A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for September, 2011

How much giving is too much?

     Given the rough economic situations in which we live, I find myself overwhelmed by so many organization asking for money.  Your name is passed around from group to group,  and the increase in requests seems to be  expanding   exponentially.  What criteria does one employ to choose which will be the organization that will get your paltry, but hard earned, cash?  One criterion could be that of giving to organizations that equate your own list of priorities.  Another could be not giving to those organizations who make you feel guilty for not giving to them.

     But a more crucial criterion could be that of asking and answering the question, “Why do I give?”  Being cognizant of the motive for giving could give the giving itself a significant meaning.  Looking at the prophet Hosea (14:4; 14:5 in Hebrew), we note that when God expresses his love for the Israelites, in spite of their malfeasance, he says, “…I will love them freely.”  The Hebrew word for “freely” comes from the root ndb which means “freely willing; unconditional.”  That is to say that God’s love for Israel is unconditional because it is freely given.

     In today’s Gospel (25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Matthew 20:1-16),  Jesus’ parable is about a landowner who spends the whole day hiring laborers to work in his vineyard.  He offers them a just wage so that no one feels cheated.  All agree to the working conditions.  At the end of the day when payment time comes, the last are paid a full day’s wage.  This catches the eye of those who came early in the morning, thinking they will receive much more since they have borne the burden of the day’s heat.

     However, the landowner pays them the same amount, a full day’s wage, a sum to which they had agreed.  Yet, these first-to-come workers are unhappy and somewhat grumply.  The landowner righteously states that he had done nothing wrong.  It turns out that the unhappiness and grumpiness of the laborers are due not to the issue of justice, but to the generosity of the landowner.

     God is generous to us all.  Yet, he is more generous to some than to others.  I strongly suspect that the more talents one has, the more is expected of that person.  When you stop to think about it, it appears that the laborers were functioning under the principle of conditionality, that is, work is conditioned on a sliding scale.  Nevertheless, Hosea and Jesus spoke of operating under the principle of unconditionality.  I do something because I want to not because I have to.

     How would it be if we dealt with our relatives, friends, and neighbors in terms of loving and giving?  It would be conditional if I did it because I had to.  It would be unconditional if I did it because I wanted to.  This latter situation is real generosity.  Therefore, I wouldn’t have to worry about giving too much to anyone.

What did I do wrong?

     There are many ways of hurting people.  Sometimes physically.  Sometimes psychologically, such as lying or speaking ill to or of another.  Often we don’t realize  we do this.  And when confronted with such an accusation, we frequently, with raised eyebrows and  in a singsong fashion ask, “Who me?  What did I do wrong?”  Quite likely, there is pain inflicted but there is often a refusal to accept guilt.  Why?

     Today’s Gospel ( 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Matt. 18:21-35) speaks to us of  forgiveness as a way of dealing with the refusal.  Peter asks Jesus if he should forgive “seven” times.  Jesus replies by saying that one should not forgive only “seven” times but “seventy seven” times.

    In biblical language, the number “seven” stood for perfection.  In reality, Peter was asking Jesus if he should completely (perfectly) forgive his neighbor.  Jesus says that he should go beyond forgiving the one neighbor but forgive all others the same way he himself has been forgiven. 

     This is not forgiveness as a one by one situation, but a complete forgiveness of everyone who has harmed you.  The key concept for this dynamic is to forgive others AS you yourself have been forgiven.  Today’s gospel illustrates this point.

     Whenever we recite the Lord’s prayer, we are actually asking God to forgive us (unconditionally) in the same way we forgive others.  Forgiveness from God depends upon our forgiveness of others.  The “as” establishes the key conditional item for forgiveness.

     Note some of the emotions in today’s gospel that speak to us of forgiveness.  “Be patient with me…” ; “…deeply disturbed…”; “…moved with compassion…”; “…have pity….”; “…in anger….”  By being cognizant of these emotions, one can almost know what the story is about.  Makes us realize how important emotions are to express and accept forgiveness.  It seems that we must feel an emotion in order to be forgiven and forgiving.  “Patience” and “compassion” come from the idea of “suffering.”  Perhaps when we are being forgiven or are forgiving others, the emotions of “patience” and/or “compassion” could make the forgiveness much more real.

You think your opinion is better than mine?

     One of the weakest links binding our society is the emerging strength of polarization.  It seems to be affecting all institutions, especially political structures.  The often cited comment is “My opinion is better than yours”  indicating that voluntary deafness  seems to be the new form of non-communication which often leads to polarization.

     Why is this?  Above all, credibility suffers when polarization becomes obvious.  Where is the “truth” in all this posturing?  It seems to me that truth has a better chance of surviving if there is true dialogue among those concerned.  Dialogue is an attempted mode of communication between two entities.  The dynamic is twofold: Speaking and Listening.  “Listening” is more important than speaking because it prevents the dialogue from becoming a monologue.  It means, above all, that one is willing to hear the context of the other.  It also means that “listening” admits to merited guilt and accepts its consequences when harm is caused to another.

     In today’s Gospel (Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time:  Matt. 18:15-20), we have an illustration of the options of “listening” but in the framework of the second meaning listed above.  One tells another of a committed fault, and then is expected to” listen,”  which means taking into account personal culpability.  Accepting blame, when justified, is an approach toward the truth.

     Note what happens.  The options are based on the conditionality of the willingness to listen.  If there is a “listening” (which means accepting guilt if necessary), then true dialogue can transpire.  If there is a refusal to listen, even when others are brought in as witnessess, then the refusal results in polarization.

     In encounters with others, are we willing to “listen”  either by not prejudging others before having heard their contexts, nor by refusing to admit guilt and accept its consequences when necessary?   A use of monologue instead of dialogue gives the impression that there is something to hide. 

     In the Gospel, the entire community would be affected by the choice of  monologue or dialogue.  In fact, the individual always lives in relationship to others.  Therefore, is my relationship with the communities in which I live affected by monologue or dialogue?  The reality is that “truth” can surface only through dialogue.

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