Sunday, September 24, 2017

A Look At God’s Mercy

September 24, 2017 –– 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 55:6–9 / Psalm 145 / Philippians 1:20c–24,27a / Matthew20:1–16a
A Look At God’s Mercy

Each week we hear three Scripture readings, usually from the Old Testament, an Epistle, and always a Gospel. This is a primary way that God speaks to us. The lector says “the Word of the Lord” and we reply “Amen.” The  opening of the letter to the Hebrews affirms this: In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son….

Why has God spoken as he has? Why did God speak through other people (the prophets) instead of directly to all of us? (Haven’t you ever wanted a clear,  unmistakable “direct word” from the Lord?). Why the progressive revelation? Maybe the most succinct answer comes through Isaiah:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts…. (55:8,9).

God doesn’t tell some things because we couldn’t understand even if he told us. We are too small and limited. He doesn’t tell us other things because, even understanding, we couldn’t handle it (we have a hard time handling much of what he has told us––just think of the incredible implications of the last sentence in the second reading: Only, conduct yourselves in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ). We have to work at that every day: living in a way worthy of the Gospel.

The more we understand what God has revealed in the Scriptures, the more complete our understanding and the more our lives will be be aligned to the what God desires (and what is truly good). In today’s Gospel we have the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard. Some get confused and think this is about justice or “fairness”, when it’s really about God’s mercy and his purposes. There are at least two “levels” of meaning in this parable. Most readers do not recognize the first, but it’s actually basic to the second meaning we instinctively want.

Scott Hahn gave this summary: The landowner is God. The vineyard is the kingdom. The workers hired at dawn are the Israelites, to whom he first offered his covenant. Those hired later in the day are the Gentiles, the non-Israelites, who, until the coming of Christ, were strangers to the covenants of promise (see Ephesians 2:11-13). In the Lord’s great generosity, the same wages, the same blessings promised to the first-called, the Israelites, will be paid to those called last, the rest of the nations. This provokes grumbling. The complaint of the first laborers sounds like that of the older brother in Jesus’ prodigal son parable (see Luke 15:29-30). God’s ways, however, are far from our ways, as we hear in today’s First Reading.

Alongside the the huge truth of God’s extravagant mercy that we find here  is a caution against a temptation to resent God’s lavish mercy. Why? We so quickly and easily want to be forgiven (or even excused), but there is a desire for the other guy to “get what he deserves.”

The Gospel is the wonderful realization that God is not like that. Isaiah says that God is generous in forgiving. Then he gives the great contrast: my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts….

It is very human to keep score. It is godly to want love and mercy to win over pay-back and vengeance. It is human to want others to get what they deserve. It is godly to want the best for others.

God is always ready to extend mercy. Yet many will not receive God’s mercy because they will not open themselves to it. How do we open ourselves to mercy? Isaiah tells us:
Seek the Lord while he may be found;
   call upon him while he is near.
Let the scoundrel forsake his way,
   and the wicked his thoughts;
Let him turn to the Lord for mercy….

Think of that in the context of the parable. Those who started to work early and worked all day were paid the promised day’s wage. Those who worked half a day were paid a day’s wage. Those who worked the last hour of the day were paid a day’s wage. That is the mercy of God. No matter when we turn to him––as a child or as an older adult––there is full forgiveness and the gift of eternal life.

There is another class of people, though, who are not explicitly mentioned in the parable, but we can assume they were there: it’s the people who decided not to work at all. Maybe it was “too hot” (the all-day workers complained about the day’s burden and heat), and they wanted to be comfortable. Maybe they didn’t like the landowner and decided they would make no contribution to his harvest. Maybe they just had something else to do and assumed there would always be another day. Whatever their reasons, the ones who didn’t work did not get paid.

God is inviting every one of us today: Come to me…. come into my vineyard––my Kingdom––and work for me…. lay aside your own desires and conditions. Isaiah’s words give another expression of how to do that very thing: We’re to forsake––turn away from––the things that not like God. We turn to Jesus by turning away from the things that keep him away. Actually, God is always coming to us––we just need to be open to him.

When we are open to God, he is rich in mercy and wants to give each of us far beyond what we would have thought possible. All we have to is lay aside our own ways and thoughts and let God do whatever he wants to do. What he wants to do is lavish us with his generous mercy.

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