A lawyer tries to drag Jesus into the labyrinth of laws. Perhaps he hopes he can lose Him there. Around 600 laws governed the daily life of a Jewish person. How would it be possible to choose one which is greater than all the others? Do not all of them come from the mouth of God and have equal weight?
I love the way Jesus doesn't choose one as the greatest. I'm not even sure that He chooses two! Instead, he invites the lawyer to touch the underlying structure of Love that all law and prophecy is built on. Choosing to be a loving person and expressing that Love for God and for others is the heart of the matter. Love is an interior dance and Jesus stresses the inner space from which Love and action flow.
And it is probably true that in the modern world, we have even more laws than the mere 600 in the Torah. If we thought about it too much, we would all get the screaming ab dabs. They surround every human activity. Laws about loans, living and dying, gift giving, parenting, driving or riding a bicycle, crime, food, sex, relationships. And let's not forget health and safety and the protection of vulnerable children and adults. Whether religious or secular the big question is always, "Did I behave in the right way? Did I keep the law? As long as I can say that I acted properly, the lawyers will be happy.
Once upon a time there was a very hard-working father who was hurrying out the door to work. His little boy was playing with his cars in the hallway. His dad patted him of the head and went out the door. But as he put his key in the ignition, he had an epiphany. "What am I doing? I'm too busy to spend time with my little boy. He'll be old before I know it". Harry Chapin was singing 'The cats in the cradle' inside his head. The man goes back in the house, sits on the floor and starts playing cars with his boy. After two minutes the boy said, 'Daddy, why are you angry with me?'
Once upon another time, a woman took her elderly mother into her home after she had had a mild stroke. The daughter was very attentive to her mother’s every need. But one day a huge fight erupted over a boiled egg. In the middle of the war of words the mother asked her daughter, 'Why are you doing all this for me anyway'. Her daughter started a litany of reasons. I want you to feel safe. I want you to be well. I think I ignored you a lot when I was younger and wanted to make up a little of that lost time. When she finished her litany, her mother said, "A load of old rubbish!" Her daughter was furious until her mother added, ' You don't need a list of reasons. We love each other. It's enough".
Father and daughter were behaving correctly but their actions did not flow from the heart centre of Love. Doing something because it is expected and doing something from the heart are two different experiences. A three-year-old, and a little old lady can see it clearly. Do you think that Jesus' interest in the heart space is clear enough for us? Perhaps that is why he insists that real forgiveness can only come from the heart.
It seems that when we are fluent with the inner landscape of sacred and human love, we can move more freely among the laws knowing their ultimate purpose. So, we know when to heed them, when to modify them and when to dismiss them. We might even heal a sister or brother who is crippled, on a sabbath day.
The Pharisees construct a trapdoor for Jesus under which lies a bottomless pit. They want Him to say something they can use against Him. This is why they invite the Herodians into their scheming. The Herodians want to keep Herod in power, and Herod stays in power only if the Romans say so. The Romans keep him in 'power' because he is their first and best tax collector. If Jesus says something against taxes - and who doesn't! - he can be accused of sedition against Rome. The Herodians will testify that they heard it with their own big ears.
If, however, Jesus submits to the tax, he will discredit Himself among his followers. They hate everything Roman, but especially taxes, which were often raised from painful to excruciating by bribery and corruption. If Jesus sanctioned the tax laws, He would have to contradict most of His teaching.
So, the Pharisees swing a two-edged sword at Jesus. He drums his fingers on the heart of God asking, what to do, what to do? Worse still, the Pharisees have iced the ground beneath Him. He might slip on their flattery as He tries to reveal himself with plain speech. They remind Him of his honesty and integrity and that He is a prophet who will say what most people are thinking. What to do, what to do?
Their flattery is right, of course. Jesus knows the malice in the hearts of those who are trying to set him up. He sees their hypocrisy - their untrustworthiness. What they are saying with their mouths does not match what they are saying in their hearts. They are not interested in taxes. Worse still, they are even less interested in God! Their real interest is in obliterating the message of the Saviour of the World.
Jesus does not have a Roman coin and has to ask for one. What does that mean? He then invites them to answer their own question and rounds His response off with the now famous, 'give unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God'. He just won't answer their question!
So, let's tell the story one more time. We might find it helpful to identify the 'trapdoors' when we are dealing with a difficult situation. Trap One: The Ego Massage. Trap Two: Did you win or lose? Trap Three: Choose between two false alternatives, Yes or No.
Notice how Jesus avoids all three. He does not give too much weight to the compliments being dished out. Instead, He names the malice and the egos behind the game that is being played. Then, He doesn't seem to be overly invested in winning. Isn't it better when everyone wins? Finally, He offers an alternative to yessing or no-ing everything by offering new terms for discernment - the everlasting tension between God and those who think they are God - like, say, a Roman Emperor. Is this a better map in a complex world and especially in the places where faith commitments and social responsibilities meet? Well, there was once a man who screamed at the people in the boat that was heading towards a collision with his own. They seemed to be ignoring him so he screamed louder. He only stopped when he realised the other boat was empty and no real threat. He steered clear, reminding himself that it can be easier to fight to be right than it is to be empty to be true.
The Antiques Road Show is brilliant. Trying to guess the current value of something old is great fun in my house. It's funny how we seem to like old things. From a global perspective, it sometimes seems that we defend, shelter and protect them with more care than we have for the people living with us. The same is true of the 'deposit of faith'. We love and cherish and protect it. Any talk that God may be revising ancient agreements is suspect. The guardians of truth don't like new claims. The big stuff happened long ago and far away. With this mindset, the arrival of an invitation to a wedding feast where God is about to do something new, might not be well received.
The Kingdom of Heaven is an experience. A special moment has arrived, and we are invited to be part of it. Something never seen before is unfolding before our eyes. God is here and we find on our doorstep and invitation to a wedding feast. The religious leaders politely refuse to go. Some of them not so politely! Now, a select guest list becomes indiscriminate. The main roads carry universal traffic. There is no ethnic, gender, age or moral requirement. The wedding of the Son is a beggar’s feast. A gathering of those who accept the invitation. But a great surprise awaits them. They were not invited to witness a wedding but to be married to the Son. The garment they wear signals their readiness to understand and act on the teachings of Jesus. They must marry the revelation and bear the children of Justice, Compassion and Love in the world. If they do not do this, they are reduced to silence. They cannot remain at the feast for this is a wedding only for those who want to be married.
A story that began as a cautionary tale to the leadership of Israel now ends as one to us. Belonging is important but it is only the first step. Each one has to take seriously the task of growing in our understanding of the teachings of Jesus. Hearing is a beginning but just hearing is a fatal end. Hearing must be followed by understanding and understanding must be followed by action. As Jesus himself states in John 13:17 ' If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.'
In the end it comes to this. The Beloved Son of God asks us to marry him. As in all such moments, timing is crucial. The moment to go deeper, the moment to touch the heart of God, the moment to fall in love, comes to different people at different times. Some are drawn when they are very young, some in midlife, some in older age. Some arrive at the wedding on the back of a huge failure, some in gratitude for some blessing. Some come only after death has knocked at their door and taken away someone who shared their table. It would be too easy to say that eventually everyone will find their wedding garment. But it would be too cynical to say that some might not. We are all Christians, but the timetable of our lives is not the same. If home is a place that when you go, they have to take you in, the Christian community is a place that welcomes you when you are ready for more.
I don't know about you, but for me the story of the wedding feast is the story of an open invitation, and this is more important pastorally than the wedding garment. Saint Matthew, lover of dual endings might not agree. But it is clear that all are invited. Good and bad alike. But good and bad are strange designations. What do they mean to those who know themselves well? Still, the Beloved Son of God finds us desirable. Even if we did not come with a wedding garment, the groom has one for us and He has chosen it with great love.
This week’s Parable (Matt:21: 33-46) targets those who like to have power over others. Those who do, open themselves to many temptations. One can quickly switch from being a guardian to becoming an owner, from being a humble servant to being a person who likes to make their authority hurt. Removed from the world of ordinary people, they believe they are above criticism. They silence anyone who calls them to account for their behaviour. They reject anyone who reminds them that only God has authority and laugh at the idea that they will be judged for their cruelty.
Our Parable tells us that God has already done all the hard work. Could not have done more as far as Isaiah (5,4) was concerned. The problem is with the tenants. Instead of producing the new wine, they waste their energy on violence. A violence which escalates each time they think they have got away with it. Believing they can still be persuaded; God sends His Beloved Son.
But instead of seizing this as an opportunity for repentance, their true nature is unwittingly revealed. They want it all for themselves. In reality, they have no love for God in them. They do not want communion but exclusion, and the only way to get that is to obliterate the Beloved Son of God. They avoid with a passion the very thing that could save them! It was a high-risk strategy that cost them everything. It always does in these cases.
Wanting it all is not a sensible desire. Neither is the desire to have power over others or seek to injure them. But we know it goes on all the time, globally, nationally, locally, in our families and even in our parish community. It is a greedy sin which is born out of imagining that we own God and can do what we like with His gifts to us. Sadly, and usually too late, people like this find that God has moved elsewhere. When people find they are having problems with prayer, it's usually because there is some dark sin in their hearts, something that needs to lean more towards compassion in their lives.
Here is another mini Parable on this theme:
The water of life, wishing to make itself known on the face of the earth bubbled up in an artesian well and flowed without effort or limit. People and animals came to drink of this refreshing water, and were nourished by it, since it was so clean and pure and invigorating. But some humans were not content to leave things in this idyllic state. Gradually they began to build fences around the well, charge admission, claim ownership of the land around it, make elaborate laws as to who could come to the well and who couldn't, and put locks on the gates. Soon the well was the property of a powerful elite.
The water became angry and offended. It stopped flowing and began to bubble up in another place. The people who owned the property around the first well were so engrossed in their power systems and ownership that they didn't notice that the water had vanished. So, they continued selling the non-existent water and few people noticed that the power was gone. But some searched with great courage and longing and found the new artesian well. Soon that well was under the control of the elite and the same fate overtook it. The spring took itself to another place and will always do so till the end of time.
We are co-workers in Gods vineyard. When we start wanting it all, we inherit nothing.
People in authority and people with power spend a lot of time checking for erosion. So, in today's Gospel, the leaders and elders are less interested in what Jesus is doing, and more interested in who authorised it, especially if it wasn't them! Remember the time Jesus healed the man with the withered arm. They could have said, "Nice Arm!" But they couldn't see the arm. If all you have is a hammer, all you can see is a nail.
They are, of course, looking to set a trap. If Jesus says he acts on Divine Authority, then God help him because that is their area of expertise. So, He resets their trap and springs it on them. Now watch them squirm. And they squirm so much they get all tangled up to the point where all they can say is that they don't know. Not a great answer from those who claim to speak for God.
Jesus, like John, wants Metanoia, a new mind. By profession the priests and elders are expected to be close to God. By profession, tax collectors and prostitutes are expected to be far from God. The only difference being that when the latter heard the call to change, they changed. New Mind, New Heart, New Shoes.
From the Sufi Wisdom stories:
Once upon a time, there was a court case against Mulla Nasruddin.
The judge asked him, "How old are you Nasruddin?"
And he answered, " Of course, you know and everybody knows I am forty years old."
The judge was surprised. "But five years ago, you were also in this court.
When I asked you then how old you were you said forty.
How is this possible? After five years you are still forty?"
Nasruddin said, " I am a consistent man, sir. Once I say I am forty, I will remain forty.
I'm not going to keep changing my mind about that."
Loyalty to the mind is useless. Holding the same position despite the evidence carries a very high price tag. The Sufis say the mind is a good servant but a poor Master. Clinging to what we ' think' robs us of the ability to tune into the deeper rhythms of our hearts. The religious leaders could not listen to Jesus because their minds were already made up.
I wonder if the same dilemma still plagues us today?
Jesus speaks to the heart of the disciple and to the community of disciples He has chosen. To them He has given an amazing gift - the gift of working with Him to bring to birth a new humanity and a new community. They sit at His feet, and He clearly hopes that they will grow to be like Him. They think they want the same until a Parable pulls the carpet out from under their feet. It only does this because there is a question, like the elephant in the room, that is waiting to be answered. 'What's in it for me?'
In extravagant prose, Jesus assures His disciples that if they choose to do God's work it will bring them to the pinnacle of human fulfilment. Every sacrifice they make will be restored to them a hundred times over and eternal life will flow into them. If they are worried about a poor pay-off, Jesus overwhelms them with a vision of abundance. But first they have to listen to and try to understand the Parable.
Kingdom workers are like people on a zero-hours contract. They are vulnerable. They have no claim on their employer. The only agreement on the table is that when they awaken each day, they do not waste the gift of a new day in idleness. God will give them all that they need for the day. It will be enough for those who want to continue to rely on Gods' goodness.
Enthroned in the Lord's Prayer is the certainty that God will not give more or less than is needed for the day. "Give us this day our daily bread ....". It is assumed that they are friends of the Landowner and have grasped the truth about God that Jesus is trying to teach them. That when we 'seek first the Kingdom' (Matthew 6,33) and pray to follow God's will (Matthew 6,10) there is no need to ask for what we need. Our Father already knows, and gives what is needed, (Matthew 6,8;32-33) to those who work in the vineyard. But the gift of daily bread bears no relation to the amount of work done. It flows out of the generous heart of God, who is now vulnerable to an accusation of being unfair.
This feeling of unfairness is rooted in a social construct everyone takes for granted. More work=More pay. In this version of reality, I am the centre of the universe and my job is to promote myself and my own well-being. If I am denied this possibility I am entitled to have a good old moan. But the Parable puts God at the centre of the Universe and we are invited to stretch high enough to see the sacred point of view. Only here can we begin to relish the work that is being done. We are, to paraphrase Gerard Manley Hopkins, "burnished in use". We no longer live in the envious world of comparisons, but in the overflowing world of Gods Generosity. In this world, God gives us good eyes to better see. These eyes connect us to our soul and to the expansive works of the Spirit. Seduced, the labourers flow like liquid light, releasing Grace everywhere they go.
It might look as if Peter is asking a question about Forgiving. But he is really asking when it is okay to strike back. Rather generously, when most people would stop at two, Peter offers seven chances. Jesus evokes the horror story from Genesis 4,23- 24 where Lamech boasts, 'I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, Lamech seventy-seven fold'. Without forgiveness there is an escalation of violence. Violence will only stop where forgiveness is present. Jesus wants us to be unremittingly committed to forgiveness.
Today's Parable is stunning. It is the story of a king (God) and a servant (sinner) who is mercifully forgiven. The servant has made a "huge" mistake which, when found out cannot be repaid. This mistake will cost him, and all those he loves, everything. When you're about to lose everything, you will promise anything. He is on his knees and his back is against the wall. He pleads for justice and for time, when suddenly Compassion appears. Mercy comes as a shock and, when it arrives from the future, it changes everything. The servant is suddenly in the first day of the rest of his life. The classic forgiven sinner.
Of course, Jesus wants all of us to see ourselves as this servant. We have sold ourselves into slavery and cannot get out. We say that all we need is more time when the truth is that no time will be enough. We think we can sort ourselves out but our cleverness betrays us. We need the new start and it can only happen by opening our heart to the Heart of God from where mercy flows. He can't believe his luck and he should be filled with joy .......
But then a terrible thing happens. Oh no! The servant still sees himself as a creditor. He pleads for himself but continues to be violent to others. He cannot see, hear or feel himself in his brother, even when he uses the same words! So he throttles him, consigns him to bondage, destroys his family and puts him in a place where he can never make the situation better.
Then a startling thing happens! The Kings mercy vanishes. It recedes back into him, leaving the man with all the consequences of his huge mistake. Divine Mercy may be freely given but if it is not passed on it ceases to be effective in the lives of those who have received it. It seems that for Jesus, Divine Forgiveness and human forgiveness are movements in the same dance.
So, when Peter asks Jesus when it is okay to strike back, the answer is clear. We can only live if we have the mercy and forgiveness of God. Never, Never, Never, Ever forget that! The more we show mercy, the more we will receive it. The more we fail to show mercy the more it will recede. Dear Peter, if you understand this, you will never ask again, "How many times?" We are all bound by our past failures until a future is gifted to us. But all is lost the moment we put our hands around the throat of someone who is in debt to us. All is lost, and we are back in a world of revenge, reprisal and retaliation.
If you don't believe this, just watch the news!
When we are in an empty room, it is easy to convince ourselves that we are a loving person. But when that room begins to fill with other people, we may have to humbly admit that we are not as loving as we thought we were! Worst still, when we listen to the teaching of Jesus, it begins to dawn on us that He is not talking about ‘A Hollywood Romance’. The Love which Jesus delivers with such Passion is the Love which supports us to 'lay down our life' for friends and our enemies.
In the meantime, Jesus teaches and gives a wonderful example of the need for us to be committed to the work of reconciliation. Relationships in families, in the workplace, in schools, in neighbourhoods, in parishes and in our nation are fragile. They can and they do break easily. The moral imperative to keep working for Peace comes with a menu. Follow the suggested steps and it just might be possible to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Step One: seek a meeting with the person who has wounded you. If the relationship is restored, no need to go the step two. If not, Step Two: invite witnesses, who have a history of being able to mend broken things, to help sort out the truth of what really happened. If this doesn't work go to Step 3: bring in more people to support the search for truth and reconciliation. If this does not work, move to Step Four: where the offender is seen as someone who needs missionary work in order to become a full member of the community once more.
The Teacher reminds the disciples that they are the mediators between earth and heaven. They are not to model their behaviour on those who exclude and alienate others. What we let go of and what we bind to ourselves is dictated by our allegiance to heaven. It is our spiritual identity which informs our actions. Heavens' agenda insists that the new humanity not only has the freedom and the strength to find new ways to make peace, but the power to make heaven come to earth. This happens when those who gather, in twos', or threes', tens or hundreds, gather
around more than what has hurt them. When we gather in the name of Jesus, He is with and for all who are gathered. He is in the heart of all, breaking down the walls that separate and restoring the flow of the Love which loves all that exists.
We all need to learn how to work through conflict. We all need the courage to do it. When we are struggling to find our lion heart, the temptation is to hand the problem over to the 'higher ups'. When we are in the wrong, we need to have the ability to listen to what other people are telling us about ourselves. To listen without becoming overly defensive or overly protective of our need to be right all the time. Honest self-examination is worth much more than we know. Listening attentively protects us from rigid self-defence and from flippant apologies that
For Saint Matthew, reconciliation is a spiritual activity. Left to ourselves, hurt spirals beyond our control. But when we ask Jesus, in the power of the Spirit for help, we are creating a new art form. Human skill is woven by the spirit into a new tapestry.
It looks like the suffering and death of Jesus will be the work of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Still, Jesus must go, must suffer, must be killed and must be raised from death. All Peter can hear is the first bit, so he takes Jesus aside to talk some sense into him. He wants God to forbid the suffering and death of Jesus. The Lord turns. The rock on which the New Humanity is to be built now looks like a stumbling block. Jesus speaks to Peter, taking back the role of leader that Peter has just stolen. Peter must submit. He must set aside ordinary thinking and reach for higher ground. To do this, Peter will have to deny himself and his desire to avoid suffering and loss at any cost. He must make space in his panic for what he cannot hear - Resurrection. Disciples are to take up the cross gladly. If they do this, it will be a path of transformation for others and the doorway to resurrection for themselves.
Jesus hopes they will have the wisdom to see that when they are following Him, what looks like loss is really gain. Nothing the world has to offer can come close to the Kingdom of Heaven. They cannot be traded. And, at the end of time, the Son of God will come and repay everyone in accordance with how they have responded to His offer of a new humanity. The whole scene - the Father's Glory, the Son of Man, the Angels, the gathering of all time and space - is an invitation to see how our small contribution has been well received. The end of history judges all history and the end of history belongs only to the Son of Man and the new humanity who follow Him.
It is a sad fact of life that those who stand up get knocked down. A police officer reports corruption in his team and is shunned for the rest of his working life. A woman reports accounting 'inaccuracies' in her office. She is thanked and made redundant a few weeks later. Criticism and cover up go hand in hand. And Jesus was a fierce critic of the hypocrisy of many so called religious leaders. They were taken up with their own importance, loving the trappings of their status rather than its substance. They loved money, elaborate robes, seats at the top table, ego massages in the town centre and being called teachers. They polished the outside of the cup. They kept people from the knowledge that would help them. They laid burdens on others and enjoyed watching them stumble and fall. Jesus saw the organisational abuse and he named it. When He did this he was not naive. He knows that those who have power over others, destroy those who question them.
Anyone who takes a stand knows that there will be reprisals. So why do people continue to criticise this kind of wrong doing? Some say, 'I just couldn't let it go on.' Others say, 'I couldn't live with myself if I kept quiet any longer.' But whatever the reason for the critique, it is because the right thing means so much for them. And in the Gospel, the deeper life of God depends on the voice of prophets. Every time the 'Cross' is taken up, a double revelation unfolds. God's Love is easier to see, as is the resistance of those who stand against it. The Cross is the symbol of the stand-off between divine Love and Human sin.
And Jesus must take you and me aside to explain to us why this is necessary. Given who God is and who we are, it cannot be any other way. And as Jesus talks to us about the need to take up our cross and follow Him, He must keep saying the word we cannot hear - the word that was lost in the sound of our hearts pounding and our feet running from suffering and death. The sacred word. The most sacred word of all. Resurrection.
The questions are important, and so is the place where they are asked. When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, 'Who do people say that the Son of Man is'. (Matthew: 16,30)
Caesarea Philippi is a mess! Everything that could happen to violate love or the human person would happen here. Why would Our Blessed Lord choose this setting to ask his Question or to use the title Son of Man, and to lay the keystone for his Church?
Of course, there was then, and is now mindless speculation about Him. Yet, He is absolutely clear that He is here for everyone and that He wants his Church to be born in and stay close to the darkest settings. Heaven and earth are aligned on the Rock of Peters Confession. Even if the gates of Hell are opened and all negative fury is hurled at this new community it will not prevail. Why? Because the Church has a set of keys to the kingdom of Heaven. This ability to keep the gates open will make the darkness ineffective.
We've all heard the jokes about St Peter working as a full time security officer at the gates of heaven. But seriously folks, the gates for which he has the keys are the gates of human consciousness. And this new power and new awareness will support the disciple to meet the horrors of the world head on.
The Disciples mandate is to engage with all situations that uphold the sanctity of life and to disengage from those which bring death. For this work, The Lord has given us insight and gifts beyond our imagination.
We take time to ponder these things and to figure out how best to bring them to bear of the brokenness of the world. We work to bring integrity to our faith and how we live in the world. Then we put flesh on the wider ideas of love, compassion and mercy.
CATHOLIC PARISH OF ST JOSEPH & ST MARGARET CLITHEROW
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871
St Joseph’s Church. 39 Braccan Walk, Bracknell, Berkshire, RG12 1HA (Directions)
Tel: 01344 425729
South Berkshire Pastoral Area
The parish is part of the Diocese of Portsmouth.
Portsmouth Roman Catholic Diocesan Trust registered charity 246871