It is very important when reading the parables of Jesus not to always equate the master or king with God or Jesus. Sometimes there are similarities in the characters with the God but at other times the characters are entirely dissimilar to the God Jesus speaks of and reveals through his life. How we imagine God to be is very important for how we live our lives. It is very important for how we live in community as a congregation and how we relate to people who are not in our congregation. How do you imagine God? What do you think God is like? One interpretation of today’s parable could be that one of the characters totally mis-imagines God. He misunderstands the nature of God and the life God has given us.
In the parable of the talents a man goes away on a journey but first puts his servants in charge of his wealth. He gives five talents of gold to one slave, two to another and one talent to a third servant. At the price of gold today one talent could be worth almost five million Australian dollars. So, one would have got twenty five million dollars, another ten million dollars and the third five million dollars. These are incredible amounts of money. The master comes back after a long time and proceeds to settle his accounts with the servants. The servant with five talents, hands 10 talents back to the master, double what he received. The servant with two talents, hands four talents back to the master, double what he received. They are both commended as good and trustworthy and are further entrusted with charge of many things and enter the joy of the master. But the one who had been given one talent had been so afraid of losing his master’s money that he had hidden his talent in the ground. He gives it back to the master hoping that the master will be pleased to get what is his back safely, but the master has expected more. When no more is returned the master condemns the servant as wicked, lazy and worthless. The master orders the servant to be taken away and thrown into outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
The parable reveals more dissimilarities with the kingdom of God than similarities. It illuminates the great contrast there is between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this earth, or the ways of this earth. The master in the parable bears little or no resemblance to the way Jesus has been speaking about God or himself. What is given to the servants is given in regards to their ability. But in the Gospels what Jesus gives to people is given freely irrespective of ability and without expectation of return. Jesus doesn’t give money to his disciples, quite the opposite, he sends them out without money. Jesus gives eternal life. Jesus speaks about entering the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven, but this is not the reward for those who have done well or those who have lived a righteous holy life. The kingdom of heaven is opened to sinners, tax collectors, the undeserving, the outcast, the sick and the lame and the blind. The kingdom of heaven is opened to Samaritans, Romans, foreigners, gentiles. It is not a reward, it is an invitation to a journey, to a new life, to begin and enter now.
The servant imagines the master as a harsh man reaping where he does not sow and gathering where he does not scatter seed. Jesus is the opposite, Jesus sows and sows, scattering seeds of grace wastefully in the wind, to blow where they will and in response people come flocking to him. The similarity between the teaching of Jesus and the huge amounts of money the master gives is that the kingdom of heaven is priceless. Nothing is more wonderous, more valuable, more lavish than the eternal life Jesus freely gives. What the master says describes the unfairness of the world we live in: the rich getting richer and the poorer getting poorer, even from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The master orders that the ‘worthless’ slave be thrown into outer darkness, where there will be gnashing of teeth. This is not Jesus’ understanding of a loving God that he reveals in his teaching and ministry nor is it the way in the kingdom of heaven.
Perhaps the parable is telling us simply to be confident in God’s goodness, to not be afraid of God. God is generous and we are to be generous in love and grace, to use what has been entrusted to us, not to lock it away in fear for safe keeping. Perhaps the parable is encouraging us to do something great and incredible with what we have been given. To freely give as we have received.
What is given to us is good news for the world, wonderful news, life changing, life enabling news, far greater than any amount of gold or wealth. Will we keep on living the good news and being good news, or give it all up because we are afraid, because the world doesn’t seem to be getting any better? Shall we throw in the towel? Jesus has entrusted to us the secrets of the kingdom of heaven; secrets which look weak, insignificant and ineffectual against the might of empires and against the violence of this world and against the might of the dollar? But Jesus’ secrets bring abundant life.
At the beginning of time and at the end
you are God and I bless you.
At my birth and in my dying,
in the opening of the day and at its close,
in my waking and my sleeping
you are God and I bless you.
You are the first and the last,
the giver of every gift,
the presence without whom there would be
the life without whom there is no life.
Lead me to the heart of life’s treasure
that I may be a bearer of the gift.
Lead me to the heart of the present
that I may be a sharer of your eternal presence.
- from ‘Sounds of the Eternal’ by John Philip Newell
Photo; The Burren, County Clare, Republic of Ireland
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.' Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.' But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.' And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.' But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.' Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Please read the passage a couple of times. What words or phrases stand out in your mind? What questions do you have? Imagine you are in the story. Who do you relate to? Imagine waiting for the bridegroom to come and falling asleep then waking with a start when you hear the shout. Perhaps for a moment you don’t know where you are. You jump up to light your lamp. Are you one of the young women who has extra oil for your lamp or have you forgotten to bring some?
Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning. Give me oil in my lamp I pray. Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning. Keep me burning till the break of day. What is this oil that we sing about?
As Christians, when we speak of having oil in our lamp, I suggest that we are not speaking about something external to us, something we carry with us, but something within us. We have with us some oil for the journey. We have some oil so that the flame may light our way. We have a light so that we can see our way in the darkness of this world.
In the Bible oil is symbolic of a number of things. In this parable the oil could be symbolic of wisdom. One could say that the wise or prudent young women had oil, they had the wisdom, and the other young women did not have wisdom. All Jesus’ parables are about seeking this wisdom (the wisdom of the kingdom of heaven) in our lives and letting this wisdom be a light that shows us a way forward, a wisdom that enables us to discern our path through the darkness of life.
Theologian and liturgical writer, Aelred Rosser says: “Wisdom is that elusive attribute that enables us to see beyond the surface of things into their depths, to see as God sees, and therefore to see God.” With wisdom one is able to see beyond human thinking, to be able to see as God sees, to even see God. I wonder what he means by seeing God. Does he mean seeing God in all things, in all places? Does he mean having a heightened awareness of God’s presence all around us? Does he mean seeing God in a way that does not necessarily require physical sight? Does he mean that we see God where previously we did not recognise God? Perhaps we have been looking for God in certain places but with wisdom we begin to notice Go (or what we name as God) in unexpected places, in ordinary places as well as in extraordinary places, in good times as well as bad times.
Wisdom is seeing God. Wisdom enables the eyes of the heart to see, one could say wisdom is the eyes of the heart seeing. Wisdom does not mean that we know everything, but it enables us to see in this dark world, to negotiate the darkness, to go forward to meet our coming God.
Wisdom is different to knowledge. With knowledge one can know about something or know about someone. But wisdom is gained through relationship. In the Wisdom of Solomon 9 (A book between the Old and New Testaments) wisdom is presented as a person, a woman. In chapter 6:12,13 it says - Wisdom is radiant and unfading, and she is easily discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her. She hastens to make herself known to those who seek her.
The wise seek wisdom. Wisdom is not a thing, rather wisdom is a way of seeing which comes from being in relationship with the mystery we call God. We find our own wisdom. We can learn how to find wisdom from others but they cannot give us wisdom. Nor can we share our wisdom with others. Perhaps this is why in the parable the young women could not share their oil with the others. It was impossible. We have to get our own oil to light our way so that we can go to meet the bridegroom when he comes.
Prayer: (you may like to sing or read this hymn as a prayer a few times)
Immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days, almighty, victorious, your great name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light, nor wanting, nor wasting, but ruling in might; your justice like mountains high soaring above, your clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
You give life to all, Lord, to both great and small, in all life now living, the true life of all; we blossom and flourish as leaves on a tree, then wither: but ever unchanged you will be.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light, your angels adore you, all veiling their sight; of all your rich graces this grace, Lord, impart-- take the veil from our faces, the veil from our heart.
All praise we would render: reveal to our sight what hides you is only the splendour of light; and so let your glory, Almighty, impart, through Christ in the story, your Christ to the heart. Amen.
Photo: Lough Hyne, West Cork, Republic of Ireland
Not understanding yet loving
Please read the passage through a number of times. What words or phrases stick out for you? What puzzles you? What questions do you have? Imagine you were one of the Pharisees asking the question. Imagine hearing Jesus’ response and not being able to give him an answer.
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" Jesus said to him, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.' On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."
Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." Jesus said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, 'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"'? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions
There are two parts to the reading today. The first part we probably can understand but the second part sounds like a riddle.
As I see it the first has to do with love and the second with life. Religion is nothing without love and the law is nothing without love. Love fulfils the law, love fulfils religion. So often in religion it is not love that we pursue but truth. We define the truth as what is right as opposed to what is wrong. When we use truth as our benchmark there are always those who are included and those who are excluded. Jesus didn’t say, “This is the truth, and the way and the life.” Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” Rather than walking the path of truth with its boundaries and conditions, its rights and wrongs it seems that Jesus invites us to walk the path of love and to live our lives in relationship of love with God and with every other human being, and not just human beings but all beings, with all creation. When we love creation, people are blessed. God’s blessings flow.
The first part both Jesus and the Pharisees could agree on. Doing it was another matter. The second part the Pharisees had no answer for. Sometimes there are things we have no understanding about. We argue about them and declare what is right and what is wrong. We do this even in regard to God. We like to be the voice of God telling the world what to do and what not to do, what to believe and what not to believe. I remember when I had completed five years of theological study saying to others that after five years, I now know that there is a lot more to learn about God than when I started and that I feel like I know less about God now than I thought I did when I started. Barbara Brown Taylor in her book ‘An altar in the world’ says (about people who do not consider themselves religious) ‘The longer they stand before the holy of holies, the less adequate their formulations of faith seem to be.’
The question that the Pharisees could not answer seems to me to be suggesting that God is outside the limits of time. ‘If David thus calls him (the Messiah) Lord, how can he be his son?" Eckhart Tolle says, ‘Death is not the opposite of life. Life has no opposite. The opposite of death is birth. Life is eternal.’ Both birth and death are part of life. God is life, in God there is no death, all are alive. God is God of both the living and the dead. Life is eternal.
It seems to me that whether we know or do not know the right answer is not what is most important, it is what we do that is most important and that is to live lives of love. Again, Barbara Brown Taylor says, ‘Wisdom is not gained from knowing what is right. Wisdom is gained by practicing what is right and noticing what happens when that practice succeeds and when it fails. Wise people do not need to be certain what they believe before they act. They are free to act, trusting that the practice itself will teach them what they need to know.’ If we do not know how to love the only way we will learn is by practicing, by doing it. The first step in loving someone may be by simply listening to them.
Prayer: (Please find a place where you can sit and see something of God’s Creation. If unable to be outdoors or look outdoors perhaps focus your attention on an indoor plant or on a pet or on an insect buzzing or crawling around your room. You may have to listen for it or search carefully with your eyes. You could also listen for the singing and calling of birds from outside)
God beyond all knowledge and beyond all my understanding, I pause in your holy presence all around me and within me. Thank you for trees and plants, pets, insects and birds. They are just getting on with their lives. Thank you for my life and thank you for the people and creatures that you have given me to love. Teach me to love as I practice loving you and my neighbours. Thank you for your undying love and being safe in your eternal life. All praise to you God beyond all knowledge and beyond all my understanding. Amen.
photo: A special cat, Bandon, Republic of Ireland
(Please read the passage a number of times before reading the reflection. What is the passage saying to you? What strikes you in the story? Rest with it for a while.)
22:15 Then the Pharisees went and plotted to entrap him in what he said.
22:16 So they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, "Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and teach the way of God in accordance with truth, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality.
22:17 Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?"
22:18 But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, "Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites?
22:19 Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius.
22:20 Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?"
22:21 They answered, "The emperor's." Then he said to them, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's."
22:22 When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
A number of years ago I heard a woman tell a story of when she attended a very large gathering of Christians at the Acer Arena in Sydney. At one point in the gathering the lighting was dimmed and the music was slowed, and the volume lowered, and a hush came on the congregation. A pastor, lit by a single light on stage began his call for an offering by asking the people to take their credit cards out of their purses and wallets. He asked them to hold the credit cards up high and he urged them to give their credit cards to the Lord. The woman telling the story, was incensed by this. She did not see it as freely giving to the Lord, but as gross manipulation of the people in order for them to part with their money and give it to the organisers. The whole Acer arena was silent for a moment so, she jumped up from her seat and shouted aloud over and over again, “God does not want your credit cards, God wants you!” At that the security guards rushed to where the shouting was coming from but when they saw she was seated in a corporate box they did not arrest her.
One of the things I have learned about wisdom in the last seven months is the need to release all notions in our minds of separation between sacred and secular. There is no sacred life and there is no separate secular life. There is only one life, and we are to live it to the full. We tend to see Sunday as sacred and church buildings as sacred and what goes on there as sacred, but we see Monday and work, education, politics etc as secular. We tend to behave one way in church and another way in business or in school. Sometimes we use one to influence the other. Sometimes we use spirituality to manipulate a situation to get our way. Other times we will justify our decisions in the church by appealing to what we deem to be best business practice or because it benefits the majority.
Wisdom reminds us that there is only one life and to live it to the full.
Matthew lets us know at the outset of today’s Gospel reading that the intention of the Pharisees was to entrap Jesus in what he said. They had realised (Matthew 21:45-46) that when Jesus told his parables that he was speaking about them and so they wanted to arrest him. When we don’t like what someone is saying publicly about us, we will do all we can to silence them. All over the world political leaders wishing to hold on to power at all costs are silencing the media if they ask critical questions of their leadership or if they do not speak favourably about them.
When the armies of the Roman Empire conquered a country and made it part of the empire, the Romans would use the elite of that country, the king, the rulers and local government to manage the country on behalf of the empire. The Herodians were those who oversaw the country on behalf of the Romans in Palestine. It was their role to make sure that Palestine remained loyal to Caesar and the empire. The Pharisees sent some of their followers and brought the Herodians along with them so that they could trap Jesus with some questions about his position in regard to Caesar and the empire; and the Herodians would be there as witnesses. If Jesus said the wrong thing he could be arrested on the spot, removed immediately and executed. To be caught publicly saying anything that sounded like treason or disloyalty to the emperor would mean certain execution. The Pharisees could then say it was the Herodians acting on behalf of the empire who arrested and executed Jesus not them. So, their plan was not to catch him out on a religious matter but on a political matter.
They said to Jesus. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?" In reply Jesus said, “Show me the coin used for the tax." And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, "Whose head is this, and whose title?" They answered, "The emperor's." Jesus ends his reply by saying, "Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's." So, Jesus shows no disloyalty to the emperor by answering, “Give to the emperor what is the emperors and give to God what is God’s.
We know that the coin was the emperor’s and to be given to him but what things were to be given to God? When Jesus answers the question, Jesus answers with a wisdom that transcends the thinking and reason of this world. Jesus sees life not from within a dualist framework of sacred and secular, right and wrong, true or false or good and evil but from a heavenly perspective, a kingdom or realm of God perspective which sees beyond all earthly divisions and attempts to categorise and separate and manipulate and divide and conquer. The perspective of Jesus is a perspective of the unity of all things. All life is connected. All life is connected to the one source, to the divine. From this perspective there is no us and no them. There are no enemies for we are all part of the one, and connected to each other.
Rather than knowing for sure what is to be given to the emperor and what is to be given to God, rather than knowing for sure what is truth and what is not, perhaps Jesus invites us to step back from dividing life into different and separate categories and learn to stand within ‘a kingdom/realm of God’ perspective which just sees all life as connected. It sees all life as connected because God is life and God cannot be separated. There is one life, to be lived fully. Living a fully human life will never be lived by separating life into the sacred and the secular. There is only one life and you are living it now in this moment wherever you are and whatever you are doing, whether at church, or work, or school, or partying, or shopping or at bible study. God is all around you. God is in you. You are in God. We all are in God. All things are in God.
Prayer – Rather than using words at first, please sit somewhere you can observe nature: amongst flowers, plants or trees, where you can watch birds or insects living life. As you watch, allow some of what you have read to rest in your being, not arguing about it your mind, just letting it be. If words arise, form them into a prayer to God who is life and the giver of life and without whom there is no life.
Yesterday we celebrated the marriage of Pou and Api at Earlwood Uniting Church. It was great celebrating a happy occasion during this crisis Covid-19 pandemic time. However, because of the restrictions and strict rules to follow when holding a wedding in a building it meant that not all the guests who were invited to attend the wedding could fit in the church. There was plenty of room for all the guests at the Reception venue but not in the church where the actual ceremony was to take place. The church was restricted to 49 guests plus the couple, photographer, singer, pianist, two ushers and myself, the minister. My biggest fear was that we would have to turn people away from the church because we had reached the quota allowed. It could have been a case of many are invited but few are chosen.
I find this to be a troubling parable and hard to understand. Some Christians have used this parable to back up their theological view of Divine election or Divine selection: that God chooses those whom God will save; that God chooses some and not all for salvation. For some Christians this creates great fear and uncertainty. Some doubt their eternal salvation: Could I be invited and not yet chosen? Such theological dilemmas seem crazy to me now, but they also anger me. Why do we humans like to restrict the love and inclusiveness of God?
Parables are always full of extremes and exaggeration to disorientate us out of our self-righteous religious thinking and open us to a more compassionate view of humanity and God. But the parables are not just about changing our
theological thinking or how we think about God or think about the kingdom of God. Parables invite us into a life, kingdom life, kingdom living; to partake, to participate not just to know about. We can think we know exactly what this or any other parable or even what Christianity is about; and yet not live it. I can know lots about what exercises are best for the body but until I do them the knowledge remains in my head and my body remains unchanged. So, followers of Jesus are not just people who know their theology; they are people who engage, who practice, who live out their beliefs, who live in relation with God.
Who is the poor guy that gets tossed out for not having the right clothes? I guess one interpretation of the guest who was not dressed in wedding clothes is that he could be someone who knew the theology but didn’t live it or someone who had the wrong theology.
Remember that the parables show up what human life is like rather than life in the kingdom of God. What guests would refuse the invitation of the king and what king would invite people in off the streets? It is like a dream, a hallucination; but then we are suddenly awoken from the fantasy by someone being thrown out. It is like everyone has suddenly come to their senses and reality returns. Someone is found out, they thought they had been invited. They thought they were welcome but when the dream ends and reality returns that man is thrown out and back to where he belongs but worse, he is punished and then comes the harsh clanger at the end - “For many are called, but few are chosen."
This is the way of the world. The richest, the most powerful, the fastest, the most beautiful, everyone aspires, but few make it to the top. This is nothing like the kingdom of God. Does the parable remind you more of what happened to Jesus? Isn’t it like when everyone turned on him and not only threw him out but killed him, to be rid of him forever? He wasn’t wearing the clothes of this world. His presence challenged us. It annoyed us so we expelled him. Rather than many are called, but few are chosen perhaps Jesus’ parable turns this on its head and perhaps instead it may hint that all are called but few find their way to the kingdom.
Prayer: This week we celebrated a happy event, and we remember Pou and Api as they begin married life together. We also heard the sad news that Lina’s husband Danny died after a long illness and we remember Lina and Danny’s family.
God who meets us in every part and time of our life, in illness and good health, in birth, in marriage, in death, in times of great sadness and great joy, we thank you for all things and all times in which we encounter you and your love. We thank you for the people we meet on our journey and bless them with goodness and kindness. We offer words of forgiveness and healing from our hearts; that in some small way people may experience your kingdom here on earth and know that they are included. Amen.
Photo; Galway, Republic of Ireland
Matthew 20:1-16 - Please read the passage and then slowly read verse 15 seven times. Sit with it in your mind for a while. How are you reacting as you sit with it? Can you verbalise your thoughts in prayer?
‘Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?' (verse 15)
One of the most common reactions to reading this story known as’ the workers in the vineyard’ is that the owner was not acting fairly when he gave those had only worked one hour the same as those who had worked hard all day in the scorching sun.
In Jesus’ parables Jesus is not talking about how this world operates but how the kingdom of heaven operates, which is often the opposite to how we act in this world. In this world it may be fair and right and just to reward people according to their efforts and their abilities but in the kingdom of heaven the starting point does not begin with us and our abilities but with God. It begins with a glass full and a glass that continually overflows. We do not need to earn our reward for God has an abundance for everyone. God does not have to carefully count out each person’s share, there is more than enough for everyone. It begins with God (a generous God) and with God’s overflowing abundance of life and love. And our role is just to let that abundant life, that endless love, to flow through us out into all the world in a never ending stream; a well that never runs dry.
Have you ever wondered whether God could be too generous? Could God be unfairly generous? We like to think that God is fair and just, but can we cope with a God who is too generous, a God that we may regard as unfairly generous? Could we be envious of God’s generosity? If God is so incredibly generous what does that mean for us? If everyone’s relationship with God begins with abundance and generosity how does that effect how we live and approach life?
Those of us who distribute food from Coles through the Second Bite program love giving food away. It is such a great feeling. It doesn’t cost us anything but it is so good to save food from ending up in landfill and instead giving it away to everyone and anyone, many of whom then pass it on to others. In a world where everything has a cost it is a pleasure to be involved in something that costs nothing, to be able to freely give. Freely you have received, freely give (Matthew 10:8). There are times though we have to remind ourselves not to judge, not to make judgements about who deserves food and who doesn’t, but to freely give it as we have freely received it and … to mirror what God is like, what love is like and what true humanness is like (quote by Cynthia Bourgeault – The Wisdom Jesus’).
God, most generous and kind, we open our hearts to your abundant life and to your endless love; that as we live in this world our lives may mirror what you are like, what love is like and what true humanness is like, in the way that Jesus did. We thank you for your grace, your generosity and your abundant life. May we bless this world as you bless this world. Amen.
Photo: Sunday Markets, Wellington, Aotearoa
Please read the Scripture passage a few times before reading this reflection
Forgiveness from the Heart
As followers of Jesus we know that forgiveness is very important but perhaps we are not entirely sure why it is so important or why it is a central aspect of Jesus’ teaching. Forgiving others can be very difficult especially when we feel so hurt or so angry or so betrayed or so violated. It isn’t easy to get on with everyone especially with those in our closer relationships or with others in the church. The early church were challenged by forgiveness too.
In Matthew’s Gospel Peter poses the question to Jesus, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
Then Jesus tells the parable known as the unforgiving servant. This is a strange parable. There are two points to note before going deeper into exploring what it means to forgive from the heart.
Firstly, the numbers used in Peter’s question and Jesus’ answer do not refer to the amount of times one should forgive. Some theologians think that the Rabbis in Jesus’ day taught that one only had to forgive a person three times– three times and that’s it, shake the dust off your feet on them, forget them, have nothing to do with them. However, the teaching of the day was not about how many times one ought to forgive, rather the teaching said that if one repented one need only to ask to be forgiven up to three times for a particular offence. One should not have to ask a fourth time.
How quick we are to put limits on our expectations of others and not just how many times we should forgive others. For example we say to our children, “I am going to count to three and when I get to three I want you to pick up your toys or clothes off the floor if not … (then we follow with a proposed punishment as a consequence). We then very slowly count to three and usually the children do what is asked. If they don’t act, the consequence follows. How often do we say in our minds, “I will give him/her three chances and if there is no change I won’t bother with them any more. This thinking is part of our lives, its part of our unconscious thinking. It is like we have been trained into it. It may work on little children but not when trying to maintain loving personal relationships or church community relationships. Imagine if we applied that rule to our friendships or even in our churches.
The number seven in the Bible is linked with completeness and perfection. When Peter asked if he should forgive seven times perhaps he was asking when is enough, when is righteousness fulfilled? 70 times seven is not 490 times rather it stands for absolute perfection. Is it possible to be in that place of perfection? What does that mean?
The second point I want to make is about parables. The parables of Jesus were never straight forward. They were never clear explanations of truth. Parables contained riddles, exaggeration and paradox. The greatest paradox in this parable is the portrayal of a human king as one who shows incredible mercy and forgiveness and the portrayal of God as one who will torture and endlessly punish those who do not forgive from the heart. When we come to the end of this parable we could easily deduce that this is how God will treat us too if we do not forgive. However, a key word to remember here is the word ‘heart’ (more about that later).
The parable begins with a human being, a king, who demands that his servants settle all their outstanding accounts with him. When one of his debtors is unable to pay, the king orders the man and his wife and family and possessions to be sold. But when the man begs for time an incredible twist occurs in the parable - the king has pity on him and forgives the man all his debts - without any conditions. Human kings were not known for their mercy. They held power by being ruthless and demanding complete and unquestioning obedience from their subjects and especially those in positions of power. However, the very same man who has been forgiven does not act in the same merciful way to those who are in debt to him. He does the opposite and throws the debtor into prison. This is a second twist in the story. It is not expected. How does someone who experiences being in a place where he is totally free of the enormous debt he owed the king then impose such an enormous punishment on one who owes him such a small debt in comparison? Yet is this not how we often act? We accept the forgiveness of those who forgive us for the big things we may have said or done but do we always extend forgiveness to those indebted to us? Do we not hold grudges for some minor things too?
The parables of Jesus can contain huge paradoxes. This parable should be carefully read and reflected upon. In this parable we should not confuse God with earthly kings nor earthly kings with God, nor confuse the kingdom of God/kingdom of heaven with the kingdoms and ways of this world. It is highly unlikely that a human king will act in a loving and kind way instead he will be ruthless in getting his way. It is impossible that God will act like a human king because God is love. The parables are there to challenge us to enter God’s kingdom and live with God’s life.
We step in and out of different worlds, between the world of the kingdom of God, a world of forgiveness and freedom and a human world that is dominated by indebtedness and by unforgiveness. The parable blatantly exaggerates something that we may not be conscious of: that we may not be giving people a chance. Even if we do give people two or three chances or more it is always limited by number and time. In our world we are in a place of unconsciously being unforgiving. When we are reminded as followers of Jesus that we must forgive we move to a place of conscious forgiveness but the place of seventy times seven is a place beyond our comprehension. It is a place where we are unconsciously forgiving. It is a place where there is no thought of retribution, a place where there is endless mercy. It is forgiving from the heart, a heart at one with the heart of God - it is the heart of God. How do we move from unconscious unforgiveness to unconscious forgiveness?
In a recent study of Forgiveness from a Wisdom perspective I was surprised to learn that there is no exact term for forgiveness in either Buddhism or Hinduism. Rather than holding the thought of the need to forgive consciously in our minds the ancient wisdom in both Hinduism and Buddhism seem to teach that in the flow of loving others, people are unconsciously forgiven. In loving others from the heart there is none to forgive, only people to love. Forgiveness becomes no longer an issue for us because we love from the heart.
Rather than being mindful of being forgiving, which is forgiving from the mind, true unconditional forgiveness unconsciously flows from the heart. How do we make this move from mind to heart and perhaps to where mind and heart are in harmony? Why forgive from the heart? Forgiving is reflecting who God is: endlessly merciful and patient and kind. Can we mortals put ourselves in a place where we can channel God’s endless mercy? Can we at least try? We begin our search with a prayer…
God merciful and kind, teach us to love from the heart, to let your love flow from us to all people, to all beings and to all things. As you freely forgive us our sins help us to freely love others and in loving them may they find forgiveness for themselves. Help us to take the words of Jesus deep within our hearts and let the wisdom of Jesus grow there in abundance. Show us the way to this place of the heart, this place of unconditional love. May our lives flourish with life. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.
Photo: Cahir Castle, County Tipperary, Republic of Ireland
Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven (Matthew 16:17).
The New Testament Greek word ‘makarios’ is usually translated into English as ‘blessed’ but in some modern Bible versions it is translated as ‘happy’. We tend to seek happiness through achievements and fulfilling needs and desires. How often have we convinced ourselves with thoughts like: ‘If only I had a new job, or more money I would be happy’ or lamented, ‘If only I had married the right person, or studied harder in school I would have been happy’? This kind of thinking can easily fill our minds each day and therefore direct our lives.
According to Brian Stoffregen the ancient Greeks believed that the gods were truly happy because they lived above all the worries and cares of this world. They also believed that the dead were truly happy because they no longer had to endure the suffering and pain found in this world; and they believed that the only living humans that were truly happy were the rich and powerful because they didn’t have to struggle in life. So, for the ancient Greeks, the gods, the rich and the dead were happy. In Judaism, people tended to believe that those who lived a righteous life were blessed. Blessing was the reward for a good life. Therefore, if one was ill or poor or lived with a disability etc., this was evidence of not being blessed but rather of being cursed and evidence of not living a righteous life.
Jesus comes preaching how all people can find this blessedness, this ‘happiness’ on earth. In fact, Jesus says that it is the poor who are blessed not the rich. And Jesus tells Peter that he is blessed because something has been revealed to him by God, something that has not come from human thinking but directly from God. Peter has been awakened. He has a new consciousness. Rather than seeking happiness for happiness sake, Peter has discovered that being blessed is something far deeper than the things that we associate happiness with. Jesus uses the word ‘makarios’ in a different way to show that true blessedness is not what human (flesh and blood) thinking associates with happiness. And Peter has come to find that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God, and that in Jesus is life. And this is greater than an earthly thing that can bring us joy. Blessed are those whose hearts and minds have been awakened to life.
How is it that some came to see and believe that Jesus was the Messiah and others didn’t, especially the religious leaders? Why did they remain asleep and others were awakened? How about today? Who are those who are asleep and those who are awake? How come some people come to church all their lives, talk about God, work hard for the church but don’t seem to get who Jesus is? How come so many people remain miserable? They believe in their heads that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God but what about their hearts? Someone asked me recently why some Christians who sing in church, pray, even preach can then behave so badly when not in church? That question challenges me. It is not enough to know or believe something about Jesus, awakening is allowing the life of the risen Christ to live through us, to awaken our hearts to love, to love as God loves. Awakening is to have the awareness to live with words and actions in harmony both in worship on Sundays and at work on Mondays.
As the day’s light breaks the darkness of the night,
as the first movements of the morning pierce the
so a new waking to life dawns within me,
so a fresh beginning opens.
In the early light of this day,
in the first actions of the morning,
let me be awake to life.
In my soul and in my seeing
let me be alive to the gift of this new day,
let me be fully alive.
-from Praying with the Earth: a Prayerbook for Peace by John Philip Newell
Photo: A for Awakening. I took this photo in a graveyard in Norway in 2007 and only noticed the A afterwards
Walking on Water: Heart, mind and body in harmony
But when Peter noticed the strong wind, Peter became frightened, and beginning to sink, Peter cried out, "Lord, save me!" Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught Peter, saying to him, "You of little faith, why did you doubt?"
“You of little faith...” That sounds harsh doesn’t it? Peter had shown a lot of faith stepping out of the boat and walking on the waves before he noticed the wind and began to sink. Have you ever tried walking on water? Did you succeed? I doubt that anyone would criticise us for not having faith enough to be able to walk on water. It we tried to walk on water we might be considered mad; a bit like Christians who pick up and dance with poisonous snakes to prove that God will protect them. It is called putting God to the test or just a plain stupid thing to do. We may not be able to walk on water, but we can float. To float we have to lay back in the water and entrust ourselves to the water, to allow our bodies to relax in the water. In a sense this is having faith in the water and in the process; that following this process the water will indeed hold us up and we will not drown. With scientific discovery we have learned to fly, who knows one day we may be able to also walk on water.
I am sure many of us have heard or even preached sermons ourselves urging people to keep their eyes firmly fixed on Jesus. These sermons point out that Peter’s problem is that he took his eyes off Jesus and looked at the waves and down at his feet and immediately his faith evaporated. There is also the verse in Scripture that says we walk by faith not sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Much of our thinking in the Western world is ‘either/or’ thinking: black or white, right or wrong, war or peace; and this binary thinking enters our theological thinking also. So, we say we are either walking in faith or we are doubting. This kind of binary thinking can give us a hot or cold journey of faith following Jesus. Sometimes we are swimming in warm water or sometimes in cold water. It is not good for our mental health and sets us up for failure. This kind of ‘two-legged stool faith’ is sure to fall over and leave us disappointed or disillusioned.
According to Cynthia Bourgeault (The Wisdom Way of Knowing) the story of Peter walking on water is a favourite of those who teach wisdom. The disciples had spent the whole night in the boat trying to get to the other side of the lake. They were far from land when they suddenly saw what they thought was a ghost walking on the water towards them. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, "Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid." In New testament Greek this literally means I am. It was not just the human Jesus walking on water, the use of the words ‘I am’ conveys that it was an encounter with God - the God who made the whole universe and dwells within in it, giving it life and aliveness. For a moment Peter’s heart is so pointedly focused on Jesus that he rises for a moment to Jesus’ level of being, a level of being at which the laws of the physical universe are transcended. But then he notices the strong wind, and perhaps instantly aware of the impossibility of what he is doing, he becomes frightened and begins to sink.
A life of faith is not demonstrated by our ability to walk on water rather it is demonstrated in our ability to love one another. ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself Mark 12:30,31).’ To love God fully, and therefore to have the ability to love our neighbour fully, one loves not just with the heart, but also with the mind, the body and soul.
Rather than a two-legged faith stool that always fall over the wisdom way of knowing refers to a three centred way of knowing (a three legged stool): knowing with the mind, knowing with the heart, knowing with the body. For a moment Peter’s heart, mind and body were in perfect balance and he walked on water but then his mind took over and his body sank. We do not need a faith to walk on water, but we do need a faith that will enable us to love one another as God loves us. For this we need a body, a heart and a mind that are in balance, working in harmony together.
Through the body we engage with other people in kind actions and words. We have to look after our bodies, care for them, exercise them, train them, use them, be aware of them. Our bodies have feelings too. They sense things. They know things. They can tell us when things are not going right. Psychologists tell us that movement of our bodies is very good for our mental health as well as our physical and emotional health.
Our hearts are not just where we feel emotions. The heart according to the ancient wisdom traditions is an organ for the perception of divine purpose and beauty. Cynthia Bourgeault says, ‘It is our antenna, so to speak, given to us to orient us toward the divine radiance and to synchronize our being with its more subtle movements. The heart is not for personal expression but for divine perception.’ It would appear that for a time at least Peter’s heart was like antenna fully alert to the incoming encounter with the living God in the person of Jesus walking on the water.
The third leg of the wisdom stool is the mind. We spend much of our time in our minds worrying about the future and dwelling on the past rather than living in the present moment. How do we control our minds? Peter it seems had great difficulty controlling his mind, although who could blame him when he was defying the laws of Physics.
Peter lost his sense of presence. Maintaining a sense of presence is not only good for our mental health or helping us to survive the busyness and challenges of contemporary life, presence also locates us in a space where we are connecting both with the realities of this world and the kingdom of heaven. To not be present may mean that we do not encounter God in the now, in the present moment, in ordinary as well as extraordinary things. How we need to be present when attempting to respond to situations and all people with love. We have to learn to bring our minds at every moment to the present moment and in this moment and that moment to find life, aliveness, awakeness, God. A life of loving faith requires living with body, mind and heart in balance.
Blessing: May you be at one with yourself and with God. May you find your body, heart and mind in balance. May you be present to the presence of the great ‘I am.’ May your journey of faith through this life be filled with the joy and wonder of the living God. May you be present and know God’s presence even when the storms in life blow strong against you and may you know the peace that stills the storms and calms all our lurking fears. Amen.
Photo: County Clare, Republic of Ireland.
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation