Posts Tagged ‘eternity’

It’s not fair – the injustice of God

September 23, 2017

Pentecost 16 – 2017

Matthew 20:1-16

Marian Free

In the name of God whose generosity overlooks our faults and opens the gates of heaven to all who believe. Amen.

Imagine this scenario: Ever since you were a small child you had one ambition – to swim at the Olympics. To achieve your goal you got up at 5:00am every morning – summer and winter – and trained for at least an hour before school. After school you would be back at the pool for more training before going home and completing your homework. As you grew older your social life was non-existent. Your friends were all out partying, going to movies and forming relationships, but your life was focused on swimming. Swimming dictated almost every aspect of your life, how much you slept, what you ate, how much you exercised. And it was not only training that took up your time. There were also the competitions – local, state and national – that not only ate into your holidays, but also required you and your family to raise enough money for transport and accommodation.

Never mind, all your hard work and sacrifice has finally paid off. You have made it to the Olympics. You come first in the heats, first in the semi-finals and now you are ready for the finals and, you hope, for gold. The gun sounds, you are off to a good start. You know that you are swimming well, keeping to the plan. You can’t be sure, but it feels like you are ahead of the others in the race. You make the final tumble and put everything you have into the last lap and yes! when you raise your head from the water the swimmer closest to you is only just reaching for the end of the pool. It’s yours! the gold medal that you have worked for most of your life. You are already imagining yourself on the winning podium, wearing the medal and proudly hearing the national anthem fill the stadium.

You get out of the pool grab your towel and head towards the waiting journalists when your daydreams are interrupted by a “special announcement”. “We are pleased to announce that for the first time in the history of the Olympics we are going to recognise the hard work of all the competitors in this event. Everyone is a winner. Everyone will take home a gold medal!” Such largesse is extraordinary and unheard of, but you find it difficult – no impossible – to feel happy for the other competitors. Their gain is your loss. The moment you have dreamed of for so long. All your hard work was for nothing. It’s simply not fair.

Even thought two thousand years have passed, this parable still hits a nerve. We, who live in quite a different time and place, still bristle with indignation – the injustice of it all! Of course this was Jesus’ intention. He wanted his listeners to sit up and take notice. The last will be paid as much as the first. God can do no less.

To understand this parable, we have to go back a few verses to the question asked by the rich young man: “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (19:16) This man mistakenly thinks that he can earn eternity, that if he only meets certain criteria he can be assured of eternal life. The disciples seem to have the same view. Peter says: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27)

In order to set the record straight, Jesus tells the parable of the labourers in the vineyard. He is hoping to shock us into seeing that it is not a matter of how much we have done compared to others that determines our place in the kingdom. What matters is that we have done something. Whether we have worked all day or only part of the day, the outcome is the same.

There is not a sliding scale. Heaven, (or whatever eternity is) not incremental or fractional – it is all or nothing. A person cannot inherit just a little bit of heaven. Having just a portion of eternity is simply a nonsense. We either inherit eternal life or we do not. And that is just the problem with our human sense of fairness. We want to think that somehow if we have lived a better life than someone else that our reward will be greater. The problem is that there is only one reward, and like the labourers, we either receive it or we do not no matter how much or how little we have ‘worked’.

It might offend our sense of justice that those against whom we measure ourselves will receive the same reward, but what if we think of the situation from the point of view of those whose goodness and holiness far and away exceeds ours? What if we compare ourselves not with those whom we consider to be less worthy, but with those whom we recognise are far more worthy than we will ever be – the Joan of Arcs, the Catherines of Sienna, the Dietrich Bonhoeffers, the Francis’s of Assisi?

Going back to the parable, can you imagine arriving in heaven (thinking that you have lived a life worthy of such a reward) only discover that over to one side are a host of disgruntled saints wondering why on earth you deserve the same reward as them? Can you imagine Joan of Arc, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Catherine of Sienna, Francis of Assisi and the myriads of saints and martyrs – instead of being pleased for you – complaining indignantly to God: “He/she has done nothing compared to us and yet you have made them equal to us.”

Suddenly the parable makes sense. There is no sliding scale. There is only eternity and God chooses to give it to whomever God will. If the parable make us indignant, if we bristle with the injustice of it all, then we like those who have worked all day demonstrate that we just don’t get it, we like those who have worked all day haven’t yet realised that God’s generosity works to our advantage.

God is unfair, because will almost certainly reward us (with the saints) with eternity. If God’s unfairness works to our advantage, how dare we begrudge God’s extending that generosity to others?

 

 

 

 

 

Bound to the past or liberated to embrace the future?

September 16, 2017

Pentecost 15 – 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Marian Free

 

In the name of God whose power to forgive knows no limits. Amen.

 

There are many powerful stories of forgiveness. A couple of weeks ago I came across this, a true story, told by Richard Rohr remembering his mother’s last hours[1].

He writes:

She was lingering on the threshold, and for several days she had been talking about “a mesh” she couldn’t get through.

I was sitting by her bed, telling her how much I would miss her. She said she wanted to hear that from my father, whom we always called “Daddy.” Of course, Daddy had been telling her that for weeks.

So Daddy came over and effusively told her, “Oh, I’m going to miss ya.”

She replied, “I don’t believe it.”

I couldn’t believe my ears! I said, “Mother, you’re a few hours from death. You can’t say that!”

She persisted: “I don’t believe it.”

Daddy redoubled his efforts: “I ask your forgiveness for all the times I’ve hurt you in our fifty-four years of marriage, and I forgive you for all the times you’ve hurt me.”

I said, “Mother, isn’t that beautiful? Now say that back to Daddy.” And suddenly she clammed up. She didn’t want to say it.

I said, “Mother, you’re soon going to be before God. You don’t want to come before God without forgiving everybody.”

She said, “I forgive everybody.”

I said, “But do you forgive Daddy?” and she became silent again.

Then Daddy jumped in and said, “Honey, I never fooled around with any other women.”

We all knew that. She even said, “Well I know that, I know that.”

My siblings and I still don’t know how Daddy had hurt Mother. But any married person knows there are many little ways a couple can hurt one another over fifty-four years.

Then I said, “Mother, let’s try this. Put one hand on your heart, and I’m going to pray that your heart gets real soft.” I placed one of my hands on hers, over her heart, and held her other hand and started kissing it.

After about a minute she said, very faintly, “That melts me.”

“What?”

“When you kiss my hand like that, now I’ve got to do it.” After a pause, she continued: “I’m a stubborn woman. All of my life I’ve been a stubborn woman.”

“Well, Mother, we all knew that,” I said. “Now look at Daddy and you tell him.”

So she looked over and she didn’t call him “Daddy,” as she usually did. She spoke to him by name: “Rich, I forgive you.”

I prompted her again: “Mother, the other half—I ask for your forgiveness.”

She started breathing heavily and rapidly. Then she summoned her energy and said, “Rich, I ask your forgiveness.” A few more moments of labored breathing, and she said, “That’s it, that’s it. That’s what I had to do.”

I said to her, “Mother, do you think that was the mesh?”

She replied, “It’s gone! The mesh is gone! And, God, I pray that I mean this forgiveness from my heart.”

Then she said, referring to my two sisters and my sister-in-law, “Tell the girls to do this early and not to wait ‘til now. They’ll understand a woman’s heart and the way a man can hurt a woman.”

Mother was so happy then, and fully ready for death.”

 

That’s a long story, but it is not uncommon. I have heard many stories of people whose last hours (or last years) and have been dominated by unresolved issues, often an inability to forgive or an unwillingness to let go.

The inability to forgive is at the centre of today’s gospel. The servant who has been forgiven the huge debt seems unable to believe his luck. He just can’t understand that the king would wipe his slate clean and not demand any recompense. There must be a catch. It is either that, or the servant has got it into his head that he had somehow done something to deserve the king’s action. His heart has not been touched by the king’s overwhelming generosity. He remains fearful and anxious that he has lost control. He takes out his anxiety on the second slave thus (in his own mind) regaining control of his life.

The parable ends with the servant’s being thrown into prison, but the reality is that he is already imprisoned by his lack of understanding and his unwillingness and inability to accept the love and goodness that has been offered to him.

The story and the parable provide stark reminders of how easy it is to hold on to our own sense self-righteousness in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; of our need to be in control instead of trusting that God will make everything right in the end. We hang on to hurts (perceived and real) and fail to see that our small-mindedness, our bitterness and our failure to forgive is as great a sin if not worse than any harm done to us or any offense that we experience. We make up our own minds about our own righteousness in comparison with others instead of allowing God to measure the state of our hearts. The result of such is a narrow, resentful and self-absorbed life that is never able to be truly open, truly free and truly generous. We are as Rohr says: “Frozen in the past.”

The main point of the parable is not that we will be punished if we fail to forgive, but that if we cannot forgive, our lives are already impoverished. If we cannot forgive, we reveal that we simply do not appreciate how much God has already forgiven us, how little we deserve that unreserved (and undemanding) forgiveness and how much more God will forgive us.

If God can forgive us, broken, flawed and undeserving as we are, surely we can extend that to others who are equally broken, equally flawed and equally undeserving.

We forgive, not because we are afraid of hell. We forgive because we recognise our own imperfections and are overwhelmed by the fact that God is able to overlook them. We forgive because holding on to grudges only makes us bitter and warped, mean and hard. We forgive so that the past does not hold us in its grip and we forgive so that we are free to embrace the future in this world and the next.

[1] www.cac.org (Meditation for August 27, 2017)

Looking backwards and forwards on Advent 1

November 26, 2016

Advent 1 – 2016

Matthew 24:36-44

Marian Free

 In the name of God who was and is and is to come, who has loved, does love and will love. Amen.

If you have ever had a medical procedure you will know that you will usually receive a list of instructions telling you what you must do to prepare. Some blood tests require you to fast before hand and others do not. A visit to an obstetrician will often require you to produce a urine sample. An appointment for a breast screen will come with instructions as to what to wear and the insistence that on that day you do not use talcum powder. A booking for surgery will come with pages of instructions – don’t drink alcohol, do not eat or drink for a specified period, do not bring valuables to the hospital with you but do bring your method of payment. And as for having a colonoscopy – let’s not even go there! (Those of us who have had the experience know what is involved and those of you yet to have the pleasure, will find out soon enough.)

The point is that there are many things in our life that require careful and thoughtful preparation – travel, meals, study, buying a house, getting married and so on. While some of these need more attention than others, they are all relatively easy in the sense that the guidelines are clear, others have done it before us and by and large we know what is expected or where to go for information or advice.

Preparing for eternity is a very different proposition from preparing for surgery, travel or a job interview. For a start, no one has ever come back from the dead to tell us what it is like or to give us specific instructions as to exactly how to get in. No one, that is, except Jesus and he did not give a straight forward, easy to follow list of directions or instructions. Instead he left his followers to make sense of his teachings and to put them together in ways that made sense to them.

Preparing for eternity or for the return of Jesus, is the most important thing that we will ever do with our lives, but it is easy to put it off because it seems so remote, so far into the future that we imagine that we have plenty of time to put our lives in order. Alternatively, it is possible to become complacent, to believe that we have already done all that is necessary to enter into eternal life.

I wonder how many of us put the same amount of effort into our preparation for eternity as we do for other aspects of our lives. Do we have a check list that we refer back to see how ready we are? Are we really clear as to what is required? Have we put some effort and research into the subject or do we think we already know all that there is to know?

Many of us were brought up with a Christian faith that taught us to be good, that entrance into heaven required sticking within some prescribed guidelines – most notably the Ten Commandments. Along the way, we have learned that Jesus does not want simple obedience to a set of rules. In life, he consistently chose those who did not conform to the societal view of what does or does not constitute “goodness”, he criticized those who placed weight on outward appearances, and he constantly revised the commandments in such a way as to make it clear that it was a person’s attitude to and relationship with God that was the key to eternal life. In other words, Jesus shifted the goal posts and cast us adrift from the safety of clear rules and codes of behavior and left us to find our own direction.

Jesus knew that it was possible to do the “right thing” but to do it for the wrong reasons. He exposed the hypocrisy and shallowness of those whose outward show of goodness hid a lack of love and compassion, a self-centredness and self-congratulatory attitude that blinded them to their own weakness and frailty. Jesus sought out those who knew their own sinfulness and who relied on God’s love rather than their own efforts.

If Jesus were to offer advice for living or guidelines for attaining eternity, he would probably encourage us to seek self-awareness rather than self-righteousness, to recognise our imperfection rather than aim for perfection and to understand that we are no better than the next person rather than striving to outdo them with our “goodness”.

In the final analysis, Jesus’ incarnation demonstrated that our salvation does not depend on anything that we do for ourselves, but on what God does for us. Salvation is entirely related to God’s love for us – love that entered into our existence, challenged our concepts of right and wrong, of power and weakness, of judgment and acceptance, love that endured the worst that we can throw at it, and which loves us still. Love, that on the cross overcame evil and death so that nothing might stand between ourselves and life eternal.

On this, the first Sunday of Advent, we are urged to both look backward to Jesus’ coming in love and forward to Jesus’ coming in judgement, to place our lives in the balance and to see how we measure up.

Are we living in such a way that demonstrates our awareness of God’s love and our inability to deserve that love? Have we thrown ourselves completely on God’s mercy or are we still holding something back – in other words do we completely and utterly trust in God’s unconditional love or does some part of us still believe that we have to do something to deserve it?

Christmas is a celebration of God’s incomprehensible yet unmistakable love for us. Advent is an opportunity to ask ourselves whether or not we trust that love and whether that love has translated into love for ourselves and love for others.

Perhaps, after all, we are better not to prepare, but instead to ensure that we fully accept all that God in Jesus has done for us, such that Jesus’ return will be time of rejoicing and not a time of fearfulness and that we will be truly ready to rest in God’s love for eternity.

 

 


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