Tag Archives: Gospel of Matthew

The First and the Last

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The full readings for today can be found here.

Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.

In the name of the Living God, who binds all of us together: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier.

Good morning, good morning. It is a great pleasure to be with you again at St. Paul’s and I want to thank your rector for inviting me and you for your wonderful hospitality.

You know, I grew up out in West Texas, and was the eldest of four boys. And although my parents never said so, I’m sure they were terribly grateful for my finely attuned sense of fairness. Because whenever they made a mistake in the allocation of resources (whether it was Christmas presents, dolling out allowances or apportioning dessert), they could count on my keen sense of justice and willingness to speak up and tell them: “That’s not fair.”

I had a profound sense of justice and of the urgency to get my fair share, to get what’s coming to me. And so, for a long time, the story in today’s Gospel bothered me. But as I’ve gotten older and my focus has turned to the spiritual life and perhaps a broader awareness of just how lucky I’ve been, I have come to realize that the very last thing in the world I want from God is for God to give me what’s coming to me.

So, let’s take a look at this parable, this story that Jesus tells to his listeners. First, we need to note that the whole story is set in the context of Jesus trying to explain what the kingdom of God is like. And I don’t think Jesus was necessarily trying to give them a description of heaven, because elsewhere, he tells them, “The Kingdom of God is within you now.” So, Jesus is trying to explain how we can live into, how we can bring about the kingdom, here and now. This story isn’t about some rarefied, ethereal event that will happen in the sweet by and by: it’s about how we live our lives right here and right now.

So, the parable itself is not that complicated. It’s not a hard story to follow. Then again, as Mark Twain once said, “Most people are bothered by those passages of Scripture they do not understand, but the passages that bother me are those I do understand.”
A landowner needed people to work in his vineyards. He hires workers early in the morning, and again at nine, and noon, at three in the afternoon and again at five o’clock. And when it comes time to pay the workers, he pays those who showed up last first, and to compound things he pays those who only worked for an hour the same wage as those who worked all day. When the day ends, all of them (those who showed up early and those who showed up late) are all paid the same wage. And the workers who worked all day in the hot sun begin to do exactly what we would expect—exactly what most of us would do—they engage in one of the most ancient practices of Christians everywhere; they grumble.

Now, I love that word: grumble. It sounds like a cross between a grunt, a groan and mumble. We think it comes from the Middle French or Middle Dutch, and meant to “mutter between the teeth.” And if we look at the Old Testament lesson today from Exodus, that’s exactly what we find God’s people doing in the desert: they are grumbling, they are complaining. So, we have been doing this for a very long time, and have gotten pretty good at it by now.

If we think about Jesus’ parable, it’s probably helpful to think about those laborers. Day laborers probably weren’t all that different in the first century than they are today. The men who would have been hired first, early in the morning, would most likely be those who were young, strong, healthy and looked like they could do a hard day’s work. By five o’clock in the afternoon, the men left would probably have been the old, the weak and perhaps those who were lame. And yet, they had the same needs as those who were strong and healthy: they needed to feed themselves and those they cared for. So, maybe, part of what Jesus is trying to tell us is that God is far more concerned with our needs than with our abilities. In other words, God’s economy may have a great deal more to do with generosity than with merit.

I know that will come as a great disappointment to many of us; our culture insists upon the importance of merit. Whether it’s athletic ability, intellectual capability, holiness and piety, wealth or beauty, we crave success: it’s the addiction of our age. So, whatever this kingdom of God is, I’m not sure it looks very much like our society today.

You see, it looks like God is much more concerned with mercy than with justice. Or at least, God’s justice looks a lot more like peace and mercy than some courtroom drama where the criminals get what’s coming to them. Which is kind of a shame, because we Americans really love justice. We love it when the billionaire is sent to prison for insider trading, or when the politician is caught perjuring himself before a senate committee, or when the sanctimonious preacher is exposed in a torrid sexual affair. Schadenfreude—the delight at watching another’s misfortune—may well be the emotion most characteristic of our age. As the Canadian songwriter Bruce Cogburn said, “Everybody loves to see justice done . . . on somebody else.”

But I’m beginning to think that God’s justice looks a lot more like what most of us would call mercy. And so, most of us can breathe a collective sigh of relief. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has observed, we may be quite surprised by the people who end up in heaven. “God has a soft spot in his heart for sinners. His standards are really quite low.”

In the parable, Jesus points out something else that I think is really important for us today. It’s a curious phrase: “Or are you envious because I am generous?” In the original Greek it reads: “Is your eye evil because I am good?” I think Jesus is pointing out one of the greatest spiritual dangers most of us face, the danger of envy, of thinking we deserve what someone else has. In the final analysis, when we feel that, we are saying God or the fates or life has treated us poorly, that we deserve what others have. And as Shakespeare once observed, “Comparisons are odious.” But they’re worse than smelly; they are dangerous in that they encourage us to continue the practice of keeping score. And in the spiritual life, that is a sure road to Nowheresville, a long, rocky path to unhappiness and bitterness.

Jesus talked about the same thing in the Gospel reading last week, when he spoke about forgiveness. If you’ll remember, Peter asked if he would need to extend forgiveness as many as seven times. Jesus answered, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” In other words, you’re going to have to do it so often that you lose count, that you give up the practice of keeping score. You see, when I’m looking at whether someone else deserved an award, or a raise, or a new car, I’m avoiding examining at my own life and the choices that I’ve made and the kind of person that I’ve become.

Jesus contrasts that kind of life with a life of radical generosity and a life full of grace. Grace doesn’t have anything to do with what we deserve; it is by its very nature an undeserved gift, a gift given out of love rather than obligation or merit. When we learn to trust in the Lord of heaven, we find a God who will rain down bread on us, who sets a table for us as we wander through the desert. What does it mean for us if God’s love, God’s grace, God’s mercy, doesn’t depend at all on our effort, our achievement, or our merit? I think following Jesus may mean that we have to give up keeping score and recognize that we have enough for today, enough for this day’s journey. And enough, as my parents told me so often, is enough.

So, I’m wondering what this passage might mean for us in really practical everyday terms. It might mean that we give a coworker a second, or even a third chance. It might mean that we give something to a street person, regardless of whether we think they deserve it or not. Or it might mean that we forgive someone who hasn’t really shown they’re sorry, or that we are kind to those who have been unkind to us in the past. It may not change them, it may not change them at all, but maybe if we’re really lucky and God rains down his mercy on us, it just might change us. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

The Wind Ceased

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The full readings for today can be found here.

And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, every now and then, the stars align, the gears click into place, the dice roll reveals our hopes to be well founded and the Lectionary gives us just exactly what we need. So today, we hear the story of a man named Peter who is willing to leave relative comfort and security because he hears the call of Jesus. As Einstein used to say, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”

So, we know that one of the consistent metaphors used throughout the Old and New Testaments is the image of the sea as representing trouble or difficulty. These waters represent the nothingness before creation: in the Hebrew, the tohu wa-bohu. The sea was perceived as the vortex around which danger and chaos and evil spun. So, in today’s Gospel, we find Jesus calling the disciples, not away from the storm, but into it. In fact, Jesus sends the disciples into the boat while he dismisses the crowds and goes to pray. Jesus goes to the mountain, like Moses, to encounter the God of Abraham. Thus, while he retreats to the mountains, he compels the disciples to face the sea of chaos. Literally translated, they are being tormented by the waves. Jesus compels them to confront their own frailty, their own vulnerability.

This story reminds us of another story in Matthews Gospel, in the eighth chapter. If you’ll remember that passage, Jesus was sleeping through the storm while the disciples cried, “Save us, Lord, for we are perishing.” And if you’ll recall, that story ends with the disciples wondering what kind of man Jesus is, if even the wind and the water obey him.
So, in today’s reading, it’s worth noting that the disciples have been out in this storm, on the water, for a long time. They’re sent away before evening and they don’t see Jesus again until early in the morning. So, like many of us, they’ve been struggling to stay afloat for a good while. And I love the nonchalant way the Gospel writer reports, “he came walking toward them on the sea.” Mathew records it as matter-of-factly as if he were saying that Jesus then ate a ham sandwich. The disciples, as is so often the case, fail to recognize Jesus. And maybe, just maybe, it’s their fear that keeps them from knowing Jesus, just like our fear sometimes keeps us from seeing Jesus when he’s right beside us.
While the disciples are initially afraid that they are seeing a ghost, Jesus reassures them it’s him. And our translation really doesn’t do Jesus’ words of comfort justice. In the original Greek, Jesus’ announcement is more sparse, succinct, and significant: he tells them “I Am.” He harkens back all the way to the God of Abraham and Moses, reminding them of the presence of God even on this storm-rocked sea.

And then, we have this wonderful story of Peter. Now, if you’ve heard me preach before at all, you know I love Peter. Peter is full of confidence and bravado and a genuinely good heart which is regularly undone by his clumsy efforts to accomplish his tasks. Peter usually opens his mouth only to change feet, but he rushes in where angels fear to tread. He is full of well-intentioned, but impetuous folly.

And so, he sort of invites himself to join Jesus on the water. This is why I love Peter: he is so eager and yet, not quite ready. And he joins our Lord on the water and for a moment….the laws of nature and gravity are suspended. I suspect that, for just a moment, the angels stopped their singing and all heaven held its breath. And then, he began to notice the strong winds around him and he began to sink. And, whatever else you can say about Peter, at least he has the presence of mind to know where to turn in trouble. He turns to Jesus. He cries out, “Lord, save me.”

And when Jesus returns to the boat with Peter the wind dies down and the disciples all acknowledge that Jesus, the Jesus who walks across the storm and calms all our troubled seas, is the Son of God. And I don’t think we should judge St. Peter too harshly, in fact I don’t think we should judge him at all, because he embodies one of the fundamental principles of the Christian life: we are going to screw up. We fall down five times, we get up six.

Changing our lives is hard. It was hard for Peter and it’s hard for us. If we want to live for Christ, live whole-hearted lives, it’s going to take some time, and we’re going to make mistakes. In the religious life, that’s why we have a novitiate. Living with courage and hope and taking chances means we’re going to fail sometimes and we need to be prepared for that. And yet, God is always stronger than the sum of all our fears and failures.

Following Jesus is no assurance of smooth sailing. Following St. Dominic does not shield us from the hard knocks of life and death. In fact, the biblical witness would tell us something quite to the contrary: we are assured of the storm. You know, we clothe our new brothers and sisters with cowls and scapulars. I’m not sure we wouldn’t do better to give them life jackets and crash helmets.

I’m reminded of a poem by a fellow named Andrew King. He wrote:

 

Consider the wild wave, its wet tension,
tissues of torn foam in its curled fist;
contradiction of calm, enemy of evenness,
it says to the stormed soul: fear my strength.

Consider the flinty wind, its walled power,
shreds of white clouds in its biting teeth;
uncaring and unkind to brittle weakness,
it says to the scoured soul: fear my strength.

Consider the fragile flesh, its limitations,
gravity’s slave and tattered by time;
weak against wave and wind’s toughness,
it says to the struggling soul: I’ve little strength.

Consider Christ who walks through storm toward us,
who reaches out, compassion in his hands,
counters fearing with God’s loving faithfulness.
Who says to the yearning soul: here is strength.

You see, like St. Peter, God wants more from us than lives of safety and stability. God’s dreams for the world are bigger than that. God has called us to be explorers on an adventure: seeking God in unlikely places, and pointing out his presence when others cannot see it. And so it is with our brother Peter, who will make his life vows this evening. Like Joseph in the Old Testament reading today, he has come, seeking his brothers and his sisters.We have seen in him the love of God, reflected in his love and commitment to this Order and the path of St. Dominic. We have watched him grow in marvelous ways. God has wonderful dreams for our brother, and we do, too. And so, we join him in stepping out of the boat, sinking sometimes, but always proclaiming the presence of God in the storm. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

There’s Going to Be Trouble

 

The full readings for today can be found here.

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

 

In the name of the living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

You know, every now and then, my friend Father Chris calls me and asks me if I’d like to come down here and be with you good people and preach. And without fail, before looking at the readings, I always say “yes,” because I love him, and love my godchildren and love you all.

And then, a week or so later, I go look at the readings, and I see that my friend, my priest, my brother has invited me to preach about Jesus tearing families apart, and bringing trouble between children and their parents. And I scratch my head and wonder at the nature of my friendship with Father Chris. But here we are, and this is the Gospel we have, and so we might as well get on with it.

So, it’s worth putting this passage in context. In the 9th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been doing that Jesus stuff. He has healed the woman with the blood disorder, healed two blind men and a mute with a demon, and raised a girl from the dead. And now, in chapter 10, he’s sending his disciples out to do that very same work: to cast out unclean spirits and cure every disease and sickness.

That gets us to today’s Gospel. Before he sends the disciples out, he warns them: this isn’t going to be easy. There’s going to be trouble. He tells them, if they called me the devil, they’re not going to treat you any better. Those who follow Jesus can expect that sometimes they’ll be met with fear and smugness and slander.

One of the things Jesus is doing is inviting the disciples to face their fears. Jesus was sending the disciples out, alone. Traveling in the ancient world was a risky business, and most people didn’t venture far away from their homes or their families. But Jesus sent them out, without any money, without even a staff. He sent them out like sheep among the wolves, so they would learn to trust God and trust each other.

For them, like all of us, fear could be crippling, it could be paralyzing. Fear is a terrible thing to see in children, but it’s dreadful to watch the grip of fear take hold of adults. Many of you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who returned to Germany to stand up against the Nazis. Now Nazi Germany was a petri dish in which the bacteria of fear flourished. And Bonhoeffer wrote:

Fear is, somehow or other, the archen­emy itself. It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides, until their resistance and strength are spent and they suddenly break down. Fear secretly gnaws and eats away at all the ties that bind a person to God and to others, and when in a time of need that person reaches for those ties and clings to them, they break and the individual sinks back into himself or herself, helpless and despairing, while hell rejoices.

Now fear leers that person in the face, saying: Here we are all by our­selves, you and I, now I’m showing you my true face. And anyone who has seen naked fear revealed, who has been its victim in terrifying loneliness— fear of an important decision; fear of a heavy stroke of fate, losing one’s job, an illness; fear of a vice that one can no longer resist, to which one is enslaved; fear of disgrace; fear of another person; fear of dying—that per­son knows that fear is only one of the faces of evil itself, one form by which the world, at enmity with God, grasps for someone. Nothing can make a human being so conscious of the reality of powers opposed to God in our lives as this loneliness, this helplessness, this fog spreading over everything, this sense that there is no way out, and this raving impulse to get oneself out of this hell of hopelessness.

Jesus calls upon the disciples, and by that I mean us, to confront every fear that stands between God and us.

Jesus warns his disciples that there’s going to be trouble, not peace, but a sword. He says that families will be set against each other. In the Old Testament, there were a number of false prophets who went around proclaiming “peace” and good times when that’s not at all what was happening. Jesus distances himself from those false prophets because he knows this isn’t going to be easy for the disciples, nor is following Jesus easy for us. There’s going to be trouble.

And Jesus talks about families turning against each other, and we know that did happen in the early Christian communities. Persecution of Christians and their families was common and still is in many places in the world. And that’s because, there’s going to be trouble.

I sometimes hear people say that bad news, or trouble, comes in threes. That’s not been my experience in my Christian walk: it comes in something closer to three hundred and thirty threes. Whether it’s broken families, illness, losing loved ones, or the God-awful ways that we’ve begun to speak to each other politically, we find ourselves sinking in the mire. And there’s going to be trouble.

Jesus tells his disciples, tells us, that if we want to be worthy of calling ourselves disciples, we need to pick up our cross and follow Jesus. Now, picking up our cross doesn’t just mean that we bear troubles. It means that, like Jesus, we bear them in love, without letting our hearts become hardened, we bear them in forgiveness. It means that, when troubles come, we turn to God, we lean on God and we know that God is with us. Then, we will walk as children of light; then we will follow Jesus.

This is our proclamation as Christians. The great battle cry of the Gospels, of our faith and of the Church is the renunciation of the power of fear in our lives. We don’t have to be afraid anymore.

And since we just celebrated the feast of Pentecost a couple weeks ago, it’s at least worth considering the possibility that our troubles may be one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. You see, our troubles can force us to abandon the illusion of our independence, and turn to each other for help and comfort. Our troubles can pull us out of our unreflective everydayness, and compel us to examine the things in life that really matter. Our troubles can turn us from a mean-spirited self-devotion to lives of compassion, lived in community and lived in the presence of the God who never abandons us, no matter how often we abandon God.

But here’s the linchpin of today’s reading, and the linchpin of our faith: we don’t have to go through our troubles alone. Jesus tells his disciples: look, sparrows are worth half a penny, but God watches every one of them when they fall. You don’t think God is watching over you? So, yes, there is going to be trouble, but you don’t have to be afraid. If we’re on Jesus’ side, God is on our side: the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, the God who made all things, the God who makes all things new, the God who knows every single one of the hairs on our head. So, while we are going to walk through that dark land, Jesus reminds us that we aren’t going there alone. Amen.

James R. Dennis, O.P. © 2017

Live Like Someone Left the Gate Open

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.  Matt. 28:5-8.

Okay, so after a week of daily blogging, I’m pretty sure I’ve about run out of interesting things to say.  I never tire, however, of discussing dogs.  I have lived with dogs  since about the age of five.  Most dogs spend the bulk of their lives with a pronounced, undismayed joy.  My dog, Georgia offers the perfect example of this unrelenting, joyful approach to the world.

So, I thought we should at least consider the notion of joy:  a great Christian virtue, a profound spiritual practice, and one of the clear indicia of our faith.  Particularly during the Easter season, we Christians should take a lesson and live like the gate has been left open.  In Matthew’s story of the resurrection, the angel tells Mary Magdalene and “the  other Mary” that Jesus has been raised.  Jesus’ disciples thought they knew how this rotten story ended. When they learned that they were wrong, they left the tomb “with great fear and great joy” and ran to tell Jesus’ followers this good news.

Matthew describes a curious mixture of emotions:  joy and fear, but I suspect that’s exactly what they felt.  They were fearful because they stood on deeply uncertain ground, and this sort of ambiguity would certainly leave one anxious.  They also felt great joy because their rabbi, their Messiah, and their friend still lived.  And so, they ran.  They ran like someone had left the gate open.  You see, that’s exactly what Jesus had done:  He had pried ajar  the gates of hell and flung open the gates of heaven.

In Here and Now, Henri Nouwen wrote, “We have to choose joy, and keep choosing it every day.  It is a choice based upon the knowledge that we belong to God and have found in God our refuge and our safety and that nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.”  So, my suggestion to you, during this holy season of Easter is “Live like someone left the gate open.”  Jesus has freed us from sin and death, and he left the gate to heaven wide open.

Happy Easter!

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Holy Innocents

Now after they [the Magi] had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:  “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”  Matt. 2:11-18.

Today the Church remembers the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. Here, we encounter a ghastly and appalling story, but I think there are several lessons we can take from this narrative.  We should first examine the character of Herod (known to historians as Herod the Great).  Although Herod greatly expanded the Second Temple, he also murdered many rabbis and members of his own family.  He collaborated with the Roman occupation, and he reigned with a demented savagery.

While scholars may question the historical accuracy of this account in Matthew’s gospel, Matthew’s portrayal meshes well with what we know of Herod’s character.  At the root of these frightening events, we find a genuine insight into Herod’s depravity.  Herod fears losing power, and that phobia sparks his maniacal infanticide.  Into this world, the Christ child is born.

The world hasn’t changed much.  From Dachau to Serbia to Darfur, Herod is still afraid, and the slaughter of the innocents continues.  And this remains the world into which Christ enters.  And ultimately, Christ offers himself as a victim of our savage history.

Matthew offers another insight in this story.  The Holy Family protects the Christ child, traveling to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage.  Matthew refers to Hos. 11:1 and Exodus 4:22-23 with a purpose.  He’s telling his audience that Jesus is the new Moses:  just as Moses delivered the chosen people from slavery, Jesus will free them from sin and death.   Moses and the Prophets reveal God’s dedication to mankind’s salvation; in the Christ child, that dedication becomes incarnate.

I’m also fascinated with the impulse of Mary and Joseph:  I think there’s something more at work here than the simple protective impulse of Jesus’ parents.  You see, I think they’re still out there in the world today: Pharoah, Herod, Stalin, Pol Pot and the other slaves to fear and hatred. 

So, I think Matthew asks us, are we willing to shelter Jesus?  What are we willing to do to protect Christ in the world?  Because I think Matthew and the Church are telling us that our Christmas joy never takes place in a historical vacuum, and the world can be a place of deadly and senseless violence.  As my great-aunt once cautioned me, “May the peace of Christ disturb you greatly.”

Pax,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2011 James R. Dennis