Pentecost 20

If you’re anything like me, you’ve absorbed much of the total catalog of rock ‘n’ roll without thinking too hard about what the lyrics mean to say. For example, I’ve heard the Beatles sing Taxman at least 1000 times since I was young and heard my brother playing it in his room. I thought the subject matter of the lyrics was obvious, but I also thought that George Harrison, who wrote and sang Taxman, was exaggerating: Harrison opens with

“Let me tell you how it will be
There’s one for you, nineteen for me
‘Cause I’m the taxman, yeah, I’m the taxman”

Keeping 5% of one’s earnings sounded like a metaphor or something to me, until I learned that as “their earnings placed them in the top tax bracket in the United Kingdom, the Beatles were liable to a 95% supertax introduced by Harold Wilson’s Labour government.”1

No one liked Wilson’s supertax except Wilson, and taxes have never been particularly popular; people have always spent a lot of time and, strangely, money, trying to get around paying taxes. The Jews of Roman Palestine were no different, and the Pharisees actually claimed it was a sin to pay taxes to Caesar, because it amounted to paying tribute to a man who claimed to be a god. Even worse, the Pharisees weren’t even allowed to carry or use Roman coins, as they bore images of Caesar, and so they would, in effect, be carrying around a graven image of a false god.

All of this contributed to the already tense relationship the Israelites had with the Romans, but the Pharisees and their frienemies the Herodians were not above using the Romans to their own advantage. You see, they wanted to get rid of this Jesus fellow who was causing them so much trouble, and so they sought to trap Jesus, to get Him down on record saying that faithful Jews should not pay taxes to Rome, and then have cause to hand Jesus over to the Romans as a captured criminal. And so our scene today.

“At first the questioners flattered Jesus by praising his integrity, impartiality, and devotion to truth. Then they asked him whether or not it is right for Jews to pay the taxes demanded by Caesar. Jesus first called them hypocrites, and then asked one of them to produce a Roman coin that would be suitable for paying Caesar’s tax. One of them showed him a Roman coin, and he asked them whose head and inscription were on it. They answered, “Caesar’s,” and he responded: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s”. The questioners were impressed. Matthew 22:22 states that they “marveled”, and being satisfied with the answer, they went away.”2

We too marvel at Jesus’ answer, though we probably don’t understand what He meant any more than the Pharisees and the Herodians. It might sound on the surface like we are to divvy up our assets and income: 3 for me, 1 for taxes, and what little is left goes to God. Too often that’s how real life ends up; what divvying up our time, talent, and treasure looks like.

But that wasn’t Jesus’ point; we know this by His use of the concept of ‘image’. Jesus asked His questioners who’s image it was on the coin, and the answer was obvious: it was Caesar, the image of the Empire. Then Jesus dropped the rhetorical bomb: give to Caesar what is in Caesar’s image, and give to God what is in His image: us. Every good Jew and every good Christian knows that we are made in the image of God, and so Jesus tells us here that we are to give back to God what God has given us: money, sure, because money allows us to do what we’re doing now and to reach the lost and the hurting, but to give also of our time and talents, to use the gifts of God to the glory of God, and for the relief of those made in His image.

On top of being Pumpkin Spice season, it’s also Stewardship season, the time when ask ourselves to pledge of our time, talent, and treasure, when we ask ourselves what it’s worth to us to have this place to gather into, what it’s worth to us to able to do so much good in our community. Jesus reminds us today that our worldly obligations are real and not to overlook them: bills and taxes are real things. And He reminds us that we are wonderfully and fearfully made in God’s image, and to consider well how we bear that image into the world.  What would your life look like if you remembered that all the time?

1Taxman, Wikipedia.

2Render unto Caesar, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Render_unto_Caesar

 

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Pentecost 19

Occasionally I’ll use the pulpit to advocate an almost indefensible opinion on food or admit that I dislike something in popular culture that everyone else seems to love. I thought I’d get a lot of flack for admitting that I hate the Wizard of Oz, but it turned out that an awful lot of you hate the Wizard of Oz. Today’s admission is that I hated the uber-popular show Friends. I hated Friends for the reason that anyone that hated Friends hated it: it’s the least realistic depiction of living in New York ever created. Outside of never being able to afford the lifestyle they were pictured having, they would do things like order one pizza for three people. On the way out after Mass you can tell me your opinion on Friends.

Nowadays, thirteen years after Friends blessedly went off the air, the sign of true friendship is that when you walk into someone’s house your phone connects to their wifi automatically. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts of God, but it’s not always easy; friendships can be complicated and heartbreaking as much as they can be easy and life-giving.

“In a seminar on Matthew’s gospel, Tom Long pointed out that in Matthew, it’s never a good thing to be addressed as “friend.” Every time someone is called a friend in Matthew, what follows is not pleasant! Jesus himself was referred to as a “friend” by the religious authorities in Matthew 11 but it was no compliment: they accused Jesus of being “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” In the previous chapter from last week’s lection, the master of the vineyard overhears the grumbling and grousing of the 12-hour workers over being paid the same as the 1-hour folks. “I am not being unfair to you, friend” the master says. But there is an edge to that—the grumblers were no friends of the owner! Later in Matthew we find the single most poignant such instance when, having been kissed by the traitor Judas, Jesus asks him, “Friend, what have you come for?”

“But a close second to that final devastating use of “friend” may well be here in Matthew 22 when a hapless wedding guest is addressed as “Friend” right before being most definitively thrown out on his ear!”1 Thankfully, I don’t think Stephen picked “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” as a hymn for the 10am Mass.

“In today’s story, a king is arranging a wedding banquet for his son. In any society, commoners will not likely be invited. Royalty associate almost exclusively with royalty or at least with VIPs. Among the king’s invited guests are a landowner and a business person, definitely members of the elite class.

“For some reason the guests disapproved of the arrangements the king was making. They offer flimsy and insulting excuses, implying that tending the farm or the business is much more important than the wedding of the king’s son. Other invited guests challenge the king’s honor in a more direct fashion. They seize his slaves who bring the invitation, beat, and kill them. Clearly this action demands redress, and the king obliges. First, he sends troops to kill the murderers and burn their city. But then the king does something that breaks the rules. He invites non-elites to the wedding feast”2

So far, so good. But then that “friend” pops up without a wedding garment, a guest who didn’t bother to “dress to the occasion.” St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians that if we are baptized, then we are then “clothed with Christ”, clothed with the garments of faith, hope, and charity, dressed for the occasion of following God’s will for our lives.

As Jesus’ parable tells us, everyone, absolutely everyone, is invited to the everlasting feast that is the Kingdom of God. No one is excluded except by their own choice, by their refusal to accept God’s invitation to the party or their willful refusal to accept the garment Christ offers us.

In our divided world and divisive culture, we find more and more ways to destroy existing friendships and hamper the process of making new ones. We argue over flags or statues or what color something is on Facebook, and all the while the South is flooded, the West is burning, and no one is safe even at a country concert. I have no simple answer to the things that divide our world, but I do know that the fix starts here, in clothing ourselves in Christ, in regarding all through the lens of faith, hope, and love, and remembering that even if we don’t know someone, even if we know that person and don’t like anything about them, we can be friends, because God has invited us all to the same party.

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Pentecost 18

As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “In wine there is wisdom, in beer there is freedom, in water there is bacteria.” If old Ben was right about one of those things, it’s that in water, there was and is certainly bacteria. This is a problem both ancient and modern. What happens when you drink bad water? Most often, you get diarrhea – sorry for the reference but here’s the point – diarrhea kills 2,195 children every day. It’s the second leading cause of death for children under 5 worldwide.

And so what do you drink when you can’t drink the water? Well, if your lucky but poor, mead or beer; if you’re lucky but rich, wine; if your lucky and have nothing else to do, some manner of distilled spirits. If you’re unlucky, rich or poor, you drink the water.

The ancient Israelites drank a lot of beer and wine. The beer was weak, sort of like if Miller 64 had about half of the alcohol it has now, but it wasn’t full of bacteria and it contributed calories, amino acids, and other nutrients to a people who didn’t have the type of food abundance we have today. Unless you were truly well off, wine was used mostly in celebratory situations and in religious ritual, and wine was truly prized by the Israelites, they were rightfully proud of their high-quality wine.

Vineyards, then, were both materially and spiritually significant. God Himself spoke of Israel as His vineyard, a land that He cultivated and protected. The Israelites were His chosen vines, whose good fruit brought Him honor and showed the world His grace and power.

But what happens when those chosen vines begin to wither and their fruit fails? Well, both our lesson from Isaiah and the parable of the vineyard from Matthew tell that story. “In each story, the Lord of the vineyard gives good soil, choice vines, and ample protection for the vineyard. But then he does not receive the good fruit that the vineyard should have given him, either because the vineyard doesn’t produce good fruit or because the tenants won’t give the good fruit to him. There are penalties for this failure to give fruit to the Lord. The unfruitful vineyard is left to go to ruin. The tenants who won’t give the fruit to the Lord lose their lives and their vineyard, which is given to others.”1

Figuring this parable out is not so difficult. Jesus told this parable to the Pharisees while in the Temple in Jerusalem, the same temple in which just a day before He overturned the tables of the money changers. His authority to do such a thing was challenged, as you might expect, and so Jesus tells them this parable as a witness against the Pharisees, calling them wicked tenants, the type of people who couldn’t see a good things right in front of them – the type of people who deserve a good smiting.

It’s easy, when reading these parables, to lay the blame on others. Who amongst us would let something as precious as a vineyard go to ruin? Who amongst us would steal the grapes and kill the vineyard owner’s son? The simple answer is just about everybody.

We are all subject to the human propensity for self-destruction, for rejecting what is good and choosing the bad. I, for one, am very good at choosing the Chocodile over the banana, even knowing that I’m probably a Chocodile or two away from problems I could otherwise avoid. Then there’s that greener grass over there, the feeling that somehow, someway, life is better for everybody else than it is for you. Then there’s the disease of self-righteousness, the idea that I do everything right, I only art holy, and for that, I deserve some kind of special reward, a seat at every table.

The Church is the everlasting vineyard of God, and despite living in a vineyard, despite possessing the word of God, despite being His cherished vine, a whole lot of people end up just like the Pharisees: taking joy in nothing, lacking gratitude for the gifts God has laid down at their feet. And so comes self-destruction, actively or passively leaving the vineyard to ruin, the vines withering, the vineyard owner’s calls left unheard. That is the cost of rejecting God and those whom God sends to us, but God isn’t the type who just gives up on stuff. I saw a quote this week from St. Maria Goretti, who said, “(God) loves, He hopes, He waits. Our Lord prefers to wait Himself for the sinner for years rather than keep us waiting an instant.”

St. Maria’s thought was correct but incomplete. God also prods, pokes, calls, and visits us, first in His prophets and His saints, and supremely in sending His Son Jesus Christ, who cares enough for the vineyard and the vines to live and die as one of us. The vineyard has a loving and attentive owner, and so our question becomes What kind of tenants will we be?

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Pentecost 17

“Oooohhh, burn!” Every here a kid say that (or even one of my very mature friends)? Someone gets a nice one-liner in, a quick but harmless teasing insult, and if it’s funny enough, “Oooohhh, burn!” You got burned.

“What do you think,” Jesus asked the Pharisees. That’s our first clue that a giant burn is coming, that Jesus is going to very nicely but also very pointedly insult a group of people who thought they weren’t susceptible to such things.

What do you think, Jesus asks. A father has two sons. “When the father orders the one son to go to work, he replies, “Forget it, Pop! I’ve got plans, things to do, people to see. Pick your own grapes!” But then, sometime after his father walks away looking rather wounded, the young man’s conscience gets the better of him. So he changes out of his fancy going-to-town clothes, throws on his overalls, and heads out to the vineyard. Meanwhile the father has approached his other son and made the same request. “You got it, Dad! I’m on my way!” The father walks away from this exchange feeling good that at least one of his boys knows how to treat his old man with respect. But then, unbeknownst to the father, this boy high-tails it over to the mall to spend some time with his friends and so never does go into the vineyard. Which son would you rather have?” Jesus asks. “Who really did what his father wanted?””1

The real question Jesus asks the Pharisees is “Which son do you think you are?”, a giant burn, considering their status as the holiest of the holy. Modern day priests and pastors need this parable more than most; my colleagues and I are the obvious analog to the Pharisees, people who have been set aside by God to both say yes to our Father and to go into His fields, but who rarely get both of those things right at the same time. We join with the Pharisees in getting burned today.

But this parable isn’t meant as just a way for Jesus to push back against the religious authorities of His day and ours – this isn’t just Jesus making a joke. The Parable of the Two Sons is also Jesus’ way of giving hope and encouragement to those who may think they are beyond redemption, beyond the love and mercy of God.

It should be pointed out here that the Pharisees answered the question correctly: the first son is indeed the one who did the will of his father. But Jesus immediately said to Pharisees, “Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him.”

The Pharisees missed it – they missed that John the Baptist was sent by God, was a true religious authority, but who saw it? The tax collectors and the harlots, the lowly and the forgotten, the very people who the Pharisees wouldn’t even look at in the streets, they got it. They heard the words of God from John, they saw the Word of God in Jesus, and even though they had spent their lifetimes saying no to God, they acted as the first son, they repented and turned to the Lord.

One of the ways we’re taught to approach Scripture is to imagine yourself as one of the characters in the story. In today’s Gospel, we have the two sons, stand-ins for the Pharisees and the Unwashed. For my part, I can picture myself in both parts, as one who has said no and then eventually said yes, and having said yes, has at times, in my weakness, said no. The good news in today’s Gospel, though, is that whoever you identify with right off the bat, we all have the chance to end up on the right side of this story. We all have judged others when we ourselves have been found wanting. We have all felt as if we are so low, so far from holiness, that we are beyond saving.

Whichever part you feel like you have been playing, know that Jesus is after you: whether He gives you a sick burn or big hug, it’s because He loves you, and wants you to be in His Kingdom.

 

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Pentecost 16

As you might expect, people ask priests lots of questions about God, and I’m not an exception to this rule. The best questions come from kids, of course, who aren’t held back by any sense of decorum or the need to look smarter than they are. I usually don’t have decent answers to questions like “What color is God’s hat?” or “Does God watch us in the shower?” or if Jesus likes pizza. But I have found that pretty much every question I get asked could be boiled down to “What is God like?”

“What is God like?” The simple answer is that God is just like Jesus – Jesus being God, He is the best way we’ve ever gotten to know God. But people even asked Jesus what God is like, and because it’s difficult to explain what God is like even when you are God, Jesus told us parables.

In today’s parable, the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard, shows us that God is generous and just, but that He isn’t fair. He makes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust – He spreads out His blessings on those who deserve them and on those who very much do not. This offends our sense of justice, of course, but if justice is defined as getting what you deserve, how many of us would actually wish for that? And so, with that in mind, we look at the Parable of the Laborers.

In our parable, “the laborers who work all day receive the same wage as those who work just one hour, and so they complain. You can see their point… A person who works many hours deserves a bigger wage than a person who does the same work but for only one hour. Or so it seems.

“But think about how Jesus might have unpacked this parable if he had explained it to his disciples in the way he showed some of his other parables to them. Here’s one possibility. The (householder) is God. The laborers are human beings who are doing God’s work in this life. T he wage given is eternal life in union of love with God in heaven. If we think about the parable this way, the laborers’ complaint looks a lot less reasonable. When it comes to eternal life, what is justice? What does any human person deserve? What, actually, does God owe him?

Well, here is the first thing to see: No one—that is, absolutely no one—is owed eternal life in union with God. To think otherwise is to suppose that you can work your way to heaven. And you can’t. Salvation is God’s free gift. He gives it generously to anyone who will receive it, but it is still God’s free gift. The problem with the laborers who complain, then, is that they think the vineyard owner owes them something. In their eyes, their work deserves a reward, a really big reward, more than the vineyard owner gives them. And so here is what we can see about them: they were working for themselves, to get that big reward for themselves.”1

It’s as if we think that if we do all the work, our mansion in Heaven should be bigger than our neighbors, forgetting that when it comes to heavenly real estate, it’s all location, location, location. It’s not that I blame people for identifying as all-day workers or for looking askance at the 11th hour workers, because again, it doesn’t seem fair: how does, say, the death-bed convert get the same reward as the life-long Altar Guild mistress?

The answer is two-fold and found in this parable. First, because we’re humans and we’re needy and we’re always looking for more, we’re often blind to when we are actually getting more. The parable of the Laborers points out the true privilege of the all-day worker is to have known the householder all day. The true reward of a life-long Christian, then, is that we’ve had the honor and blessing of knowing God our whole lives, of working for Him from the start; we’ve never had to be without the love and mercy of God, never had to live without the hope found in Jesus. That’s the real reward.

Second, the parable shows us another small picture of what God is like: He might not be fair, as we see it, but He is just and good: He cares for all those who come to Him, no matter when they come. He sets all who come to Him to the work of the Kingdom, because that work is the earthly reward of the Christian. He gives of His riches without regard to the worthiness of the worker, because really, how worthy are any of us to receive the Kingdom of God?

What is God like? God is like a householder who just can’t help himself when giving good and generous wages to those who seek him out. Now that we’ve got that down, I’ll work on finding out if Jesus likes pizza.

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Pentecost 15

This is my favorite time of the year. Football is back, the Church School and Choir are back, the fall air is here so I’m not sweating up here, and I love fall activities like looking at the leaves and the such. But mostly, I like that we end up gathered back together as a church family after the heat and vacations and summer activities have concluded; relationships are made and resumed, bonds of Christian friendship restored. Today’s Gospel is all about that, really, if only we know the context in which Jesus speaks.

“First-century Mediterranean peasants understood sin, that is, interpersonal transgressions, after the fashion of debts. That is what Jesus taught his followers to ask of God: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). For Westerners accustomed to a money-driven economy, debts almost always translate into “money owed.”

“Since economics is our culture’s predominant institution, everything is viewed from an economic perspective. In drug arrests we hear not of people saved from potential addiction, but rather the dollar value of the drugs confiscated. In natural disasters we hear not so much of people’s misfortunes but rather the economic loss in terms of dollars.

“Not so our peasant ancestors, for theirs was not a money-based economy. Their lives were based on interpersonal relationships even in what we would recognize as “economic” transactions. In such a culture, the purpose of haggling is not economic but interpersonal. T hat the potential buyer will make a purchase is a foregone conclusion. The buyer haggles and the seller willingly goes along because both are building an interpersonal relationship called friendship (see Genesis 18:22-33; James 2:23). Friends will be faithful: the seller will always set and the buyer will always get a good price.

“But the king is sensitive to his honorable reputation. If he deals harshly with a servant of his own household, his subjects will judge him to be shameless, a man without honor. So the king decides to act in “mercy” and forgive the debt. He gains more honor by this decision than he would by insisting on receiving full payment of the debt.

“In behavior that is both shocking and sad, the forgiven slave turns toward a fellow slave in the same household and refuses to forgive a much smaller debt. He refuses to imitate the merciful behavior of the king-patron. If he gets away with this strategy, the king will become a laughing stock. To protect his honor, the king-patron has no choice but to put this brazen slave in his proper place: jail!”1

So that’s the context Jesus is talking about – an economy of personal relationships, and then how that economy fits into the economy of the Kingdom of God. That economy is, right on the face of it, an economy of forgiveness, of mercy, and perhaps most importantly, of reciprocal mercy. Forgive us our sin, O God, as we forgive those who sin against us. Treat others as you would be treated, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because our God is, while merciful, He is also just, and will treat us accordingly. It’s an economy that benefits us, even when we don’t realize it.

“In the church, in our families, in our hearts, we have all experienced the logic of unforgiveness. Even at the age of five, a child might be heard to mutter, “I’ll never talk to them again.” If the judgment hardens, it is only the heart of the judger that grows cold. The words, “I will never forgive you,” can shut tight the heart of the one who utters them, definitively deadened and alone.”2

And so when Peter came up and said to Jesus, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” And Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven,” this wasn’t a mathematical equation but an economic model. Jesus says forgive more times than you can count, because that’s what I’m willing to do.

This is my favorite time of year, when we gather back together, together for Mass and for ministry, and when we get to once again model for each other and for the world, what the mercy and love of God looks like.

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Pentecost 10

“In 1986 the level of the Sea of Galilee was extraordinarily low. Marine archaeologists discovered an ancient fishing boat in mud along its northwest shore, a little north of ancient Magdala (modern Migdal).

Basing themselves on the type of construction, the pottery found nearby, and the results of a carbon 14 test, the experts concluded that the boat was built between 40 B.C.E. and 70 C.E. It is very likely the kind of boat mentioned in today’s story, the one used by the Jonah-Zebedee fishing syndicate (see Lk 5:10), which included their sons Peter, Andrew, James, and John, and hired hands.

“The government regulated the fishing industry by selling fishing rights to tax collectors or publicans (brokers). These contracted with fishermen and frequently had to capitalize them. Since Matthew the toll collector had his office in Capernaum (Mt 9:1, 9:9), an important fishing center, it is likely that he brokered the government’s fishing rights to his fellow citizens.

“The boat found in the mud was 26 1/2 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide, and 4 1/2 feet deep. Originally it had a sail. There are places for four oarsmen and a tillerman. A boat this size could hold a crew of five plus ten passengers (Mt 14:22), or the crew plus cargo, for instance, a catch of fish in excess of one ton.”1

And so this wasn’t a tiny boat, exactly, but it wasn’t the type of vessel that would inspire confidence during a raging storm. And if we assume that the twelve disciples were in such a boat on the night described in today’s Gospel, then we have a full ship, taking water, fighting the wind and the waves at about three in the morning. It’s a harrowing scene, and anyone in that situation would know that things could go catastrophically wrong at any second.

But then comes the greater fear. A ghost! A ghost at night, on the water, in a storm. If that ghost was juggling chainsaws, it couldn’t have been any scarier. But wait, Jesus? Oh, it’s Jesus. Does that make this whole thing less scary or more scary?

The disciples were afraid, of course, but Peter, being Peter, decides to test the whole thing out. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says, come to me on the water, come on. Despite seeing Jesus, hearing Him, and then walking on water, Peter’s fear overcomes him; what Peter thinks is reality overrides his ability to trust Jesus, to put his whole faith, even his life, in Jesus’ care, and he sinks like a stone. Jesus doesn’t let Peter die for just having a human reaction, of course, and so He grabs Peter, they load themselves into the boat, and the storm just…goes…away.

“In life the wind is often contrary. There are times when we are up against it and life is a desperate struggle with ourselves, with our circumstances, with our temptations, with our sorrows, with our decisions.”2 Our boat seems to small, the load to heavy, our crew not up to the challenge.

It’s in those times that Jesus comes to us and bids us to come to Him. Sometimes the struggle is just to hear Jesus when the wind is too loud and the boat too creaky. Sometimes we hear Jesus, we trust Him, we walk toward Him, only to lose faith along the way.

We are not alone in all that, this story tells us. Even the twelve disciples were afraid, afraid even in the presence of Jesus. Peter too, even while in the midst of a miracle, lost faith, gave into the fear. But just as Jesus caught Peter, His hand is extended to us. Let today’s Gospel be a reminder that when the wind is contrary and the waves crest over us, Jesus is there, working miracles, calming our storm, telling us “Take heart, it’s me, have no fear.”

 

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