Many of us are drawn by nature. We photograph sunsets and landscapes. We walk through gardens and sit on park benches. We are awed by bushfires and crashing storm waves while others chase wild storms and crazy weather patterns.
For many people, the wonder, beauty and power of creation points to the power and presence of God. Often, as we ponder these things in the presence of God, we gain insight by paying attention to the seasons and ways of nature, if not consciously then intuitively, and we are shaped by its wisdom.
Our Judeo-Christian tradition has tried to capture such wisdom in the poetry and prose of scripture. Some have had a lasting impact such as the commandments in Exodus – which were themselves received by the people of God, as they traversed the wilderness – or the teachings of Jesus such as the parable in today’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-46).
The Pharisees were threatened by the call to change and see God at work in a new way through Jesus. Sadly they were like the tenants in the vineyard destroying anyone who pointed to the errors in their faith and thinking and, finally, killing the Son of God who came to draw them, and all of creation, back into relationship with God. In our day as we seek to find ever new expressions for our faith, how do you find the wise ways of the Holy One woven into the stuff of this earth?
What a world this would be if we all people were able to find the grace to live out the parable of the labourers in the vineyard? Once again Jesus trips us up with a parable that first makes us laugh and think, ‘That’s Jesus for you’. Then comes the sting in the tail, for we know only too well just how challenging this story is on so many levels. What does it have to say about the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers in our hostile and selfish world? How does it challenge us when we look at the wealth of others or the
neediness of the poor? What does it mean for us as we live in a world where we laud the rights of people to demand more and more and hoard wealth? Jesus offers what we all know to be true, that every person has the right to share in the means of life; that everyone has the right to live in peace and everyone’s health is all our responsibility.
The reading from Matthew 18 contains two very hard thoughts. The first is to be able to forgive ‘seventy times seven’. That is virtually saying, always forgive! At the end of the passage, we read that if we do not forgive God will hand us over to be tortured! Could this be true? Read Matthew 18:34-35. What are you thinking Jesus? Certainly you can’t mean to apply that to me? Does forgiving other really matter that much to God? In their wonderful book, The Book of Forgiving, Desmond and Mpho Tutu write, ‘We would like to share with you two simple truths: There is nothing that cannot be forgiven There is no one undeserving of forgiveness. It is a challenging word, but then so if the Gospel.
How strange we Christians sometimes are. In our heads we know that Christ is all on about love, forgiveness and grace. He lived in a time of immense oppression, so when he demands these values of his followers, it must have seemed almost unreasonable, but they are the values he lived by and the values he invites in us.
We know this – at least in our heads, but then in our hearts, well that can be a different matter. How often have we seen the pattern of reproof offered in Matthew 18 go off the rails? It goes wrong every time we use it to prove a point or to get our own way. There is a lot of power in these words, so much so that Jesus indicates that we have the power to impact on eternal matters. This pattern of reproving only works if two conditions are met. The first one is if it is based on unconditional, gracious love. The second is if we absolutely want to see reconciliation achieved. If there are any other underlying agenda, then it all just goes awry.
The past few decades have been predominantly about the deconstruction of the faith in western Christianity. Many voices have contributed, calling to question the place of the Church in society or the truth of biblical teaching; or the moral and ethical principles that were once taken for granted.
Truly, every generation has to find its own truth. As culture changes and the demands of life vary, each aged find the truth that will sustain it. For St Paul, one of his concerns was to help new Christians know how to act and what to believe. Most of the Pauline letters are either correctives to those who were falling away, or encouragement to new communities of faith struggling to find their way.
Sometimes people are quick to judge Paul because they find him too critical and harsh, but it is important to remember that the pinnacle of all behaviour for Paul is the way of love. ‘Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, love what is good; outdone another with mutual affection’.
Amen to that!