he is a good man. Caught up in what Jesus preaches, although outside his experience, there is truth in it and Nicodemus wants to understand; desperately wants to understand.

The bronze serpent of Moses protected the Israelites from the poisons of snakes sent by God himself. An attempt to bring them back to him once again through the superstitions they found so easy to live by. 
It seems a bit surreal - not the actions of the Father  we are used to. 

Once bitten,  they were saved by looking on the bronze serpent held high on a pole by Moses. It was 'tough with a taste of jealous' love that  worked; but with a cost. Where is the integrity in faith born from fear; from obeying the Law - or else?

Of course, this is still early days in the relationship between God and his people; still very much a learning process. But, as in many relationships, if you don't have the right understanding at the beginning, you are going to struggle. It becomes easier to ask for a set of rules; a measuring stick; a sense of either/or. But then it comes down to being 'good' and who can be 'good' enough?

In the Book of Malachi, the Old Testament ends with a God filled with frustration - it opens with - 

“I have loved you,” says the LORD.

   “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’

No wonder the Lord went quiet.

And here Nicodemus is still asking that same question.

I have met many people like Nicodemus who find this Love idea too good to be true. People whose idea of God is a judgmental father waiting to catch us out; reinforced by spiritual leaders who find the promise of damnation a little too attractive. People whose lives are tormented by the idea that in everything that they do they are found wanting; who can't go to Reconciliation because of the shame of being 'found out' or who constantly go to Confession because they cannot believe they have been forgiven. People who do not realise that the only one who stands in judgement of them - is them.  

Cannot believe Jesus' own words;

God so loved the world

Nicodemus walks away under cover of night in confusion; Transformation rarely happens all at once. Here is the crack in the armour of certainty  allowing the Light to enter. And we know that this is only the beginning. Nicodemus appears again - a public supporter at the trial;  and again - a sorrowful witness at the foot of the Cross. A cross of sacrifice that echoes the Father's open embrace to all his prodigal children.

We are asked to have faith but it cannot be a passive faith. Jesus asks us to be aware of what action our faith calls us to. We must struggle, like Nicodemus, with what we already believe; struggle with the ties that bind us to tradition and convention. 

Allow ourselves the freedom to accept the glimpse of light; the invitation of Love; the call to truth. 

Have courage to step out of the shadows and stand beside the call to love; beside the outcast and the exploited. 

To have the compassion to take into our arms, into our lives,  a God who so loved the world that he gave us himself. 


Saturday, 6 September 2014

Do as you would be done by

Sunday Gospel - Matthew 18:15-20

Jesus said, ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.

‘I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.

‘I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’

In writing the Gospels, one of the things the author did was to pull together the oral tradition that had already existed for a generation or so.

Just like the stories that are joyfully revisited at family parties and get-together's, the words of Jesus were repeated at every opportunity when the Followers came together in prayer and Eucharist. Even a sentence or a phrase would be preserved as a meaningful gift of witness from those who were there.

In Matthew, you see the phrases almost as sharp instruction. Matthew doesn't surround them with story as Luke does. So Jesus speaks on the way and we catch his teaching as a disciple would following along in his wake. 

The first part of this passage is not an altogether new teaching to the followers. The Old Testament always teaches the importance of making things right with your neighbour and the different ways it may be achieved. And the right order. After all, how many troubles have become impossible to solve because too many people got involved too soon?

Again, at the end of the paragraph is the instruction that the people would expect. If someone refuses to be part of the community - like a pagan or a tax collector - then they are outside the community. And it does happen even now, in Christian communities, that people who do something wrong are shunned by the community, excluded or expelled. 

Is this what Jesus is saying? Or what we are hearing?

If this is Jesus' teaching then - what would Jesus do? 

For Jesus, pagans and tax collectors were not people to be shunned. Jesus has embraced those people that he was taught to avoid. He understands that a person's actions may be made out of fear, of custom, of necessity. He knows that community is not just about a group of people who think the same way. He teaches that community has to be bigger, more inclusive and more tolerant than that. To welcome the pagan, even if their ways are not your ways. To love the tax collector, even if their priorities are not your priorities. 

A difficult teaching when you think about it, not one of self-righteousness but of humility and hospitality. 

In which case, the next two paragraphs must mean something more. 

To know that your must answer your decision to bind or loose before the throne of a merciful God. 

To know that all your deliberations are watched over by the One who was willing to forfeit his life both for the penitent thief and the one who rejected him. 

And whose teaching asks you to do the same.