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

Archive for September, 2014

Has God cheated us?

Usually, when a parable of Jesus begins:  “The kingdom of heaven is like…” you know that you are going to be in trouble.  The trouble begins with trying to understand the imagery involved in  both parts of the comparison.  One set of images for “the kingdom of heaven,” and another set for the dynamics of interaction between landowner and his laborers.  Fortunately, in the Gospel for the 25th Sunday in ordinary time (Matthew 20: 1-16) the imagery of concern is primarily that of the landowner and his laborers.

Simply put, the landowner needs workers for his vineyard.  So, he goes out at designated times during the day to do the hiring.  At dawn, he encounters several potential workers, has them agree to work for a day’s wage, and off they go to work.

At nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon he comes across other potential workers and tells them, “You also go into my vineyard and I will pay you what is just.”   And so they did.  Finally, the landowner goes out at five in the afternoon and hires the last group of workers.

Finally, evening came and it was time to pay the workers.  But in order to emphasize the point of the parable, the order of payment was reversed, namely, he paid those hired last before he paid those hired first.

Those hired last received a day’s wage even though they worked for only an hour or so. Those hired first, at dawn, presumed that the vineyard owner would give them more because they worked the entire day, bearing the burden of the day’s heat.  However, as it turns out, all the workers were paid a day’s wage.  This aroused the ire of those who were hired at dawn.

They complained to the landowner because they felt cheated.  However, the landowner  says to those who felt cheated, “I did you no wrong.  Did you not agree to work the entire day for a day’s wage?”  And the landowner’s second question gives us the point of the parable.  “What if I wish to give the others more?  Am I not free to do what I want with my money?”

What we have in these two statements/questions are qualities of God, namely, JUSTICE and GENEROSITY.  That is to say, God cheats no one, and none can limit God’s generosity.

All this boils dowm to the same question that we all have.  Why does God seem to be  more generous to others than to me?  I offer a few suggestions that may be of help.  First of all, God does NOT cheat anybody.  All of us receive gifts and limitations.  Our challenge is to find our what they are.  That way we can avoid moping or feeling jealous.

As St. Paul points out, the ear can do what the eye can’t, so the hand can do what the leg can’t.  But all do something different for the sake of the whole body.  (I Corinthians 12: 12-31)  We need the gifts of others to help the wider body function properly.

Secondly, instead if envying others for their gifts, we should value our own and see how they can help others.  God’s justice is evident in that no one has been cheated of gifts.  God’s generosity is evidently apparent in that we can use whatever gifts we have to improve the function of our society.





What good can come from complaining?

Over the years many of us have heard complaints from people.  From children on vacation constantly asking “Are we there yet?” to adults unhappy with the way we do things–too slowly for some or too quickly for others.

In the first reading for the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross (Numbers 21:4-9), the Israelites, while crossing the desert, are frequently complaing against God and Moses.  “Why have you brought us out here from Egypt to die in this desert where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food.”  Nothing is said, of course, that God had given the Israelites manna and water.

The Lord has had it up to his neck with the ungrateful complaints, so he sent poisonous serpents which bit the people and some died.  When they saw what was occurring, the people went to Moses, their mediator, and asked him to act on their behalf.  In the conversation the Lord told Moses, “Make a serpent and mount it on a pole.  And if anyone has been bitten, have them look at it, and they will live.”

Moses made a bronze serpent, mounted it on a pole, raised it up , so that anyone who saw it would be healed.  Incidentally, during Jesus’ time in the Ancient Near East serpents were believed to have good qualities as well as bad ones. Today, we have various illustrations.  For example, the caduceus, the symbol of the medical profession has two wrapped serpents around the wand of the Greek god Mercury.  Needless to say, the medical profession is about healing.

In the Gospel of the same feast day (John 3:13-17),  Jesus is teaching Nicodemus , and during the course of instruction, says to him, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him, will have eternal life.”

Why did Jesus make this comparison between Moses’ bronze serpent and himself?  We note that the bronze serpent was lifted up on a pole.  So, people had to look up in order to be healed.  Jesus is quoted as saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15) Jesus, most certainly, was referring to his hanging on the cross during his crucifiction.  Those who saw and began to understand were saved.

Consequently, the key phrase here is lifted up.  In the Gospels, we are aware that there are approximately three stages in Jesus being lifted up  in the scheme of salvation.  First, he is “lifted up” on the cross indicating the beginning of the last stage of his physical presence on earth.  Second, Jesus is “lifted up” at the resurrection indicating his power of life over death.  Third, Jesus is “lifted up” at the Ascension indicating that his work on earth is finished and is to be carried on by his disciples.

What are some probable lessons from the above readings (Numbers and John)?  The first thing that comes to mind is the reality that all of us are “lifted up” in the sense that we are baptized.  Baptism brings with it a genuine sense of responsibility of how we relate to/with other people.  The cross reminds us of the final stages of Jesus’ act of salvation. And the more we believe in the life and work of Jesus, the more effective becomes our positive relationship to/with others.

A second possible lesson is that of becoming more dedicated to the cross of Christ.  For example, a more reflective attempt at making the sign of the cross, whether leaving or entering the church, grace before/after meals, and other occasions as well.

There may be times when we complain about our fate in life.  But when we are aware that we can be “lifted up” because of our Baptism and belief in Jesus’ life and activities,  we undoubtdly can lift up others by our behavior.


The problem about suffering

One of the things that we learn over the years is that life has its “hills” and “valleys.”  That is to say that we experience “good” and “evil.”  And in a rather weird way, we can share the two almost in tandem–quite often in what I would call a criss cross pattern.

By that I mean we could have moments of sorrow in times of joy, or times of joy during moments of sorrow.  During good times bad things can happen, and during bad times good things can happen.

In the Gospel for the twenty second Sunday in Ordinary Time (Matthew 16:2127) Jesus tells his disciples that for him, good things will happen (resurrection) only when bad things happen first (suffering and death).  [This is the Lenten and Easter experience]

But Peter, speaking “off the cuff, ” tells Jesus, “No such thing will ever happen to you.”  We can imagine Jesus in the midst of a huge sigh of desperation because Peter does not see the connection between suffering and resurrection, sorrow and joy.  So, Jesus employs the criss cross pattern in explaining what it is to be his disciple.

“Whoever wishes to be my disciple, must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.  Whoever wishes to save his life, shall lose it.  But whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it.”  Then comes the priority statement that embraces the discipleship process.  “What profit would it be to gain the whole world and lose his life.”

Makes us wonder.  Why did Jesus put so much emphasis on suffering?  I would suspect that Jesus meant that  genuine suffering comes from empathy not sympathy.  There is a difference.  Sympathy generally means that you feel sorry for someone else.  Empathy generally means that you experience the suffering of someone else.  For example, you suffer when other people suffer usually from injustice.

The fact is that empathy often provides motivation to do something about correcting the situation.  The reason is that we feel the injustice since the human family makes us all brothers and sisters.  I would not think the question too far fetched if we were to state that this is why Jesus became human– because he felt our suffering.

What can we learn from the Gospel reading?  No doubt, many things.  But I would like to suggest at least two items.  First, it would seem rather important to become aware of the “criss cross” pattern in our lives.  That is to say that good things can happen after bad things do–and vice versa.  There does not have to be a direct connection between the two.

Secondly, suffering can turn into joy IF we empathize with the suffering of others.  Why?  Because empathy will make it possible to become motivated to help others.  For instance, we feel injustice all around us.  Being empathetic with the suffering should motivate us to do something.

As Jesus was presenting the “criss cross” pattern to his followers as to be his disciples, we are reminded that as it was for Jesus so it will be for us–should we want to be a disciple.



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