Sunday, September 24, 2023

God's generosity

Today my thoughts are on the parable of the workers in the vineyard: 

"The kingdom of heaven is like a householder who went at daybreak to hire laborers for his vineyard. And when he had agreed with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them to his vineyard. He went out about the third hour [and hired more laborers without naming the price except in terms of fairness] ... Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hours, and did the same. ... Around the eleventh hour, he went out and found others ... When evening came [he paid them all the amount agreed for those who worked a full day. Some complained.] And he answered, "Friend, I do you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for the denarius? ... Are you envious because I am generous?" (Matthew 20:1-16 excerpts)

God is generous. From this parable I gather there is no second-rate heaven for those who were slow to enter the kingdom of heaven, or those who were slow to find their calling. All who answered that call are welcome: fully welcome. The kingdom of heaven is not a kingdom where we keep score against each other, and look down on some who started late or did less (and have others look down on us if they started earlier or did more). Heaven is not a place where there is status, or better-than, among those welcomed by God. Heaven is a place of fellowship, where we all enjoy God's generosity. 

The parable gets its element of surprise from being described as an earthly workplace. Whether we have a daily rate, an hourly rate, or an annual rate, we are paid for our time. Some people play that game by angling for a better rate for our time. Others play that game by angling for more time on the clock. Regardless of how a worker plays the game, the amount is in the control of the owner. The kingdom of heaven is not about being the hardest-working. It is about knowing the one in control is honest and generous. No one who sets foot in that vineyard has any risk of being treated as less than another -- at least not by the owner. May I set aside my tendency to count and account, when there is an opportunity to see someone enjoy God's generosity. 

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Jewish context of Jesus' teachings: An allusion with layers of meaning

In the church year, this Sunday's focus is forgiveness: we read about Joseph forgiving his brothers, and we read Jesus' teaching on forgiveness. Peter asked him how many times he must forgive his brother: Should he forgive him seven times? As you may know: 

Jesus said to him, I say to you not seven times: but, seventy sevens. (Matthew 18:22)

There were symbolic numbers in play. I'm not convinced that Peter meant literally 7 when he asked; the number 7 is associated already in classical Jewish culture with completeness, with Sabbath, with forgiveness and rest. So Peter's question may not have been strictly about accounting. I have never heard a preacher suggest that Jesus' answer was about accounting. There is an agreement that it is a symbolic number indicating a bottomless well of forgiveness, as solidly supported by the parable which Jesus tells next. 

Today, I would like to pause and focus on the number itself. "Symbolic" is not the same as "meaningless", and to get the full weight of meaning, it is worthwhile to stop and unpack the symbolism. "Seventy sevens" is not without precedent. We find the number used prominently in another passage: 
Seventy sevens (weeks) are determined upon your people and upon your holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. (Daniel 9:24) 
That prophecy is part of a series of prophecies touching on the restoration of the Temple and the timeline when the Messiah was expected. In those "seventy sevens" we would expect transgressions to end, reconciliation to be accomplished, righteousness to be restored, and the Most Holy to be anointed. The age of God's favor toward humanity is inaugurated. It is a discussion for another day about all the nuances of Daniel's prophecy; it enough for today that Jesus' words likely would have struck his hearers as an echo of Daniel's prophecy of forgiveness, restoration, and the coming of the Holy One. 

So yes, Jesus' "seventy sevens" were symbolic. Forgiveness is placed in a context of holiness, restoration, and the world to come. When we hear the echoes of Daniel's prophecy, we hear the call to forgive until the era of the Messiah, the age "to finish transgression, to make an end to sin, to make reconciliation for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy." 

Sunday, September 10, 2023

If love fulfills the law ...

Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he who loves others has fulfilled the law. For this: "You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not bear false witness, You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." Love works no ill to the neighbor: therefore love is the fulfillment of the law." Romans 13:8-10 
Paul comments on Jesus' teaching that love fulfills the law. When Paul is so clear, when the Bible is so clear, when Jesus himself is so clear -- if love fulfills the law, where is all the love? 

I look at myself and I know that I struggle. I can easily recognize that I owe to my neighbor -- even to my enemy -- that I do not lie about them or steal from them or kill, obviously. But love? I often act as if I could reduce my obligation to my enemy to that (not lying, not stealing, not killing). In theory, not-doing-this and not-doing-that, I don't need to interact with unpleasant people at all and can count it as a win, if my obligation is simply not to do a specific list of unkind or dishonest things. Do I actually owe an unpleasant person more than that? 

I'm tired of the hostile environment in which we live. (Is there a single group anywhere that is not the target of someone's hostility?) So my tendency is to try to sit it out and hope the storm will blow over. I've been trying to sit out a rising tide of hostility for a long time now; it's getting worse instead of better. 

Do we owe our neighbor kindness? Jesus described the Good Samaritan as an example: "Go and do likewise." If we can see that our neighbor is hurting, kindness is our calling. And who isn't hurting? 

Looking for the humility to recognize my neighbors. They're right in front of me. 

Sunday, September 03, 2023

When C.S. Lewis reads St Augustine ...

It is not often that I take my topic from Pastor Weedon's blog, but one of his recent posts definitely caught my attention, quoting C.S. Lewis: 

I am saying only that the highest good of a creature must be creaturely—that is, derivative or reflective—good. In other words, as St. Augustine makes plain [De Civ. Dei, xii, cap. I], pride does not only go before a fall but is a fall—a fall of the creature’s attention from what is better, God, to what is worse, itself.—Business of Heaven, pp. 217, 218.

That could benefit from a little unpacking. 

It seems to start with the premise that our human nature is based on God's nature, which is grounded in the belief that we are "in God's image" -- that our best and highest comes from God. He calls this "creaturely good": it is derived from God's goodness so it is "derivative" good. It reflects God's goodness so it is "reflective good." If our best and highest comes from God, derives from God, reflects God -- then becoming over-impressed with ourselves (or anything else) constitutes a fall: we turn our attention from the better (God) to the lesser. 

I would add a few thoughts. First, that turning away from God to ourselves is a loss of grace. The "loss of grace" is not some other thing that God does to us as a consequence of falling away; the "loss of grace" is another way of describing the thing we are doing to ourselves when we turn away from God: we lose that connection. If we agree that our "best and highest" comes from God, we might also agree that our whole being comes from God, that our true nature comes from God. So that in turning away from God we lose our true nature.