Proper 21

I wish I had a chance to preach the Gospel we have just heard as a children sermon, because I think there are a lot to tell children about this passage – In the meantime, I also acknowledge that this Gospel certainly speaks to the child inside of us, and we certainly need to talk to them from time to time.

So what do we learn in this passage? The chiefs priests and the elders question Jesus’s authority as he teaches in the Temple. We already know that they don’t like Jesus’s teaching because Jesus does not approve of their behavior. The chief priests and the elders are very respectful of the letter of the law, but they forget the spirit of the law – which is to live in love, compassion and forgiveness. They also use religion as a way to have power over people, to gain some honors and privileges. Jesus wants them to change their hearts, but they’re not ready to do it. They’re not ready to admit they’re wrong – and so they question Jesus’s authority so they don’t have to think about themselves.

When we don’t want to do something, we question the source of authority, don’t we? When somebody asks us to do something (or to not do something), don’t we often have this question in the back of our minds: “Who are you, to tell me what I need to do (or not)”? The reason why I’ve said I’d like to preach a children sermon about this passage of the Gospel, is that children are very candid about that, aren’t they? They don’t just question in the back of their minds, when they don’t want to do something, they scream at you: “You’re not my dad!” (if you are not their dad) or “You’re not the teacher!” (if you are their dad). Or the one I like the best, the excuse my sister used with my parents when she was a teenager: “I didn’t ask to be born” (Implying: “But you chose to give me life so deal with it, I’ll do whatever I want”). All of this a way of saying: I cannot acknowledge your authority over me, you have no permission to tell me what to do (or not).

And in a sense, there is no real possible way to argue with that, is it? Unless you enforce your requests upon others with threats, violence or lawsuits, you can’t “make” them – another expression children like to use. Jesus of course, leaves it as it is. He acknowledges that he cannot convince the chief priests, prove his authority, he cannot “make” them.

Jesus gives up, sort of.

And I think this is really interesting because to me, what the Gospel shows us throughout is not so much that the problem is that there are people who behave badly – all of them and all of us behave badly at some point – the heart of the problem is that people don’t want to convert, or, as Jesus puts it in a much more simple way in his parable, people don’t want to “change their minds” when God asks them to. We keep on doing the same mistakes – sometimes just because we’ve been doing them for so long, it’s really hard – as it was for the chief priests and the elders – to acknowledge that we’ve been wrong from the beginning. We just don’t have enough humility, faith or resilience to confess (even to ourselves) that we’ve been careless, that we’ve hurt somebody or made a mess of a situation.

And yet, as I mentioned last week, we need to let the Scriptures ask us questions and we need to let the Scriptures question us and search our hearts so we can change our minds, do the right thing, fix our mess and become more loving, compassionate and forgiving people. According to Jesus, or at least according to his parable, the world isn’t divided between “good people” and “bad people”. According to Jesus, there are two types of people in the world: Those who question their behavior (like the first son), and those who don’t question their behavior (like the second son).

Many people live on the surface of things. As we also talked about last week, we are often people pleaser, aren’t we, just so people will like us back and mirror to us a good version of ourselves so we can like ourselves too. We put on a nice face, sometimes a bit of a fake smile, and as the second son, utter empty promises. Not necessary to deceive, but simply because we cannot help it. We want to please, we want to be pleased with ourselves, and most often we just don’t know who we are. We think that we are really good people and of course we want the good but then life gets real and difficult, in the end self interest prevails or our own prejudices. The second son wants to please his father, wants to be happy about himself, but then he realizes it’s not going to be as fun as he thought to go work in the vineyard, so he just does not do it.

We are not who we believe we are. It’s not easy to spot that in ourselves yet we all know those people who claim not to be racist, not to be stingy or not to be resentful, and yet they don’t have a single friend of color, they will always let you get the check or they haven’t talked to their siblings for years. But those people are us, too, aren’t they? It’s just that we often lack the self reflection, the honesty and humility to take a good look at ourselves and to look not at what’s in our heads, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, who we want to be, but we need the honesty and humility to look at what we actually do (or not) in the world and to others.

I think this is the sense of the parable, Jesus says: what you do or fail to do tell us who you are, not what you say about your intentions or about who you claim to be.

Kant is one of the most famous moralists of all times, and he used to say that in the end, all that matters are good intentions. We cannot control all the consequences of our acts but even if our good intentions set a course of actions that lead to a disaster, it wouldn’t be our fault because we have wanted the good. To that, another philosopher, Hegel, responded with irony: “Your morality has pure hands because she does not have hands at all”. And what Hegel meant by that is that good intentions, the people we want to be in our heads, that can be a start but it’s certainly not enough to live a moral life: To live a moral life, we have to be responsible. We can’t use our good intentions as an excuse. If we mess up, we have to pick up our mess and fix it (as much as we can).

And once again, that’s what we want to teach our children isn’t it? That their actions have consequences and they need to be responsible for the consequences of their actions as much as it is possible to be. Jesus tells us that the difference between the chief priests and the elders on one side and the tax collectors and the prostitutes one the other side is that the latter were willing to acknowledge their mess, change their minds and turn back to God.

The good news is that Jesus tells us it’s never too late to do the right thing. We’ve heard about that last week with the workers of the last hour, and we hear it again today in the parable of the first son. It’s never too late to change your mind and to do the right thing. It’s interesting isn’t it to realize that in our world changing our minds is not often seen as a good thing, whereas in the Gospel it’s the beginning of salvation? Changing our minds, seeing ourselves as we are, the mistakes we have made or just the consequences of our actions, lead us to have power on the world, and change it for the best. In the meantime, as we are responsible for our actions, Jesus never wants us to have to bear the weight of guilt. As we acknowledge our mistakes, we are also forgiven – we don’t remain in our sins – and we are indeed, in real life, converted.

Proper 20

This Sunday, we have another challenging parable from Matthew’s Gospel! It may not be a scary one, as we have almost gotten used to, but this one can certainly leave us with mixed feelings: The parable of the “Generous landowner”:

A landowner hires laborers to work in his vineyard for the usual daily wage. As the day goes by, the landowner returns several times to the market place to hire more laborers, from 9:00am to 5:00pm. When the day is over though, instead of paying each one of the laborers based on the time they have spent working, the landowner asks the workers last hired to come forward and offers them the same daily wage that was agreed on with the first workers. Unsurprisingly, it makes these ones quite unhappy while the landowner declares “having done them no wrong” and praises himself for his generosity.

So as I was reading and re-reading this story, I was torn by two approaches:

– On one hand, I can’t help but agree that indeed, the landowner has done “nothing wrong” and has proven himself fair to the early workers and generous with the latest ones.

– On the other hand, something is really bugging me and I can’t help but feel that I don’t really like this guy, or maybe I don’t really like this story. I can’t really explain why but something inside of me tells me that this is not how things should go / this is not how things should end in a perfect world.

Of course, Jesus wasn’t preaching in a perfect world, was he? Parables aren’t fairy tales or a Hallmark movie, here to make us happy and contented with the way things are. Moreover, at some level, I think that if the parable is in a way annoying, it may prove that it works, that it is doing what it is supposed to do. A famous theologian said that we should read the Bible not so much for the answers it may provide, but for the questions it leads us to ask.

So what questions does this parable invite us to wrestle with?

– On a first level, it certainly invites us to think to very concrete, down to earth problems. Quite evidently, Jesus questions the way our society and economy work, and it’s interesting to realize that things haven’t changed that much in 2000 years: Not only do we assume that only those who work deserve a salary, we also assume that the more you work the more money you deserve.

But Jesus questions this understanding. It looks like first, those who don’t work aren’t necessarily responsible for not working, being lazy. They’re not working because “Nobody has hired them” and it seems that the landowner ends up hiring them not so much because he needs them but out of generosity. As he pays them a daily wage, even for having done so little, he gives them the opportunity to buy dinner for themselves and their families. He does not keep tabs on who’s doing what. He understands that everybody needs the minimum to live. It’s not their fault if they’re poor.

This understanding is disturbing to us, of course. It’s always easier to believe that we have what we have because we deserve it, because we have worked hard for it. But if we look at the reasons why we have what we have, if we “check our privilege” as we say (White privilege, inheritance, education, health, functioning family…), we may realize that our good fortune isn’t all our doing. Certainly the landowner realizes that and it leads him to share his resources.

Second very down to earth assumption this parable puts into question is our belief that we should always make more money. The more we work, the more we should make. By sending back the worker of the first hour with their full daily wage but nothing extra, the landowner claims that this is enough for the day. And indeed, the daily wage is what you need to get you through the day. Of course, it reminds us of the story we have just read in the Old Testament about the manna. God gives us our “daily bread”, gives us each day “enough”- or at least, we should live in a world where there is enough for everybody. We know of course that it isn’t a reality. Our wealth is not necessarily a blessing from God, our wealth can be what hasn’t be shared with others. We don’t deserve to have more resources than others. It just happens because it’s the way our economy works. I don’t know if Jesus was what we would call a socialist, but he certainly asks tough questions to the way we understand capitalism.

Without developing any further on those issues, I think the bottom line is that Jesus resets human economy on divine economy, reminding us that, in the eyes of God, each of God’s children is precious, deserving and valuable. Now how does it lead us to live and to treat others knowing that, as individuals but also as a society?

When we ask this question, I think we come to the heart of the parable and this is really where I would like to dwell on a little today. As I have mentioned earlier, the parable has been graciously named by the editors of this version of the Bible “The parable of the generous landowner” but I don’t think that generosity is what strikes us in this man. I think that what strikes us is that he is disliked: by the workers of the first hour, by the people who were listening to Jesus, by us who read the Gospel. We don’t hate him, as I said, we acknowledge he has done “nothing wrong” and even proven himself generous but he disturbs something inside of us – our sense of fairness, our sense of how things should go – we don’t even know if the workers of the last hour like him – Maybe they think he is a fool for doing what he does. If I had to rename the story, I would call it “The parable of the disliked landowner”, and I would do that not only because I think it is more accurate, but because I think this is the point Jesus is making:

This man has the “courage to be disliked”, as we say, and this is what makes him an exceptional character. He has the “courage to be disliked” not because he just wants to live his life as he pleases or he really wants to do something even if it was bothering or shocking to some people, he has the courage to be disliked for the sake of doing the right thing, for the sake of living according to his conscience, for the sake of reaching out to the less fortunate and to give them an opportunity to thrive. And as I thought about it, I realized: Well, this should indeed be the heart of Christian living, shouldn’t it? This should be what true morality should be?

But what have we done with morality in our world? As I was thinking about it, I realized how often it is that basically our morality is about being liked by others. We want to be nice to people, we want to please them – and there is nothing wrong with that, of course! But there is nothing wrong with that as long as it still leads us to do the right thing. Yet often, as we try so much to please people, to make them happy, we just conform to live in the world as the world is, instead of trying to transform it. If the landowner had paid everyone according to their work, he would have been a good landowner, he would have done what was expected and people would have been happy with him. But as he chooses to pay everybody the same, and to make a statement out of it (asking the workers of the last hour to come forward so everybody see they receive full salary), he challenges our assumptions, he disturbs our sense of fairness that often supports our selfish or at least quiet lives. The disliked landowner puts everything into question and cuts open our hearts, and he can do that because he has supreme freedom having the “courage to be disliked” – Not wanting to be loved as a motivation for his actions.

He is of course, a messianic figure. As he’s headed to Jerusalem, Jesus certainly identifies with this landowner. Jesus came into the world to announce that God loves and treats everybody the same way, to announce that there a no privilege, no good deed or false piety that can save us, and people hated him for that and put him to death.

So this week, I invite us to think about the motives of our actions. Do we do what we do to be loved or do we do what we do because we think it’s the right thing to do? It’s normal to want to be loved, valuated, appreciated, but I think Jesus invites us to look at a higher level: Not acting nice to people so they would like us and we can enjoy this good version of ourselves they send us back in the way they look at us (which is basically seduction), but acting doing what we truly believe is the best interest of others / the best we can do for them given a certain situation. Not to teach them, not to show them, but to give them the best we have to offer.

Christian love isn’t about pleasing people, it’s not about being well considered by those who are going to make us feel good about ourselves, Christian love is about lifting up, raising up our neighbors starting with the most needy. In this understanding indeed, the last will be first, and the first will be last.

Proper 19

– The passage of the Gospel we have just heard is a famous and difficult one, isn’t it?
Peter asking Jesus how many times he is supposed to forgive his brother or sister, should he be as generous as 7 times?, and then Jesus replying Peter will have to forgive “Not seven times (…) but seventy-seven times” (In certain translations: 70 times 7!)

– Now I don’t know what you think, but my guts feeling is that it does not make me happy when I hear that. I think it’s difficult to take in. Forgiving again and again and again and seventy-seven times again…How does it look like in real life?

Do you teach your children or grandchildren to let the bully hit them at recess, because they are not to seek revenge?
Do you think (as I’ve heard so many times) that it is fair that so many clergy ask their female parishioners to forgive again and again their abusive husbands or sons?

Somebody posted on tweeter the other day something I think is very accurate. He said:
“Stop using sermons of peace and forgiveness in order to manipulate the oppressed into accepting their oppression”

Indeed the Bible has been used to manipulate people into accepting all sorts of evil in the name of forgiveness, in the name being good Christians, from slavery to clergy abuse, denying women’s rights and so on.

So we really need to think seriously about what Jesus is saying to us today. Is Jesus really saying that it does not matter if we’re hurt, we still have to be good and to accept whatever people do to us because we have to forgive, or is it something else?

I think it’s really hard when you’ve been hurt by somebody and what you hear from good Christians is all you have to do is forgive. Why is it so hard?

– It does not acknowledge the hurt you feel (= makes you feel like you make a fuss out of nothing)

– It also denies your sense of justice

– Even worse, it makes you feel like you’re not a good Christian! You’re unable to forgive, that’s bad!!!

But we see in other parts of the Gospel that Jesus has always acknowledged the hurt people felt and never supported the bullies in the name of forgiveness. Jesus sides with Mary when she is criticized by Judas for spending too much money, he sides also with her when her sister calls her lazy. Jesus didn’t like it when people made fun of Zaccheus and so on.

Besides that, Jesus has always asked for justice as well. He asked repeatedly people to share their bread and their wealth, to be compassionate to one another. He didn’t say to the oppressed they just had to accept being taken advantage of or accept to be neglected just because they had to forgive their oppressors.

Jesus has never enabled bullying and injustices. So when Jesus asks us to forgive again and again, it does not mean that when you are a Christian, you just need to hit the reset button each time somebody does wrong to you, forget it all and let people hurt you seventy seven times again because you need to be such a good person!

So what does it mean then, to forgive again and again?

Well, this week we have commemorated the anniversary of 09/11 and as I was watching a documentary about forgiveness I heard something very powerful about this tragedy coming from the families’ victims, they talked about what was for them: “The journey of forgiveness”.

The journey of forgiveness. Suddenly, it made so much more sense to me. Yes, indeed forgiveness never looks like hitting a reset button again and again and let people do you wrong again and again. Forgiveness is a decision you make that starts a process of healing towards a new life – and that’s exactly what some of these families were describing.

Forgiveness starts the process of healing and healing is a journey – and depends on the hurt, healing can be a long journey, sometimes a life long journey. Thinks about how are it can be to forgive our own parents for things that happened 30 or 50 years ago or even more, and we still carry the hurt! And we’re not even sure we’re really reconciled with them!

Forgiveness is a journey and a struggle. It’s a decision you make, the decision to not take revenge, to not wish evil on those who hurt you, to not “make them pay” as in Jesus’s parable, but instead to seek as much as possible reconciliation or a peaceful release of the relationships through the journey and the struggle.

The documentary I watched talked also about the way Amish do forgiveness / what they did after the tragedy of the shooting at West Nickel Mines School. They made the decision to forgive but then they had to carry one another through community, pray, meet the family of the shooter, had painful conversations, prayed again, tore down the building, commemorated etc. They never said that what happened was okay and justice and restoration shouldn’t be sought!

Forgiveness is a decision we make but then we have to walk the walk and it can be long, with detours and back and forth. Sometimes we think we’re over it and then it hurts again, or we realize we are still angry etc.

And maybe this what Jesus tells us actually: When someone hurts you, you are not going to forgive that one time and then all is good. You’ll have to forgive again and again because the hurt comes back, or the consequences of people’s bad behavior are still impacting your life. Everyday, you will have to decide to forgive them all over again.

And you might feel in your heart: Why is it that I still haven’t forgiven? When in fact you are in the process of forgiving.

Another man who was interviewed in the documentary said: “I can’t live thinking all day long about what white people did to my people all day, I would go crazy, I wouldn’t be able to function”. He said he needed to forgive to go on with his life, to set himself free. It didn’t mean that racism didn’t hurt him anymore or didn’t make him angry. He just realized he could not live in resentment and wishing evil for evil.

But how do we do that? How do we walk this walk of forgiveness – go on with our life in spite of the hurt, and not live in resentment?

Well, I think that there is something about this parable that Jesus tells us right after he talks to Peter, and this parable can really show us the way. A man has a huge debt to the King he cannot reimburse, but then the King has pity on him and let him go. Yet then the man who has just been forgiven meets one of his debtors who had a very small debt compared to the one he owed the King, but he refuses to forgive, “makes his debtor pay” and Jesus says he is terribly punished for doing so.

Now there are two ways of understanding this story. The general assumption about what Jesus means is that we are all such terrible sinners in the eyes of God that we should just quickly forget every wrong that is done to us by other people, because compared to what we have done to God, and to what we need to be forgiven for, it’s really nothing.

Okay – well I don’t like at all this interpretation, because I believe that there are people who are seriously innocent and what happens to them, the hurt they endure, is really not nothing compared to what they have done. They really, truly, deeply don’t deserve it. People having their families murdered, people raped, abused or wronged intentionally – Can we tell them that it’s nothing they need to complain about and should quickly forgive because what they did to God was much more evil? If you are hit by your parents when you are a five years old, what wrong have you done to God that is so much more than that? I would run from such a God, honestly. And I think Jesus would too.

So to me, this passage is really about inviting us to focus on God’s generosity – not only on what God has forgiven us, but everything that God has given us and all of life’s possibilities and new chances. This passage is about how goodness comes to us in surprising / unexpected ways (as this slave probably never expected such goodness coming from the king)

To me, it’s something I’ve always found very healing in the midst of hurt and deceptions. To remind ourselves that this is a big world, that we have a big God and that we need to carry on with a big heart. And ultimately, I think this is what the parable is all about. When we are hurt, we can focus on the hurt, on what our offenders owe us, but it will be the path to destruction / self destruction. On the opposite, we can also choose to make the decision not to look so much at the hurt and nurse it inside of us and instead look towards the goodness that God sends our way and how God will