Sunday, October 16, 2011

Give to Caesar

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time Cycle A 2011

I have with me some ancient coins. They date to the 4th century, so they are after Jesus' time, but you can get a sense of what it meant for Jesus to take a coin and say "repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar." Not much has changed, as you can see. Even today Jesus would say repay to Lincoln, or Washington, or Jefferson, or Franklin what belongs to them and to God what belongs to God.  We still have the same unspoken question from today’s gospel as well: What belongs to God?
Does Jesus tell us in this passage what belongs to God?  No, he doesn't. We can imply a few things though.  First, Jesus bases his wisdom on an image.  Now, if I asked you whose image and likeness am I made in, what would you say?  God's, yes.  All the saints have echoed through the centuries that yes, that indeed, we totally belong to God.  But does everyone know this?  Does everyone believe it?  Do we?
The prophet Isaiah gives us this message from God today: "I have called you by your name, giving you a title, though you knew me not" (Is 45:5).  God recognizes his image in us and his unique gift to us.  The question for us is how do we identify that which we are uniquely called to?
It comes down to freedom. Holy freedom. First, just as Jesus is not burdened by Roman coins, we need to detach from what may be making a claim on how or why we live.  Status, power, money, fame etc... These can mold us into something very different then the intended image. They can deface us.   Stillness, silence, prayer, faith, hope, love... These define us.
Freedom allows us to ask the question 'how much of a claim does God have on my life?' and we can answer it however we choose.
I think the reason we ought to choose God is simple. His return policy is very forgiving. If I fail pursuing money and power, then I’m poor and powerless. Status, power, fame will not come back to assist me if I fail in the pursuit of them. If I fail in faith, hope, and love God still sees his image in me and reaffirms it by absolving how I have defaced it.  Jesus bailed us out. 
Now, we have to answer the question: how much of a claim does God have on your life?
What has been your answer this past week?  Was God's image defaced or defined in you?
Blessed be God forever.
Isaiah 45:1, 4-6, Psalm 96, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5b, Matthew 22:15-21

God Loves a Cheerful Giver

  Two weeks ago, I went up to the brownie sundae station after the Mass of the Holy Spirit.  I was waiting as one of the servers made sundaes to order.  As I tend to do, I was thinking of ways to improve on this experience, questioning the planning of the station and why there was only one server working because in my eyes this was going to be the most popular station.  Finally it came; it was going to be my turn.  I took a deep breath and prepared to say brownie sundae with vanilla ice cream, no sauce and M&Ms when someone came from the right of the line, caught the sundae lady’s eye and placed her order.  I and the three people behind me in line had just been cut.  I was dumbfounded and a bit peeved.  That’s not fair.
               Luckily, the person who cut us was a rather beloved individual on campus, so I was able to quickly allow an exception and get back to the task at hand; which was of course making it entirely obvious that I was next in line.
               Now, if I was that vexed over getting cut in the ice cream line, imagine how the laborers of the vineyard felt after working ten hours and getting paid the same as those who worked two.  It’s not fair.
               Our gospel story today is a parable.  A parable is a challenge to dialogue between faith and reason.  Though there are many angles to take on a parable, most basically they say something about God, and about us.  Today, this parable says God is generous.  What does it say about us?
               We are being challenged to reconcile our faith with our reason.  In the first readings God tells us “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways” (Is. 55:8).  For me, that’s OK.  That’s something I can accept.  God has higher thoughts than I do.  But then St. Paul calls us out saying “Christ will be magnified in my body” and that we should conduct ourselves in a “way worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:20, 27).  Inspiring words, yes, but for me I can’t be happy with my faith forcing my reason to live a certain way.  I want more of collaboration.  (Yes, even our personal struggle with faith and reason needs conflict transformation.)  I cannot be at peace if my reason is not satisfied, is not reasonably challenged, so how can we make it work?  What are God’s ways?  How can I recognize that something is not fair, but still move beyond it?  I think that judgment and generosity are the keys.
               First, we are going to be judged.  For some reason though we have translated that to mean we are to judge and pronounce how God looks on situations and people.  Who doesn’t do this three times a day?  First impressions are so important in our day to day relationships and they occur more than the first time we meet someone.  Every situation and conversation is influenced by that initial mood reading.  For God, it is the final impression that is important.  If the landowner in our gospel today took the first impression of the laborers it would not have been very favorable.  They were standing idle.  They were not in use.  So, the landowner invites them to be of use.  He invites them to serve.  Standing idle is the equivalent of either never having the grace of the call or rejecting that grace.  Therefore, call, don’t judge.  Respond, don’t stand idle if you want to live in a manner worthy of Christ.
               Second, generosity is crucial.  In the second letter to the Corinthians 9:7, we are told “God loves a cheerful giver.”  That is because God is a cheerful giver.  At lunch that day, the reward at the sundae station was going to be the same whether I waited 30 seconds or 2 minutes.  What the dozens of people got before me or what the individual who cut the line got, or what those behind me in line got, did not matter, because the reward would be the same.  It would be what I wanted and no more, no less.  God’s generosity responds to us individually without concern for how much or how little we require.  God’s resources for reaching out to us cannot be exhausted.  In fact, in the parable, the landowner spends all day calling those who were idle to come and serve in the vineyard.  In God’s eternal eyes, we all arrive to serve at the same time.  Two months, two years, twenty years, it doesn’t matter.  We just need to be generous enough to respond.
The difficulty with both judgment and generosity is that faith rejoices in God’s generous way of judging us at our best and forgiving us at our worst, but reason, our cold, logical calculation, our search for what is fair, does not at first know how.  We study reason in philosophy and philosophy gives us three principles to aim toward in intellectual pursuit.  The Good.  The True.  The Beautiful.  I think our usual three principles of measure are the Good, the Bad and the Ugly though.  We need to transform these.
Consider the sundae station situation. I said to myself ‘this can’t be true, is she seriously cutting all of us?’  I said to myself, ‘this is bad, didn’t she notice us all waiting?  She’s acting badly.’  But, what did I say to myself after that initial shock?  I saw the innocence in her action and I recalled who she was and I was able to not dwell on getting cut in line; after all it was a sundae station.  My reward was not going to change because she stepped ahead of me.  (Now if she got the last brownie, that’s another story.  Remember God’s love is inexhaustible.  He’ll always have another brownie and it will be warm and fudgy.)
Beauty, which is probably our last consideration when it comes to what reason can recognize, can transform our perspective.  Beauty is a bridge to the divine.  The eyes of a cheerful giver see a true need in a person who is intrinsically good.  The eyes of a cheerful giver see the beauty of sacrificing so that the individual or individuals in need will be provided for and transformed to see the world in a similar way.
God is the cheerful giver.  God saw how beautiful we were, despite our sin, and sent Jesus, God’s only begotten Son, to be sacrificed for us and to invite us to the vineyard.  God did this to accompany us to a vision of the world founded in generosity.  Who are we claim a larger stake of God’s generosity?  Rather, let’s consider the following:  how can we be a cheerful giver?  Blessed be God forever.
Isaiah 55:6-9 , Psalm 145, Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a, Matthew 20:1-16a