Today’s gospel reading shows how the graciousness of God can be easily mistaken for injustice. On the one hand, it does not seem fair to pay all of the labourers the same wage regardless of the amount of time they worked. On the other hand, they all received exactly the amount for which they had contracted. Therefore, there was no injustice. In the owner’s payment we find the shift in perspective that we have come to expect in Jesus’ parables. He demonstrates the eschatological reversal: the last shall be first. The real paradox is seen in his generosity, which supersedes his justice. It is clear that justice and grace do not always fit well together. This parable shows that the reign of God is based on the latter, not the former.
How many times …? What are the limits of love? Can love be measured? These questions lie behind Peter’s query about forgiveness. He obviously considers seven a most generous number since it echoes God’s words through the prophet Amos, ‘For three transgressions and for four, I will not revoke the punishment.’ (2:1). Jesus replies with an incalculable number ‘seventy times seven’. Forgiveness, like love, has no limits. This week’s parable sets up the measuring stick for Christian love and this measure is that of the generous, forgiving master. From the experience of God’s extraordinary generosity we ought to be able to be generous in our turn. The servant in the parable forgot his experience of being forgiven and focussed only on his being wronged. Christians need to be people with long memories, able to recall the times they have failed and been forgiven, and from this place reach out in forgiveness of others. Remembering that we fail again and again and again might enable us to forgive ‘seventy times seven’.
Gathering two or three together in prayerful collaboration is not as easy as it sounds. If collaboration is to be effective, we have to be open and honest about our opinions and our biases, and respectful of the opinions and biases of others. We must work for the common good and not merely for what we personally think is best. We must be willing to accept and implement decisions with which we may not totally agree, and we must live with them gracefully. All of this calls for unselfish love. Love fulfils the entire law only: when we honour our personal commitments and the personal commitments of others; when we value the life, dignity and reputation of others; and when we respect their possessions. It is only because love is so demanding that it covers all of our responsibilities.
Speaking to all the disciples, Jesus goes on to lay down the conditions for any who want to follow him: it means taking up one’s own cross and losing one’s life in order to find it. This is the path that Jesus must go and the path that all who would seek association with him must also be prepared to embrace. The fact that the so recently exalted Peter had so much difficulty with it and even that Jesus had difficulty with it should be for us all a source of comfort. Christian discipleship is not Stoic indifference. Both Peter’s remonstrance and Jeremiah’s complaint will often echo in our hearts in the daily struggle to go with Jesus along the costly prophetic way. Our ‘bodies’ refers not simply to our physical bodies but to our whole pattern of bodily life, everything we do or say. To ‘offer (our) bodies’ in this sense as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God entails a similar preparedness to discern and follow what is not the way of the world but the way of God.
The readings highlight two different but related themes: the character of our understanding of Christ, and our understanding of discipleship that flows from it. If Jesus were to pose the question to us today that he posed to the disciples: Who do you say I am?, how would we answer? Who is this one who multiplies loaves of bread, who walks on turbulent waters, who breaks the boundaries that separate insider from outsider? It is none other than the messiah. Like Peter, we too may have good intentions, but when they are put to the test we realise that that was all that they were – good intentions. Still, we should not be discouraged by our weaknesses, for just as Peter’s failure did not deter God from entrusting him with power and authority, so our failures need not be obstacles to God’s grace in our lives. We watch God entrust the church to individuals who are weak and undependable, and we realise that judgments are inscrutable and God’s ways unsearchable.
The overarching theme derived from today’s readings is the question of insider-outsider. We see here that the divisions and barriers that emerge out of human experience have been shattered by the graciousness of God. Jesus’ openness to ‘the other’ finds a precedent in the prophetic tradition. Isaiah spoke of a time when outsiders would join insiders in worshipping God, thus dissolving the categories of insider and outsider. He was, of course, referring to the age of messianic fulfilment. This age dawned with the coming of Jesus. Jesus himself moved out of the constraints of his own cultural worldview, and he directs us to do the same. People are either excluded because of gender, culture or religious perspective, or included only because they are able and willing to conform to discriminatory standards. In the reign of God, this should not be the case. People are accepted along with their own cultural profiles.
Life itself is a mountain experience of God and as wonderful as life may be, it can also be very frightening at times. There are misunderstandings and rancour, jealousy and vindictiveness, greed and a hunger for power. Our personal lives can come unravelled and we can feel that we are genuinely ‘at sea’. Every human being is tossed about by the exigencies of life. It is at times like these that we need faith in Jesus. Even though we do not recognise him, he is there in the midst of our chaos. Having the power of God, he is the definitive champion of all chaos, and so he is able to allay our fears and calm the sea. A true experience of God, whether it be within the ordinariness of life or one of life’s tribulations, is both transformative and effusive. It is a reality that cannot be contained; it must be proclaimed. Disciples must be ready to do what they can in order that the good news of God’s revelation be made known to others.
Jesus takes his most trusted disciples up a high mountain to allow them to share in what he knows is about to occur. It is a clear teaching moment in which Jesus hopes his disciples will grasp the truth about him. As the disciples stand by, Jesus is transfigured before them – suddenly bathed in light, his clothes become dazzlingly white. Moses and Elijah are standing and talking with Jesus. Together, they represent the Law and the Prophets. Moses and Elijah both experienced the close presence of God at a time in their lives when they were called to take a difficult path. Both also experienced the comforting presence of God on Sinai. In this scene of the Transfiguration, while in one way presenting Jesus in his divine glory, we also glimpse his genuine humanity, as he pauses to face the consequences of the decision to go up to Jerusalem. We read how he takes time out, calls aside his friends and enters into prayer. When we struggle with our decisions, when we feel afraid and weak, may we too seek and know the comforting presence of God.
The treasure is the kingdom of heaven. It is the prize that gives meaning to the present, and its fullest delight which is the joy that we experience when we realise that the treasure is ours, draws us into the future. The reign of God is the fulfilment of our deepest desires and our fondest hopes. Nothing in the world can compare with it, and that is why we are willing to sacrifice everything to attain it. The treasure that we find is really an extraordinary gift that is given. We need not work to attain the kingdom, nor can we earn it in any way. It is given to us by God. All we have to do is accept it. Solomon chose to be of service to others. In this he is a model for disciples to follow. We have discovered the treasure in the field; we have found the pearl of great price. What we have been given, we must now give to others. In giving we will lose nothing. In fact, we gain an abundance of blessings. All things work for good, and God is glorified in all. Such is the character of the kingdom of God.
The gospel continues on from the parable of the Sower that we heard last week. For all our good intentions, and efforts we will probably continue to struggle with some issues all our lives. The garden of our soul will always need a little weeding. These inner struggles will continue to call us to conversion and we will continue to need to call on God and allow God to be the gardener of our souls. Knowing the weeds and wheat within our own individual lives, can help us be a little more patient, or tolerant of the weeds and wheat around us – in our families, communities, our Church. Also, sometimes in the struggle to live a good meaningful life, we can be our own worst enemy in being far too harsh and unforgiving towards ourselves. The Parable may invite us to greater kindness towards ourselves and to leave the task of major garden work to God.