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
Minister of Campsie Earlwood Clemton Park Uniting Church Congregation