25th Sunday of Year A: Mt 20:1-16

The First shall be last and the Last first

A CHILD stands in front of their mother with a strange look upon their face. ‘But mummy’ they cry, ‘I want to eat my Pudding first.’ The child’s mother explains how it is necessary that they eat their dinner first. The child remains unconvinced, though as they become aware that they’re not going to have their own way, all they can say is ‘It’s not fair.’ At one level, almost all of us would prefer Sponge and Custard to Brussels Sprouts. It is simply more fun to eat. At a deeper level we are all concerned by matters of fairness. Our God gives us a vision of justice, where in the words of the Magnificat, he puts down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble and meek. The kingdom of God can truly turn this world around.

So, when we turn to this morning’s gospel, we see in the parable of the vineyard a vision of divine justice and generosity. At one level it looks deeply unfair that those who have worked all day should receive the same pay as those who’ve worked for only one hour. If this were simply a matter of business and employment practice, the way the workforce should probably go on strike.

Thankfully, this is a parable. It contains a deeper truth about God and his relation with humanity. In the kingdom of God, all are equal. It is as plain and simple as that. There is no such thing as a better class of Christian. God treats us all in the same way and fundamentally loves each and every one of us. I, though I serve God and his people as a priest was not chosen for being a better Christian in the first place, nor am I better than anyone of you. This morning’s gospel reminds us of the important truth that salvation is the free gift of God, which we receive and baptism and is strengthened through the sacraments of the church. We cannot earn our way to heaven – it isn’t that simple. And we should always remember that heaven is full of sinners, whom God loves and who love God, and trust in his love his mercy and his forgiveness. The more we experience and understand the overwhelming love and generosity of God, the stranger it becomes. All we can do is to listen to what God says in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah, our God is rich in forgiveness his thoughts are not our thoughts and his ways are not our ways. And if the truth be told, it is a good thing that this is the case.

As Christians we need to respond to this generous love and if we are to be truly thankful then it should affect us who we are and how we live our lives. We need to live our lives like people who are loved and forgiven, and in turn show love and forgiveness to those around us. It’s difficult for us to do on our own, but thankfully we live in a community called the church where we receive forgiveness, where we can be fed by word and sacrament, where we can strengthen and encourage one another, through prayer and acts of charity, to live the truth of the gospel in our lives. If you’re looking for a model of how to live as a Christian, can I recommend the last six verses of the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles:

42And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. 43And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. 44And all who believed were together and had all things in common. 45And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. 46And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, 47praising God and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

And to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most just and right, all might, majesty, dominion and power, now and forever…

Trinity XIV, 24th of Yr A, Matthew 18:21-35

 

How do we live as a Church? How do we live out our faith in an authentic and attractive way? These are questions which trouble us in the Church, and so they should, for they lie at the heart of what it is to be a Christian, to follow Jesus. They help us to understand that how we live our lives affects how we proclaim the Good News, the saving truth of Jesus Christ, to the world and for the world.

It goes without saying that we, as human beings sin. We say and think and do things which estrange us from each other and from God. Recognising this is part of what one might like to term Spiritual Maturity. That is recognising that we miss the mark, and fall short of what God wants us to be. If this was the end of the matter then we could quite rightly wallow in a pit of misery and regret, out of which we could never climb by our own efforts.

Thankfully the solution can be found encapsulated in this morning’s Gospel: Peter asks Our Lord how many times he should forgive someone who sins against him – should it be seven? Jesus reply, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times’. Jesus is making reference to the establishment of the jubilee year in Leviticus 25:8 – ‘You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years.’ This jubilee of the Old Covenant is made real in Jesus – here is the forgiveness and the renewal for which Israel longs. It is radical, and powerful, and can transform us, and the world.

Jesus explains his message of forgiveness with the use of a parable. A dishonest servant owes a debt which he cannot pay, and begs for the chance to try. However, when faced with a debtor of his own, he fails to exhibit any of the mercy and kindness which has been shown to him. For this he is rightly and justly punished. This parable reminds us that as we beg God to forgive our sins, we also need to forgive the sins of others.

It really is that simple. This is why when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray he says, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’. As Christians this is how we pray. However, these cannot simply be words that we say with our lips, they also need to be actions in our lives. We need to live out the forgiveness which we have received. Thus, the Kingdom of God is a place where God’s healing love can be poured out upon the world – to restore our human nature, to heal our wounds, and to build us up in love, for our own sake, and for the sake of the Kingdom.

We see this forgiveness in Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Here are people learning not to judge others, learning to live as people of love, freed from all that hinders our common life together. If we consider for a second the fact that for the first three centuries of their existence Christians were persecuted for their faith. They were sentenced to death for preferring Christ to the ways of the world. And yet they were not angry. Instead they lived out the love and the forgiveness which they had received. It was this powerful witness which brought others to believe and follow Christ.

We have to follow the example of the early Christians and try to live authentic lives together. This means forgiving each other, and living in love, by putting aside petty rivalries, squabbles, slights, and all the little everyday annoyances. For how can we ask God for forgiveness if we are not be ready, willing, and able to show the same forgiveness to our brothers and sisters? We would be hypocrites: more to be pitied than blamed for failing to grasp the fact the heart of the Gospel is love, and forgiveness.

That is why we celebrate the Cross of Christ – the simple fact that for love of us Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon himself, and suffered and died for us. He showed us that there was no length to which God would not go to demonstrate once and for all what love and forgiveness truly mean. It is our only hope, the one thing that can save us from ourselves, and from that which divides, wounds, and separates us from each other and from God.

It may seem utterly incredible that the Gospel promises unlimited forgiveness to the penitent, but how can we learn to forgive others without first coming to terms with the fact that we are forgiven? The slate is wiped clean, but this does not mean we can sit back and say ‘I’m alright Jack’. We cannot be complacent, but instead we should humbly acknowledge that we rely upon God for everything.

Sin matters. It matters so much that Christ died for it. He rose again, to show us that as the Church we are to have new life in Him. The Kingdom is here, now, amongst us. It is up to us to live it, as a community of truth and reconciliation. We need to show that same costly love which our Lord exhibits upon the Cross, and proclaim that same truth to our world, and pray that it may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to who whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory. 

Anthony of Sourozh, Creative Prayer, 2004, p.72

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The 23rd Sunday of Yr A: Ezek 33:7-11, Rom 13:8-14, Mt 18:15-20

The Church is hardly out of the media these days for one reason or another. Numbers in the pews are dropping off the cliff and, depending on your point of view, the Church is either too closely aligned with the views of the world, or too much at odds with them. Regardless of where you stand it is fair to say that the church is afraid. Are we actually afraid of the truth of the Gospel? Have we forgotten that Christ comes to set his people free? And yet this freedom is not absolute, it is a limited freedom. The church has always stated that certain behaviours or actions are not in keeping with the Christian way of life. The church has proclaimed certain moral truths: that life is sacred from conception to a natural death, that the only proper place for sexual activity is between a man and woman who are married to each other, based on Holy Scripture as the revelation of God’s will to promote human flourishing. As an ordered society it has the right to discipline its members, for their own good, and the good of their souls, to regulate their behaviour so that it conforms with wth Scripture and ultimately the will of God.

It is not popular to stand up and do this. It never has been, nor will it ever be popular to bear witness to the truth. The prophet Ezekiel has a difficult task: to call the wicked to repent from their evil ways, or to be responsible for them. Through the prophet God calls his people back to Him. Though they are wayward they are given a chance to repent, to return to the ways of human flourishing. Sin can separate us from God and each other, it is divisive, it wounds, whereas the kingdom of God is a place of healing. As Christians we believe that Our Lord and Saviour died upon the Cross bearing the weight of our transgressions: He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who once and for all deals with the problem – human sinfulness and its effects upon us and the world. Under the New Covenant St Paul can repeat the same message. Earlier, at the start of Chapter 12 he has reminded the Roman Christians  ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,’ (Rom 12:2). He has criticised where they have gone wrong in the past and is looking to a future where they can put such immorality behind them. He is insistent: ‘Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armour of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarrelling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’ (Rom 13:11-14) . For the Church after Pentecost we await Our Lord’s Second Coming as Judge of All. While He is merciful, for those who reject Him there remains the possible of Hell for eternity.

It is why at the beginning of his public ministry Christ proclaims the same message as John the Baptist: ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’. To repent is to turn away from sin, to turn towards God, to be healed and restored by him. It is why our acts of worship as Christians often start with the recognition that we have fallen short; that we need constantly to turn to God, and ask for forgiveness, for the strength to live the kind of lives which lead to human flourishing. It affects each and every one of us, you and me, and we need help – we simply cannot manage on our own, we’re not strong enough. One can and should point out where someone is going wrong, but unless there is a conscious recognition of having fallen short, it is as though the grace of God can be resisted. Such stubbornness is part of the human condition, and it is why for two thousand years the Church has proclaimed the Love and Forgiveness of God, and its message can always be lived out better in our lives. The Church exists to continue to call people to repentance, to carry on the healing and reconciling work of Jesus, here and now. It is offered freely, and may be rejected – God is after all not a tyrant who forces us.

We can recognise the problem and its effects but also be assured of a solution in the person of Jesus Christ, whose forgiveness is for all, who gives us baptism so that we might have new life in Him, and gives himself under the outward forms of bread and wine, so that we might feed on His Body and Blood to be healed and restored by Him.

This is neither cosy nor comfortable. But  it is rather a radical transformative message, one which has the potential to change not just us, and who and what we are, but the entire world. This is the Good News of the Kingdom.  Here in the Eucharist we are soon to be in the presence of the God who loves us, and who saves us, who heals and restores us. We have a foretaste of heaven; we can come far closer to God than Moses did on Mt Sinai. We have the medicine for which our souls cry out. So let us come to Him and let His Grace transform our lives.

At the end of this morning’s Gospel we see a promise made by Jesus firstly that prayer will be answered and of his presence among us. Part of repentance, the turning away from the ways of the world, is the turning towards God in prayer, listening to Him, being open to his transforming love in our lives, so that God’s grace can perfect our human nature, and prepare us for heaven here and now – so let us live the life of the Kingdom, having turned away from all that separates us from God and each other, with tears of repentance and a resolve not to sin, and with tears of joy that God gives himself to suffer and die for love us. We cannot be lukewarm about this: for it is either of no importance or interest to us whatsoever, or the most wonderful news which should affect who we are and what we do.

There can be no complacency, no simply going through the motions, turning up to be seen, to provide a veneer of social respectability. It is a matter of life and death, whose repercussions are eternal. We have a choice to make. Do you wish to follow the ways of the world, the ways of sin and death? Or would you heed the warning?

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Some words of S. Teresa of Calcutta

  • Love to pray, since prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself. Ask and seek and your heart will grow big enough to receive him as your own.
  • Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.
  • Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
  • Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.
  • The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.
  • At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’
  • Live simply so others may simply live.
  • Humility is the mother of all virtues; purity, charity and obedience. It is in being humble that our love becomes real, devoted and ardent. If you are humble nothing will touch you, neither praise nor disgrace, because you know what you are. If you are blamed you will not be discouraged. If they call you a saint you will not put yourself on a pedestal.
  • We know only too well that what we are doing is nothing more than a drop in the ocean. But if the drop were not there, the ocean would be missing something.
  • I must be willing to give whatever it takes to do good to others. This requires that I be willing to give until it hurts. Otherwise, there is no true love in me, and I bring injustice, not peace, to those around me.

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