Our readings this morning all have something of a paradoxical quality to them. Both the Scriptures, and the Christian concept of God, are rooted in paradox. The ability to hold two contradictory views should be impossible and yet it is not. There is a good reason for this: God is a mystery, knowable, yet hidden; understandable, yet beyond our grasp. It can be a struggle to understand these paradoxes. Whilst this struggle is part of the process of coming to know God, we also have accept the fact that our mental efforts can never be enough, we simply have to experience the mystery.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims the Divine message to bring Israel back to God:
“Seek the Lord while he may be found;
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;” (Isa 55:6-7)
The message is clear and simple. There is a right way to live and a wrong way. The prophets exist to proclaim God’s message, to call people back:
let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isa 55:7)
God longs to treat humanity with compassion, and to forgive our human failings. God is a God of love and mercy, both in the Old Testament and in the New. There is a consistent message of how God creates everything, sees that it is good, and loves what He has made. God is generous and loving because that is who God is. God cannot be otherwise.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord (Isa 55:8)
If God were to think in a human way then all we could expect would be punishment for having sinned and fallen short of what is expected of us. However, God is a God of justice and mercy, and so we can put our hope in His love to heal and restore us. God is generous and loving, to an extent that we, as humans, cannot even imagine:
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isa 55:9)
We are able to experience the mystery of God’s love through the Church and her Sacraments, which are effective signs of grace that manifest God’s generous love in the world. This is just a part of the mystery of God’s love for us which we can never fully comprehend, this side of heaven.
In our second reading this morning, St Paul is writing to the first Christian community he founded in Europe. He is under house arrest in Rome, facing a trial and execution. It is a joyful letter, arguably his most joyful letter, despite being written as Paul faces martyrdom. This year many people around the world have had to face imminent death because of the virus which currently grips our planet. As a society we have become more afraid of death and dying and the subject of our own end is something many of us would prefer not to think about. For Paul,
to live is Christ, and to die is gain (Phil 1:21)
Paul is saying that if he lives, he will live in Christ, and he will proclaim the truth of the Gospel with his words and with his deeds. Paul believes that if he dies it is gain, because his death will bear witness to Christ, having shared in Christ’s suffering and death. Paul has hope in the resurrection to eternal life in Christ. In writing to the Church in Philippi Paul is able to be with them despite being 800 miles away. He wants to be encouraged by the fact that the Philippian Christians are living out their faith, and putting it into practice in their lives. At the same time, Paul is keen to share his hope, and, at the climax of his letter, states:
But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil 3:20-21)
As Christians, we can be encouraged by the knowledge that Heaven is our true home. We can have this hope through the mercy and love of God. This is not something that we can deserve or earn, rather it is a manifestation of God’s generous love.
In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus continues His teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven with the Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard. God’s Kingdom is a place where human values are turned on their head:
So the last will be first, and the first last. (Mt 20:16)
This is why the first labourers to be paid are those who have only worked for just one hour. By the time the labourers who have worked the full twelve hours come to be paid they expect to be given more, although they agreed on the standard wage for their day’s labour. The parable is fundamentally about salvation. Salvation is a gift from God and not a reward for work done by humanity. We cannot earn it, we have to receive it from a loving and generous God. Likewise there are no grades of salvation and there are no classes of Christian, we are all one. Jesus’ Jewish audience believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people, and this could lead to the perception of Gentiles and converts as something lesser. But such a view is opposed to the values of the Kingdom of God where all are equal.
This equality is a radical statement by Jesus. It is a clear declaration that God’s grace is abundant and inexhaustible, and freely offered to all who accept it. 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. Though I serve God and His people as a priest, I was not chosen for this role by having been a better Christian in the first place. Clergy are not superior Christians, all the baptized are equal in the sight of God. This morning’s gospel reminds us of the important truth that salvation is the free gift of God, which we receive in our Baptism and is strengthened through the Sacraments of the Church. We cannot earn our way to heaven!
We often forget that heaven is full of sinners, who are loved by God and who love God, and trust in His mercy and His forgiveness. The more we experience and understand the overwhelming love and generosity of God, the more marvellous it becomes. To repeat the prophet Isaiah, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways are not our ways.
As Christians we need to respond to God’s generous love and if we are to be truly thankful then our thankfulness should affect who we are and how we live our daily lives. We need to live as people who are loved and forgiven, and who, in turn, show love and forgiveness to those around us. This is difficult for us to do on our own, but thankfully we live in a community called the Church where we give and receive forgiveness. Here we are fed by Word and Sacrament, so that we can strengthen and encourage one another, through prayer and acts of charity, to live the truth of the gospel in our lives. So that we, and all creation, may be free to sing the praise of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed, as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever. Amen.