Monday, September 22, 2014

The Vineyard

" Jesus told His disciples this parable: 'The kingdom of Heaven is like a landowner who went out at dawn to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with them for the usual daily wage, he sent them into his vineyard. Going out about nine o'clock, the landowner saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and he said to them, 'You go, too, into my vineyard, and I will give you what is just.'  . . . And he went out again around noon and around three o'clock and did likewise. Going out about five o'clock, the landowner found others standing around and said to them, 'Why do you stand here idle all day?. . . You, too, go into my vineyard.'  When it was evening, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, 'Summon the laborers and give them their pay, beginning with the last and ending with the first.' When those who had started about five o'clock came, each received the usual daily wage. So when the first came, . . . each of them also got the usual wage. . . They grumbled against the landowner, saying, 'These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat.'

He said to one of them in reply, 'My friend, I am not cheating you. Did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage? Take what is yours and go. What if I wish to give this last one the same as you? Or, am I not free to do as I wish with my own money? Are you envious because I am generous? Thus, the last shall be first and the first will be last.' " --[Matthew 20:1-16].

It is difficult to read this parable as a secular person and not get angry. How, we ask, can a landowner and a foreman run a business this way? If everyone were paid the same, regardless of their production and output, that is totally unfair!

Some have read this parable as a call to fair wages and fair treatment of workers. But to read this parable in this way is to totally miss the point.

This is NOT a story about our secular business world. In fact, this is a story about the opposite. This is a story about how God's Kingdom works.

In God's Kingdom, God is so very generous that, regardless of whether we show up in His vineyard early or late, He rewards us equally -- with a place in His abundant harvest.

I have grappled with this concept for many, if not most, of the years in my life.

I endured, as a tiny girl, bruises, hunger, verbal abuse, neglect and abandonment. I watched this happening to me, as if I were watching myself from afar. I have wondered, 'Is this really my life? What kind of parents did I get?'

I never did really blame my parents. These were the people who gave me life. . . .

Several years ago, my father died suddenly of a massive heart attack. After his shocking passing, more memories surfaced of the cruelty and the traumas of my childhood.

I began to actively worry about where my dad WAS? Could God have been generous enough to welcome my father into His Kingdom, even IF my father had come to God only at the very last moments of his life? At times, I have even prayed to God, 'God, if You are a merciful God, please judge generously.'

I remember, in the year or two after my dad's death, I went almost compulsively to Confession, to confess my father's sins. Finally, the priest let me in on a simple precept of Reconciliation and forgiveness. He said, 'You cannot confess your father's sins.'

NOW where did that leave me?! Sometimes, I delve into my earthly self. I say, 'Whatever dark place my father is in, after what he did ---- he deserves God's wrath.'

But then, I wonder, if I am wishing that bad place upon my dad, how much have I really forgiven him? God's generosity, then, is about far more that what each of us "gets".  It is also about what we give.  It is about granting others the freedom to create their own relationship with God, without interference from us.

I am beginning to see that, I cannot hold onto those feelings of hate and resentment and retribution.  Those feelings are a downward path to bitterness. And bitterness will never yield a fruitful harvest for me.

I can never know if my dad reconciled with God in his last moments. I have wondered about this, and my heart has ached over it. After literally years of worrying about this, I have finally had to say that this is too big for me figure out.

God is the vineyard owner, He can handle this. What another vineyard worker has done or not done, is not merely "not my business".  It is something I cannot fathom or judge myself. I will drown in hypotheses, and never prosper myself, if I continue along this path.

But the greatest moment of consolation came at my father's wake. As my mother and I knelt before the casket, I whispered to her, 'Ma. Do you believe that you will see dad again in the next life?' And she whispered, back,"Yes!" I was so happy, I choked back tears.

No matter how my mother had expressed her serious misgivings to me about God and Christ, all my life, I could tell that her heart had softened. Maybe she AND my dad would come to God's vineyard after all. Maybe I will see them again in the next life?

 Because, for God, it is never too late.

[Related Postings: "The Last Shall Be First", September 17, 2011; "Putting The Last First", August 25, 2013.]

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2014. All Rights Reserved.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Exaltation of the Holy Cross

"Jesus said to Nicodemus: 'No one has gone up to Heaven except the One who has come down from Heaven, the Son of Man. And . . . so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.'  For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him." --[John 3: 13-17].

If anyone is seeking THE central belief of Christianity, this passage is probably it: "No one has gone up to Heaven except the One who has come down from Heaven, the Son of Man; . . . so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life."

 Christians believe that  Jesus blazed the path to Heaven for us, centuries ago, in order that we too might gain Eternal Life.

The Feast of the Exaltation of The Holy Cross celebrates the Holy Cross.

I have always wondered, HOW in the world could we Christians celebrate the instrument of Jesus' death?

Donald Senior, author of "Jesus: A Gospel Portrait" tells us, "Crucifixion was the basest form of Roman criminal punishment, reserved for slaves and non-citizens, particularly for crimes of sedition. . . Jesus was executed as a political insurgent --- a truly ironic ending when we recall Jesus' refusal to take up violence against the enemy."

The Cross, as an instrument of Death, is as traumatic and violent as a guillotine. Certainly, we do not see anyone going around today, wearing a guillotine charm on a necklace chain. And yet, we wear the Cross as a universal symbol, representing Jesus' violent and bloody death.

 At the same time, the Cross symbolizes Jesus' Glorious Resurrection.  The Cross' mystery has its roots in this simultaneous contradiction of destruction and renewal.

One of the most precious objects that I have is a Cross fashioned out of a bullet casing. The bullet casing came from the genocide in Sierra Leone.  Artists from that country cleared fields of
spent- bullets, and from them, crafted powerful symbols of resurrection, out of the pain of so many deaths.

Sometimes, I meditate on this object, and I try to separate the pain from the resurrection. But I cannot separate them from each other.

This simultaneous pain and glory are what I encountered when a dear relative passed away last spring.

I watched this dear man, like a father to me, endure such extreme pain, and ebb away; but with so much Grace. I could not stand to witness his pain and struggle.

At the same time, when this dear man finally gave his last breath, I was deeply relieved. I felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted away. I felt light. I felt at peace.

After his death, my family and I went to his home, to help clear out some of his possessions. As we traveled, I wore my cross necklace, to protect me. The Cross had for a moment ceased to be a symbol of pain and death. The Cross had become a symbol of Christ's strength, a strength I needed so badly.

One night, we went for a meal in a local restaurant. I was feeling like a stranger in a strange place. My dear relative's death was weighing on me. How could I enjoy this meal?

The waitress came to our table and asked what we would like? I was so exhausted and bereft, I barely looked up at her.

Finally, I raised my eyes from the menu. I suddenly noticed the cross necklace that she wore. She noticed my cross necklace. Our eyes locked.

All at once, I was no longer alone. Not only was I with my husband and son, I had connected with a fellow Christian, in a world of Christian brothers and sisters.

This meal became a shared experience-- a mystical breaking of the bread, in the way that the Eucharist is a shared experience.

I still felt that searing pain of loss and grief, but it was filtered through a new Hope.

The Son of Man, in dying for us, has created a vast community, in the Family of Man.  As Jesus said in Mark 1: 3:31-34, when He looked at a large crowd gathered around Him, "Who are my mother and brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God's will is my brother and sister and  mother."

And, so, I could at last feel deep inside me, that my dear relative was not gone! There was Hope that he has risen up to Heaven, like Jesus did before us.

I have hope in The Cross that, beyond the pain of his death, I will see my dear relative again.

[Related Posting: "Holy Cross",  September 15, 2011.]

Monday, September 8, 2014

All You Need Is Love

" Brothers and sisters:  Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, 'You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,' and whatever other commandments there may be, are summed up in this saying, namely, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, Love is the fulfillment of the law." -- [Romans 13: 8-10].

Fulfillment:  (noun):   Completion or realization.

In The Old Testament, God gave Moses the Law. God summoned His Chosen One, Moses, to the pinnacle of Mount Sinai, and He gave Moses the Ten Commandments.

And God said, if you love me, you will keep my Commandments.

The Ten Commandments are familiar to almost every school child, both Christian and Jewish. In fact, the Ten Commandments are the very substance of our shared heritage.

At the time that Jesus came of age, the Law comprised both the Ten Commandments, and a host of other laws, regarded as handed down from God. There were laws on the harvest, keeping a clean home, the sacred religious commemorations, the food that one was to eat, how to treat a worker, or a widow or an orphan. [See Deuteronomy and Leviticus].

According to the website Judaism 101, "Judaism teaches that there are 613 commandments in the Torah"; (the first five books of the Old Testament is called the Torah).

SO--- 613 commandments? I truly admire my Jewish friends! But I, a lowly sinner, have a hard enough time with the Ten Commandments.

When Jesus came to preach His ministry, He said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have come not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you. . . . not an iota, not a dot will pass from the Law until all is accomplished."--- [Matthew 5: 17-20.]

In other words, Jesus is not getting rid of all these Laws. But He is summing them up, bringing them all to fruition,  in one word -- Love.

I remember how, in April 2013, I tried to sum up all the things that are NOT Love-- in alphabetical order. [Related Posting; "The ABC's of Love, April 27, 2013].

Writing this List took forever! I was literally reading the dictionary from A to Z. I was afraid that I would miss a word. I had to keep back-tracking in the dictionary. I got confused whether one word was too similar to another. For example, by listing "Envy" and "Jealousy", was I repeating myself? What if I had an Abridged dictionary? -- not all the words will be there.

Besides, what was I going to do, carry this big list around with me all the time? Try to memorize it? I was so afraid that I would just charge ahead and do something without checking my list, that I was beginning to be afraid of making a move.

What a relief to learn that Jesus still believes in all these Laws, until the end of time. BUT, He gave us a shorthand to comprise all the rules. That shorthand is Love.

Which explains why, when I sent my young son off to pre-school for the first time, I told him, "Maybe you will not always remember the right thing to do. But all you have to remember is to do the Loving thing. If it is not Love, don't do it!"

You need only four letters to know how to live right and live well;  L- O- V- E.

(c) Spiritual Devotional 2014. All Rights Reserved.